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Urban Philosopher: a Walking Tour of Lewis Mumford

December 30, 1999 |
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In 1996, Robert Wojtowicz, the literary executor of Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) and a professor of art history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, published a useful overview of Mumford's life and work, Lewis Mumford and American Modernism: Eutopian Themes for Architecture and Urban Planning. Now Wojtowicz has collected a number of the "Sky Line" columns that Mumford wrote for Harold Ross's New Yorker between 1931 and 1940. The subjects range from "Mr. Rockefeller's Center" (the title of a 1933 essay) to the Cloisters ("Pax in Urbe," 1938) to the inappropriate use of historic styles for bank buildings: "Has it ever occurred to any architect that the best protection for money not in the vaults would be a complete glass front, which would make it impossible for anyone to stage a holdup without the Whole world knowing about it?"

Although Mumford's reprinted "Sky Line" columns are remarkably readable despite the passage of time, the best essays in Sidewalk Critic are two brief memoirs that Mumford published in The New Yorker: "A New York Childhood: Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay" (1934) and "A New York Adolescence: Tennis, Quadratic Equations, and Love" (1937). The first begins: "Karl Marx characterized the class into which I was born as the petty bourgeoisie. He didn't think much of it as a class, and neither do I; but that was the angle from which I saw New York." Mumford recalled:

The gay, wicked world of fashion and sport hung with a sort of stale aura over my childhood; I boasted an aunt who crossed her legs, gingerly smoked Russian cigarettes, and occasionally was abandoned enough, after a cocktail or two, to expose her stockings fully three inches above the ankle. This world was, for me, secretly dominated by the masks and false faces that my grandfather, the headwaiter, would bring home after a celebration at Delmonico's, along with pate de foie gras, boned turkey, and truffles; these masks were somehow of a piece with the writhing naked ladies and gentlemen that I beheld, at the timely age of four, on the walls of the saloon owned by John L. Sullivan's brother.

Mumford gave up on attempts to become a playwright, screenwriter, or novelist after an autobiographical novella published in 1928, but he shows the skill of a born writer in his 1937 memoir:

The other part of my adolescence, particularly in the earlier years, centered chiefly around the old tennis courts in Central Park on the south side of the transverse at Ninety-sixth Street. The courts were then covered with grass, and the most popular court, half-denuded by constant playing, was called the dirt court. An aged keeper, with a gray beard spattered with tobacco juice, had charge of the marking of the courts and the stowing away of the nets. He was probably one of those Civil War pensioners who were still favored on the public payrolls, and we called him "Captain," but he had a vile temper and carried on an uncivil war of his own with most of the people who played there. He was often drunk, and the white lines he marked with his sprinkler showed no disposition to follow the straight and narrow path, but this crusty character gave the place a certain flavor which contrasts with the colorless, antiseptic courtesy of today. We couldn't start playing till the Captain raised the flag on the flagpole.

As this excerpt suggests, describing Lewis Mumford as merely an architecture critic is rather like identifying Mark Twain as a humorist or Goethe as the prime minister of a small German duchy. Recommending an artist to the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, Mumford wrote, "While Le Witt paints in the language of abstraction, he is close to Blake and Ryder in spirit, as he is likewise to Emerson, Thoreau, and--if I may dare to add!--myself." That Mumford put himself on the level of Emerson and Thoreau might seem to have been presumption. But on this subject, as on many others, Mumford was right. He was--to use the words in their original meanings--a philosopher and a humanist.

Mumford took as his subject all of human life and society--from the ancient world to the present, from architecture and art to politics and social life. In so doing, he was inspired by Romantics like John Ruskin and William Morris, and by his mentor, the Scots philosopher Sir Patrick Geddes. From Geddes, Mumford derived, along with unsuccessful coinages like "technics" and "eutopian," and a tendency to use the term "organic" as a commendatory adjective, a focus on the history and sociology of cities and regions as the basis of an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge and history. He devoted much of his life to a four-volume history of Western civilization, The Renewal of Life, which, like its coda, The City in History (winner of the National Book Award in 1962), focused on the evolution of the city from ancient times to the present.

Metahistory like that of Mumford, Toynbee, and Spengler is frowned upon today, though metahistories continue to be written by William H. McNeill, Samuel P. Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, and Jared Diamond, among others. The metahistorian whom Mumford most resembles, perhaps, is H. G. Wells, another child of the working class with a satirist's eye and a reformer's enthusiasm, who tried to explain humanity to itself in his Outline of History. But Mumford, whose first book, The Story of Utopias (1922), was a survey of the genre, came to associate utopias like Wells's Fabian vision of a world government run by enlightened technocrats with tyranny. In The Pentagon of Power (1970), Mumford warned, "The pervasive character of all utopias is their totalitarian absolutism, the reduction of variety and choice, and the effort to escape from such natural conditions or historical traditions as would support variety and make choice possible."

