• U.S.

Art: Form of Forms

13 minute read

(See front cover)

Last week Mr. Frederick Hudson Ecker, Chairman of the Board of great Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., made history of a particularly significant kind. Metropolitan Life, Mr. Ecker announced, has acquired 120 acres in The Bronx and will, during the next three years, erect thereon the largest Metropolitan low-cost housing unit in the U. S. (see p. 66). Mr. Ecker was not aware of it, but when he uncorked this bit of news its healthy pop! gave added point and timeliness to a book which literate U. S. citizens and their well-instructed children are likely to ponder long & hard.*

For an insurance company to invest in low-cost city housing on a community scale is something of a different order from an insurance company’s praiseworthy but profitable interest in public health. It is something new in the world. In The Culture of Cities Lewis Mumford has linked together and illuminated new things of this nature for all the hope that lies in them. Against a perspective of city life as comprehensive as most current views are squinty, he has anatomized the old and young tissues of modern cities, diagnosed their fevers and shown with fluoroscopic sharpness the outlines of cities yet unborn. Author Mumford’s method is not Utopian but scientific; his faith is not so much in the Future as in a growing Present. His guiding principle is that the City is not only a form of life but, through its layout and architecture, a form of art— potentially the form of forms.

For sheer informative candlepower most readers will rank The Culture of Cities with Author Mumford’s classic Technics and Civilization (TIME, May 7, 1934). Hardbitten critics may still object that though Author Mumford has correctly judged he has not fully reckoned with such intractable traditions as ward politics or such highly advertised difficulties as class war. Others will find Mumford’s description of Hell on the Subway more than adequate, will believe he has put first things first in his diagram of the way out. The Culture of Cities will unquestionably open the eyes of many citizens and administrators to the vista in which modern citified society finds itself, with one foot in the Promised Land and the other in the grave.

Bio-Scholar. During the last five or six years the perception has gradually dawned on literary men that Lewis Mumford is an extraordinary, possibly a very valuable, certainly a new type of public figure. With The Culture of Cities this feeling will wax stronger if no less discreet. No specialist will attack the book without a prior examination of his specialist’s conscience, for Mumford’s authority usually equals his range. To many readers it will be apparent that Author Mumford is himself a new kind of specialist, in a field that might be described in his own terms as “bio-scholarship.”

Born in Flushing, L. I. in October 1895, Lewis Mumford was brought up on Manhattan Island, knocked around from City College to New York University to Columbia studying philosophy, biology and literature without getting a degree. In 1915 he met the most pervasive influence of his life in a little book by a Scot named Patrick Geddes, a biologist trained under the great Thomas Henry Huxley. Geddes had turned to sociology and to the study of Edinburgh and other cities. Mumford became a student of New York. Within the next few years he covered the city systematically on foot, studied architecture, learned to tell the approximate date c tenement was built from a glance at the fire escape or the cornice.

Student Mumford’s long correspondence and friendship with Geddes did not end until 1932, when that great-bearded, great-craniumed and voluble Scot died in France with a knighthood fresh upon him. By that time Lewis Mumford had lived, worked, sketched and studied in London, Paris, Pittsburgh and New York. He had made a literary success with a biography of Herman Melville and had written the first meagre draft of what has since been expanded to Technics and Civilization and The Culture of Cities.

During the late ’20s The New Yorker employed a bright young man who wrote a column called The Sky Line, noting the erection of Manhattan’s new apartment houses and office buildings. In the criticism of architecture The Sky Line included such amiable judgments as that the new, incredibly ornate and lugubrious Roxy Theatre was “a truly fine expression of what a place of entertainment should be.” In the autumn of 1932 Lewis Mumford took over The Sky Line and speedily transformed it into its present role of the most perceptive, severe and expert column of architectural criticism in the U. S. Manhattan architects, conscious of having blundered or faked, have learned that if nobody else will discover it, Critic Mumford probably will.

