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The City in the Human Drama

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

The Culture of Cities. By Lewis Mumford. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $5.00.

Lewis Mumford’s “The Culture of Cities” is the first attempt toward making the city understood both as a social and a structural whole. We have had in the recent past a great number of studies dealing with the sociological problem of the city, with urban society and urban behavior, and with the problem of city planning; we now have, in Mr. Mumford’s book, an attempt towards a synthesis. The author, endowed with the intuition of a planner and having at his command the expanded knowledge of a scholar, was predestined to bring such an attempt to a full success.

Following the history of the city through a period of about a thousand years, Mr. Mumford shows the rise and growth of the urban community, its blossom and decay; and, having discussed the breakdown of the modern metropolis, he devotes the second half of his book to an extended discussion of the fresh ideas and practical experiments towards reconstructing the city.

Mr. Mumford defines the idea and the purpose of the city as a special kind of domesticated environment providing both continuity and security. Taking the city as a form of an integrated social relationship, he proves that this idea has never been more fully realized than in the medieval town. During the short time of its blossom, the medieval town, according to Mr. Mumford, presented a picture of an integrated society based upon co-operative association. The plans of medieval towns, with their different sections and differentiated quarters, interpret their social structure: around the communal center of the town, on the market square, were constructed the houses of the merchants and their guild houses; and in the various sections between the center and the outer walls lived the craftsmen, each craft having its own street “representing a group of workers with much co-operation.” The same principle was followed in the architectural structure, which, to Mr. Mumford, is a perfect example of collective mastery of form.

In studying the medieval city, Mr. Mumford not only relied on books, but also consulted and examined the old plans. Interpreting the facts he read from them, he shows that the idea of the medieval city as a place of overcrowding and congestion does not hold true, though it is an idea that has been brought to our times through many books. The medieval town, as the plans reveal, was laid out very spaciously, and within its walls large areas were provided for agricultural purposes, for fields and gardens.

If, in the medieval city, the space was organized according to the social structure, then, in the baroque city that succeeded it, space was organized according to an esthetic concept. Although, under the influence of capitalistic economy, urban society began to disintegrate and to be separated into various classes, the urban structure was still saved from disintegration by the esthetic command of the rulers, the kings and dukes who brought into realization the idea of the national state and regulated the development of their capitals by preconceived plans, providing for broad, straight avenues, regular plazas, and all the devices needed for social and military display.

It was with the rise of modern industrial towns that even these efforts toward guarding the outer appearance of the city and keeping its development under esthetic control were also lost. Growing haphazardly around the factory, the pithead, the railroad station, the new industrial city became a mere accretion, physically and socially. Mr. Mumford shows, from various angles, this process of physical decomposition and social disintegration that finds its climax in the breakdown of the modern metropolis, and he also shows the numerous attempts to escape the disabilities of the present city: attempts which, without going to the roots of the problem, only result in increasing the present evils.

The city, however, is an integrated part of civilization, and a new start is necessary to rehabilitate its structure and to adapt the forms of urban settlement to the means of our modern technology. Such a new start has been made, according to Mr. Mumford, with the development of the regional concept. The region, instead of the municipality, will become the basic unit of political and economic life. It is by planning this new and larger unit that we will develop for our cities new patterns furthering human resources and human values. The prerequisite for such a regional development, however, is, as Mr. Mumford points out, the establishment of the service state, as opposed to the present power state. With this statement the author reminds us of the fact that the problem of our cities is definitely tied up with the greater problem of creating a new order of society.

“The Culture of Cities” is a scholarly work for which Mr. Mumford gathered an astounding amount of material from all obtainable sources. This raw material has been thoroughly mastered and welded into a picture that shows the fate of the city as a part of the human drama. Another turning point has been reached in the course of this great historical drama, arousing our passions and provoking our immediate participation. This book is a document of that creative spirit which is the main actor in this drama: by laying the foundations for the future it helps to overcome the crisis of today.


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