July 19th, 2024


An old idea made new

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published March 26, 2016

 An old idea made new

Once upon a time there was an architectural critic named Lewis Mumford whose ideas were declared dead long before his obituary appeared. He wrote about cities and roads and the human -- and humane -- values they should represent. While he was routinely praised, it was often only as a preface to dismissing him as quaint, as much too good for our modern consumer-oriented world.

For example, Ada Louise Huxtable of the New York Times described him as "an unequaled observer of cities and civilization" but concluded: "What he never learned was that society did not share his view of the good life of simplicity, self-sufficiency and community; an attachment to abstinence, higher ideals and the greater good are not the basic American dream."

Their debate continues to this day, as reflected in the current dispute over city planning here in Little Rock and North Little Rock, Ark., and around the country. That debate boils down to whether cities should be about cars or people, about traffic count or tree-lined neighborhoods, about efficiency or aesthetics.

Mrs. Huxtable's report of the death of Lewis Mumford's ideas may have been greatly exaggerated. They would seem to be coming back. But that is no guarantee they will be heeded or even understood. Fashion is one thing, commitment another.

Mr. Mumford wrote as if he were composing a eulogy for an America that had passed a century or two before his time. He railed against the technocrats who even then were designing a "uniform, all-enveloping superplanetary structure designed for automatic operation" -- technocrats who prophesied that, with their victory, man would have conquered not only Nature but himself. He yearned instead for the small New England town, and chose to spend his last years in his old country house in Amenia, N.Y.

Maybe it gives a writer greater freedom to think he is defending ideas that don't stand a chance in the real world. Then there is no need to trim his sails, make low compromises, and generally try to make his ideas acceptable by distorting them. To defend a seemingly lost cause almost guarantees purity, and in some cases prophecy. One thinks of Whittaker Chambers, who described himself as "leaving the winning side for the losing side" preparatory to writing "Witness," his great manifesto against communism.

Lewis Mumford wasn't fighting an ideology so much as an unexamined assumption, namely, that bigger is always better. He was the chief critic of Robert Moses' plans to pave over New York and the universe, and as early as 1943 was writing warnings like this:

"The New York express highways would be admirable if they were related to anything except the desire, on the part of the more prosperous, to get out of New York as fast as possible; actually their function is to increase the planless decentralization of the metropolis and thereby pile up such a load of decaying properties in the center as to hasten the final exodus."

Dismissed as just an intellectual sorehead at the time, Lewis Mumford is now hailed. For it becomes increasingly clear that his jeremiads applied far beyond New York to many of the country's other great cities and to more than a few of its mid-sized and little ones: "Inner-city decay, ringed by circles of increasing wealth, has become a fixture of America's cities and social pathology. So has separation by class and color." Sound familiar?

A close-knit, long established neighborhood just doesn't have enough people for its residents to go through life associating only with others of their own kind or status. Across the country, in neighborhoods that are still of a human scale, we have to know one another with all our warts, crotchets, and, yes, even virtues and graces. Here the poor can't be shuffled aside quite so easily -- or our common responsibility for each other as easily denied.

Lewis Mumford understood as much and more. He understood that nostalgia was not enough to preserve the human qualities of communities even if they stayed on a human scale. Community requires planning, though not too much. Today even small towns can be atomized by what Mumford decried as the Megamachine. He could be cranky and didactic, but that didn't make him less right.

Lewis Mumford realized that the most important part of any architect's or city planner's drawing may be the smallest -- the tiny human figures. Is it only wishful thinking to believe that the criticisms he once made of American society will no longer be dismissed, that there is a new appreciation for the simple, basic values that cities should foster rather than destroy?

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.