Peter Hall’s (2002) intellectual history of twentieth-century urban planning

Peter Hall focuses, in Cities of tomorrow: An intellectual history of urban planning and design in the twentieth century, third edition (2002), on the power of ideas.

Hall is also author of London voices, London lives: Tales from a working capital (2007), in which Londoners speaks of their lives in their own voices.

In his 2002 study, Hall speaks of urban planning ideas that were ignored at the time they were first presented, but which had a strong impact years later.

He refers (p. 2) to a comment by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote that “practical” people who see themselves as exempt from intellectual influences may in fact be “distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

The book focuses on “the ideas of a few visionaries who lived and wrote long ago, often almost ignored and largely rejected by their contemporaries” (p.2).

Hall argues that “When at last the visions were discovered and resuscitated, their implementation came often in very different places, in very different circumstances, and often through very different mechanisms, from those their inventors had originally envisaged” (p. 2).

Le Corbusier

Hall argues, as well, that many but not all of the early visions “stemmed from the anarchist movement, which flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth” (p. 3).

An exception, adds Hall [this and the next quotes are from p. 3], was Le Corbusier, “who was an authoritarian centralist.”

Also among the exceptions were “most members of the City Beautiful movement, who were faithful servants of finance capitalism or totalitarian dictators.”

The vision of the anarchist pioneers, according to Hall, “was not merely of an alternative built form, but of an alternative society … based on voluntary cooperation among men and women, working and living in small self-governing commonwealths.”

When the time arrived “for their ideals to be translated into bricks and mortar,” however, this usually “happened through the agency of state bureaucracies, which they would have hated. How this came about, how far it was responsible for the subsequent disillusionment with the idea of planning, will be a central question that the book must address.”

Hall adds that the idea of the anarchist roots of planning, and the treatment of them, is not new. A number of writers, he notes, have addressed the concept including Colin Ward in Britain and Clyde Weaver in the United States.

Photo caption: “Berlin Mietskasernen: In Berlin a model housing design brings congestion and misery”

The photo editing for this book is outstanding. I was absolutely fascinated when I came across a photo (p. 34) of Mietskasernen in Berlin. I downloaded the following PDF file describing this housing design:


The PDF file includes the following identifying information:

ExploreLab 8 research paper
written by
rolf kuck

tutored by
John Heintz finished in 2010

palace prison Mietskaserne Meyer’s Hof (*1875 Berlin † 1972 Berlin): misery vs. utopia

The photograph that opens the above-noted PDF file is also fascinating.

The opening paragraph [I’ve broken the text into shorter paragraphs] of the abstract for the PDF file reads:

“The ‘Mietskaserne’ emerged as an urban block scheme in the early years of industrialisation. Berlin provided fertile soil for the rise of ‘rental barracks’ with several buildings on a single plot separated by small courtyards.

“This building type was supposed to house a maximum number of tenants – mostly workers.

“Coping with the fast growing need for workers’ homes was but one reason for the rise of large tenements. Landlords saw the opportunity to draw immense profit with rental incomes.

“Mietskasernen serve as symbols of capitalism in its early days in general and speculation in particular. A case study of Berlin’s biggest Mietskaserne “Meyer’s Hof” disclosed general issues of mass accommodation with a focus on sociological aspects.

“Three chapters illustrate how the built structures of the Mietskasernen – that is: the architecture – largely contribute to the formation a ‘milieu’ – the tenants’ social environment.

“Meyer’s Hof was perceived by its tenants as both prison and palace. The latter notion is widely overlooked in publications.”

Third Reich urban planning

In Cities of tomorrow (2002, p. 34), Hall offers a comment by way of a photo caption: “Berlin Mietskasernen: In Berlin a model housing design brings congestion and misery.”

Hall also mentions Mietskasernen in the context of Albert Speer’s plans for the reconstruction of Berlin as the capital of the Thousand Year Reich.

The Nazi plans for Berlin, featuring huge and monumental buildings, with wide spaces between them, were based on the City Beautiful model. The plans included big satellite towns to the north and south.

In the towns, notes Hall (p. 214), “despite Nazi prejudice in favor of single-family homes, a new version of the Berlin Mietskaserne would dominate: a closed apartment block around a big yard.”

Apart from the architectural style, the basic principles were akin to ones espoused by the “modern movement” in architecture that Ken Greenberg discusses in Walking home (2011), and which he characterizes as “an intellectual time bomb with a very long fuse.”

City of Towers

Hall’s introduction [I’ve broken the opening paragraph into shorter ones] to Chapter 7 reads:

“The evil that Le Corbusier did lives after him; the good is perhaps interred with his books, which are seldom read for the simple reason that most are almost unreadable. (The pictures, it should be said, are sometimes interesting for what they reveal of their draughtsman.)

“But the effort should be made, because their impact on twentieth-century city planning has been almost incalculably great: obscurity is no barrier to communication, at least of a sort.

