In 2015, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection devoted its annual Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium to a topic larger than any of those that had long constituted the library's scholarly fare. Announcing the symposium title “River Cities: Historical and Contemporary,” organizer Thaïsa Way invited historians, urban planners, landscape architects, and others focused on the interactions of cities and their riverine environments to consider rivers more subtly and comprehensively than simply, as she puts it in the introduction to this volume, “as landscapes in themselves or as agents of urban formation” (1). The papers presented at the symposium—the first of several city-focused conferences supported by Dumbarton Oaks' Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies—are now available to readers who were unable to attend the 2015 meeting. With this edited collection, River Cities, City Rivers, Way has, in large part, succeeded in realizing her initial ambition and in bringing the symposium to a wider audience of urban and environmental historians and planning practitioners.
Following Way's introduction, the volume's fourteen essays represent as wide a geographic and topical range as one might seek in a book with goals as broad as those set for this one. With a temporal scope that takes readers from the ancient Yangtze river valley and imperial Rome to contemporary Los Angeles and São Paulo, to a selection of cities located across the Americas, Europe, and South and East Asia, and through the writing of authors trained variously as planners, designers, and historians, the book demonstrates in dramatic and varied fashion the alternating embrace and collision of rivers with the cities that depend on them. Particularly commendable are the contributing authors' efforts to illustrate their studies with the kind of precise mapping (often showing change over time) that enables readers to comprehend the complex overlap of environmental and architectural form playing out in cities that they may not know, or that they have not before considered with such geographic specificity. Lei Zhang's compilation of maps showing the shifting flow of water through the cities of China's lower Yellow River and Rabun Taylor's exceptionally detailed overlays of the fragmentary stone Severan map of Rome with the map published by Giambattista Nolli in 1748, as well as later maps, are just two of the book's many notable examples of visual evidence that conveys, for the student of the built landscape, what text alone cannot.
Like all edited volumes, Way's collection will draw a range of readers, some of whom will have greater or lesser interest in individual contributions. Essays by practicing planners working in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and San Antonio, in Chinese cities such as Zigong and Yuzhu, and in the Rhine delta of the Netherlands recount the authors' own contributions to contemporary planning processes in a manner that is useful but inevitably self-promoting. On the other hand, historians and other scholars do well to understand, even if from a critical distance, the opportunities and constraints as well as the practical and rhetorical strategies available to the people charged with the difficult work of reshaping the urban environment. Historians, even those sensitized to the symposium's environmental perspective, occasionally fall into the pattern of leaving aside the evidence of the landscape altogether, turning instead to the mining of texts to demonstrate the purported cultural values that rivers hold for their cities. However, such historical studies also remind practitioners of their place in a long line of people who have sought to leave their mark, only to find their best efforts pushed aside by changing capital flows, tastes, or the laws of fluid dynamics.
Common to all of Way's contributors, however—and perhaps most pertinent to architectural historians consulting this review—is a sobering perspective on geological time and built form. As these collected essays suggest, the traditional focus of the architectural and landscape historian on a site's conception, construction, and—following completion—seemingly timeless endurance begins to appear a questionable effort, even a fool's errand, in light of the powerful long-term forces that are capable of flooding a river's banks, evaporating its waters, or changing its course altogether. Exquisite localized accommodations of built and natural form—whether in Allahabad, as discussed by Anthony Acciavatti, or Vienna, the subject of Kimberly Thornton's essay—prove themselves temporary at best, as land-use choices made there or elsewhere alter or accelerate the very conditions from which they were designed to benefit.
River Cities, City Rivers, then, leaves us with troubling but necessary questions. Of what use are our efforts to shape “firm, commodious, and delightful” urban landscapes when we are working within a global environment that changes more quickly and more suddenly than ever before? Would Vitruvius himself have embraced the task, had he been aware of the shifting sands on which the capital of his own empire rested? Has the goal of marrying buildings, public spaces, and environmental forms such as rivers become an extravagance at a time of environmental crisis? Or do such temporary alignments of human need and natural resources, even if they function only for a generation or two, still constitute a noble goal for an urban world as much in need of comfort as ever?