Why Cities Look the Way They Do

Posted by in Culture, Publishing


I don’t often cover things from a press release however what with my interest in cities this one intrigued me so here goes. I should mention this blog also contains affiliate links. Chapters cover: Money, Power, Sex, Work, War and Culture but we start with the all important intro.

Granted this is not a literal ‘Why Cities Look The Way They Do’ so don’t expect to find why St Paul’s Cathedral was built where it is rather than say Chelsea (though I’d hazard a guess money and power had something to do with it).

Rather, Richard J Williams (I’ve not met him) discusses why exactly our cites look the way they do in great detail beginning with a series of unconscious processes at which point design or specifically architecture becomes part of the equation (e.g. places to live. places to work, places for purposes such as investing, schools, churches). 

Williams book is then process utilised via design to form the city, somewhat to cities what system is to music. It is understanding the process to explain the key question in the books title and also to inform what design functions could create the brave new worlds of the future. 

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Interesting that he begins with Venice and its relationship with people flow or more crudely tourists. I wonder what he would make of Barcelona and Valencia which for me are equally as bad for swarms of slow moving selfie taking numpties.

I for once agree and sympathise with the locals and as Williams puts it himself ‘long suffering residents.’ Note that neither the book nor I are anti-tourist in stance, my point above is in essence an observation.

Another interesting interpretation comes from art critic Lawrence Alloway who says that ‘(Venice) wasn’t so much a city as a cultural medium.’ Well there’s thinking for you. Williams goes on that most cities are not Venice, most have no sights and are little represented in terms of media. Indeed some of my faves fall into that category (hello Cardiff, Shenzhen, and the recent Castello(n)). 


Does what we see need to be beautiful? Apparently not although I thought the impressionist paintings of London did ok. Then there’s the cities media image, fancy buildings make for great coverage and ‘something to see.’ In Warsaw someone asked me (in reference to Cardiff) What is there? I struggled to answer though I can’t think why now. Though there is nothing worldly renowned.

By comparison London and Paris are bursting with attention grabbing structures and the all important viewing platform from which to see them. There’s a great point made about the Olympics; are they merely sport or selling a city brand? As a kid in 1982 I asked my father why the Olympics had never been to Cardiff.

The answer is simple and the same reason it hasn’t troubled Birmingham or Manchester, it isn’t London. Also in Cardiff’s case as my father also pointed out, it’s too small, doesn’t have the transport infrastructure and so on but then that didn’t stop Helsinki which today probably wouldn’t stand a chance! Williams next moves onto Money and this again relates to world class A list cities; London, Paris, New York, Singapore. Who wants to invest in say Newport? Not many.


Power covers architecture utilised for the purpose of statement; governmental or otherwise. The Sex chapter demonstrates how cities drive its inhabitants mad! Desire and pleasure being natural and their suppression paradoxically unpleasant or to put it another way ’redirecting libidinal energies for the production of capital!’

And speaking of A list cities, did you know the most successful global cities are the ones most tolerant of sexual diversity! I sure as hell didn’t. It goes further (I hasten to use the word deeper) that cities with significant tech growth were those with big gay communities which would explain the San Fran/Silicon Valley effect but what about Shenzhen?

I can’t imagine that has a thriving gay populous but maybe it does albeit underground – it being China where open displays of sexuality of any sort are not the done thing (yet). Williams also draws on American TV culture in representing cities as sexual playgrounds notably Sex and the City and in cinema, Lost in Translation makes a lengthy appearance and appraisal.


Onto Work ‘commerce is only romantic when it disappears’ indeed or as Joni Mitchell would say ‘you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.’ This could be mirrored in the recent closures of many brand names on British high streets. Harking further back and forward at the same time, the once powerful factories and their regeneration as creative hubs. Williams speaks of miniature creative cities within cities like NDSM and De Ceuvel in Amsterdam.

For me it’s Beijing’s 798 Art District – not lost on Williams, Guangzhou’s Loft and TIT art zones and Shenzhen’s OCT complex. He continues through the luxury of loft living and the very zeitgeist usage of shipping containers as homes, cafes or bars, and among other things the tech boom (Silicon Valley). Some say you’ve got to be a certain kind of person to live and work in Dubai but you might equally say the same of San Francisco.


Creative hubs were now or are now the norm and that leads nicely onto Culture (an area I like to think I’m active in even if my audience is small). I have said for years that shopping malls are like airports without wings and airports are shopping malls with wings. Art galleries such as TATE Modern (mentioned in the book) are following suit so culture is deemed acceptable and hence commercial or the tip of it is.

What I mean is pop culture is often regarded stereotypical yet it does offer a nuts and bolts simplicity to any given country. Food wise, Fish and Chips for the UK, Burgers for America, Noodles for China and so on.

The book gives reference to this in that London’s prestigious V&A Museum commissioned an ad campaign for its cafe in which the cafe can be seen as central to the museum experience. A gallery ‘experience’ is now the norm. But this has been the case in Europe for years, especially Paris with its Centre Pompidou (1977) and the Louvre’s Pyramid (1989).

To bring things to the present the global brand of cultural space takes the Louvre to Abu Dhabi and New York’s Gugenheim to Bilbao (northern Spain or Basque country if you prefer) and the V&A both to Dundee and surprise surprise Shenzhen – a cultural coup for both cities. Architecture, brand and city combined.


So is the book any good? Well it’s certainly more good than not and for want of a cliche ‘thought provoking, densely written and highly academic in its tone and scope.’ It’s a book I can see where it’s coming from, it feels familiar as I’ve experienced a good deal of the cities Williams observes and the issues he speaks of.

I was at the TATE Modern when it hosted the CITIES exhibition. I have been to Beijing’s 798 complex and I am currently experiencing the uncertainty conjured up by Brexit. Fortunately I have not seen the over developed hotch potch of buildings the developers of Cardiff have made.

Though it may in time grow on me. Overall, I’ll bet you begin to read the city in a very different way the next time you visit one or if you live in one (as most of us now do). 

Why Cities Look They Way They Do is published by Polity. My thanks to Emma at Polity for her kind assistance.


Thanks for reading here check out my MEDIA page for writing work, and the UNIVERSITY page to hire me as a teacher/speaker and THE ATLAS for other cultural articles.

For this one I’ve chosen to do it according to chapter: Money, Power, Sex, Work, War and Culture. 

The Big Money – Rush
Opportunities – Pet Shop Boys
Power – Tears For Fears
Erotic City – Prince
Don’t Work That Hard – Scritti Politti
War and Peace – Ryuichi Sakamoto

For culture…
When the City Stops for Snow – John Foxx/Harold Budd/Ruben Garcia
The City in a Hundred Ways – No-Man
Last Night in the City – Duran Duran
This City Never Sleeps – Eurythmics
Every Big City – Wang Chung

Honourable mentions…
City of the Angels – Wang Chung
Field Work – Ryuichi Sakamoto/Thomas Dolby
Skin Trade – Duran Duran
Olympia – Lush
Paris – Malcolm McLaren