Dhiru Thadani’s astonishing ‘encyclodictionary’

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary


Review by Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

By Dhiru A. Thadani
Rizzoli, 804 pp., 2010, $95 hardcover

In a foreword, Leon Krier calls this book an “encyclodictionary” — an apt term, it seems to me, for a volume that defines hundreds of words and phrases and provides beautifully illustrated explanations of how the concepts represented by many of these words are applied to the built environment.

Krier also calls The Language of Towns & Cities a “tome” — surely the right description for a book that runs to 804 pages, contains 2,500 (!) color illustrations, and weighs in, according to my bathroom scale, at nine pounds.

It’s amazing that such a book could be published today. Who buys print encyclopedias any more? Reference volumes are supposed to be migrating to the Web. The cost of producing Towns & Cities, on paper with enough gloss to make the photographs shine, must have been enormous, and highly subsidized.

Author Dhiru Thadani says the publication received financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Richard H. Driehaus Charitable Lead Trust, and the Center for Applied Transect Studies. How much each of those sources gave is not revealed, but clearly, at a list price of $95, this super-hefty hardcover is a bargain. Buy it while it can still be had for what amounts to less than 4 cents per illustration.

I had known for quite a while that Thadani, a Washington, DC, architect born in Bombay (Mumbai), was assembling a big reference book. I had also known Thadani to be exceptionally hard-working and meticulous; a few years ago he catalogued every public space in the nation’s capital. Even so, I am in awe of what he has accomplished. Towns & Cities distills nearly everything that’s crucial to New Urbanism, plus a great deal about important aspects of architecture, planning, and urban design that are beyond New Urbanism’s scope but well worth knowing.

In this alphabetized production, Thadani requires 56 pages just to define and comment on the entries under “A.” They begin with “A” and “B” Streets and run through accessibility, affordable housing, agricultural urbanism, allée, alley, ancillary/accessory unit, arcade, arterial, avant-garde, avenue, awning, and 20 other terms before concluding with axial. Reading them is like taking a very enjoyable short course in urban design.

Some entries are two or three paragraphs with an image or two. Others are several paragraphs followed by a generous array of photos and drawings. Arcade includes a dozen section views showing the dimensions and proportions of arcades. Those are supplemented by three additional diagrams showing how arcades span the sidewalks to create a strong urban frontage; plus two more diagrams contrasting the additive arcade and the integrated arcade; plus 11 photos of arcades in Bologna, Bombay, Washington, and New Orleans. You learn a tremendous amount from the resulting three-page spread.

The book’s very first entry says the idea of A streets and B streets was invented by new urbanists to help determine which of a community’s streets could offer “a superior pedestrian experience, one that entertains, informs, and is visually stimulating,” and which streets would have to accommodate gas stations, drive-thru businesses, access to parking lots, and other automotive components, which make walking less comfortable. The A street-B street dichotomy helps a designer know where and how to concentrate the best place-making.

Avenue, “a thoroughfare of high vehicular capacity and low-to-moderate vehicular speed,” “starting and ending at terminated vistas” (unlike a boulevard, which lacks terminated vistas), is introduced in two quick paragraphs and two photos — a single page. But this is followed by a page on the Champs-Élysées, often referred to as “the most beautiful avenue in the world” (and thus an instructive example) and then two full pages examining Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue and the particularities of the 11 public spaces (eight circles, two parks, one square) along its 10-mile course.

“In L’Enfant’s plan the avenue shifted direction at each of these spaces, so that the avenue did not appear to continue, but rather appeared to terminate at the public space,” Thadani points out. “When [Andrew] Ellicott redrew L’Enfant’s plan, Massachusetts Avenue was straightened and the subtlety of the terminated vistas was eliminated.” Thadani is wonderfully alert to subtleties. This should make the book a great resource for designers operating at every scale — from the building to the city, to the region.

Partly because of Thadani’s experience in India and other parts of the world but also partly because he lined up help from 52 contributors, among them many of New Urbanism’s leading figures (including Andrés Duany, who wrote the introduction), the book contains a considerable number of surprises.

How many readers have ever heard of Auroville, India? That community, Thadani tells us, was conceived as “an ideal township for fifty thousand inhabitants, devoted to an experiment in human unity.” Inaugurated in 1968 with delegates from 124 nations and all the states of India, each of whom brought soil from his or her homeland, Auroville sought “to establish a complementary relationship between the urban rural areas,” the book relates. Over two million trees have been planted there. An aerial photo reveals that Auroville resembles the eye of a hurricane, with development curving outward from the roughly circular green space at its center. You won’t find many sightings of this sort in a standard urbanism text.

While some entries stick to the facts, others mount a lively argument. The entry for Big Box lays out the pros and cons of large, auto-oriented stores with admirable fairmindedness. Yet there is never any question that this is a book for those who love towns and cities, and who are willing to impose useful restraints on the impact of the automobile.

There are occasional misspellings and factual errors — Howard Roark is rendered as Howard Roake. But mistakes seem remarkably few for a book covering so much territory.

Explaining the book’s reason for being, Thadani writes: “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world is experiencing many interrelated emergencies. The economic meltdown, climate change, peak oil, and public health are interdependent and have a direct relationship to the way cities have been designed. The reformation of urban design will play an increasingly important role in the recovery process.”

“The fundamental principles of urbanism are the natural solution to the world’s crisis,” he declares. “This book aspires to define the elements that form urbanism, for it is these very fundamentals that will allow us to revitalize our cities as well as create enduring new places of value and beauty.”

The Language of Towns & Cities is an enormous gift to New Urbanism. Don’t pass it by.