This book, the main title of which translates roughly as Women Looking at the City, is the second volume of the series Theoretikerinnen des Städtebaus (Female Theorists of Urban Planning), begun in 2015. Both of the first two volumes in the series are results of the wish to “cartograph,” as coeditors Katia Frey and Eliana Perotti write in the new book's foreword, and “enhance” the historiography of cities (7). Both editors have long been engaged in research and publishing projects in urban theory and are former senior researchers and lecturers at ETH Zurich (a connection one feels in the selection of the other participating authors). They are known for precise and detailed archival research and a commitment to feminist architectural history.
The ten chapters in this volume are organized around individual women, not movements, and they appear roughly in chronological order, beginning in the nineteenth century and extending up to today. Straightforward biography is mostly avoided, as the authors focus primarily on the historical and theoretical contributions of their urbanist subjects, and nearly all of them present new archival research. If, from the Anglophone point of view, the monographic selection by gender—rather than by the subjects' overt commitment to feminism—might seem problematically binary, one could argue that in the German-speaking world of architecture, and Switzerland in particular, such an “additive” approach is still much needed. As Mary McLeod writes in her introductory reflection, “The focus on new or unconventional themes might be one of the reasons that many of these women are unknown—at least beyond their own national context” (13). Following each of the essays, which are in German, another layer of earnest commitment to the research is evidenced by a range of skillfully excerpted and introduced English-, Italian-, German-, and French-language primary materials that contribute greatly to the book's value as a teaching tool.
Even if not all the theorists discussed here may be described as feminists, the impact of gender on their professional and personal experiences is a common point of emphasis. For example, Frey and Perotti's essay focuses on reform movements in Europe during the nineteenth century that aimed to improve the living conditions of the poor and demanded education for all. The essay pays particular attention to the charity work of noblewoman Adelheid Poninska (1804–81), which resulted in one of the first German-language publications (in 1874) advocating for concrete housing plans for social reform, including dwellings for unmarried working-class women. Poninska was also an early European campaigner for public green space, a topic that connects this essay to the one that follows, by Katrin Albrecht, which is devoted to the aristocratic Italian garden planner Maria Pasolini (1856–1938).
Essays on Polish CIAM member Helena Syrkus (1900–1982), Sibyl Moholy-Nagy (1903–71), and the Bauhaus-trained Wera Meyer-Waldeck (1906–64) highlight a range of implicit, as well as explicit, barriers faced by women working at the height of modernism. Moholy-Nagy, for example, received no formal education and worked as an assistant to her husband, László, in Chicago. Following his death in 1946, she gradually established herself as an important voice in postwar discussions of high modernism, in part by taking controversial stands, such as situating herself against celebrated examples of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's urbanist work, in particular his Lafayette Park project in Detroit, which he planned together with Ludwig Hilberseimer. Moholy-Nagy attacked this project in an essay titled “Villas in the Slums,” published in 1960. At the same time, and as Hilde Heynen discusses in her contribution, Moholy-Nagy effectively positioned herself against what she perceived to be hostile attitudes toward architects and architecture in Jane Jacobs's 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In 1962, in an essay titled “In Defense of Architecture,” Moholy-Nagy wrote that Jacobs showed a “primitive ignorance of the profound concern of architects for the city” (154). Following Heynen's text, Moholy-Nagy's 1962 essay, originally published in Architectural Forum, is reprinted, along with a new introduction; this inclusion, a coup of thoughtful editing, is an example of this book's great potential for architectural education.
The situation of women in European society also played a major role in the professional practice of Myra Warhaftig (1930–2008). Trained as an architect at the Technion in Haifa before beginning her career in Paris, Warhaftig subsequently moved to Berlin and pursued a PhD during the 1970s, investigating the emancipation of women through the design of dwellings. Warhaftig was a vigorous critic of the normative ideal of the nuclear family—a controversial stance at the time. According to author Gerald Adler, that made “her theoretical oeuvre … an indicator for the changing attitude regarding the city in the second half of the twentieth century” (200). The shift in Warhaftig's perspective on housing, from a radical position to a more pragmatic one, can be traced through her decades of teaching, research, and codesigning, including the planning of an apartment block in Berlin completed in 1993. She is one of the few women presented in this book who inhabited the entire spectrum of urbanistic practices it addresses, from architectural design to theory to teaching and practice—an accumulation of experiences that remains fairly rare even today.
Most of the volume's authors provide extensive texture and depth in their essays. Mary Pepchinski, for example, contributes to our understanding of the Bauhaus phase of Wera Meyer-Waldeck's training (1927–32) and her subsequent efforts to produce affordable living space in the postwar era. Some of the contributions, such as the essay on Françoise Choay by Thierry Paquot, are most interesting for their selection of primary sources. Chen Ting's fascinating closing essay, on contemporary Chinese urbanist Wenyuan Wu (b. 1966) and her fight for sustainable planning in China, is notable for its engagement with existing social and cultural conditions. However, this essay also points to gaps in the larger book, in particular its selective engagement with certain geographies of today's global design world.
Perhaps a third volume in the series could address that issue. Future authors may want to consider whether upcoming books in the series (if any are planned) should continue to focus on individual female figures. Broader discussions concerning gender and urban planning could potentially lead to a different model, one that is not organized around individuals but rather centers on concepts overlooked by the male-dominated history of urban planning. In any case, further installments in what is clearly a larger story will certainly be welcome, as would an English translation of this book.