Obituary: William Whyte

WILLIAM WHYTE was an accomplished urbanologist and observer of corporate life whose best-selling book The Organization Man helped to define what it meant to be an employee of a large firm in the America of the Fifties. His thesis - that rugged US individualism and entrepreneurial spirit were being subsumed into the conformist norms of the corporate world - brought him widespread attention at a time when a number of searching works, including J.K. Galbraith's American Capitalism (1952), were questioning the wisdom of the prevailing social and economic structure.

Whyte suggested that the bold visions of individualists had been replaced by

the modest aspirations of organization men who lower their sights to achieve a good job with adequate pay and proper pension and a nice house in a pleasant community populated with people as nearly like themselves as possible.

Moreover, the modest ambitions of the organisational man had spread to academic and scientific institutions, and prevailed in white-collar homes in the suburbs then proliferating across America. "Most wives agreed with the corporation; they too felt that the good wife is the wife who adjusts graciously to the system, curbs open intellectualism or the desire to be alone," he wrote.

He argued that in the desire to conform to the organisation, to make it work, its employees had come close to deifying it. By describing its defects as virtues and denying that there is - or should be - a conflict between the individual and the organisation was bad for the organisation and worse for the individual. Whyte advocated resistance. "Fight the organization," he wrote in his book. "But not self-destructively."

To many, his book appeared to be an attack on corporate life, a charge Whyte denied. As an editor of Fortune magazine, he later explained, he was himself an organisational man and remained optimistic about the possibility of individualism within the corporate life. "I meant no slight. Quite the contrary. My point was that these were the people who were running the country, not the rugged individualists of American folklore."

After publication of his book in 1956, Whyte embarked on a second career as an observer of street life and urban space. As such, he wrote, taught, planned and spent 16 years watching and filming what people do on the streets of New York.

He observed, for instance, that urban plazas tend to have a larger proportion of females. Courting lovers, he found, were also "regular". "Contrary to plaza lore, they do not tryst mostly in secluded places. They're right out front." Groups of men also displayed consistent habits of socialisation. "They are, for one thing, strongly attracted by pillars and flagpoles, obeying a primeval instinct, perhaps, to have something solid at their backs," he wrote. "They also favor edges."

Whyte was born in West Chester, Pennsylvannia, where his father was a railroad executive. He graduated from Princeton in 1939 and enlisted in the Marine Corps. After he was discharged in 1945, he joined the editorial staff of Fortune.

Whyte's advice on the design of public spaces was heeded by municipalities across the US and his 1959 study Conservation Easements is credited with helping to bring about "open-space" legislation in states from California to New York. A fan of the bustle and life of cities, Whyte warned against "Utopianism". He believed that the city "has always been a mess and always will be something of a mess".

Edward Helmore

William Hollingsworth Whyte, writer and planner: born West Chester, Pennsylvania 1 October 1917; married 1964 Jenny Bell (one daughter); died New York 12 January 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk