Book Review: Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design
Ashgate, Farnham, 2013.
By Ellen Shoshkes
44 black and white figures
What an extraordinary life. This biography carefully chronicles and assembles (in some detail) the life and career of one of the forgotten heroines of the twentieth century planning world. Forgotten is perhaps too strong, as Tyrwhitt is one of those figures that ‘crops up’ rather regularly; aspects of her work are frequently mentioned in conference presentations or cited in journal articles, but she is never the focus of attention despite being, as Shoshkes reveals, a global player. Indeed she is almost omnipresent throughout the planning sphere of the twentieth century when one reads the amount of work she facilitated and the influence she held over publications, translations, lecture courses, planning strategy, international housing and development programmes. Furthermore, she also undertook considerable research into urbanism and planning, yet this is the first volume to draw all these twists and turns together. A good biography is able to not only describe and discuss the person in question, but to also pull in the wider debates and to position the life and works within a broader context – this book manages to effortlessly achieve this feat and is to be commended for it. The narrative adopts a chronological format split over five parts, which neatly track the major episodes of Tyrwhitt’s life. Perhaps one of the reasons for Tyrwhitt’s relative obscurity is because she didn’t have a career in the conventional sense, but rather careered through life bouncing from one project to the next, barely making ends meet. She was also a woman, unmarried, sometimes unkempt, and seemed to care for little beyond friendships and her work. She didn’t establish her own practice or publish provocative tracts, rather operated in a supporting role for the likes of Jose Luis Sert, Sigfried Giedion and Constantinos Doxiadis. As a planner, she left few tangible remains and was not concerned with formulating her legacy as some of her more egotistical collaborators were. She was more focused on getting the job done and took on the important tasks of organising, facilitating and disseminating findings, often with little appreciation from those she made look exceptional. One of her most prolonged and significant roles was translating Giedion’s epic publications, although to label Tyrwhitt’s contribution as a translator somewhat undersells her contribution. She was really a co-author and collaborator, honing Giedion’s ideas and clarifying his arguments – as well as translating them into English. She had a longterm friendship with Giedion which may have strayed into romance, but even this collaboration had its limits and Tyrwhitt stopped working with Giedion long after what most associates would have endured or put up with. Throughout her life there were strong male characters that she supported and encouraged but in the course of time these roles were often inverted and they became dependent on Tyrwhitt.
Although one may know something of Tyrwhitt’s life and work (most planners will be aware of the book she edited on Patrick Geddes in India, for example) this book reveals so much more, and it is very surprising just how far and wide she worked and travelled. One of the more shocking revelations is Tyrwhitt’s involvement with the British Fascists and her decision to experience Hitler’s Germany firsthand in 1937. Very little is said about Tyrwhitt’s political persuasions in later life, but judging from the company she kept it can be safe to assume that she ‘mellowed’ from her early flirtations with the political Right. Her work with the UN in India and Indonesia is another significant aspect of the book and adds new insight into the international agencies that operated in the post-war era. The sources are drawn from numerous archives and the research is detailed and thorough; although very little critical appraisal of Tyrwhitt’s work is made – was any of it implemented, or did any of her students put it into practice? Perhaps an epilogue of influence could have been added as a reprise or conclusion, but this is surely minor criticism of what is a substantial and valuable contribution.
This is a welcome volume to the history of twentieth century architecture and planning; it fills so many gaps, opens up new connections and networks, and goes someway to finally giving Jacky the credit she deserves for a lifetime’s concerted effort to improving and understanding our cities and landscapes.