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"What is a City?" according to Lewis Mumford

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  • "What is a City?" according to Lewis Mumford

    Taken from Architectural Record (1937).

    Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) has been called America's last great public intellectual. Beginning with his first book in 1922 and continuing throughout a career that saw the publication of some twenty-five influential volumes, Mumford made signal contributions to social philosophy, American literature and cultural history, the history of technology and, preeminently the history of cities and urban planning practice.

    Mumford saw the urban experience as an integral component in the development of human culture and human personality. He consistently argued that the physical design of cities and their economic functions were secondary to their relationship with the natural environment and to the spiritual values of human community. In "What is a City?" Mumford lays out his fundamental propositions about the planning of cities and the human potential, both individual and social, of urban life. The city, he writes, is "a theater of social action," and everything else-art, politics, education, commerce-only serve to make "the social drama richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlies the gestures of the actors and the action of the play.".....he wrote that the city is "above all things a theater" and if commenting on the cultural conformity of the 1950's, warned that an urban civilization that had lost its sense of dramatic dialogue "is bound to have a fatal last act".

    Do you think that a city should be considered like a human theatre? Or do you think a city should just be for commerce and functionality only? And if it is for commerce and functionality only does that kill a sense of art and beauty and "theatre" that is an essential ingredient in making urban society attractive and meaningful? What do you think?


  • #2
    Interesting topic Suki

    I love looking at pictures of cities. I find human civilization extremely interesting. I agree with Lewis Mumford words that an urban civilization that had lost its sense of dramatic dialogue "is bound to have a fatal last act". Currently, the cities of the world are expanding greatly and are covering natural beauty and local culture with Western style steal skyscrapers and concrete. I believe if such things are going to be created for economical and social purposes, mix it up a little; make it interesting. The world's tallest building is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and its entire structure is formed in the shape of a muslim symbol, the dominant local religion. In this globalized world, we're destined to conform, but why not add some criollo flavor to it. Let the world look at pictures of your city and be able to differentiate it from others. You can't really tell the difference between Manila, Philippines and Bangkok, Thailand. However, you can tell the difference between México D.F. and La Habana, Cuba. México City's green buggie taxis (Which they are sadly replacing) and huge square (El Zócalo) which size and huge Mexican flag in the middle differentiates itself from any other Latin American city. La Habana's Revolution square with a huge steal portrait of Argentine-revolutionary, Che Guevara, and 1950's cadilacs is a dead give away of its location.

    Nature should be a huge part aof a city as well. Central Park in New York City is a beautiful example. You don't even feel you're inside the world's 2nd largest city when you're in there, nature and art is everywhere. Chicago has spent millions to revitalize the city's parks and place trees on every major street. There should be cultural monuments, murals, concerts, museums, plazas, markets, flowers, trees, parks, people...etc everywhere in a city, not concentrated in one part away from the vast majority of its citizens, because it is a human theatre. A city can contain a million different stories of struggle and survival from its citizens and that should be manifested in art and beauty. Let the soul of the city be shown!

    Here's part of an interesting article about the future of the world's cities. Click here: Cities: Challenges for Humanity


    • #3
      Re: Interesting topic Suki


      Mumford did great work in trying to define the distinction between the effects of technology and the usual passions and culture that man has traditionally been inured to.

      However, for us scientific socialists, his social philosophy did not take into account the dialectic of existence in an urban environment. Although, he wrote 'better than he knew', because it is only possible to understand the effects of technology on the passions and human culture by pointing out its significant opposite. This Lewis Mumford did with astuteness.

      Nevertheless, had he been totally aware of his accomplishments, he would have perceived that what was necessary was the creation of a whole new set of passions and human culture, like what was done in the Soviet Union; for example, in the new music of the 'stars', using synthesizers and atonal or achromatical tonal qualities. Such creativity produced the new passions and cultural values for a technologically based urban world that included also space ventures!

      Of course, all the new set of passions and culture went far beyond the Cold War, and was interdicted by its anti-communist propaganda and sublimal projections from the Western world. But, nevertheless, it is known that the Soviet Union was not really the grey, cold, and depressing place that the Western world touted. Instead, it was a place where socially realistic fun was truly extant, and easy to find if one looked for it.

      In the Western world what did we have? Perhaps, it would be best seen and understood by the observations of the French philosopher Albert Camus, who when he was visiting New York City wrote in his American Journals the following:

      Manhattan. Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers, across the hundreds of thousands of high walls, the cry of a tugboat finds you in your insomnia in the middle of the night, and you remember that this desert of iron and cement is an island.
      Albert Camus (1913-60), French-Algerian philosopher, author. American Journals (1978; tr. 1988), April/May 1946 entry.


      • #4
        Interesting posts Eddie and Ecuajey. When I was doing some work in Native American artifacts....I was invited to a is the dwelling place of traditional Navajos the most interesting thought came to my head....I liked the physical structure of the dwelling. It was round and not large in footage at all...but the circular shape and being able to see the faces of others was quite unique. Square structures I had not noticed as much until then...are about blocking off space. Circles are about subconscious expansions and round curves that give you a sense of cyclical thinking something the Hopis and other Native Southwestern peoples believed deeply them (the Hopis) in the most traditional sense....time is cyclical (like a circle)....Not LINEAR....there is no past, present and future......instead there is dimension.....and time is multidimensional and encompasses all stages in a circle....infant, child, adult and methuseulah...different yet circular.....the infant is nourished from the land the methuseulah nourishes the land that feeds the infant....all in dimensional space....quite could think it is just a round does not reflect what is in the Navajo What do skyscrapers reflect about modern, western society? What does it symbolize? Is it cyclical and circular....or is it rectangular and tall and it a blocked off space?....and if it is why is it built to be that way....Mumford is right...what we build is social theater and social philosophy manifested through URBAN structure.