Most helpful critical review
35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
Mumford had a gift for writing, but this tome gets lofty
on July 30, 2004
I'd agree with some of the other reviewers who found the first 3/4 of this book interesting and insightful and who were put off by the last portion. Mumford has a dexterous command of language and weaves prosaic citations and factual listings with poetic and metamorphic digestions. Though this book is an extremely long and at times a very dry 570 pages, I was rarely bored enough to put it down for too long. Mumford has a keen intellect and his pen touches on nearly every aspect of human development and interaction, even in contexts that one would think are not directly related to city life or urban growth. Here we see that city-man has cast an inescapable cultural legacy: religion, economics, epistemology/philosophy, politics & government and even biology are and have been in constant dialog with urban forces, dramatized by symbolic manifestations of rural and urban, man and woman, individual and communal, organic and mechanical. As a repository for cultural and historical development in the west, this book should have much more attention that it does nowadays.
Mumford's analysis of the development of western cities since the inception of agriculturally-based sedentary communities is for the most part highly critical of the social and organization manifestations of the cities of the ancient world. He waxes with a somewhat fair disposition on the democracy that gripped Athens in the 5th century, yet from then until the Middle Ages, he suggests a kind of downward spiral of avarice, destruction, homogeneity and inanity (i.e. Rome) A revival of his conception of beneficent communitas arises with the guild-guided Middle Age towns, but this is ultimately usurped by the emergence and domination of mercantilism and the contemporous rise of state politics and economies. The industrial revolution saw urban cityscapes that offered a cultural vibrance below even that of Rome. Today's cities according to Mumford are a cancerous legacy of these preceding few centuries, whose doom is intertwined with their insatiable appetite for growth through ecological imbalance and resource depletion.
One might think from the title and aim of this book that it would be a survey, yet Mumford's dissection of the most heinous eras in urban culture, Rome and the Modern Era (from c.1600) play into his deconstructionist framework which he uses to villify capitalism and industry and likewise acquaint the two with greed, luxury at the cost of inhuman exploitation. While this is fine, and he does make a number of interesting observations, it glosses over any contribution whatsoever these periods made to urban culture; the reader is given an unbalanced account of each era, and leads one to wonder if there were any positive contributions whatsoever.
Finally, Mumford's exhaustive treatise on the failures of civilization, the untapped creative potential of the human mind-which is basically what this book is about- in the end offers no real solid retort or solution. The two concepts he does point to for a model of regional civic interaction - the electrical grid and the interlibrary loan system do seem to have a modern syncrete in the Internet, a network of easily availble cultural capital. Mumford is undoubtably a humanist and several times yearns for cities to allow humans to unlock their full creative and biological faculties, followed by a stream of dreamy platitudes that do little to qualify what this kind of feeling or sentiment concretely would entail. This is perhaps the biggest disappointment in this otherwise well-written book.