A genuine polymath, Mumford would have been at home among Renaissance men or Enlightenment philosophes. Unfortunately for his posthumous reputation, his career coincided with the grafting onto English-language higher education of the horrible Teutonic university system, in which scholars are encouraged to increase their academic market value by specializing to the point of absurdity. What Gore Vidal refers to as the "scholar-squirrel" is trained to react with horror and hostility to synoptic thinkers like Mumford, who in a 1933 letter to Van Wyck Brooks explained his program for The Renewal of Life in terms that would make a modern professor faint. "By now," he wrote, "my book has expanded into three books: one on machines, which covers incidentally the major problems of economics, and of politics and morals as related to that; the second on cities, which will cover politics, and to no small degree include also culture and art; and the third on the Personality, which will bring everything together, but which will mainly be concerned with philosophy and education and marriage and what not." If Mumford had not dropped out of City College without obtaining his B.A., his intellectual ambition might have got him expelled.

Compounding his offense against scholarship, Mumford wrote in a lucid, witty, conversational style at a time when academics were trained to adopt a scholastic prose in which, not coincidentally, solecisms and banalities are easily hidden. Petrarch and the original Italian humanists, it should be recalled, rejected the formal modes of. argumentation favored by the scholastics of the Sorbonne and Oxford in favor of the familiar letter and its offspring the familiar essay, as well as the symposium, the conversational treatise, the satire, the fable, the epic and didactic poem, the polemical pamphlet. Like the Renaissance humanists he resembled, Mumford enlisted literary art in the service of philosophy.

In light of his sins against pedantry and obscurity, it comes as no surprise that Mumford's name is almost never heard on American university campuses, except, perhaps, in the architecture and urban studies departments. The fact remains that Mumford was a greater sociologist than most of his contemporaries; who now reads Pitirim Sorokin or Talcott Parsons? And a page of history from Mumford is worth any number of tomes by today's Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, or race-and-gender theorists.

A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and his own house. The Italian scholar Luciano Pellicani, in The Genesis of Capitalism and the Origins of Modernity (English translation, 1994), finds Mumford a better guide to the history of capitalism and constitutional government than either Marx or Weber. Unlike Weber, Mumford understood that Western capitalism was invented in the laboratory of the late-medieval city, centuries before the Protestant Reformation to which Weber attributed so much importance. Mumford's argument that twentieth century fascist and communist totalitarianism were high-tech versions of the military-bureaucratic despotism of the ancient empires--the "Megamachine"--seems much more plausible, in light of what we now know about Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, than dated attempts such as Hannah Arendt's to explain totalitarianism in terms of the "mass man" or the Frankfurt School's theory of the "authoritarian personality." Nevertheless, American professors probably will not take this great American thinker seriously until they are instructed to do so by some minor Oxbridge don in The New York Review of Books.

Mumford's claim to eminence as an American writer does not rest on The Renewal of Life and The Culture of Cities alone. If he had died at the age of thirty-seven, in 1932, his place in the American pantheon would be secure. Mumford began his writing career in one of the few Golden Ages of higher journalism in the United States. He wrote for Thomas Bucklin Wells's Harper's and Herbert Croly's New Republic. He worked for Albert J. Nock at The Freeman and was a colleague of Van Wyck Brooks at The Dial. He took a class from Thorstein Veblen at the New School for Social Research and helped Alfred H. Barr Jr., Henry Russell Hitchcock Jr., and Philip Johnson introduce the American public to European modernism. Inspired by his friend Brooks's call for a "usable past," Mumford quickly wrote four books on the history of American culture: Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization (1924), The Golden Day: A Study in American Experience and Culture (1926), Herman Melville (1929), and The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (1931).

Mumford had come of age in one of those periods in U.S. history in which native traditions are devalued and everything British or European is considered superior (our own time is another). In his tetralogy, Mumford made the case that the leading American writers, artists, and architects of the mid-nineteenth century, far from being provincial eccentrics, were native masters who flourished in an era of American innovation between the derivative colonial era and the equally derivative age of Beaux-Arts classicism in art and architecture, and genteel realism in fiction. With a genius equal to Ruskin's in The Stones of Venice, Mumford, in The Brown Decades, uses the metaphor of earth tones in analyzing the qualities he sees in Walt Whitman's poetry and Henry Hobson Richardson's architecture: "Through all the dun colours of that period the work of its creative minds gleams--vivid, complex, harmonious, contradicting or enriching the sober prevalent browns." In The Brown Decades, art criticism rises to the level of art. It is a testimony to Mumford's taste and persuasiveness that the American pantheon he was among the first to define--Whitman and Dickinson, Eakins and Ryder, Richardson and Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he once described as "the world's greatest living architect"--is still our own.

