Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Towards an Environment of Freedom:
Lewis Mumford and the Pursuit of the Human Scale
Lewis Mumford’s The City in History is an utterly remarkable assessment of humankind’s greatest invention, the city. This seminal text proves that Lewis Mumford was not only a true scholar of urban history, but that he was also completely enamored, if not obsessed with urban form and its intrinsic relationship to the culture of its time. To this end, Mumford frequently posits that though humans often communicate their most sincere social, political, economic, and cultural values through the intentional ordering and design of their own surroundings, the social core is actually of more significance than what he calls the container, or the physical manifestation of the city. After all, “…if we lacked the written documents, the stones of Athens would not tell the story.” (Pg. 148) Variations of this principle are repeated throughout the text and serve as the crux for Mumford’s historical criticism, hope for a better future, and a constant pursuit of what he calls an environment of freedom.
Throughout The City in History Mumford episodically shares his strong, yet sometimes capricious opinions on the symbiotic relationship between urban design and the evolution of culture through history. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Mumford explicitly chronicles the deterioration of culture and the rise of what he calls ‘post-historic man’, who is not a favorable character in his eyes. Nonetheless, Mumford’s open writing style allows his variegated views on urbanism to be very accessible to the reader. Thus, if one has any trouble wading through Mumford’s miasma of praise and damnation, he or she will at least be able to comprehend that in its totality, The City in History is more than a linear survey of urban history in the Western world. It is a powerful critique of cultural values through space and time, and it is an attempt to define the ideal city form, both culturally and physically. This is no small task.
Not surprisingly Mumford, who was forever flummoxed by the ephemeral nature of what he considered to be good urbanism, begins the book by asking a very large question.
“Can the needs and desires that have impelled men to live in cities recover, at a still higher level, all that Jerusalem, Athens, and Florence once seemed to promise? Is there still a living choice between Necropolis and Utopia: the possibility of building a new kind of city that will, freed of inner contradictions, positively enrich and further human development?” (pg.1)
This very pertinent issue drives the book, and implies that his ideal city would indeed exist in a permanent state between Necropolis and Utopia, and not fall prey to the waywardness of time. Did Mumford not see that such a permanence in and of itself is a rather utopian concept?
Yet, despite the impossibility of maintaining a city locked into a social and physical state of Mumfordian virtuousity, the main principles of his cultural idealism are noteworthy. In fact, my own goal of contributing to the production and maintenance of a more robust human habitat has much in common with Mumford’s own conception of the environment of freedom.
Throughout the text Lewis Mumford champions a human habitat that would first and foremost evolve organically, and not be forced into a predetermined social and physical form ala post-World War II suburbia, which is the home of ‘post-historic man’ and all of his deplorable mechanizations. To continue, Mumford’s environment of freedom would operate at the human scale by placing the human experience of movement throughout the city as paramount. Such an environment would be emotive and breed a high level of consciousness for one’s own humanity, an idea that is very dear to Mumford’s heart. Furthermore, Mumford’s ideal city would naturally create and maintain social structures that nurture the arts, foster human ingenuity through several forms of education, maintain democracy across all social strata, promote a widespread peace, and preserve an ecological balance between the built and natural environment. Perhaps most importantly to Mumford, this environment would be built for the ages, and would be capable of nourishing the requirements ideal human habitat. In short, urban form of beauty would follow a society of Mumfordian magnificence.
Interestingly, as Mumford takes the reader through all of the fascinating stages of human culture and the cities that housed them, he explains that imperfect and incongruent versions of this model living environment have actually occurred momentarily in Western history. Not surprisingly, he uses these temporary historical moments, like the strength of democracy and the importance of the public realm in Athens, the socio-economic structure and organic design of the medieval city, and the scale and charming nature of the garden city suburbs, as the inspiration for his own pursuit of the environment of freedom.
However, Mumford struggles to accept that the social, political, and economic forces that help push history forward inevitably thwart the perpetual design and maintenance of his favorite cities in history. Moreover, he undoubtedly grapples with the loss of the unique socio-political patterns that made places like Athens possible in the first place. Mumford’s effort to reclaim these places dominates his method of critique, and governs his opinion of what will truly create the ideal living arrangement in the future.
