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The City in History, Lewis Mumford; Seeker & Warburg, 70s. Cities begin as accidents of geography, and end as the accretion in brick and stone of an entire civilisation. Faith petrifies in a spire, greed in a palace, the self-glorification of authority fossilises in a Palladian facade, a lost dream of domestic ease peels its gentility in a once fashionable square—generations of striving after wealth and power, justice, glory and godliness mould the townscape in an image of the society it contains. We adapt the postures in masonry fathered on us by our history to our present purposes, as best we can, teasing the nobility of a common purpose from the squalor of exploitation. This is the spirit in which Lewis Mumford has conceived his long, loose survey of the evolution of the Western city. He is less concerned with the halting progress of sanitation or the articulation of traffic, than the resonance of a civilisation in its civic form. Above all, like an Old Testament prophet, he draws from the ruins of the past a thundering indictment of the present. He returns continually to a theme first stated in the context of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia: ‘No matter how many valuable functions the city has furthered, it has also served, throughout most of its history, as a container of organised violence and a transmitter of war. . . . Not merely did the walled city give a permanent collective structure to the paranoid claims and delusions of kingship, augmenting suspicion, hostility, non-cooperation, but the division of labour and castes, pushed to the extreme, normalised schizophrenia; while the compulsive repetitious labour imposed on a large part of the urban population under slavery, reproduced the structure of a compulsion neurosis. Thus the ancient city, in its very constitution, tended to transmit a collective personality structure whose more extreme manifestations are now
. Mumford sees the intimate balance of urban relationships distorted and overridden by the vainglory of authoritarian rule. Analogies—of doom feed indiscriminately his devouring rage. certainly. the more devastating the corruption. like the Neolithic village. to throw their children into his fiery furnace. But the soldiery turn vicious. whole nations stand ready. this analysis does little more than describe. A similar grind: a similar boredom: a similar attempt to take refuge from the tyrannical oppression that had become a routine and from the routine that had become an overwhelming oppression. womb-like. he would have no reason to nail so continually the evils of civilisation to their civic expression. in terms of the city. Yet something more is implied: that the physical form of the city itself generates this corruption. which Mumford labels Paleolithic and Neolithic—the virile. hugely magnified. . enclosed.’ of Versailles. theatre. and the replanning of cities would in itself have little relevance to the great themes which preoccupy his thought. ‘As in so many other departments of life the baroque court here anticipated the ritual and psychological reaction of the 20th century metropolis. So.’ So. though the outer walls have given way to iron curtains.’ In every age. demanding total human sacrifice. market.’ This is the history unbalanced by despair. criminal delinquency and nihilistic despair. and the emancipation from manual labour has brought about a new kind of enslavement: abject dependence on the machine. questing life of the hunter. and the priest-king turns tyrant. The book begins with a characterisation of two archetypal cultures. bestiality. the fundamental analysis of the relationship between power and civic form deserves to be seriously considered. ‘We have our own equivalent to the daily doses of sadism . regimenting the resources of the city for the insane extravagances of absolute power. preying on the citizens they were called upon to protect. The monstrous gods of the ancient world have all reappeared. how power corrupts—and the greater the power. while the enlargement of scale provides the more ambitious spirit of the hunter with resources to command.The City recognised in individuals as pathological. through a quarter of a million wrathful words to his near-hysterical judgment on our day: ‘Everywhere secret knowledge has put an end to effective criticism and democratic control. or his wife to shop. supinely. in every age. From this concentration of power stem the first social expressions of humanity— temple. The city wall. he matches its evil to a modern counterpart: of Roman circuses. influence patterns of behaviour: the journey a man makes to work. rampart. Yet however draped in rhetoric. safeguards the humble commonplaces of life. If Mumford did not believe this. Patterns in space can. Their fusion creates the city. perversion. that in our morbid compulsions we are as much the victims as the creators of our urban setting. That structure is still visible in our own day. in a village. To appease their super-Moloch in the Nuclear Temples. mould their . devoted to portraying as graphically as possible every variety of violence. In itself. and the self-protective life of the earliest farmers.
But can such a revision of scale really influence the self-destructive compulsions of mass society? Will people tolerate the nuclear arms race less supinely in Harlow than in West 14? There is something almost ludicrous in the way Mumford turns from prophecies of annihilation to a modest proposal for extending the principles of public library management to city planning. not a more tractable option: but Mumford has little enough to say about the redemption of society. The renewal of our cities is an instrument of social reform. as did the city itself to the surrounding farmland. So urban life would recover its human scale without impoverishing its resources. town planning can ease or frustrate the integration of communities. inhumane. As this scale was overreached. I doubt whether city planning can. Here every citizen shared in the corporate life—market and temple. believes that it can. the position of a house in a cul-de-sac or a flat in a block affects the social contacts of the occupants. rich and poor alike. seek to manipulate the society it interprets: it can only determine the most graceful and rational form of its containment. bureaucratic. Finally. and so at last his fluent polemics seem merely glib. The forces which have created our social and political problems have their analogy in urban forms. which has killed the heart while it swells the putrefying limbs. Mumford seeks a solution in the breaking down of the metropolis into a region of interconnected urban centres. any more than a civic theatre can produce a civic playwright. Praising the new towns. classes began to segregate. But can the form of a city also inspire in the society it contains a more humane and rational purpose? Mumford. stood in an intimate and visible relationship. he suggests that they should be articulated in a constellation of cities. The townscape articulates acknowledged social needs. or should. I think. Neighbourhood centres cannot of themselves produce neighbourliness. or an electric grid distributes its current according to demand. but it does not follow that a replanned city would create a new society to inhabit it. and everyone.112 social habits. . He admires especially the cities of early Greek and Mediaeval times. sharing resources as a chain of public libraries shares books. as in Imperial Rome. He offers no policy profound enough to match the evils he denounces. Now this is undoubtedly a hopeful approach to the problems of metropolitan planning. have become the victims of a diseased gigantism. the various functions of the city lost sight of each other. the community has disintegrated altogether into an amorphous mass. even frivolous—as if it were enough to strike the appropriate attitudes for the world to come to its senses. in the modern metropolis. by determining the scale of urban life. palace and theatre. power became abstracted.
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