“Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.”
I had forgotten Lewis Mumford. Nosing around for a suitable subject for this column, I revisited several writers I had studied and written about in a college seminar on architectural criticism. And like a bolt from the blue came Mumford: scholar, philosopher, urban historian, sociologist, and architectural critic. A native New Yorker, Mumford spent the thirties covering architecture for The New Yorker as writer of “The Sky Line,” an occasional architecture feature (he also regularly wrote art criticism for the magazine). His columns most often dealt with individual structures; new buildings of the day like the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the Cornell Medical Center, and Radio City Music Hall. His books, on the other hand, addressed larger issues: The City in History, say, or Technics and Civilization.
Mumford’s study of buildings was informed by an awareness of the city as a whole, and the communities he encountered there, honed through years of flânerie. An ardent modernist, involved in the seminal “International Style” show at the Museum of Modern art in 1932, he soon rejected the International Style as a formulaic, purely aesthetic (as opposed to programmatic and organic) mode of building, and embraced a more reactionary approach, decrying skyscrapers, the loss of open space, and capitalism’s corrupting influence on urban architecture. But he kept his sense of humor, and his strong sense of the city, this city.
Despite the fact that Mumford advocated for large urban housing developments, arguably 20th-century architecture’s greatest failure, I think he’s worth spending some time with. Anyone who could write the following passage (in 1961!), certainly has my ear: “Wherever crowds gather in suffocating numbers, wherever rents rise steeply and housing conditions deteriorate, wherever a one-sided exploitation of distant territories removes the pressure to achieve balance and harmony nearer at hand [!!!], there the precedents of Roman building almost automatically revive… the arena, the tall tenement, the mass contests and exhibitions... the constant titillation of the senses by sex, liquor, and violence.”
Tune in for the next few issues, as I revisit some of the subjects of Mumford’s original “Sky Line” pieces, and the pieces themselves. The Cloisters, Rockefeller Center: let Mumford lead the way.