Why do the cities of the late twentieth century look as they do? What values do their appearance express and enfold? Their sheer scale and the durability of their materials assure that our cities will inform future generations about our era, in the same way that gothic cathedrals and medieval squares tell us something of the Middle Ages. In the meantime, our urban landscapes can tell us much about ourselves.
For E. C. Relph, the urban landscape must be envisioned as a total environment--not just streets and buildings but billboards and parking meters as well. The Modern Urban Landscape traces the developments since 1880 in architecture, technology, planning, and society that have formed the visual context of daily life. Each of these shaping influences is often viewed in isolation, but Relph surveys the ways in which they have operated independently to create what we see when we walk down a street, shop in a mall, or stare through a windshield on an expressway.
Two sets of ideas and fashions, Relph argues, have had an especially important impact on urban landscapes in the twentieth century. An "internationalism" made possible by new building technologies and more rapid communications has replaced regional style and custom as the dominant feature of city appearance, while a firm belief in the merits of self-consciousness has imposed logical analysis and technical manipulation on such commonplace objects as curbstones and park benches. "As a result," writes Relph, "the modern urban landscape is both rationalized and artificial, which is another way of saying that it is intensely human."