Werner Hegemann and the Search for Universal Urbanism By Christiane Crasemann Collins
W.W. Norton & Company, 2005, 417 pp., hardcover $50. I first heard of Werner Hegemann around 1988, when his greatest book, The American Vitruvius: An Architects’ Handbook of Civic Art, was republished by Princeton Architectural Press after decades of being out of print and virtually unknown. American Vitruvius is extraordinary — filled with 1,203 plans, elevations, and perspective views of European and American cities from the Renaissance to the 20th century, accompanied by succinct, intelligent comments. Andres Duany was so taken with American Vitruvius — produced by Hegemann and Elbert Peets in 1922 — that he set about compiling a successor volume, The New Civic Art: Elements of Town Planning (reviewed in the Dec. 2003 New Urban News). A German-born urban thinker who had a following on both sides of the Atlantic, Hegemann led the initial planning of Kohler, Wisconsin, and collaborated on laying out the beautiful Washington Highlands development in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin and the graceful Wyomissing Park in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the 1910s. He had an instinct for designs that were both artful and functional, yet once the Modern Movement took command, he was forgotten for more than 50 years. Now, at last, a biography of Hegemann has been published. Educated in Germany and Paris and at the University of Pennsylvania, Hegemann lectured or consulted in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Denver, Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and many places in between. World War I broke out while he was traveling around the globe, so he ended up stranded on a German ship off Portuguese Mozambique for nine months before managing to stow away on a Norwegian ship. Three months later he reached the US, not returning to Europe until 1921. When he did resume his career in Germany, he became an outspoken critic — and not just on design matters — with the result that in 1933 the Nazis forced him to flee to the US for good. He died in New York three years later, aged 54. One of Hegemann’s most astute decisions, in 1915, was inviting Peets, a young Harvard-trained landscape architect, to become his partner. They worked on the model industrial village of Kohler, but Hegemann antagonized industrialist-patron Walter J. Kohler, so the Olmsted Brothers ended up getting the job, and “Hegemann & Peets’s initial work was expunged” from Kohler Company publicity, according to Christiane Crasemann Collins, a historian of contemporary architecture and city planning. In 1917 Hegemann and Peets produced the plan that turned the Pabst Farm in suburban Milwaukee into a gorgeous 133-acre residential development called Washington Highlands. The same year, with Joseph Hudnut, they started designing the “modern garden suburb” of Wyomissing Park, calling for a horseshoe-shaped two-story business center, a mix of straight and curving streets, and groupings of worker housing around courts and squares. Hegemann was open to some modernist ideas but was also influenced by Camillo Sitte and picturesque design. His appreciation of traditional city-building patterns meant, unfortunately, that after a fierce modernist ideology conquered the design professions and the schools, Hegemann and his contributions would be ignored — until New Urbanism, with its interest in useful historical techniques, arose. Collins’s book provides too many minutiae, too little exploration of the meaning of Hegemann’s life, and too little judgment on where he was right and where he was wrong. The index is frustratingly sparse. Readers will need patience. Even so, this book is a step toward reclaiming a notable figure. P.L.