To his already strenuous list of activities, Mumford in 1931 added that of Visiting Professor of Art at Dartmouth, a job he filled until three years ago. With Esthete Paul Rosenfeld, Bard Alfred Kreymborg and Critic Van Wyck Brooks he founded The American Caravan to publish experimental writing. On this board of editors Lewis Mumford was the golden mean. In a sense he has performed the same function among liberal and left-wing thinkers. Without the literary edge and personality of an Edmund Wilson (TIME, March 21) but also without the slightest trace of malice or partisanship, Lewis Mumford has displayed a unique capacity for sensing and understanding the advanced thought, the advanced craftsmanship of his time, reconciling its contradictions in a persuasive synthesis. Shrewd observers ticket Mumford as the type of the New Liberal, find his typical antagonist in Old Liberal Walter Lippmann, who last autumn offered his version of The Good Society (TIME, Sept. 27). Old liberals and new liberals will differ as to which is the greater realist.

Sturdy, brown-skinned, brown-eyed Author Mumford has lived for two years in the little village of Leedsville, N. Y., 60 mi. north of Manhattan, in the low foothills of the Berkshires, with his handsome, even browner wife and two children, Geddes, 13, and Alison, three.

“What is the City? How has it functioned in the Western World since the loth Century, when the renewal of cities began, and in particular what changes have come about in its physical and social composition during the last century?” The first 300 pages of The Culture of Cities answer these questions. In the medieval town, focused in a church and market square and bounded by a wall, “one was either in or out of the city; one belonged or one did not belong.” If one belonged, one also belonged to an association, religious, trade or craft. The city and its social life had form. Contrary to general belief medieval towns were laid out in rectangular patterns when the site allowed it. Otherwise they usually conformed to the irregular contours of the land. The narrow streets were essentially footways for getting from one group of buildings to another; their narrowness saved money on paving and protected shop fronts from the wind. Gardens, orchards and open spaces were more common than in any cities since. The medieval town was quiet, its air was fresh, its buildings were in the human scale. “We have tardily begun to realize that our hard-earned discoveries in the art of laying out towns, especially in the hygienic laying out of towns, merely recapitulate, in terms of our own social needs, the commonplaces of sound medieval practice.”

With the medieval city of the best period, like Middleburg, Holland (see cut p. 43), as his working norm, Arthur Mumford finds that the next age transformed the city impressively but to no great purpose, began its degradation through overcrowding. Serving a centralized State, baroque architects cut through the capital city with long, expensive radiating avenues for the king’s triumphal parades, built palaces for him and barracks for the new institution of the standing army. The new institution of the proletariat they lodged in the first tenements, built over the medieval garden spaces. Sanitation fell behind as congestion increased. Yet in this age of luxury and disease two admirable forms arose: the scrubbed Dutch town with its wide windows and leafy canals, by which barges loaded with vegetables and flowers came in from the country, and the 17th Century New England village. In the growth of Amsterdam through its semicircular web of canals (see cut) Author Mumford finds a nearly perfect example of organic city planning.

Coketown. Lewis Mumford’s indictment of the “paleotechnic” (coal & iron industrial) age concentrates the eloquence of generations of reformers, the enlightenment of generations of thinkers, besides his own exceptional talents for raking up the coals. For the social chaos and loss of architectural form which overcame the city during the 18th and 19th Centuries the only excuse was the speed of industrial expansion and the colossal rise in the population of Europe. “It was a period of vast urban improvisation: makeshift piled upon makeshift. . . . Until 1838 neither Manchester nor Birmingham even functioned politically as incorporated boroughs: they were man heaps, machine-warrens, not organs of human association.”

The factory and the slum together composed the “non-city,” and no authority existed by which they could be segregated. “Workers’ houses . . . would be built smack up against a steel works, a dye plant, a gas works or a railroad cutting.” Hanley, England (see cut) is an example. In workers’ housing the one-family room became standard from Dublin to Bombay. Coketown (Mumford’s name for the industrial city taken from Dickens’ Hard Times), was so shrouded with smoke that “the black stove pipe hat was almost a functional design.”

