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October 31, 2003

"City Comforts," the Book

Dear Friedrich --

Has your copy of David Sucher's revised edition of his book City Comforts arrived yet? Mine showed up yesterday. I settled into the Barcalounger at 11 pm, planning to spend a little time with the book before sacking out. I wound up enjoying it so much I didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. Feeling a little bleary today, thanks.

It's a really lovely book: a series of modest, down-to-earth tips about how cities and towns can turn themselves into more agreeable places. No theory, no philosophy, no criticism -- just practical observations about things that work and have shown their value, from curbs to traffic circles to awnings. David, who likes to present himself as an anti-ideas kind of guy, will object, but I maintain that his approach and his work are expressions of a set of deep convictions and ideas, namely the humane wing of architecture and town planning.

Book buff that I am, I also love "City Comforts" as a book. It's a trim thing, a little larger than a guidebook, full of pictures and chunks of text. You can spend five minutes with it or hours with it; it's adaptable, it's here to help. It's a firstclass example of much of what's best about some recent trends in book publishing: it's designed to the max, and accessible and engaging visually as well as verbally, rather like a good Web site. David, who worked with the designer Magrit Baurecht, probably killed himself putting the book together. I've watched people put things like this together; they're major logistical challenges, like doing a tabletop-size jigsaw puzzle. People knock themselves out on the level of the concept, the visuals and the layout, which helps explain why so many such books seem beautiful but insubstantial; all the energy has been spent on look and feel. But "City Comforts" has, along with a first-class look and feel, substance galore, as well as a strong point of view and a personal voice. The book feels friendly and informal, yet it's also intellectually and artistically stimulating, something David would probably not want me to say. But there you have it.

A few more thoughts:

* My sense of self-satisfaction enjoyed noticing that David I have both found our way to the same cities-and-buildings reading list: Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, William Whyte ... It took me years -- years! -- of snooping around the architecture world before I stumbled into the writers and thinkers whose point of view I find congenial. I wonder how David found his way to them. In any case, his book belongs on the same shelf as their work, right alongside "The Timeless Way of Building" and "City."

* I enjoyed noticing the influence on David's approach (and on his bookmaking too) of Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language"; I could be mistaken, but I think I also sense the influence of Stewart Brand and of "The Whole Earth Catalog." (Note to self: do a posting someday on these two works as some of the most influential and innovative examples of bookmaking in recent decades.)

* As a book, "City Comforts" has many of the qualities of the kinds of neighborhoods that David approves of. It's the book equivalent of these neighborhoods -- informal, organic, respectful, pleasing. Even the choice of paper shows consideration and thought -- it has its own tactile and sensual quality, and it's substantial: the weight of it is appealing. You want to hang out in this book. You can relax into its spaciousness and coziness, and enjoy feeling your spirit expand.

* I like the fact that the photos are more like snapshots than the over-art-directed images that generally decorate lifestyle and architecture books -- Kevin Kane's scratchy-inky illustrations do a wonderful job of clarifying what David wants us to see in them. The book overall is a lovely combo of the sophisticated and the handmade.

* I take pleasure too in the fact that David is publishing the book himself. This isn't an example of a big-publisher, editor-driven book, where the writer has simply been engaged to fill in the text. Or perhaps it'd be more accurate to say: David is playing editor and publisher as well as author. He's taken charge; this is his vision. Despite its apparent informality, the book has the oomph and pointedness a work can have when there's a personal, and not a corporate-commercial, impulse behind it. The book is a genuine labor of love, in other words -- a morally, as well as aesthetically and intellectually, beautiful thing.

* I find it refreshing, the way that what matters to David aren't debates but simply what works. He spends little time denouncing examples of bad planning; he avoids nearly all discussions of style. And he's happy to accept Americans' love affair with the car; how to make better parking arrangements is one of the book's themes. To him, how to make a more beautiful and pleasing life is a question for practical -- and not moral, political, or aesthetic -- discussion.

