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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 2 page 14


Okay, fine. With the transportation solved, Safdie can construct his ideal twenty-first century city region. It turns out to be a lot like today's megalopolis except much better. The suburbs remain — after all, many people covet a detached home and big sky — but Safdie's burbs are verdant and esthetic thanks to the invention of the eco-friendly space-saving U-car. When the suburbanites grow restless, they can zip over to one of the high-density concentrations ("interactive centres" Safdie dubs them in socio-architectural speak) that sprout at pre-meditated points through-out the region. Unlike the haphazard hubs dotting today's suburbs, Safdie's sub-cities are places of panache, engineered "to foster the spontaneous encounters so central to urban life."

Each sub-city contributes its special charisma to the mega-urban experience, yet each obeys the same plan: long and slender, built along a car-free main street stretching a mile or more under a retractable glass roof. You debark from a train or U-car at gates at either end. Inside, without fear of traffic, you stroll a grand corridor vibrant with shops and theatres and groovy apartments. Or you hitch a ride on a glass-encased conveyor that slides along the facades.

It's like a mega-Eaton Centre. As Safdie argues that the shopping mall should be more like a traditional city street, paved with stone, integrating schools and libraries, he also believes a city should be more like a mall. Still, what would the reality be? A steamy main street packed with wretched hordes under a malfunctioning, dripping roof?

Well, it's easy to be cynical, isn't it? Let Safdie's book be read. True, his preoccupation with the U.S. scene shifts his discourse somewhat off-centre for us. When Safdie laments the "white flight" to the suburbs to escape racial discord in "our ravaged inner cities", he's not describing us — not yet, at least. But in the end Safdie delivers a stimulating read that reveals some issues thinking architects wrestle with as they build the man-made world.

Aspects of Safdie's vision may come true. Though the U-cars are half-baked, some day there may be something fully-baked — rentable electric buggies, I expect, plying within tomorrow's mega-plexes and along the indoor main streets (alas, not vehicle-free after all) of tomorrow's gated, leaky-roofed sub-cities.