Oculus Book Review: Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities

Book Reviews by • 01/29

Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities is fundamentally a healthy book about urbanism, written by clinical psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD. The book’s analysis is a practice of hands-on urbanism worked through the lens of Fullilove’s research on public health issues in distraught urban areas. Organized in nine elements meant to heal broken cities, the book is actually a collection of bright and joyous urban tales played out by Fullilove, an exuberant storyteller. The nine points are measurements prescribed by Fulliliove’s mentor and colleague, urbanist Michel Cantal-Depart. Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, writes in the introduction of Cantal-Depart’s magpie demeanor and ability to “map” the terrain of a new project/city not just abstractly, but spiritually.

Fullilove fills her text with, at face value, case studies, but she leaves the messy threads of change in the narrative. Her willingness and ability to go back again and again to various neighborhoods and cities is invaluable, and makes the design professional question the length of engagement when working with communities. Each case study had an interesting physical boundary to grapple with, whether it was a steep hill or an expressway dislocating the place from the rest of the city. Fullilove establishes this condition as a city being “sorted-out.” These physical boundaries create inequality in the mechanism of a city. The impact of this dislocation is evident in her analysis of the consequence of the Berlin Wall. Although not a “project” that she worked on, the history of the wall, its fall, and the subsequent high-value development is an epic and graphic illustration of what development can do to cities, and how it can make residents physically ill. The inclusion and analysis is a perfect touchstone for even the smallest urban problem.

Fullilove’s interest is in urban restoration and, with ample amounts of energy, she employs both clinical psychiatry as well as a design professional’s methods. Her description of the use of a sketchbook in her work is lovely, and brings to mind that first magic sketchbook used as an early design student, the one where one wrote in every page and all your thoughts were recorded and manifested in the design. The book has too few illustrations, created by Sarah Schell, that are remarkably clear and devoid of architectural obfuscation. The text is an example of the power of personal engagement in communities. Her work in Orange, New Jersey, made me want to run out and get day-glow paint to apply in under-designed urban areas, and her “working walks” up to Harlem’s Highbridge illustrate the intimacy of small acts that are at the heart of “thinking like a city.” In fact, the idea of “thinking like a city” was a revelatory expression for me.  Discussions of American urbanism still too often rely on “the city”  as a pejorative term.  Fullilove’s act of “unslumming” is the first active example of Jane Jacobs’s urbanist tenet, and is so appreciated. Her experience of practicing holistic urbanism is a guide to all designers.

The book has some flaws.  The structure is sometimes confusing, jumping from France to Pittsburgh and back. Her many cohorts and colleagues are hard to follow, labeled by changing acronyms  and varying degrees of prominence in projects. Still, Michel Cantal Depart’s appearances as a “city whisperer” never disappoint.

Fullilove presented her book at the January Oculus Book Talk at the Center for Architecture. William Moorish, professor of Urban Ecologies at Parsons The New School for Design,   was the respondent. As teaching colleagues at Parsons, the chat was a comfortable discussion of the value systems that both Fullilove and Morrish overlay on urban questions. Most remembered and affirmed by Fullilove’s work is Morrish’s “deciding to stay” tenet. The idea that inhabitants of blighted urban communities can rethink their own landscape, see the positive, and then establish even better communities by staying in the neighborhood illustrates the joy and resolve that these two practitioners put forth. The delight they took in the work they do together brings to mind Fullilove’s comment, “Having a party is, of course, the goal of good urbanism.” The book, as well as the Oculus Book Talk, reminds one revelling in urban questions is the key to change.

Want more? See a video of the lecture on our Vimeo page.

Annie Coggan is a principal with Coggan and Crawford Architects, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Urban Alchemy
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.12.15
Speakers: Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Professor of Clinical Studies of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health; William Morrish, Professor of Urban Ecologies, Parsons The New School for Design; and Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY | Center for Architecture (introduction)
Organizers: AIANY Oculus Committee
Oculus Book Sellers: McNally Jackson Books

Comments are closed.