* An example: I find it delightful and provocative when David writes, "Change the paving material" -- ie., think about interrupting the usual asphalt with, say, cobblestones, the idea being that even such a small thing can change the character of a block for the better. He's right. Near us, the road running beside a park was recently redone and a section of it was re-paved with cobblestones. The result has been that cars now slow down, and that the whole area has become more pedestrian-friendly. Improvements like this matter infinitely more to me than do flashy new examples of starchitecture, what David enjoys calling "buildings as precious works of art."

* I wonder how many people will recognize what an act of daring it is to discuss the built environment in terms of charm and not brilliance, in terms of what's pleasing and not what's dazzling, and in terms of what fits in and not what's determined to stand out. David's eloquent on the beauty and utility of what's modest, worn, unremarkable, and pleasant. And ain't it sad that these aren't the topics and qualities that architects are trained to concern themselves with.

It's a modest, pleasing, helpful book that lives happily on the human scale -- but I can't hurry fast enough to say that to me, "modest," "pleasing," and "helpful" aren't minor things; they're major virtues. Here's a quote from the book that delights me: "If you think that the majority of details shown here are essentially ordinary and banal, you are absolutely correct, and that is the whole point of this book. Applying imagination and consideration to the ordinary and banal produces a comfortable and gracious place to live." Now that's thinking, and that's writing, IMHO. Picture me flicking a cigarette lighter and holding the flame aloft in rock-concert-style tribute.

"City Comforts" the book can be purchased here. I'm going to buy a half a dozen copies myself and send them to the clueless politicians and planners who've turned my hometown into a drive-through nowheresville. Maybe there's still a little something to be salvaged there. Hey, wouldn't it be great if thousands of copies of "City Comforts" were handed out to real-estate developers, as well as to beginning and graduating architecture students?

David's "City Comforts" Web site is here, and his blog is here. Be sure not to miss his posting on Frank Gehry's new Disney Concert Hall, here. It's a good example of David's work, and a sane, down-to-earth corrective to all the gushing hocus-pocus that's been written about the building. Readers who missed the Blowhards' q&a with David a few months back are encouraged to catch up with it now. Part One is here; Part Two is here.

Eager to hear about your reactions to the book.



posted by Michael at October 31, 2003


"Hey, wouldn't it be great if thousands of copies of "City Comforts" were handed out to real-estate developers, as well as to beginning and graduating architecture students?"

Now there's an idea.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 31, 2003 02:13 PM

"City Comforts" is a very entertaining book. I could only wish his sensible suggestions for urban shopping districts could be paired with an expanded focus on residential properties. Also, I may have to send Mr. Sucher pictures of a condo-community clustered very tightly--up to the sidewalk line--around a man-made lake. It got me thinking that he may be underestimating the pleasure-giving qualities of bodies of water, even if modest in size.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 3, 2003 06:14 PM

Your point about residential neighborhoods is well-taken; maybe in a third edition I'll get there.
And I assure you that I do appreciate water, especialy sitting by it and holding a bit of it in a cup, seasoned with whiskey.

Posted by: David Sucher on November 4, 2003 09:28 PM

"Be sure not to miss his posting on Frank Gehry's new Disney Concert Hall . . . ."

I didn't. Neither did A.C. Douglas:


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on November 6, 2003 02:53 PM

I use David's book for my upper division urban growth management class, and my students always love it. I'm super delighted that it's in print again -- and in color! One suggestion that I try to plant in the minds of my budding young land use planners is the idea of using David's book as part of an orientation training process for new city planning commissioners. It's my small way of fomenting revolution.

Posted by: Keith Bartholomew on November 9, 2003 04:32 PM

I hope Ms. Baurecht isn't offended at being credited for the entirety of the book's design, as we made changes of greater or lesser import on every page in the final layout (typography, table of contents design, color), and she may not have found all of them to her liking.

It was a pleasure to work on a book that's not only good but useful to our urban communities -- a rare combination, in my experience.

Posted by: Carl Juarez on November 13, 2003 07:04 PM

Hoi Babe,

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 07:17 PM

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