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A Contribution to Anonymous History

A Review of Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A transnational life in urban planning and design by Ellen Shoshkes
David Peleman

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

expert, urbanisme, biographie

Index by keyword :

expert, urban planning, biography

Indice de palabras clave :

experto, urbanismo, biografía

Schlagwortindex :

Experte, Stadtplanung, Biografie

Parole chiave :

esperto, urbanismo, biografia

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle

Personnes citées :

Tyrwhitt Jacqueline (1905-1983)
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Ellen Shoshkes, Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A transnational life in urban planning and design, Farnham: As (...)
  • 2 Ibid., p. 105, 106, 109.
  • 3 Ellen Shoshkes, “Jaqueline Tyrwhitt and transnational discourse on modern urban planning and desig (...)

1“A contribution to anonymous history” is the often neglected or forgotten subtitle of Sigfried Giedion’s seminal book Mechanization Takes Command. When it was published in 1948, one of the first persons to receive a copy was Jaqueline Tyrwhitt. She was a close and intimate friend of Giedion—he considered her as somebody “of the same mind”1—and behind the scenes she had been involved in preparing his texts for publication, exchanging ideas with him and suggesting corrections to what she described as his “cumbersome English”.2 This position behind the scenes is characteristic of the majority of Tyrwhitt’s career as an urban planner, educator, editor and writer. According to Ellen Shoshkes, Tyrwhitt was a woman who “willingly subordinated her energies to the service of others”, as “the woman behind the man”.3 This life in the service of others, and in particular in the service of urban planning and design, has now been described in a comprehensive and meticulous way in Ellen Shoshkes’ book Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A transnational life in urban planning and design—a book which could have easily been bolstered by the same subtitle as Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command.

  • 4 Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait, “Introduction: Transporting planning,” in Joe Nasr and Mercedes Vola (...)

2The importance of Shoshkes’ book is not limited to the description of Tyrwhitt’s intriguing professional life. In fact it far exceeds the strict perimeter of the biography of an urban planner, and not only in the transnational sense—as the title suggests. The book contributes to an enriched understanding of an urban planning discipline that managed to put itself prominently on the agenda in the rapidly changing world of the mid-twentieth century. An urban planning world that was no longer limited to the West, but was gradually becoming involved in the furthest corners of the different continents, which were increasingly being confronted with Western culture, ideas and practices. The urban planning discipline was formed and informed by what was happening across the planet with Tyrwhitt playing a key role in this process. She wrote down, edited or rephrased the words of some of the most prominent personalities who steered this new and global urban design discipline—for example Constantinos Doxiadis and Josep Lluis Sert with whom she closely collaborated. In that sense one could argue Tyrwhitt was perhaps first and foremost the “ventriloquist” of an emerging discipline with global ambitions rather than the “woman behind the man”. Although she stayed out of the spotlight, her opinions could be read in her articles about projects around the world. This particular role forces the reader of Shoshkes’ book to reconsider the idea that urbanism or urban planning was a discipline exported from the West to the rest of the world or, vice versa, imported from the “periphery” to the West. As already suggested in 2003 by Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait, Shoshkes’ research on Tyrwhitt also demonstrates how the planning discipline was shaped by confrontations and negotiations with a variety of actors, both foreign and local.4 In other words, Ellen Shoshkes’ book on the work of Jaqueline Tyrwhitt presents a different reading of the emergence of urban planning on a global scale. A very personal one, we should add, since the book is to a large extent based on Tyrwhitt’s notes in her diaries, travel journals and correspondence, tracing her life in urban planning and design.

  • 5 Ellen Shoshkes, op. cit. (note 1), p. 26.

3It is a journey that starts with Tyrwhitt’s birth in South Africa in 1905, as the daughter of an architect who was involved in the reconstruction of the country’s civic infrastructure after the South African Boer War (1899–1902). The story ends in 1972, the year in which the tenth and last DELOS conference took place and when she quit her full-time job as editor of Doxiadis’ journal Ekistics—a job which had allowed her to remain intellectually involved in the planning discipline after she had retired from Harvard in 1969 at the age of 64. The chapters of Shoshkes’ book chronologically present the various phases in Tyrwhitt’s life as an urban planner. The first part (1905–1940) traces her youth, her studies in architecture at the AA School in London during the mid-1920s and her first steps towards regional and town planning. The second part (1941–1945) reveals Tyrwhitt as a dedicated and engaged urban planner working for the Association for Planning and Regional Reconstruction (APRR), finding pleasure in drawing refined maps for the post-war reconstruction of Britain, as well as teaching future planners who would become responsible for the reconstruction “in the field,” across the UK. Part three (1945–9) follows Tyrwhitt across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where she gave numerous lectures and established an extensive network in the academic world, further exploring the knowledge and expertise she had built up during the war with the APRR. It is also the period in which Tyrwhitt published on a wide variety of subjects related to urban planning, for example, Trees for Town and Country: A selection of sixty trees suitable for general cultivation in England (1947) or Patrick Geddes in India (1947). In part four (1949–1956) Tyrwhitt moves back and forth between Europe and the United States, working behind the scenes of the CIAM conferences, teaching, contributing to various UN projects, such as the exhibition on low cost housing that she curated in New Delhi in 1954, while continuously keeping in mind the work of Patrick Geddes as an intellectual guide—after Geddes’ Cities in Evolution kindled her interest in town planning in the mid-1930s.5 Part five (1955–1972) mainly documents the work of Tyrwhitt at the Harvard Graduate School of Design—where she collaborated with Josep Lluis Sert—and her work for Constantinos Doxiadis.

