Sunday 24 June 2007

What Irish planners should know about Lewis Mumford

A planner in my office had not read anything by Lewis Mumford. I found this a little concerning. Here's what Irish planners should know about Mumford.

Lewis Mumford was born in Flushing, Long Island, New York, on October 19, 1895. He attended Stuyvesant High School until 1912. He studied evenings at the City College of New York for five years but did not receive a degree. Instead he became a student of the cities, beginning with New York City, whose libraries, theaters, and museums were his academy. Later, he wrote a series of "Skyline" essays for the New Yorker magazine which were intimate visits to buildings and quarters of the city that illustrated New Yorkers' aspirations and failures in their continuing act of building and rebuilding.

In 1915 Mumford read Patrick Geddes's essays expressing an organic view of society and claimed Geddes as his mentor in the years after 1923 when they met. In 1916 Mumford gained experience in the labor movement by serving as investigator of the dress and waist industry. Briefly in 1917 he worked for the Bureau of Standards in Pittsburgh, testing cement. He served as a radio operator in the U.S. Navy in 1918. The following year he became an editor of Dialmagazine and then went to London in 1920 to serve as acting editor of the Sociological Review. Returning to New York City, he wrote The Story of Utopias (1922).

The English utopian planner and advocate of garden cities, Ebenezer Howard, inspired Mumford toward an active role in city and regional planning. He helped organize the Regional Planning Association of America (1923) and served as special investigator for the New York Housing and Regional Planning Commission, beginning in 1924. He edited the pioneering regional planning issue of Survey Graphic (1925) and helped edit five volumes of The American Caravan (1927-1936). In city planning, he advocated the conservation of "green belts," with self-contained cities supporting residence, work, markets, education, and recreation. The new cities were to be constructed on a pedestrian's scale with organic coherence among the urban functions. As a city planning consultant, he forcefully urged such ideas throughout the world.

In his writing, Mumford tried to define the American conscience: its traditions and allegiances and the forces that periodically betrayed it. Louis Sullivan is the hero of Sticks and Stones; Henry Hobson Richardson is the hero of The Brown Decades and The South in Architecture; both men were gargantuan talents who wedded art and technology to give a distinctively indigenous form to American architecture. In his pioneering study Herman Melville (1929), Mumford disclosed his tragic sense of art and life. Art, he affirmed, is man's declaration against a universe that is "inscrutable, unfathomable, malicious … Not tame and gentle bliss, but disaster, heroically encountered, is man's true happy ending."

In Technics and Civilization (1934) and The Culture of Cities (1938) Mumford tried to show that artifacts are instruments of a civilization's cultural and social process and to examine architecture and machines in terms of the social conditions that nurture them. His thesis was that contemporary civilization must undergo a moral reformation to have the quality of life known to many earlier societies.

Between 1935 and 1951 Mumford wrote a series of books (the "Renewal of Life series," he labeled them) concluding with The Conduct of Life. They are long, sometimes tedious pleas for an understanding of the moral problems of public policies. Preoccupied with the rising threat of fascism, Mumford departed from his earlier pacifism and urged in 1935 that the United States declare its intention to defend against the totalitarian states. Men Must Act (1939) called for American intervention in World War II. The 1950's were very prosperous for Mumford's literary works. His early books including Sticks and Stones, The Brown Decades, and The Golden Day were all republished in 1995.

After the war Mumford worried about the ruin of cities through wholesale urban renewal, the growing dominance of highways, and the military mind's domination of foreign and nuclear policies. In Faith for Living, he wrote that "in a world in which violence becomes normalized as part of the daily routine, the popular mind becomes softly inured to human degeneracy." He held visiting professorships at North Carolina State College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his most searching book, The City In History (1961), he wrote, "We need a new image of order, which shall include the organic and personal, and eventually embrace all the offices and functions of man." The City In History was honored the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1962. In 1964, Mumford made six twenty-eight minute films based on The City In History.

In his much later work The Myth of the Machine (1970) he looks down upon technology, labeling the megamachine as the "guilty party." Mumford died in 1990.

Further Reading

The major source for information on Mumford's life is Van Wyck Brooks, The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters: The Record of a Literary Friendship, 1921-1963, edited by Robert E. Spiller (1970); it is virtually a social history of the era. Mumford's early career is detailed in Roy Lubove, Community Planning in the 1920's: The Contribution of the Regional Planning Association of America (1964). Mumford's views on urban life are analyzed in Morton and Lucia White, The Intellectual versus the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright (1962); W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man: Prophecies of a World Civilization in Twentieth-century Thought (1963); and Alan A. Altshuler, The City Planning Process: A Political Analysis (1965). Other sources include Lewis Mumford and American Modernism: Eutopian Theories for Architecture and Urban Planning written by Robert Wojtowioz (1996), Coping with the Past: Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, and the Regional Museum by John L. Thomas (1997).

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