Victor Burgin, Some Cities, By Reaktion, 223pp.
Jane M. Jacobs, Edge of Empire, Postcolonialism and the City, Routledge, 193pp.
Christopher Hibbert, Cities and Civilizations, Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 256pp.
Chris McAuliffe, Art and Suburbia, by Craftsman House, 135pp.

Sydney Morning Herald,  199, p. 

Through their provision of anonymity, cities have provide a found of freedom for individuals who despaired at their isolation, sparking support for repressive solidarities. Mein Kampf was Hitler’s chronicle of estrangement in pre-1914 Vienna.

At the cross road between discovery of the self and the loss of community can be found the city’s impetus towards modernity. A spatial history of Modernism in the arts could trace its isobars from Dublin, across to Liverpool and St Petersburg (more than London or Moscow), with tremors recorded in Alexandria, Shanghai and Tokyo, and major eruptions in European capitals, on to Chicago before landing in Los Angeles, a city we can all visit for the price of a movie ticket.

As a source of wonder, cities are as varied as any creativity displayed in nature or art museums. The neons of Tokyo are shamed by neither coral reefs nor Abstraction Expressionism. The tonal range of trees is more limited than those of concrete, terracotta, brick and bitumen. Hence, the ideal of travel is to stay put in one city for three months, exploring its streets, to become more than a tourist though always less than a citizen.

During the past 40 years, an extravagance of conurbations,– with several leaping from 1 million to 8 million – have presented preconditions for social revolution, as in Tehran in 1978-79. One amazement is that such habitats thrive, with potable water available alongside fresh vegetables and fish, while millions traverse them each day.

For all these reasons, the publication of four books about cities raises expetations that are met by Jacobs, and then only in part.

Asa Briggs treated “Marvellous Melbourne” as one of his Victorian Cities (1963) whereas Christopher Hibbert wraps up his album of pretty pictures with a skim across the origins of Sydney. Despite his title, Cities and Civilizations, he has not learnt that both are built on drains.

The texts in Burgin’s Some Cities are extended captions which drag his images further down to he naturalism of a black-and-white slide evening, relieved by cross-references to the “reality” of feature films, especially cinema noir.

Australia appears, not as a city, but as the European’s dreamtime of the exotic and primitive around Coober Pedy and Woomera – except that the book’s sole example in colour is its frontispiece of Sydney with two passionately lemon raincoats against a wet plate of Pitt Street, an image which should become as iconic as Dupain’s Sunbather.

Edge of Empire, by Jane M. Jacobs, a geographer at the University of Melbourne, gives four case studies, two from London and one each in Perth and Brisbane. Her aim is to “create a productive encounter between new theorizations of imperialism and post-colonialism and the specific space of the contemporary city”. She succeeds in provoking ideas for further consideration by someone less afraid of fact-grubbing.

An obligatory opening survey of the literature never engages in argument but paraphrases theories in a way which is anti-theoretical, As a result, her fear of falling into the empiricist fallacy of letting facts speak for themselves is nowhere more in evidence than in this “theoretical” chapter, the language of which is an unintended parody of the higher nonsenses. As a geographer, Jacobs should know that a parameter is not a perimeter.

After these lumbering 40 pages, the beat changes as we encounter “The City” in London, long the financial heart of the globe but today as alarmed at a single European currency dominated by Frankfurt as Londoners were by the Blitz.

Jacobs is astute when drawing such parallels. Britons took the survival of the dome of St Paul’s during the Nazi bombing as a sign that they would muddle through. After the war, town planners determined that redevelopers would not profit where Goering had failed and so blocked the erection of office towers that would disrupt sight-lines to the cathedral.

Jacobs’ second study is of heritage-building in Spitalfields, long a refuge for immigrants, most recently Bengalis, trying to acknowledge their class divisions without exposing themselves to ethnic prejudice because of the building schemes by the entrepreneurs among them.

Quick as Jacobs is to uncover the flaws in each reform, she has next to nothing to suggest about how to proceed. Instead of playing judge, she might consider how real landlords and tenants make their way through contraries and so are never free from ethnic, class and gender biases. As living conditions are redirected by globalising investors, reformers must also juggle the always less-than-perfect responses disparaged by Jacobs.

For a student of postcolonial themes, Jacobs comes close to reproducing the classic account of Australia as the primitive. Here studies of London deal with the concrete jungle. In Australia she cannot wait to go native, even if only in the contrived bush of city parks.

Hence Perth and Brisbane are treated as sites for testing race relations. Notwithstanding this preference, Jacobs is as ignorant of the burden of terra nullius as Pauline Hanson, believing it to have asserted that this continent had been uninhabited before 1788, one among a tangle of mistakes and omissions.

Her arguments about the Swan Brewery dispute are persuasive when she shows why claims for land rights appear ungovernable to settler Australians who apprehend the sacred most readily in a title deed. Like the track of the serpent in local legends, Aboriginal sites are more like precincts than references points on a map.

In Brisbane, Jacobs concentrates on Mt Cootha, with its outdoor Aboriginal gallery built for the two-day tourists. Her fixation on the primitive means she does not connect this municipal dream-world to urban renewal in Fortitude Valley, where art spaces are contributing to a dispersal of Aborigines from the Mall along Brunswick Street, around the corner from which the Aboriginal organisation that provided the artwork on Mt Cootha now pursues Koreans by the busload. Like Hibbert, Jacobs leaves a sense of having spent longer in the library stacks than walking the streets.

Melbourne art historian Chris McAuliffe belongs to the generation for whom the Boys Next Door were the exotic brought home to Camberwell. He opens with a declaration about the meaning of motif, such as suburbia, being found in its social placement, not just its internal trajectory, but soon falls for t notion of thee artist being merely “attracted” to sucy processes from the outside.

He next confuses leisure with the rest needed to renew energy for work and misdates the arrival of zoning by some 20 years in a procession of errors which intertwine with banalities. Paraphrasing the surfaces of research by others, his text is as shallow as suburbia was alleged to be. The usual trick for the ill-informed is to plaster over their blankness with jargon, but McAuliffe writes clearly. Well before the end, the book degenerates into a sequence of reviews and recent work.

Before returning to this theme he should decide what a suburb is. Can it be the inner zones such as Fitzroy for Danila Vassilieff or Surry Hills for Bob Dickerson?

Art and Suburbia is worth dipping into for its images, which extend from land sale promotions to Brack’s painting New House (1953), which could also be a commercial illustration. Despite the domestic bias of the theme, works by men outnumber those from women by three to one.

The captions do not clarify or specify so much as expostulate disputable notions while paraphrasing arguments elaborated, though not always explicated in the text. For instance, McAuliffe interprets Dickerson as showing a vacuousness in his street scenes, but quotes the artist’s writing to a friend that “Our street is full of poetry”. Did Dickerson fail to depict this richness or has McAuliffe failed to recognise it?