Centenary Celebration of William H. Whyte, Sage of the City (1917 – 1999).



Images of Whyte as investigative journalist for Fortune and people watcher with his Street Life Project.

Session Chair: Miriam Fitzpatrick

Miriam Fitzpatrick is a lecturer in Architecture at WIT and in Urban Design at UCD. She graduated in Architecture from UCD, holds a Masters from the LSE’s Cities Programme and is currently pursuing a PhD at UCD. She previously worked for international design firms, including Grimshaws and Fielden Clegg Bradley architects in London, Diamond Schmitt Architect in Toronto and Sasaki Associates in Boston. She was a founding member of English Heritage’s Urban Panel and a Board member of The Heritage Council, Ireland. She is writing a biography on Holly Whyte.

Citizen-Spectator: William H. Whyte at the Seagram Building.

McLain Clutter, University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture.
This essay chronicles a 1972 study of the effects of New York City’s 1960 zoning policy that granted developers a floor-area-ratio bonus for providing plaza space at the ground level. Mayor Lindsay’s Planning Commission asked William Whyte, an urbanist and sociologist who had previous worked with the Commission on the 1969 Plan for New York City, to conduct the study. The essay contends that Whyte’s prior experience with Lindsay’s Planning Commission was formative of his methodological approach. Isolating the plaza at Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building as an exemplar worthy of study, Whyte’s methods entailed the use of stationary and hand-held film cameras to monitor the daily activities and occupations of the plaza. Whyte then analyzed his film footage and made suggestions for improvements to the Planning Commission based on his filmic observations.
This essay contextualizes Whyte’s study within his larger intellectual disposition, analyzes his description of the Seagram study, and provides a formal analysis of qualities he may have observed at the Seagram Building. The essay contends that because Whyte privileged film as a medium for observation, his design suggestions implicated plaza spaces that provide a physical environment from which thesurrounding city can be figured as a proto-cinematic experience—an experience meeting the expectations of urban subjects first exposed to New York enabled through policy drafted by Lindsay Administration to drawn film and television production to New York. Whyte’s suggestions were implemented in a 1975 revision to the city’s incentive zoning policy. Thus the spatial qualities he isolated are
common throughout New York City.


Inhabiting the Fragments: A Visual Ethnography of Bangkok’s Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Kisnaphol Wattanawanyoo, The Bartlett DPU, UCL.

Taken the influence by William H. Whyte’s insights and legacies, this paper investigates into the small fragmented urban spaces of Bangkok – the capital city of Thailand, with the focus on the public spaces in relation to the people’s everyday life and their social interaction. The paper has two objectives: 1) To illustrate the various fragmented urban spaces and their typologies; and 2) To understand how the ordinary inhabitants/citizens occupy and use those spaces, and also how they adapt/ appropriate and recreate those spaces with their (extra)ordinary interventions. Visual ethnography and observation are the key method in data/information gathering. As a result, this will render some of the hidden and overlooked aspects of social life and the peoples’ interactions.
This paper reaffirms that observation is an important skill in urban design and planning, as Whyte demonstrated in his seminal works. In order to design/plan any urban spaces usefully, aesthetically and meaningfully, designers/ planners has to take into account and pay a great attention to observe the activities and things happening around them which are right in front of their noses (Whyte 1980). Some of the findings will suggest that the fragmented spaces are always open to the people/inhabitants’ intervention and appropriation as to make the full use and meaning as well as to create more humane place for social life and interaction. This paper will further argue that the citizen/inhabitant has a major role in designing/redesigning the urban public spaces, which many times the expert and professionals failed to deliver a suitable solution. The ordinary people/ the
non-expert have subtle and adaptive/responsive ways in designing/ making the urban spaces and creatively transforming the public spaces in their own way, and thus collaborate in a wider contribution to the city making and sustaining the thriving urban life of the city.
Closing a Hermeneutic Circle for Urbanity; Whyte’s Altering Perspectives on New York 1968 – 1970.
Miriam Fitzpatrick, Waterford Institute of Technology.
Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above; they come out of struggles from below. Rational discussion is useful only when there is a significant base of shared assumptions…..if you want to achieve something, you build the basis for it.
Noam Chomsky
William Hollingsworth Whyte Jr. quest was to rebuild a basis for the everyday livability of cities. This paper will examine how he achieved this against the tumultuous background of New York between 1968 and 1970. His ‘keen eye for both the telling detail and the “big picture” was central to his success[1]. As an urbanist, organizational analyst, New Yorker and urban intellectual, Whyte’s measure of planning at one scale drove him to examine its impact on the vitality of life at many other urban scales.
‘Looking at the city from different perspectives’ was central to Whyte’s urban literacy and to how he could contextualize decisions or policies so that ‘non-specialist readers, citizens, would understand their importance’[2]. It made him one of the most prescient critics of city planning mid century. To document his skill as an urban observer from edge to city center, this research delves into a transition in Whyte’s approach from the big picture to the telling detail. Focusing on 1968 to 1970 captures an important career turn from a role operating as a National Advisor on open space to a life as a viscerally- engaged empirical researcher of street-corners once he sets up his fieldwork group The Street Life Project. Placing Whyte’s work within a hermeneutic circle, this paper examines the relevance of Whyte’s shifting foci as an essential measure of the Urban Intellectual.
1 LaFarge, Ed., The Essential William Whyte. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000: 115
2 Little, Charles E., in Platt, Rutherford, The Humane Metropolis, (Amherst; Uni of Massachusetts Press) p34