History of the American City


Fall 2012

Gwendolyn Wright, instructor, with Allison Carafa

This course explored the volatile, seemingly chaotic yet cohesive forms of American cities, which have long been the quintessence of the modern metropolis: a synthesis of raw unregulated development, precise professional master plans, broad-based cultural and transnational exchanges and unexpected local anomalies. Lectures began with colonial-era origin myths, then 19th-century developments and focusing on the 20th-century metropolis. Each class took up a specific historical epoch and formal typology (housing, commerce, finance, industry, etc.), juxtaposing general trends across the country with a focus on one particular city. We covered both unique creations and generic spatial forms, problems and creative inventions.

While the last lecture concentrated on contemporary cities, every class examined repercussions of earlier decisions on the present day. Who decides where ‘downtown’ is located? How have Americans envisioned homes – and housing? What are Americans’ attitudes about the natural environment, especially in cities? How does infrastructure affect the efficiency and equity of a city? We emphasized a fundamental aspect of historical inquiry: the past affects what is possible in the present and what people can imagine about the future.