Cities were and are laid out in indefinitely expanding grids of rectangular blocks with regard neither to topography nor function, opening the way for “fat pieces of ‘honest’ municipal jobbery in the grading and filling of streets.” Hilly San Francisco was platted as if it were a prairie town, to the perpetual economic loss of its citizens. Arterial highways were made too narrow, residential streets too wide.

Megalopolis is Author Mumford’s word for the 20th Century city. In its analysis he uses the Mendelian classification of biological traits into dominants and recessives, adds two other categories: survivals and mutations. In Rome the Christian Church was a mutation, in the medieval city a dominant, in the 17th Century capital a recessive, in the metropolis a survival. The pure industrial order was a dominant until about 1890, after which it became a recessive in the dominant metropolitan order, built on monopoly capitalism, credit finance, pecuniary prestige and the national culture of national advertising. “No human eye,” says Author Mumford, “can take in this metropolitan mass at a glance. No single gathering place except the totality of its streets can hold all its citizens. No human mind can comprehend more than a fragment of the complex and minutely specialized activities of its citizens. There is a special name for power when it is concentrated on such a scale: it is called impotence.” One proof of impotence is that almost every step the metropolis has taken to deal with congestion has actually increased it. Subways route millions of people a day to the city’s centre, in New York cost the city 3¢ over every 5¢ fare. Such transportation improvements as Wacker Drive in Chicago, which cost $22,000,000 a mile, tax the properties benefited and automatically produce a rise in rents, which becomes capitalized in the form of higher land values. End result: more intensive use, further traffic congestion.

Author Mumford’s analysis of the present pathology of metropolitan culture ticks it all off, from the paranoia of the ruling class to the servility of the crowd: “A million cowards upon whose blank minds the leader writes: Bravery.” But he does not gloat over the threatened exhaustion of the city or its extinction in war. There are in society powerful mutations of thought and art pointing to a healthy future, and though “it needs a terrific exertion of social force to overcome the inertia, to alter the direction of movement,” Author Mumford throws his weight with them.

City & Region. In Lewis Mumford’s eyes the metropolitan suburb is a romantic evasion, a faked innocence of the facts. During the 19th Century two stronger movements that ran counter to the general rush toward the metropolis were what was known in the U. S. as “conservation” and what took form in England as “the garden city,” a planned settlement in the open country with industrial, residential and communal areas separated by park space. They and their related modern developments—the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Columbia River development, the scattered “greenbelt” towns of the Resettlement Administration and similar towns built by independent associations in Europe and the U. S.—are the major mutations in Lewis Mumford’s world. Together they mean regional planning. This is one of Mumford’s answers to Hell on the Subway.

Among the physical changes which have made regional organization not only possible but natural he names the use of electricity instead of coal for power, the mobility of automobiles over the highway network instead of the grooved transportation of railway lines converging on the metropolis. In Author Mumford’s long view, communal ownership of the land— all the land—is an absolute necessity. For readers who regard this as “revolutionary” he recalls that a century ago half the North American continent was public domain. Before it may be again, he sees a century-long, difficult period of transition, in which education must play the leading part in restoring a general sense of local realities and the ability to deal with them by cooperation.

In such a society, whose construction Mumford calls “the grand task of politics for the oncoming generation,” the smaller city becomes the open nucleus of the economic and geographical region, no longer the satellite of a closed metropolis. What becomes of the metropolis in a regional society? As other cities grow in importance they retain and attract population; people move out of the metropolis, leaving room for reconstruction. That reconstruction is prefigured in the housing developments of the past ten years in the U. S., exemplified in Brooklyn’s Ten Eyck Houses (see cut) of which Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. last week promised a bigger & better example. And the purpose of the reconstruction, utilizing the economy, flexibility and intelligence of modern architecture, will not be a “perfect” city, but a city in which conflicts may have meaning, in what Lewis Mumford calls a Biotechnic economy. The city, as Author Mumford sees it, is “a collective work of art.” The means to give it form and clarity are already in the hands of architects and planners.

* THE CULTURE OF CITIES, by Lewis Mumford —Harcourt, Braco ($5).

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