“Ideas, forged in the Parisian intelligentsia of the 1920s, came to be applied to the planning of working-class housing in Sheffield and St Louis, and hundreds of other cities too, in the 1950s and 1960s; the results were at best questionable, at worst catastrophic.

“How and why this should happen is one of the most intriguing, but also one of the most chastening, stories in the intellectual history of modern planning.”

[End of quote]

According to Hall, in theory some people would adapt very well to life in a City of Towers. He adds that as it turned out, the people for whom they were built did not very adapt well to them at all, as Jane Jacobs pointed out in the early 1960s.

First World War and 1920s Parisian avant-garde

The influence of the First World War on the Parisian avant-garde of the 1920s, in which Le Corbusier was an influential player, is highlighted by Kenneth E. Silver in Esprit de corps: The art of the Parisian avant-garde and the First World War, 1914-1925 (1989).

Contents – Hall (2002)

  1. Cities of Imagination – Alternative Visions of the Good City, 1880-1987
  2. The City of Dreadful Night – Reactions to the Nineteenth-Century Slum City: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1880-1900
  3. The City of By-Pass Variegated – The Mass Transit Suburb: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1900-1940
  4. The City of the Garden – The Garden-City Solution: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1900-1940
  5. The City in the Region – The Birth of Regional Planning: Edinburgh, New York, London, 1900-1940
  6. The City of Monuments – The City Beautiful Movement: Chicago, New Delhi, Berlin, Moscow, 1900-1945
  7. The City of Towers – The Corbusian Radiant City: Paris, Chandigarh, Brasilia, London, St. Louis, 1920-1970
  8. The City of Sweat Equity – The Autonomous Community: Edinburgh, Indore, Lima, Berkeley, Macclesfield, 1890-1987
  9. The City on the Highway – The Automobile Suburb: Long Island, Wisconsin, Los Angeles, Paris, 1930-1987
  10. The City of Theory – Planning and the Academy: Philadelphia, Manchester, California, Paris, 1955-1987
  11. The City of Enterprise – Planning Turned Upside Down: Baltimore, Hong Kong, London, 1975-1990
  12. The City of the Tarnished Bell Époque – Infocities and Informationless Ghettos: New York, London, Tokyo, 1990-2000
  13. The City of the Permanent Underclass – The Enduring Slum: Chicago, St. Louis, London, 1920-2000

Regent Park and the legacy of Jane Jacobs

The concluding two chapters of Hall’s 2002 overview note that the intellectual history of urban planning and design is but one key variable affecting life in cities.

Hall refers (pp. 458-459), for example, to economic shifts from agriculture and manufacturing to the handling of information.

The premium paid “for brawn and muscle, for generations since the beginning of the human race, was now effectively zero,” he notes, while “the rent payable on intelligence and self-organization was increasing” (p. 459).

The discussion brings to mind Regent Park.

The Regent Park redevelopment project seeks to re-integrate the latter neighbourhood with the surrounding community by re-introducing streets, creating large new park spaces, and aligning buildings along streets.

The project seeks, as well, to incorporate initiatives “for mixing incomes and tenures; generating employment opportunities; enhancing education; promoting culture; respecting and building on diversity; and providing community services” (“Lessons from St. Lawrence,” in Regent Park revitalization study – Summary report on action plan and implementation strategy, April 2003, Chapter 8. p. 1).

Economics and archaeology

One can argue that variables such as employment and education are in turn powerfully affected by the economic trends highlighted in this Feb. 2, 2013 article in The Guardian and this Jan. 30, 2013 New York Times article. This Feb. 4, 2013 Globe and Mail article addresses related themes.

The wider context in which urban planning operates is a fascinating one. By way of example, this Feb. 2, 2013 article in The Economist, dealing with the Nordic countries, is of interest with regard to global economics – and lessons that extend beyond concepts of left and right.

Archaeological theories related to the rise of inequality among humans  – such as outlined in The creation of inequality (2012) – are also of interest when we seek to understand the larger context within which urban planning is a player.

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website about the aforementioned study notes that the authors,  drawing on “their vast knowledge of both living and prehistoric social groups, … describe the changes in logic that create larger and more hierarchical societies, and … argue persuasively that many kinds of inequality can be overcome by reversing these changes, rather than by violence.”


A retrospective view of Jane Jacobs’ successful efforts to save her local neighbourhood in New York from demolition in the 1960s or thereabouts similarly underlines the role of economics in urban planning.

In Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (2011), a writer makes a point of commenting that the New York neighbourhood where Jacobs lived with her family, before the family moved to Canada, has been gentrified. The building where she lived and wrote about with fondness is now worth over $3-million and out of reach of many New York home buyers.

The significance of the fact is of interest and a subject of debate. It may be added that a wide range of houses in Toronto are also now beyond the means of many Toronto home buyers.

Also of interest for many other reasons are discussions of Jane Jacobs’ wide-ranging and legacy in What we see: Advancing the observations of Jane Jacobs (2010).


A May 10, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: “Le Corbusier, Piaf, the feuding Le Pens … the wartime rifts that still divide France.”