Cities in Civilization by Sir Peter Hall

Robert Fishman

A specter is haunting this magnificent book—the ghost of Lewis Mumford. Sir Peter Hall’s massive and optimistic account of urban history since Athens is constantly shadowed by Mumford’s City in History (1961), a book whose pessimistic interpretation of that same history has profoundly affected even those who disagree with it. But Hall, the author or coauthor of more than twenty books including The World Cities and Cities of Tomorrow, is not deterred by his august predecessor. Hall draws on his distinguished career as a planner and academic to match and even exceed Mumford’s range and erudition. More important, Hall provides an original narrative interpretation of urban history that convincingly refutes Mumford’s dire prophecy that the modern metropolis is doomed.

The passion and eloquence of Mumford’s work stemmed from his belief (derived ultimately from his teacher Patrick Geddes) that cities were “organic” entities that could not exceed their natural limits without terrible consequences. Mumford’s history was therefore a tale of cities engaged in a self-defeating quest for increasing size and power that, from Rome to New York, has led to environmental degradation, social division, and cultural barbarism. Mumford concluded that today’s cities could only be saved by heroic planners with the power to replace the overgrown metropolis with human-scaled New Towns.

Hall sees urban history in very different terms. He acknowledges that the great cities of the past have been for most of their residents overcrowded, dangerous, unhealthy, and chaotic. Nevertheless, he argues that great cities are central to civilization because their very size and complexity make them natural sites for “the innovative milieu.” Only the greatest cities can bring together the critical mass of creative people to overcome cultural inertia. Within these urban networks of innovators, new paradigms take shape that transform civilization. Here lies the justification and the salvation of the city.

Hall believes that the cultural centrality of cities will continue and even intensify, despite the success of space-conquering technologies of communication that seemingly have made the city obsolete. He observes that the significant cities of the past have been successful either as cultural incubators (Athens, Florence) or as technological innovators (Manchester, Detroit, Silicon Valley). But civilization has now embarked on a “marriage of art and technology,” a synthesis of these two forms of innovation to create a new culture. This synthesis, he believes, will take place in large, diverse cities that attract many different kinds of skills. Hence he argues that the city is on the verge of a “coming golden age.”

Hall’s optimistic interpretation of urban history has its difficulties, but it is firmly grounded in the experience of Western and Japanese cities since 1945, an experience very different from that of the earlier period that shaped Mumford’s views. Mumford came of age during the First World War, in a world that seemed profoundly out of control. The dense, constantly expanding metropolis appeared to him to embody all those inhumanly vast forces that were crushing human freedom and creativity. Hence Mumford’s urbanism always celebrated limits and controls, and took its ideals first from the medieval walled city of guilds and then from the planned, social-democratic New Town of the early 20th century.

In contrast, Hall’s study takes into account the surprising postwar recovery of Western European and Japanese cities—near-ruined cities that fifty years ago seemed incapable of rebuilding except perhaps through massive government-funded projects. Not only did the capitalist urban economy show surprising strength and flexibility, but also the new town concept and other projects of planned social democracy proved disappointing at best. The cities recovered largely through the piecemeal, unplanned regeneration of precisely that dense 19th-century fabric that Mumford had despised and wished to demolish. Therefore Hall is far more supportive of the entrepreneurial, individualistic, unplanned, marginal, and chaotic aspects of great cities.

Cities in Civilization begins conventionally enough, with a series of chapters that celebrate and analyze the great creative cities of the past: classical Athens, Renaissance Florence, Shakespeare’s London, Vienna and Paris during their respective belles époques, and Weimar Berlin. But readers hoping for a Kenneth Clark-style tour of urban highlights will be surprised and disconcerted by the next chapters, which document cities as centers of technological innovation. The narrative veers off like a tour bus that turns away unexpectedly from the beautiful historic centers and heads straight for the grimy industrial zones.

These chapters are both the heart of the book and its most problematic part. They articulate Hall’s conviction that, for example, the artistic networks that made possible Elizabethan theater are directly analogous to the innovative networks that have invented and nurtured Silicon Valley. Such networks constitute the essence of creative urbanity; thus Hall wants to explain in detail how one network of cotton spinners initiated the Industrial Revolution in Manchester; how another made Glasgow the center of world shipbuilding; how Berlin came to dominate the early electrical industry and Detroit the manufacture of automobiles.

The best of the technical chapters deals with Silicon Valley, for here Hall draws on the research he began while serving as director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a reader who could absorb all the details that Hall’s erudition so copiously provides. Moreover, the author’s focus on the great innovators like Arkwright or Ford means that he necessarily neglects the urban experience of ordinary people. Hall’s chapter on industrial Manchester is thus almost the reverse of Mumford’s famous account of “Coketown.” Where Hall celebrates Manchester as a “center of synergy,” Mumford damns it unreservedly: “never before in world history had such vast masses of people lived in such a savagely deteriorated environment.”1

Indeed, not until the last quarter of the book does Hall write explicitly about the issues of urban reform and planning that have been his specialty as a teacher and policymaker. His theme is that the final aspect of urban creativity lies in “the creation of an urban order,” the innovative use of the resources generated by the urban economy to provide a decent life to all residents. One might argue, more prosaically, that he has come to see planning as fundamentally reactive—cleaning up the mess left by those successful innovators who seldom concerned themselves with the mass of urbanites whose lives they transformed.

Despite or perhaps because of this limited view of planning, Hall is fascinating in his wide-ranging comparisons of the diverse paths taken by different cities to reach urban order. As he shows, the authoritarian tradition of massive public works as practiced by Imperial Rome or 19th-century Paris represents only one possible strategy. His preference is for the more complex, even messy forms of planning that defy logic but mobilize a variety of public and private interests. The coherent, idealistic planning of 1950s Stockholm proved a failure: the Swedes preferred automobiles and single-family houses to the mass transit and high-rise new towns the planners offered. In contrast, New York, Los Angeles, and London (each the subject of lengthy chapters) experimented, improvised, and failed repeatedly, and yet all three have attained their own intense forms of vital modern urbanism.

Hall clearly intended his last chapter, “The City of the Coming Golden Age,” as a triumphalist conclusion that would show how cities could use “the information superhighway” to achieve that synthesis of art and technology that he predicts. But for me, the most deeply felt pages here deal with those still-pressing, unresolved issues of contemporary urbanism. Hall emphasizes two of these: the transportation gridlock caused by the automobile, and the deep (and deepening) divisions between rich and poor that threaten urban civilization itself. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are precisely the issues that preoccupied Lewis Mumford at the end of his life.

Hall maintains that cities will somehow find creative solutions to these problems, just as they found creative solutions to the problems of the past. But one senses Mumford’s ghost stirring uneasily beneath the suave uplift of Hall’s prose. As Hall himself points out, citizens today expect ever-higher levels of urban amenities, but they resist empowering planners to ensure them. Hence the recourse to complex “private-public partnerships” (Battery Park City in New York, the Docklands in London) that are at the mercy of uncertain politics and even more uncertain business cycles.

Such fragile and improvised relationships provide relatively weak support for the kind of long-term planning that could construct alternatives to the automobile or a new role for the excluded and marginalized. Moreover, Hall’s own text is replete with cities that failed to maintain either order (Rome) or creativity and innovation (almost all the cities whose high points Hall celebrates).

Cities in Civilization deserves to be the definitive synthesis of urban history for our optimistic fin-de-siécle. But the ghost of Mumford can never be wholly exorcised.

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