Recognizing Mumford's achievements in fields other than architectural criticism need not divert attention from the accomplishments for which he is chiefly remembered. Indeed, Mumford the architecture critic draws insight and power from Mumford the humanist and philosopher, and the essays on architecture and urban design in Sidewalk Critic illustrate the range of his interests and the depths of his knowledge in his chosen specialty.

Although he was reared in Manhattan, Mumford was anything but a parochial New Yorker. In 1938 he wrote, "It should be a great blow to a New Yorker's pride to realize that none of the important things that have happened in modern architecture have taken place here.... All the decisive improvements in the design of skyscrapers were made in Chicago before 1900." After World War II, when various New York schools of architecture, painting, and poetry enjoyed an ephemeral prominence, Mumford proved his independence from fashion by boosting the "Bay Region Style" of California architecture.

When Mumford wrote his "Sky Line" columns, the future of New York City and urban America was still undecided. Mumford feared the worst, writing in 1939, "For what the Futurama really demonstrates is that by 1960 all jaunts of more than fifty miles will be as deadly as they now are in parts of New Jersey and in the Farther West." We know that it all ended badly, in glass boxes and Piranesian overpasses and desolate strips, so there is a certain poignancy in wondering what might have been if Mumford's enthusiasm for decentralized pedestrian cities and a modernism more eclectic and diverse than the orthodox International Style had been shared by postwar architects, realtors, and urban planners.

Mumford watched in horror as the livable New York City of his childhood mutated first into "Metropolis" and then toward "Necropolis." (What term could be more appropriate for today's mausoleal Manhattan, a cross between Singapore and Epcot Center?) Speaking out in favor of historic preservation before it became fashionable, Mumford opposed urban planners who demolished human-scale neighborhoods to create monstrous highways and housing projects; he clashed repeatedly in print with Robert Moses (who, believe it or not, wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through the middle of Washington Square). But Mumford disagreed with Jane Jacobs and others who preferred high-density areas to well-designed suburbs.' Long before the suburbanization of America had become a commonplace topic, Mumford was describing the "fourth migration" to suburbs and "regional cities." Sidewalk Critic contains a favorable review of Wright's Broadacre City exhibit at Rockefeller Center in 1935; Mumford praised it as "the new type of decongested city that the motorcar and the autogiro have made technically possible."

De gustibus non est disputandum. Still, it is worth noting that the American people have voted with their feet against Jacobs and others nostalgic for brownstone apartment blocks and in favor of Mumford and Wright. Only the constant influx of impoverished immigrants and a transient population of affluent single professionals has prevented Manhattan's population from declining in absolute numbers, as the middle and working classes, as well as affluent families with children, flee in search of space, safety, and a lower cost of living. But immigrant proles who themselves escape to the suburbs as soon as their earnings permit cannot replace the resident audience of working- and middle-class Americans who once patronized New York theater and bookstores. Nor can fashion-minded yuppies in the publishing and media industries or European and Latin American trust-fund babies in Soho perform the roles that once belonged to bohemian intellectuals in Greenwich Village, whose successors were long ago driven by high rents out of New York City to college campuses, think tanks, and rural retreats across the country.

Although Mumford favored decentralization, he was no fan of suburban sprawl: "The planners of the New Towns seem to me to have over-reacted against nineteenth-century congestion and to have produced a sprawl that is not only wasteful but--what is more important--obstructive to social life." Mumford's vague ideal of the "regional city" with "organic" or contextually appropriate architecture was similar to that of the architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the writer James Howard Kunstler, and other proponents of the New Urbanism--a suburb more like a small town than like a large parking lot. But Mumford, who like many early-twentieth-century architecture critics was concerned with housing for low-income workers, would have warned that the New Urbanism will be a failure if its only lasting products are ghettoes for the affluent like Seaside, Florida, and Disney's Celebration. A lifelong liberal, Mumford testified before the U.S. Senate in 1967 against trying to revitalize inner cities by subsidizing public housing and slum clearance. Instead, he argued for his old panacea, the regional city. Today, an increasing number of progressives have arrived at a belated understanding that programs to disperse the urban poor among middle-income suburbs make more sense than expensive efforts to turn inner cities into more comfortable prisons.

"Some day," Mumford wrote his daughter in 1954, "some sedulous Ph.D. will go through my literary remains and compose a really brilliant dinner out of what was left in the garbage pail: thus raising the embarrassing question of what I thought I was doing when I cooked the original dinner itself." Robert Wojtowicz has done a public service in republishing these essays and columns. It is now time for the Library of America to devote a volume or two to one of America's greatest and least appreciated twentieth-century thinkers.

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