Hård, Mikael and Thomas J. Misa

Hård, Mikael and Thomas J. Misa, eds. Urban Machinery: Inside Modern Cities. Cambridge: Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008. Pp. viii + 351. Hardcover, $45.00.

The Preface writes of the “technological dimensions of modern European cities.” In fact, most of the cities discussed are in Eastern Europe—probably a benefit to many U.S. readers because the cities are less familiar.  “Modern” means after 1880 or so, up to 2000.  A recurring theme is how technology transfers from one nation to another, through conferences and visits—many to the U.S.  Another theme is the influence of “modern” architecture. Technology influences city planning in many ways; one is infrastructure—water, sanitation, transportation, gas and electricity.  If local transportation is inexpensive and land is cheap, then the various functions of a city—“working, dwelling, leisure”—can take place in spatially separate locales. A specific factory was the purpose of some of the cities described. Shopping, and trade in general, were the purpose of others.  Another dimension of technology is building materials, both traditional and new. A listing of topics may give the flavor of the book.  The first paper deals with freight navigation on the Rhine and the cities that worked to be the head of navigation—the furthest from the sea that large ships could go.  A second paper describes modernizing Istanbul—giving water, sanitation, and gas lighting to the new suburbs, where the Europeans tended to live.  European architects appropriated modern architecture, lead by Le Corbusier, but also adapted so that modern buildings in Czechoslovakia were different from modern buildings in Holland.  Cities developed into places of consumption, represented both by prestigious department stores in Paris and resorts in southern Spain.  Before the First World War, German ideas about city planning were the basis of new approaches in both the US and Great Britain.   In Holland around 1900 the street became the layered space it is now, with sewers and subways underground and separate lanes for pedestrians, bicycles, and automobiles; the various technologies came to Holland from many places in Europe and North America.  Electrification took place in European cities basically during the first half of the twentieth century, competing with gas.  After the rise of socialist governments in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, new industrial cites were built.  These shared many planning ideas based on a Socialist philosophy and on a determination to industrialize quickly.  An answer to Silicon Valley was promoted for the region near Munich.  The small town of Garching, near Munich, was transformed into a “Science City,” partly through the construction of a nuclear reactor.  The Soviet model of large housing blocks was exported to new cities in Hungary, which were based around a factory and lacked social institutions and recreational facilities.  In Sweden during the 1950s and 1960s, the notion of a car-friendly city, like Los Angeles, was advanced as the route to modernity.  Also in Sweden an attempt to build an environmentally friendly city ended up with an expensive and impressive tower—a “traditional story of technological hubris.” Many examples of the influence of new technologies and new ideas about technology abound in these papers. They do make one frightened of the results of focusing too narrowly on the urban machinery to the exclusion of people.