AS THE DAY BEGINS, you step out of the comfortable Victorian house you rehabilitated with the help of young people from the Urban Reclamation Brigade. You walk down the quiet, tree-lined street -- one of those closed to automobiles -- to the block kiosk at the corner. Many of your neighbors, reflecting the economic and racial diversity of the central city, are there for various purposes: to pick up the kmail and the day's delivery of milk and fresh bread, to park the children at the tot lot, to use the laundromat, to rendevouz with the car pool, or simply to chat over a cup of coffee. You exchange greetings wiht a fellow member of the Neighborhood Council, the elected body that controls zoning and development in the immediate area.
If you are on your way to work, you take a free minibus or an inexpensive cab to the nearest transit stop. A short, pleasant ride takes you to your office in one of the low-rise buildings that are now being built or renovated in preference to soaring abstract towers and glassy monoliths. You may even throw open your office window to a refershing and energy-efficient breeze.
Alternatively, you decide on a rapid, non-polluting trolley ride to visit friends in one of the garden cities that have sprung up around the metropolitan area. It is a small, self-contained city, offering housing and job opportunities for people of all races, ages, and income levels. Many of the residents live within walking distance of their places of employment. Pedestrians here are, in fact, a protected species able to go about work, play, and marketing without interference from the rigorously separated auto traffic. Trees, greenery, and inviting open spaces are abundant. Every neighborhood has its own school, playground, park convenience shops, and other appropriate amenities. The town center offers more elaborate recreatinal. cultural, and commercial facilities bordering a picturesque lake.
A utopian vision? Perhaps. But in the cosmology of Wolf Von Eckardt, the distinguished architecture critic of The Washington Post , it is an achievable "rediscovery of what civilization used to be all about." Recreating our urban areas in that image will not be easy, he admits, but it can be done if ordinary citizens will unite in the mane of common sense and insit on a more livable and attractive environment. He finds encouraging evidence of a trend in that direction in the "new mood" of America -- a mood that rejects gigantism, sparwl, pollution, ugliness, waste, and rapacity.
For all its urbanity and wit (delightfully accented by Forrest Wilson's drawings), Back to the Drawing Board is essentially a collection of crisply written homilies. Some of them extol the urban paradise lost -- but regainable if we will only reaffirm our oneness with nature. Others shower fire and brimstone on the architects, planners developers, and assorted exploiters who have led us into the paths of urban iniquity for their own sakes. Much of the book is devoted to a colorful and absorbing intertation of the evolution of modern architecture in the past 50 years, under the influence of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The dehumanizing effects of that tradition are denounced with all the passion of a fallen-away disciple, which Von Eckardt acknowledges himself to be.
He finds the hope of salvation, the "livable city," in two distinct but complementary phenomena -- the "new towns" or "garden cities" movement fathered in England by Ebenezer Howard near the end of the last century, and the neighborhood revitalization stimulated by the recent reverse flow of middle-class Americans into the central cities Each of these movements exemplifies for him the kind of humanist and conservationist approach that Lewis Mumford calls "organic planning" and E. F. Schumacher celebrated in Small Is Beautiful .
If our urban areas can be reshaped in this fashion, the quality of life in America will indeed be marvelously improved. But the prospects are not as bright as Von Eckardt seems to suggest. Compared with the hosts of unrepentant suburbanites, middle-class resettlers ofthe entral city are still a tiny minority. Their new neighborhood initiatives are resisted by the poor, unpersuaded of the advantages of relocation, and threatened by entrepreneurs, eager to profit from intensive land uses. The "new towns" idea, which enjoyed a brief revival in this country during the '60s, now seems as dead as the dirigible. There is little evidence of the political will -- not to mentieon ingenuity -- that would be required to debalkanize our metropolitan areas, with their many insular jurisdictions. The tyranny of the automobile, though much deplored, is as yet scarcely diminished.
Von Eckardt does not ignore these obstacles, but he does not choose to deal in much detail with possible ways to surmount them. This may lead the less sophisticated reader to underestimate the difficulties that must be overcome if the "new mood" is to become the new mode.
Von Eckardt's strong blacks and whites are relievend by few grays. He is unsparing in his judgment of those whose esthetics or lifestyles he finds unacceptable. Yet there are, after all, legitimate differences in taste. Regrettable though it may be, not everyone prefers old houses, low-rise buildings, neighborly settings, and bucolic quietude. There are those who find redeeming value in the abstract planes and angles of modern architecture, the atriums of Portman hotels, or the ponderous mass of concrete-slab construction. Some, God help them, even relish the impersonality and anonymity of big-city life.
One occasionally wishes that Von Eckardt were more tolerant of frailties such as these. But then one reflects that more temperate and qualified judgments might have robbed the book of its most distinctive quality -- the fine polemica style that makes it so compelling. And compelling it is for anyone who cares about how we are going to live in urban America.