Author: Richard K. Rein (Island Press, 2022)
“In our attention to making organization work we have come close to deifying it. We are describing its defects as virtues and denying that there is – or should be – a conflict between the individual and the organization. This denial is bad for the organization. It is worse for the individual.”
- William H. Whyte, from The Organization Man
In the history of our modern world, there have been only a few who have been able to call themselves true Renaissance men, and if ever there was one it is most certainly William Hollingsworth Whyte. Known best by planners and architects as the author of The Exploding City, his dozen years as an assistant editor at Fortune magazine in the 1940s and 50s gave him an audience for his then best-selling The Organization Man. A polymath if ever there was one, American Urbanist – How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life is a wonderful portrait by Richard Rein, who reveals this man ahead of his time—US marine, traveling salesman, magazine editor, and pioneering urbanist – who recognized that he came from a life of privilege, and so realizing this made himself one of its most fiercest critics, especially against the shortcomings of post-war America status quo thinking.
Told in nineteen chapters with an introduction and afterword, Rein spends the first hundred pages of the book focusing on his family and upbringing, culminating with his time at Princeton between 1935-39. Enlisting in the marines after Pearl Harbour, Whyte’s time as a salesman for Vick’s vapour rub was cut short as he was shipped overseas to Guadalcanal, as Rein tells us in chapter four Vicks and the Marines – Information to Intelligence. Rein points out how Whyte was editor of the Marines newsletter much as he had been for the Princeton one during his time there, and how he wrote extensively during the war.
As the urban landscape was about to be transformed after the war, with soldiers returning home to get jobs and start families, Whyte had his boots on the ground quite literally to be a commentator on what he saw happening around him. Having managed to get a writing position at Fortune magazine, he set about interviewing the heads of major American corporations including General Electric and Ford, and after publishing his first book Is Anybody Listening? in 1952 it was followed up a few years later by his seminal Organization Man, one of the most influential books on management ever written, in which he declares conformity as the new sleeping enemy.
Having coined the term Groupthink in his first book, Whyte expanded upon the dichotomy between a productive corporate employee and individual creativity in Organization Man, rallying against the use of personality tests by companies in the hiring of new employees. But Whyte went even further, interviewing not just the corporate managers for his research, but the workers themselves, both men and women, and it was at that moment when he was first introduced to the phenomenon that is the American suburb, a subject which would become his full time occupation for the rest of his life.
What Whyte was most astonished to learn was how modern planning seemed to reject everything about the City that was to be celebrated, including the integration of various ethnic groups and working classes. Such tenets that “density was bad, crowded cities were unhealthy, and people on the streets should be feared,” were presumptions that had been assumed more than tested, and simply followed as scripture by the city officials and developers of the day, such that a new set of voices was needed to speak on behalf of the person on the street.
Such was the raison d’etre for Whyte’s next book, The Exploding Metropolis, for which he asked several current thinkers and writers to contribute essays. Among the essayists was Jane Jacobs, whose critical essay “Downtown is for People” raised the ire of developers who were looking to remove inner city buildings and infrastructure, to replace them with new urban renewal projects, including the Rockefellers as they prepared to build their new Lincoln Center, and later on Robert Moses’ freeway projects.
As has become more and more evident in our post-George Floyd age, these projects were almost always discrimination disguised as gentrification, displacing poorer disadvantaged communities to the benefit of the privileged class. It is a conversation that continues to this day, i.e. who gets to live in our cities? And Whyte and Jacobs were there at the onset of the problem, noting in the opening pages of The Exploding Metropolis: “more and more, the city is becoming a place of extremes – a place for the very poor, or the very rich, or the slightly odd.” One reviewer at the time of the book’s publishing remarked in 1959 that it was “the first blink of the fire-warning light in the aircraft cockpit.”
The urban renewal projects that took place in the US and Canada between the 1950s and the 70s are coming again to the mainstream conversation, shining a light on those communities that were discriminated against in the name of urban planning. This includes the African American neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley in inner-city Vancouver that was all but eradicated when the Georgia Viaducts were built through the neighbourhood, an event that has been recalled this Black History month. Rein reminds us in his book how forward-thinking visionaries like Whyte could see the writing on the wall, and used his own words in his own books to dislodge complacency and conformity, especially in the construction of the urban realm.
American Urbanist comes at a pivotal time in human history when critical thinkers are desperately needed, especially how we combine environmental and cultural agendas, and how the yet understood technologies we are bombarded with on a daily basis—Midjouney and ChatGPT just the latest buzz—such that we would do well to heed Whyte’s advice to constantly question that which the masses takes for granted.
As Rein shows us here, without Whyte there may very well have been no Jane Jacobs along with many others who followed in his footsteps, as he was looking at problems of urban sprawl, gentrification, and even the missing middle before anyone else knew these were even issues. Representing an astonishing body of research on an important commentator and urban philosopher on the modern city, Rein’s book will be quite at home on the bookshelves of planners and architects alike.
And whether we now work from home or live for our work, are in fear of missing out or isolated out of fear of the masses, Whyte’s declarations that the voices of all classes and races need to be heard in our public realms continue to resonate today, whether in bricks and mortar or in the metaverse.
For more information on American Urbanist, go to the Island Press website.
Sean Ruthen is a Metro Vancouver-based architect.