Sociologists, Situationists, cyberpunks, connoisseurs of Archigram designs, SimCity games, Mister X comics, readers of Jane Jacobs, Reyner Banham, Manuel Castells, Rem Koolhaas, Mike Davis, Saskia Sassen or Sudhir Venkatesh – all share a singular fixation: the modern city. In his introduction, Gyan Prakash declares “cities are the principal landscapes of modernity.” Reading this collection of a dozen meditations on diverse metropolises, I find no reason to dispute a Princeton professor of history whose first name in Sanskrit means “knowledge” or “wisdom.”

The book examines Vienna, Los Angeles, Algiers, Marseille, Johannesburg, Baghdad, Mexico City, West Berlin, London, Dakar, Tokyo and Bombay. Anyone interested in these cities and urban theory will find much to discover within this book. Let me address the L.A. essays. Philip J. Ethington charts L.A.’s ascent as a global city with chapters in the lives of oilman Edward L. Doheny, author Edgar Rice Burroughs and MGM director W.S. Van Dyke.

Sarah Schrank centers her analysis on one landmark, the Watts Towers, the magnificent, enigmatic monument of urban detritus constructed over 33 years by Sabato (Simon) Rodia. Schrank traces the evolution of this folk-art masterpiece and city icon as artwork, tourist attraction and symbol of black and postwar Los Angeles. After the 1965 Watts Riot, the towers emerged as an emblem of the urban condition in Noah Purifoy’s “66 Signs of Neon” and Thomas Pynchon’s “A Journey into the Mind of Watts” and Rodia’s face appeared (right beside Bob Dylan's) on the Sgt. Pepper album cover.

Schrank’s scrupulous essay can articulate only so much. For anyone who hasn’t personally experienced the sight of Signor Rodia’s private act of municipal alchemy, his majestical transfiguration of city scrap into rebar spires and broken-glass mosaics, I implore you to make a pilgrimage to 1765 East 107th Street to genuflect upon a genuinely exceptional space of a modern city that both defines and transcends its setting.

Grade: B+

The Spaces of the Modern City is currently available.