We talked to
Volker Welter, author of Biopolis, Patrick Geddes and the City of Life.

Volker M. Welter is an architectural historian, who has studied and worked in Berlin, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. Currently, he teaches architectural history and theory at the Department of History of Art & Architecture at the University of Reading. From 1995-1998 he was assistant archivist at Strathclyde University Archives, Glasgow, where he was in charge of completing the catalogue of The Papers of Sir Patrick Geddes (6 vols., Glasgow, 1999). From 1998-2000 he was, at the University of Edinburgh, a co-recipient of a Senior Research Grant of the Getty Grant Program, Los Angeles, for a research project entitled The Spirit of the City in Modernity. At the same time he was the Director of the Patrick Geddes Centre, Edinburgh University. His most recent books are The City after Patrick Geddes (co-editor, Peter Lang, 2000) and Biopolis - Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (MIT Press, 2002).

PGCO.UK: First of all, congratulations on such a provocative and interesting piece of work on Geddes. A fine achievement and a beautiful publication. Are you happy with the finished book? And, what are you working on now - where has this research taken you?

Volker: Many thanks for the compliments on the book which I wish to share with my publisher, the MIT Press, and its staff who have done an amazing job. Obviously, I am extremely pleased with the outcome and hope that readers will enjoy the book. The publication of "Biopolis" almost marks the end of my work on Geddes, although I am currently completing one more book on Geddes, viz. on his work for the Zionist movement in Palestine, especially his design of the masterplan for Tel Aviv (1925, realised) and his design for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1919, unrealised). Beyond this, I am now working on different projects, amongst them an academic study on Ernst Freud (1892-1970), an architect son of Sigmund Freud. Interestingly, Freud briefly collaborated with Geddes and his son-in-law, Frank Mears, on a small aspect of the master plan for the Hebrew University. But as Ernst Freud was a modern architect, his suggestion did not find much favour with the two Scotsmen. However, the engagement with Geddesian theory will continue to have some influence on my further work. For example, I have begun a new project on the phenomenology of cities, on the way architects have visually analysed and planned the city in the twentieth century, an interest that can be traced back, in parts at least, to Geddes's "Cities and Town Planning Exhibition" and his diagrams, for example the "Notation of Life".

PGCO.UK: How does the book relate to your Doctorate? Was it difficult to disentangle the two, or were they quite separate projects?

Volker: The PhD dissertation forms the basis for "Biopolis", and actually, the book follows the doctorate closely regarding structure and contents. Omitted from the book are some sections on Geddes's work in Edinburgh, which are of lesser interest for a theoretical understanding of his theory of the city. Furthermore, although I researched various of Geddes's urban intervention in Edinburgh, this whole area of his work remains basically under-researched. In order to fully understand Geddes's influence in Edinburgh and Scotland, detailed studies would be required, for example a history and analysis of Geddes's masterplan for Edinburgh Zoo which Geddes conceived as a "valley section". Equally fascinating would be a study of the redistribution and separation of the social classes—with the lower classes mainly at the Holyrood end and the middle classes at the Lawn Market end of the Royal Mile—Geddes intended with his various housing projects in Edinburgh's Old Town. Even the Outlook Tower, although having been subject of various master theses, invites further research, for example a reconstruction of its contents, floor by floor, room by room. But there are other researchers working on Geddes—one of the most interesting ones is currently the architect and architectural historian Pierre Chabard in Paris—and so hopefully further academic publications about Geddes will be published.

PG.CO.UK: You focus on a much ignored or belittled area of Geddes's work, the City as and Spirituality. You hint that this area has been seen as an eccentricity but is in fact central to understanding Patrick Geddes. These twin themes of evolution and spirituality (or ethics) seem to be the bridge between the world of fin de siècle Europe and our own post-modern biotechnological world. Would you agree?

Volker: This question requires a longer answer in several steps. First, I don't agree that evolution and spirituality, or ethics as you say, are twin themes. They may have been for Geddes who, in accordance with thinking of his time, wished to find some ethical principle in evolution. However, at their most basic, Darwinian understanding, natural selection and evolution are totally arbitrary processes that do not lead to, or even require, any teleological goal.

