4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Instructor Insights

The Influence of the Present

In this section, Prof. Beinart reflects upon the developing field of urbanism and offers his personal thoughts on 36 years of teaching this course.

Globalization and Specialization

This field has developed much over the last 50 or 70 years in that it has branched off into many specializations. When I came here as a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies, the department occupied one short corridor. Today, urban studies is wide-reaching and covers special fields in urban economics, real estate, traffic engineering, third-world studies, and a whole bunch of other topics.

The global importance of urbanism has grown as well. The first book on third-world cities was published at MIT around 1950 by Charlie Abrams, and now, third-world studies is a whole school of thought and practice of its own. I myself gave a version of this course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and did one or two classes for the Palestinians at Al-Quds Open University. Now, derivatives of this course are being taught in a number of places. It has been taught at Penn State, in India, in Singapore. A colleague who is an expert of Indonesia recently came back from a trip and said that there is a version of this course being taught in Jakarta.

I think that recognizing this rapid expansion teaches the students that in a field like urbanism, it is best to gain information from a wide and different range of sources. When I teach the case study on Chicago, we talk about cycle theory and predictive theory. We start our discussion with Homer Hoyt’s book One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago, which is a text on economics. Everything is a connected, in a sense.

One of my former students said that this network and connectedness is one of the things he took away from this course: the fact that urbanism involves many inputs, some of them citizen inputs, and how to calibrate and order them. There are no pure ideas.

"We [architects] tend to idealize the world, that we can smooth the world round. I think that working as you do as an urban designer in the midst of a dialectic of opposites is an intelligent place to be."

Continued Application

Teaching for 36 years, as I have taught this course, raises the issue of boredom. One of the problems about teaching for this length of time is that you have to wake up on a Tuesday morning and feel interested in teaching.

To counter this issue, for example, I hand out newspaper clippings or articles on current events at the beginning of every class. One of the reasons I do this is that it is an opportunity to find something in The New York Times about some idea, and to talk about it. This way, I have a new argument to make, and according to the reactions of the students, I can see whether it is successful.

For instance, we discussed in class the controversy and long process about who should rebuild and what should be rebuilt after the World Trade Center destruction in New York, especially because Robert Moses has a legacy in New York. There was a piece in The New York Times that I circulated around the class. Have things changed since Robert Moses? So I developed a piece of work based on all of the things that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation did, from the selection process to the final decision not to include any of the architects who were involved in the selection process and that the developers who held the rights to the land had the right to choose his own architect. This, of course, is the result of the Freedom Tower. I postulated that idea of Robert Moses and what he did in New York against what we do now, and tried to get the students to balance the argument one way or another. I have to invent a way to keep things interesting.

It is always me versus the audience. Am I going to fail, or am I going to succeed? I am neurotic in that respect; I am like an actor who needs to overwhelm the audience with the argument. Basically, if you teach for a long time, and even when you start teaching, you have to come to terms with the fact that you must be able to excite yourself and the students about the material.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights