The City in History, Lewis Mumford; Seeker & Warburg, 70s.

Cities begin as accidents of geography, and end as the accretion in brick and stone of an entire civilisation. Faith petrifies in a spire, greed in a palace, the self-glorification of authority fossilises in a Palladian facade, a lost dream of domestic ease peels its gentility in a once fashionable square—generations of striving after wealth and power, justice, glory and godliness mould the townscape in an image of the society it contains. We adapt the postures in masonry fathered on us by our history to our present purposes, as best we can, teasing the nobility of a common purpose from the squalor of exploitation.

This is the spirit in which Lewis Mumford has conceived his long, loose survey of the evolution of the Western city. He is less concerned with the halting progress of sanitation or the articulation of traffic, than the resonance of a civilisation in its civic form. Above all, like an Old Testament prophet, he draws from the ruins of the past a thundering indictment of the present. He returns continually to a theme first stated in the context of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia:

‘No matter how many valuable functions the city has furthered, it has also served, throughout most of its history, as a container of organised violence and a transmitter of war. . . . Not merely did the walled city give a permanent collective structure to the paranoid claims and delusions of kingship, augmenting suspicion, hostility, non-cooperation, but the division of labour and castes, pushed to the extreme, normalised schizophrenia; while the compulsive repetitious labour imposed on a large part of the urban population under slavery, reproduced the structure of a compulsion neurosis. Thus the ancient city, in its very constitution, tended to transmit a collective personality structure whose more extreme manifestations are now recognised in individuals as pathological. That structure is still visible in our own day, though the outer walls have given way to iron curtains.’

In every age, he matches its evil to a modern counterpart: of Roman circuses, ‘We have our own equivalent to the daily doses of sadism . . . devoted to portraying as graphically as possible every variety of violence, perversion, bestiality, criminal delinquency and nihilistic despair;’ of Versailles, ‘As in so many other departments of life the baroque court here anticipated the ritual and psychological reaction of the 20th century metropolis. A similar grind: a similar boredom: a similar attempt to take refuge from the tyrannical oppression that had become a routine and from the routine that had become an overwhelming oppression.’ So, through a quarter of a million wrathful words to his near-hysterical judgment on our day:

‘Everywhere secret knowledge has put an end to effective criticism and democratic control; and the emancipation from manual labour has brought about a new kind of enslavement: abject dependence on the machine. The monstrous gods of the ancient world have all reappeared, hugely magnified, demanding total human sacrifice. To appease their super-Moloch in the Nuclear Temples, whole nations stand ready, supinely, to throw their children into his fiery furnace.’

This is the history unbalanced by despair. Analogies—of doom feed indiscriminately his devouring rage. Yet however draped in rhetoric, the fundamental analysis of the relationship between power and civic form deserves to be seriously considered.