  • 6 Ibid., p. 186.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 183.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 184.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 186.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 192.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 188–189.

4Over the five parts and sixteen chapters of the book, Shoshkes presents a portrait of Tyrwhitt as someone who gradually grows towards becoming a “global citizen”. Closely intertwined in a worldwide web of experts and intellectuals—including Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, László Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, Ove Arup, Geoffrey Jellicoe and Marshall McLuhan—she gathered knowledge through discussions with these people all over the planet. Shoshkes’ discussion points out that, despite the academic positions she often held, Tyrwhitt's personal goal never was to become the kind of intellectual figure who represented or embodied all this knowledge. Rather, she remained a catalyst, gathering knowledge, filtering out what was most relevant, and disseminating it further to a worldwide audience. As she was “adept at mobilizing ‘the collective brain,’ Tyrwhitt was unconcerned with the ‘ownership’ of ideas,” as Shoshkes beautifully expresses it.6 This is perfectly illustrated by the passage discussing Doxiadis’ request that Tyrwhitt take the responsibility for a monthly magazine that would educate and inform the staff of Doxiadis Associates. Shoshkes notes how “she accepted, but with a condition: the bulletin would also be sent to UN experts working in developing countries”.7 This bulletin was published for the first time in 1955 as the Tropical Housing & Planning Monthly Bulletin—later known as Ekistics—and was used by Tyrwhitt “to disseminate UN documents not otherwise easily available” and to formulate her own comments on urban planning projects and policies.8 Tyrwhitt played a similar role at the Urban Design conferences which she organized for Sert at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), where she “stayed behind the scenes, drafting the resolutions that were voted on, taking notes of the proceedings, and editing the reports”.9 It is an attitude that can also be traced in the various tasks she took upon herself during the 1950s and 1960s. For example in her urban design courses at Harvard, she tried to take advantage of the presence of students from Japan, China and India, “to bring non-Western perspectives into the discussion.” For, as Shoshkes writes, “Tyrwhitt helped build the seminar as a platform to weave the CIAM line of thought into a broader discourse on urban design that incorporated a new, global dimension.”10 In other words, Tyrwhitt helped to establish a dialogue between different cultures, not simply for the sake of exporting urban planning from the West or importing some “authentic” knowledge from the “periphery”. It rather seemed that, in a true Geddesian spirit, she was concerned about the shape of our cities on a worldwide scale. In a paper cowritten with Sert for a UN seminar on regional planning in Tokyo in 1958, they expressed how they hoped to “bring to light some aspects of the shaping of man's urban environment which are common to all cultures”.11 In this search for a common denominator in urban projects from all over the world, Tyrwhitt made what is perhaps her most explicit contribution to writing an anonymous history, as many of these designs so far have remained outside the canon of modern architecture and urban design. But Shoshkes’ book testifies that Tyrwhitt was simultaneously a leading protagonist in producing a large part of that very history.

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1 Ellen Shoshkes, Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A transnational life in urban planning and design, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2013 (Design and the build environment series), p. 105.

2 Ibid., p. 105, 106, 109.

3 Ellen Shoshkes, “Jaqueline Tyrwhitt and transnational discourse on modern urban planning and design, 1941–1951,” Urban History, vol. 36, no. 2, 2009, p. 262.

4 Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait, “Introduction: Transporting planning,” in Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait (eds.), Urbanism. Imported or exported? Native aspirations and foreign plans, Chichester; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Academy, 2003, p. xi–xxxi.

5 Ellen Shoshkes, op. cit. (note 1), p. 26.

6 Ibid., p. 186.

7 Ibid., p. 183.

8 Ibid., p. 184.

9 Ibid., p. 186.

10 Ibid., p. 192.

11 Ibid., p. 188–189.

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Référence électronique

David Peleman, « A Contribution to Anonymous History », ABE Journal [En ligne], 4 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2014, consulté le 25 septembre 2017. URL :

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David Peleman

Post-doctoral researcher, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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