Book Review: Diagramatically, Urban Infill Volume 5 by Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative

That diagrams are increasingly important representational tools for the practice of urban design seems indisputable, but it makes a provocative “Urban Infill” topic for precisely that reason. Modes and methods of representation are too often taken for granted in design practice, and anything more than shallow consideration paid to them is worthy of recognition. That being said, this particular representational device, the diagram, is exceedingly hard to pin down and its definitions are far from obvious. Avoiding the temptation to hazard any such definitions for the most part, this volume presents 17 perspectives from academics and practitioners alike. While a bit over-taxonomized (are six separate sections really necessary?), these essays illustrate a diversity of opinions, from the earnest to the instrumental. 

On the side of the earnest are several submissions concerning the social agency of diagrams, directly problematizing their ability to communicate design ideas to the broad constituencies with whom urban designers interact. While some of this group contain a bit too much altruism for my taste, others illuminate the versatility and power of even the most straightforward graphic representations. Of more interest to this reviewer are a few explorations of the often instrumental quality of diagrams. The work of many in this volume aims to reveal the diagram as not just an altruistic communicative tool but one whose purported transparency can in fact conceal underlying preconceptions and ideologies. Precious few, however, propose strategies for designers to overcome such instrumentalization.

All told, this volume sketches a broad outline of the practical, social and theoretical implications of diagrammatic drawing, and for that, CUDC should be commended. “Diagrammatically” will no doubt prove an invaluable resource for students of urban design – both in Cleveland and nationwide – for years to come.

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