133: Edward Relph’s Modern Urban Landscape

Edward Relph’s The Modern Urban Landscape examines the landscapes of large cities since 1880 for clues as to the relationship between modernization and urban form.  In particular, he studies the visual landscapes of the “modern parts of towns and cities” in North America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; building on this firsthand experience, he concludes that “the modern urban landscape is both rationalised and artificial, which is another way of saying that it is intensely human, an expression of human will and deeply imbued with meaning.”  He thus shifts the focus of human geography from the rural to the urban, while retaining the discipline’s focus on empirical observations of coherent visual landscapes.

To collect data on the changes in urban architecture, planning, technology and social conditions since 1880, Relph takes the “geographical” approach of “watching:” he starts with “the totality of what I see,” then follows “several directions more or less at once,” looking for unusual details, new developments, and ironic juxtapositions within the larger context of the urban fabric.  Landscapes, to Relph, are the “visual contexts of daily existence,” and he insists on retaining the wholeness of the urban landscape because so much of landscape is about context, about the relationships between buildings and the streets and spaces and other structures around them, that you cannot study any one element in isolation.  Only by preserving landscape’s “fragile wholeness” can we hope to learn anything about how it functions.

Using this method, Relph traces a history of ideology in the landscape, from 1890s Progressive Era landscapes, through the Machine Age and into the Postmodern city.  He shows how Bellamy, Morris and other Utopians created landscapes of the future in the 1890s; how the Machine Age created both unornamented, standardized. geometric factory buildings and a chaotic mess of wires and tracks, the results of business needs, consumer demands, and municipal safety engineering; how the Modern “international style” was only briefly popular, but dominates the landscape because it belonged to an era of skyscraper-building; and how the Information Age has both refined and profoundly changed the forms of the Modern era, so that like “plastic flowers: things are left looking much as they always did but their materials and meanings are profoundly changed.”

Relph also discerns two sweeping trends with huge impacts on urban landscapes in the last 100 years:

  • internationalism: new building technologies, combined with faster communications and transportation, mean that “virtually identical bits of cities now seem to crop up almost everywhere, and behind any national or regional differences that might be visible there are always widely shared patterns and an international habit of thought.”
  • a “conviction in the merits of self-consciousness:” “everything now is subjected to cool analysis and technical manipulation, leaving little room for the traditions which stood behind most preindustrial landscapes.”  Elements of landscapes, from buildings to parking meters, follow an increasingly rationalised and institutionalized (and specialized) process, so very little building happens in a vernacular sense.
While Relph retains human geography’s emphasis on the coherent “fragile wholeness” of landscape, he also discerns power differentials and the impacts of capitalism on the landscape.  While he needs to work on his positionality (he argues at one point that everyone in cities works a sedentary job), I suspect this use of social theory is Relph’s way of making a few plastic flowers of his own.
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