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Think Global, Act Local - The Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes, edited by Walter Stephen

11 Feb 2005

by John McKean

There are few people with the power really to make connections. And the enduring attraction of Patrick Geddes must surely be in his having this power to an almost magical degree. It\'s not just that he was ‘a polymath,’ as is always said; that\'s too simple. Nor just that he could see the big picture while acting in the immediate situation. It\'s that he also connects across to us as we read and listen to him, and the peculiar web he weaves seems somehow to have already crossed our path.

I have written books about three very different architects – a Scot, a German and an Italian – and by chance each meets in Geddes. The first was his friend, whose new art school Geddes called \"one of the most important buildings in Europe\" at a time when no-one else had noticed it. It also spurred PG to rare, almost Kahn-like architectural musings: \"for here never was concrete more concrete, steel more steely and so on,\" he said of Mackintosh\'s building, one that reveals itself mostly in timber and stone.

My second subject was the author of Home and Environment, a pioneering book in the 1940s in its beautifully sensitive understanding of inhabitation, of the social and spatial hierarchies from room to city. His, Walter Segal\'s, formative years had been spent around the anarchist thinkers and artists – new age hippies we might say now – at Monte Verità in Switzerland, a commune discussed by Sofia Leonard in the book under review here.

My third subject is quoted in this book contrasting the work of Geddes with specialisation and specialists, which \"I consider in a way to be an accident of our present time.\" The extraordinary thing is how he came to Geddes via PG\'s friend Kropotkin. Geddes’ Cities in Evolution was virtually unknown in Italy when the young Giancarlo De Carlo’s interest was aroused in the 1940s. Twenty years later, in the aftermath of ’68, De Carlo was able to publish the first complete Italian translation, Città in Evoluzione, urging in his introduction that we heed Geddes’ themes: first, the importance of constantly present public involvement at all stages of environmental transformation; second, the creation of a shared urban conscience; and, finally, his critique of how public bodies routinely fail to take account of the opinions of the people below. Here De Carlo (Hon FRIAS and RIBA Gold Medallist) could have been talking about himself.

The linked notions of \'reading\' places and of \'participation\' in their transformation (to use De Carlo\'s words), of how making processes in the environment clear and comprehensible also makes them accessible as tools for civic action, came first from Geddes, pioneering the emerging discipline of urbanism. His life, says Murdo Macdonald in this book, was an exploration and explication of the interdependence of the two strands of activity, environmental and cultural.
A couple of paragraphs before mentioning De Carlo, Macdonald quotes Hugh MacDairmaid recalling that Geddes \"knew that watertight compartments are useful only to a sinking ship\" and that he \"traversed all the boundaries of separate subjects.\"

The problem is that Geddes is messy. His writing style was hardly that of a man of letters – indeed it depended on the ear and quick wit of his secretaries. His speech was cloaked by his accent and thick facial hair, as well as his non-linear, exploding enthusiasms. He brought few concrete achievements to conclusion and no coherent body of theory. He is easily and often misunderstood. Colin Ward – who numbers Geddes among the key influences on his life – would always warn students off the great mounds of papers in the various Geddes archives, adding: \"If I were wandering down a street I would probably cross the road to avoid being buttonholed by him.\"

By now, however, there is probably much more published about Geddes than ever was by him. And recent work, notably by Volker M Welter in Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (MIT Press 2002; paperback 2003) is importantly illuminating. (Oddly, it is not in the present book\'s bibliography.) The present slim volume is presented as a taster. Coming from the Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust, it attempts in seven short essays to summarise his enthusiasms and, apart from Kenneth Maclean\'s focus on education through geography, has little space to get further than breathless catalogues, but they are fascinating. Macdonald\'s illustration of Geddes\' Dramatisation of History sent me back to my own copy (published for two rupees in Bombay, Madras and Karachi, in 1923; the seventh edition print run which comprised the 13th thousand copies), and to two issues it raises.

First, Geddes\' inspiring lack of ethnocentricity in cultural history must have seemed bizarre then – the culture of the Buddhists, Hindus and Israelites precede the Greeks in his tale. (Which doesn\'t deny a Scottish pride. When he reaches the renaissance, he argues that \"the court of James IV rivalled in culture the Medicis themselves, and is certainly without other parallel among the dynasties of Europe.\") Second, Geddes\' use of the idea of masque form is fascinating; his use of metaphor and the acting out of issues rather than arguing them logically on paper – whether it is to propagate sanitary reform in an Indian city with a great procession led by elephants, or the sweep of cultural history as a pageant to 2,500 Edinburgh children.

The link, the connection, the process, these are his concerns. As Wendy Lesser said (Town Planning Review, 1974): \"he was willing to work at a small scale because he believed that every tiny change contributed to a larger evolutionary progression. Since he could envisage a kind of order more complicated than any that could be created by a human mind, he did not condemn cities for an inherent lack of order. He arrived at his practical recommendations by observing each city and trying to find its special patterns.\" And that centrally means social patterns: no matter how well an urban plan is made, it cannot thrive without the citizens to nurture it. Planning without civic education and thus participation is fruitless.

Our current government\'s mantra of \"out to consultation\" would be scorned by Geddes with his delicate and individual concerns, his themes of regional planning based on survey and interpretation, his careful coining of the word \'conurbation\' (a city being something of special value) and his notions of \'conservative surgery.\' Not only these terms but also the notions underlying them are his legacy. \"Think global, act local\" he urged in Cities in Evolution, 90 years ago. We still have much to learn from this incredible man.

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