Obituary: William Whyte

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The Independent Culture
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Whyte suggested that the bold visions of individualists had been replaced by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.