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Annmarie Adams on A City for Children

16 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2016) review ‘A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850–1950, Planning Perspectives, December 2015, 138-140

Marta Gutman’s A City for Children is a monumental achievement about non-monumental architecture. The book is monumental because it explores an entire century of children’s architecture in a single place, Oakland, California. Unlike most monuments, however, buildings for children remain largely invisible in our cities and histories. Gutman’s achievement is to uncover the complex landscape designed and re-designed to support children, explaining how these hidden spaces functioned and why they matter.

Her methodologies draw from architectural and social history, women’s studies, and cultural geography. Trained as an architect and architectural historian, Gutman privileges spatial and material evidence: images of buildings, site and building plans, and photographs. In fact, A City of Children is a revised version of her 2000 PhD dissertation undertaken in the Department of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. After finishing the thesis, Gutman added substantially to the original study, resulting in a final book with nine chapters on multiple building types for kids: a home for single mothers and their children, kindergartens, settlement houses, playgrounds and recreation centres, and day nurseries.

Historians of childhood will find Gutman’s focus on fieldwork particularly innovative. Fieldwork in this sense means visiting, knowing, measuring, and drawing the real spaces at the core of the project. Tellingly, the study originated in a ‘real-world’ project funded by Cal-Trans after the Cypress Freeway collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Such hands-on history is a crucial aspect of vernacular architecture studies, a subfield of architectural history that concentrates on ordinary rather than extraordinary places and has gained considerable momentum since the 1980s.

The best parts of Gutman’s book are where she operationalises her vernacular architecture fieldwork in measured drawings and reconstructed sections, rendering hard-to-see places of the past visible for readers today. For example, in chapter four she synthesises information from a range of sources in crisp measured plans that trace the evolution of the West Oakland Home from 1882 to 1912. What began in 1885 as dressmaker Rebecca McWade’s modest East Oakland home for abandoned children and illegitimate babies transformed over a generation in to an altered house and a purpose-built dormitory for 100 kids.

Annmarie Adams on A City for Children

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2016) review ‘A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850–1950’, Planning Perspectives, December 2015, 138-140