This is when the reader understands that the very connection Mumford delineates between culture and design can actually hinder the development of his ideal city, rather than contribute to its creation. This is because human culture is by nature a fluid entity and therefore susceptible to change via a plethora of uncontrolled variables. Yet, unlike many other utopian urban theorists, at least history, albeit rather briefly, has produced the apple of his eye!
To make his arguments, which there are many, Mumford utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that includes history, culture, politics, economics, architecture, urban planning, and of course, urban design. As one who believes that interdisciplinary studies are essential to the study of urbanism, this method of inquiry is extremely relevant to the complicated social problems that Mumford valiantly strives to overcome. And regardless of the fact that many of his views on urbanism are contradictory, he writes with an eloquent strength that, in my experience, is only matched by his friend turned foe, Jane Jacobs. And as I mentioned previously, I find myself to be in agreement with most of Mumford’s philosophies. I am attracted to the organic, the human scale, the ecologically balanced, the long-lasting, and the equitable. I too find Baroque planning a bit troublesome, Coketown to be a frightful human habitat, and all the furnishings of suburban American culture to be a great cause for concern. (Mumford wrote The City in History in 1961, I truly wonder how scathing his critique would be of our current situation in 2006!)
However, this is my second reading of The City in History, and like the first reading, I am struggling with Mumford’s prescription for the future. This is because for all of his incisive criticism, his ability to create a solution is severely weakened by the sheer weight of his concerns. It almost reminds me of a great fireworks show that has no grand finale. I say this because Mumford brings the reader through the entire history of urbanism with such a righteous fervor, but then leaves us with such a general feeling of anguish for the prospects of the city. As he sees it, there is no happy ending in sight, and his environment of freedom will not be conceived. Though that is rather disheartening, I guess that we should all be glad that we have yet to experience nuclear holocaust! Moreover, for now large scale urban renewal seems to be a thing of the past! Unfortunately, Mumford didn’t have the luxury of this hindsight.
I also believe that throughout many of his critiques, he fails to truly understand that with incredible cultural and technological advances came a certain level of sacrifice. Sure, he may severely dislike ‘post historic man,’ but I would wager that if Mumford were stricken with pneumonia, he might thoroughly enjoy modern medicine and proper sanitation. This begets the question of whether or not Mumford himself would actually want to live in Athens or the medieval city. I don’t think that he would, as he has several criticisms for these, his favorite city forms. Such contradictions are made throughout the book, and unfortunately he has no real practical solution to what ails him.
Regardless, I believe that Lewis Mumford’s struggle with the current state of society in post war America is rather axiomatic. It is only natural for someone like Mumford to look ahead to what they cannot control and feel some level of despair. Therefore, I think it is much wiser to avoid dwelling on all of our current cultural misgivings, which there are many, and instead focus on integrating an urban (re)development strategy that is wholly inclusive, is flexible enough to maintain its integrity over time, and most importantly responds with grace to an ever-changing cultural topography. Our inability to do just this is in my opinion where we have gone wrong in post-World War II America. Much to Mumford’s probable dismay we are still a culture that is exceedingly entrenched in the vapid automation of the one size fits sprawl machine. However, I do believe that we are slowly beginning to awaken from this coma of entropy. There are signs of hope.
Though Lewis Mumford is incredibly adept at understanding the flaws of urbanism through all of its historical iterations, he fails to fully admit that past, present, and future urban form have never been, and never will be a static entity. Athens couldn’t last forever! It is like he loses his grip on the history that he so proficiently recounts, and in doing so reveals his tendency to move fluidly between pragmatic historian and utopian theorist. A role he assumes throughout the entire text. With this fluctuation in mind, it is not surprising that he struggles to produce a full prescription for the future of the city. The reader knows that he has his theories, but towards the end of the book the reader also understands that Mumford is not as confident in his ideals as he might have once been. It is an interesting duality for sure, and in my opinion proves to be the biggest flaw within The City in History. Yet, despite the futility of Mumford’s history based search for future clarity, The City in History is the most passionate and exacting work on urban form that I know, and I thank him for that.