That Geddes never accepted that shows how much he was a man of the nineteenth century, the century that had dethroned God and traditional religions, but then could not face the void at the centre of society and in personal lives. Second, Geddes was not an exception in occupying himself with such architectural realisations of ideas of spirituality as his various temple schemes represent. All over continental Europe we can find similar ideas between the late 1880s and the 1920s; some architectural historians would even argue to include the 1930s, for example National-socialist designs for urban centres and their mis-en-scène for mass rallies and other party festivities. Thus put into a contemporary context wider than Scottish and/or British, Geddes's temples for Greek Gods and gardens for Greek Muses are not eccentric, but a sign of their time. Third, these schemes are central to my analysis of Geddes's theory of the city not only because of their architecture but because they are important to the understanding of the middle class way of negotiating reality of modern society especially if - as Geddes has done that bourgeois mind rejects notions of class and class conflict.

As Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno emphasise in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944): "Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology." Fourth, I disagree with your suggestion that Geddes's interest in evolution and spirituality (or ethics) can be seen as a bridge between the fin-de-siècle Europe and, as you write, "our own post-modern biotechnological world". Such connection implies that there is a lasting Geddesian legacy or even that he may have something to teach us today. I am afraid, I don't subscribe to the notion that human beings can be ahead-of-their-time. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have analysed with great wit in The German Ideology (1845-46) human beings usually respond in both deeds and thoughts to issues raised by their own time and contemporary circumstances.

PG.CO.UK: You also focus on, the City as an Ideal - and the utopian and eutopian aspect of Geddes's thinking. Do you believe that Geddes's practical works (conservation, town planning etc) have overshadowed his theoretical vision?

Volker: For Geddes, theory and practice went hand in hand; for many of Geddes's followers and/or biographers it did not necessarily. Instead, at different times since his death, the interest in Geddes's work and thought was inspired by varying contemporary issues. Compare, for example, the emphasis many mid-twentieth-century modern architects put on Geddes as a "father" of modern post-war town planning with the Geddes the environmental movement discovered in the 1970s and 1980s as one of its predecessors figures. Thus two almost diametrically opposed approaches to humankind's engagement with the environment refer to Geddes. Obviously, the points of references differ, but in either case they are isolated from the larger body of theory Geddes aimed to formulate. It is this kind of purposefully selective approach to Geddes that I tried to avoid in my book on his theory of the city—the readers' reactions will tell me how well I have succeeded.

PG.CO.UK: You touch on Geddes's involvement with William James ("From Individual to Communal Psychology") - do you wish you had more time to explore Geddes's work with James and Bergson? Or, put another way, isn't the rise of psychology during this period a key aspect of Geddes's modernism?

Volker: Yes, Geddes's modernism draws strongly on contemporary psychology which, in turn, was a common theme since intellectuals began debating the relation between psychology, modernism and modernity during the 19th century. Recall Baudelaire's idea about the modern as the fleeing, ever changing, or the essay "The Metropolis and the Mental Life" (1903) by the German sociologist Georg Simmel; an essay Geddes seems not to have known. Likewise, the concept of memory and the recovery of a past of which sight had been lost in the turbulences of modern, hectic life was a sign of the times, witness Sigmund Freud, but also the French urbanist Marcel Poëte and others. It was urban thinkers such as Poëte and Geddes's who aimed at transferring some of these contemporary psychological ideas into the debate about the city, into urban planning and architectural design.

PG.CO.UK: Many people in Scotland obsess about whether Geddes is, or isn't recognised. What's your view of this debate?

Volker: I would like to ask you back to please explain what is actually meant by Geddes being recognised or not? By whom and, more important, what for? Within architectural and urban planning circles Geddes finds as much and as varied interest as many other figure of the early twentieth century. If at all and why this should be different amongst historians of Scottish culture, art, and history I really cannot answer. Judged by the number of academic publications and references to Geddes's ideas and work, and such more popular activities as memorial plaques and events, I don't think that there is a significant neglect of Geddes as a fascinating historical figure and thinker of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

PG.CO.UK: You seem to be at times, as many of his colleagues and friends were, exasperated with Geddes, writing: "In retrospect, his many repetitive temple schemes reveal themselves as an optimistic but at the same time desperate - series of attempts to realise at least once, somewhere, somehow, a built manifestation of an idea of life he had conceived, which was a utopian idea despite all his efforts to derive it from social, regional and scientific realities." (p.232 Biopolis) Can you say any more about your evaluation of his contribution to planning, architecture and other disciplines?

