Lewis Mumford: The Culture of Cities (1938)

Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities is a classic: the editors of The City Reader (3rd edition) go so far as to say that, “Lewis Mumford’s magisterial The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1938) was the first and remains the best book on the culture of cities” (2005, 10). Yes and no.

Mumford advocated ‘decentralization’ and earned a reputation for hating large cities. Jane Jacobs, for example, had a different opinion. In her Death and Life of Great American Cities, in a discussion of “orthodox modern city planning and city architectural design” she directs readers to Mumford for “a sympathetic account which mine is not” (1992, 17). On Mumford’s The Culture of Cities, specifically, Jacobs writes that it “was largely a morbid and biased catalog of ills. The great city [for Mumford and others] was Megalopolis, Tyrannopolis, Nekropolis, a monstrosity, a tyranny, a living death. It must go” (Jacobs 1992, 20-21; also 207). The notion of “culture” invoked throughout Mumford’s book–despite earning a place int he title–is somewhat simplistic and vague–amounting to a generalized sign of human prosperity… e.g. Mumford speaks of a “non-metropolitan culture,” “human culture,” “advanced cultures,” “cultural impoverishment.”

While it remains a classic–a valuable and detailed exploration of the way cities were influenced by nineteenth-century industry (which he calls the “paleotechnic” era)–it seems insufficient if we are to understand how “The Culture of Cities” changes over the course of the twentieth century (and twenty-first), particularly given the postwar shifts described by Lefebvre in his Critique of Everyday Life…

more on this anon…

(an) Indian City–Gurgaon (urban planning vs. urban life)

I knew nothing about the city of Gurgaon, India before watching this…. its current building boom…

Nonetheless, this video is a clear example of how worldwide discourses of ‘globalization’ often lack nuance. Notions of growth (w/o development) are largely unproblematized (they lead with talk of multinationals coming to the city)–as painted by interviews with urban planners, discussions of infrastructure, the problems with predatory developers, etc. the city comes across as a thing (the bourgeois project of modernity) instead of a complex organism (a la Jane Jacobs) or a human lived space (Lefebvre) (a panel member–Prof & Environmental Planner Darshini Mahadeva–voices this complaint in other words around minute 14:00-15:15).

City Planning 101: Ildefons Cerdà

Ildefons Cerdà (1815-1876) was a (socialist) nineteenth-century planner of note. In his two volume Teoría general de la urbanización / General Theory of Urbanization (from 1867; the link is to tome I on googlebooks) Cerdà invoked the organic metaphor of the city prevalent at the time–writing things like:

“Introducing the scalpel into the most intimate and recondite areas of the social and urban organism, one discovers the original cause alive and in action, the fecund seed of the grave illness that corrodes the entrails of humanity” (1867: 16–17, my translation).

Urban Scholar Richard Sennett touches upon this metaphor in his bookThe Craftsman (2008) where he writes of the connection between the city and knowledge of the human body:

“The scalpel had permitted anatomists to study the circulation of the blood: that knowledge, applied to the circulation of movement in streets, suggested that streets worked like arteries and veins” (2008: 204).

In his design Cerdà privileged (created?) the “xamfrà” (chamfer in English) or truncated corner. As scholar Joan Ramon Resina writes “The xamfrà is the palpable sign of Cerdà’s subordination of living space to movement” (Barcelona’s Vocation of Modernity 22).

The pictures below show: Cerdà, an image of Cerdà’s Eixample pushing beyond the gangly streets of Barcelona’s medieval walls, a building set on one of Barcelona’s characteristic xamfrà corners, and strangely, a brand of cava named after the planner’s truncated corner (gotta market that culture…).

For a great visual meditation on Barcelona’s urban environment, change and modernity, see the film En construcción by José Luis Guerín–and a fantastic article by Abigail Loxham on the subject.