Waterproofing of the facade system and roof at 540 West 26th Street for Savanna. Design Architect: Morris Adjmi. Rendering: Morris Adjmi.
Featured Member: Howard Zimmerman Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
From left: Signe Nielsen, RLA, FASLA; Cynthia Rosenzweig; Susanne Desroches; Jeffrey Raven, FAIA, LEED BD+C; and Jee Mee Kim, AICP. Photo: Center for Architecture.
Climate Change in NYC: Bridging Science and Practice At the Center for Architecture
From left: Peter Lampen, AIA; Luke Surowiec, LEED AP; Steven Winter, FAIA; John Lee, AIA. Photo: Center for Architecture.
A Closer Look at 80×50 Initiative’s NYC Retrofit Accelerator Program At the Center for Architecture
Courtesy of the Center for Active Design.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Lands in Queens Policy Pulse
Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Astoria, Queens, NY. Somvanshi’s role: Associate, Project Manager and On-site Supervisor. Firm: Ennead Architects (previously Polshek Partnership). Photo: Jeff Goldberg/Esto.
Featured Member: Kalavati Somvanshi Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA. Courtesy of Kliment Halsband Architects.
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA (1933 – 2017) In Memoriam
Museum of Modern Art  east section renovation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Credit: Iwan Baan
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.17.17: Call for Entries: 2017 AIANY COTE Awards
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Lurie House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in "“Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
New York City Police Academy by Perkins + Will. Photo: Courtesy of Perkins + Will.
Featured Member: Michael Plottel Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
AIANY Opposes Paris Climate Accord Exit From the Desk of the President
Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage and Salt Shed by Dattner Architects and WXY architecture + urban design, 2016 Building of the Day. Credit: Center for Architecture
Call for Archtober Buildings of the Day New Deadlines
Upper East Side residence by Gabellini Sheppard, New York. Photo: Paul Warchol.
Michael Gabellini, FAIA, Delivers AIANY 2017 Gil Oberfield Lecture At the Center for Architecture
AIANY representatives at AIA New York State's "Architects in Albany Advocacy Day." Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: 2017 Architects in Albany Advocacy Day Policy Pulse
Families make collages of their dream playgrounds. Credit: Center for Architecture
Draw, Design, Build! NYU Teams Up with the Center for Architecture for Family Programming Learning by Design
Weill Hall at Cornell University, Ithica, NY. Photo: Scott Frances.
Featured Member: Renny Logan Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
The Shed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Siegel House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in “Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
AIANY 2017 President David Piscuskas, FAIA, at the National Summit on Design and Urban Mobility. Credit: Center for Architecture
Are We Ready for Autonomous Vehicles? From the Executive Director
Reflections at Keppel Bay in Keppel Bay, Singapore. Photo: Keppel Bay Pte Ltd.
Featured Member: Daniel Libeskind Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Join us for FitCity 2017! Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park by Thomas Balsley Associates and WEISS/MANFREDI. Credit: Albert Vecerka/Esto.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Policy Pulse
Speakers of "Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice." Credit: Center for Architecture
Social Sciences, Good for Your Bottom Line and Society At the Center for Architecture
The Quad Cinema, renovated by Projects Design Associates with rebrand by Pentagram. Credit: Marion Curtis / StarPix.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
"Architecture of Independence - African Modernism" closes on 05.27.17. Credit: Sam Lahoz
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Claremont University Consortium, Claremont, CA. Photo: Michael Moran.
Featured Member: Paul Lewis Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Diane Lewis at a Design IV review, Fall 2008
In Memoriam: Diane Lewis, AIA In Memoriam
Photo courtesy of Aaron Burson via Unsplash
Policy Pulse: AIANY Launches New Civic Leadership Program Policy Pulse
Ben Prosky, Assoc. AIA (AIA New York and the Center for Architecture); Medal of Honor winner Dr. Sharon E. Sutton, FAIA; Award of Merit winner Fiona Cousins, PE; and David Piscuskas, FAIA (AIA New York and 1100 Architect). Photography: Samuel Lahoz.
Industry Gathers at 2017 AIANY Honors and Awards Luncheon Around the AIA + Center for Architecture
AutoPound in Queens, NY. Credit: Alex Severin.
Featured Member: Jane Smith Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Obama Presidential Center by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners and InterActive Design Architects. Credit: Obama Foundation
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
"El Helicoide: From Mall to Prison" opens 05.09.17. Image credit: Pietro Paolini, 2012
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
The Medical University of South Carolina, Ashley River Tower, Charleston, SC. Credit: Frank Ooms.
Featured Member: Timothy Johnson Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Image courtesy pixabay
Policy Pulse: AIA Urges Policymakers to Keep Carbon Neutral Goals Policy Pulse
Students at IS 234 present their scale store models to their peers. / Image credit: Dustin Atlas
Store Design Program Engages Students in Real-World Design Problems Learning by Design
Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, Biloxi, MS. Credit: Francis Dzikowski.
Featured Member: Daria Pizzetta Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
The Arab City: Architecture and Representation
Oculus Book Review: The Arab City: Architecture and Representation Book Reviews
Never Built New York by Greg Golden and Sam Lubell
Oculus Quick-Take: Never Built New York Podcast
David Ginsberg, FAIA / Image credit: ©Alex Kaplan
In Memoriam: David l. (Dave) Ginsberg, FAIA (1932-2017) In Memoriam
75 Kenmare by Andre Kikoski Architect / Image credit: Redundant Pixel
In the News In The News