Volker: Exasperated does not quite seem to be the right word. However, I find it amazing that Geddes appears to have had so little self-doubt, so little questioning of his own ideas and plans—at least as far as architecture and urban design was concerned. If you write planning report after planning report, and they hardly ever seem to be implemented, or at least what is central to most of his planning schemes, the cultural-educational complex, seems to never have been realised, well, then I think it is justified to ask what is all this about? Even more, to ask how far Geddes was actually in touch with his contemporaries and their needs, problems, and dreams? Was he just pursuing an idée fix or was he answering contemporary needs and questions? To assess in greater detail Geddes's contribution to planning and architecture would require further study. Very little is actually known about Geddes's work in India and what is today Pakistan; the late Giovanni Ferraro's most important study barely manages to scratch the surface of this immensely important area of Geddes's work. His work in Palestine is better researched, but what about Paris and Montpellier? His influence in the 1940s and 1950s the Patrick Geddes Centre at Edinburgh University aimed at assessing with the 1998 conference The City after Patrick Geddes and the subsequent publication of the conference papers under the same title in 2000. However, on a more theoretical level I hope my own study will allow for a better assessment of Geddes's position within the history of the emergence of modern planning and the debate about the city. Geddes is a very important figure in this field because he defies the simplistic assumption that the debate about the modern city was all about rationality, efficiency and utilitarian concepts of organising urban space and society.

PG.CO.UK: Can you explain further why you choose the temple schemes as the focus of your test-bed for Geddes’s "success" or "failure"?

Volker: Actually, it is Geddes who has made the temple schemes to a gauge of failure or success. As I quote on pages 175-176, Geddes once wrote that "the social & political reformer has always to state and re-state his ideas, long before he forms that resolute minority, which by restating these ideas more widely still - persuades a sufficient majority to [adopt] them." Thus it is Geddes himself who declares his temple schemes - because they are the ideas he refers to in above quote—to be a central point around which his theory of the city revolves. And considering that to my knowledge none of his temples was ever realised, his ideas were more failure than success. Nevertheless, that of course leaves his ideas intact and thus open to discussion. My interest in his temple schemes was initially determined by my own architectural historical training in Germany where there was a movement immediately after the First World War which is called Expressionism in architecture. One characteristic of this movement were utopian temple schemes at the heart of future cities, and you can imagine my excitement when I began to understand that Geddes had proposed something similar 30 years earlier, even though less sophisticated in architectural form. Suddenly, Geddes opened up a way to comprehend a phenomenon we can find in German and Dutch and other continental European countries, not because he was a genius, but because he was deeply involved with his contemporaries all over Europe.

PG.CO.UK: You’ve remarked on the fact that the lack of a defining written work by Geddes has left his legacy to invite regular rediscovery. You’ve said that: "Attempts to cast him as an early forerunner of late twentieth century concerns such as regionalism, environmentalism, or conservation of historic architecture not only tend to obscure the contents of his ideas but to turn them into their very opposite." While it is clear that Geddes’s conservation ethic has been exaggerated in preservation, it’s not so clear in what ways he was not an early forerunner of regionalism or of environmentalism? I’m thinking in particular of his relationship to the work of Elisee Reclus’ work "The History of a Brook" and of his thinking on technology and so on? In other words, its interesting to ask why Geddes is so misunderstood. Is this because a modern audience conflates "civic renascence" with the garden city movement? Is it because of a partial interpretation by Boardman? Is it a collective projection on behalf of those drawn to Geddes, or is it that he is just not what he appears to be?

Volker: Well, if Geddes would have written a manual for town planning, a hand book for urban design as many of his German and Continental European contemporaries for example have done, he probably would have been forgotten by today. But he did not and this, I think, is in retrospect his "advantage". Because his ideas are not laid down in a single book they are open to interpretation, both new and creative ones as well as misinterpretations such as the valley section that is so often reduced to a single valley bereft of any human settlements except the metropolitan city at the foot of the valley.

Or the conurbation which Geddes saw potentially as a positive development while today the term usually denotes human development of the earth gone wrong. My point is not to say that some of Geddes's ideas are not of possible interest today. But before the relevance of any idea or concept can be considered a painstaking factual reconstruction of such ideas is required. And that reconstruction of Geddes's thoughts appears to me to be often neglected - especially as Geddes does not offer a few well-written books, but a large heap of notes and papers and publications—in favour of rather simplistic claims that Geddes is a forerunner of all sorts of ideas of our own time. However, as mentioned before, as a historian I do not consider a continuous relevance of his ideas a necessary precondition to justify my own interest in Geddes or any other historical figure.

I would not say that Geddes is misunderstood, but would rather ask if he is understood in the first instance, especially if his ideas are looked at not within their own context of the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and only then within the circumstances of our age, but solely within the parameters set by our time.

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