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9 | Mumford on the city</br>Frame from the film The City: Heaven and Hell, 1963

9 | Mumford on the city.
Why translate a book into a film?

by Leonardo Ciacci

Before the end of 1961 the New York publishing company Harcourt, Brace and Co. had the first edition of Lewis Mumford's highly successful book The City In History ready for publication. Two years later, in 1963, the National Film Board of Canada funded the production of six documentaries, each lasting 27 minutes, for a series entitled Mumford On The City. The closing titles confirm that the material for the films, based on The City In History, was prepared by Mumford himself. The director Ian MacNeill wrote the film script and produced the various parts: The City: Heaven and Hell, The City: Cars Or People, The City And Its Region, The Heart of the city, The City As Man's Home and The city and the future. In 1963 Mumford was 68 years old and agreed (decided) to appear as the presenter of the six films, expressing his personal view about the future of the western city, interspersed with pictures of places, cities, archaeological documents, works of art and architecture.

Lewis Mumford was undoubtedly one of the leading figures and interpreters of the Twentieth century - a century which he witnessed from 1895 until his death in 1990 - and he still seems, more than others, to have that ability to "…capture the imagination of new generations of readers" (1) . His books are known throughout the world as classics of urban planning literature and he himself is still rightly regarded as an interpreter with an unrivalled power of synthesis and still worthy of study (
2). Despite this, Mumford has been and remains an intellectual who creates embarrassment, a "generalist", a type of researcher and critic who is regarded as not always reliable, unscientific, subjective and, what is more, a militant: a writer whose writing always appears to be "directed towards practical concerns" (3)

Jane Jacobs, another point of reference for those studying the Twentieth century city, who died only last year, described Mumford in the 1960s as a "morbid and factious" writer, an ambiguous and contradictory scholar, whose identity was split between historian and urban theorist, ready to promote ambiguous housing projects "which in theory only [are] compatible with urban values" (4). In fact, prior to being a celebrated expert on architectural studies and himself an architect with an Italian degree onoris causa (5), Mumford began his intellectual career by working for a living as a commentator and magazine columnist where he developed his principal approach as an expert (6). The best way of describing the significance of his work is in fact the conviction that every idea, in the same way as every superstition, is to be regarded as a "concrete fact", a fact which is thus capable of impeding other facts, as to whose certainty no one is in doubt, from changing their course and producing new realities (
7). All of Mumford's writing, as well as his work, seems to be directed towards making words become instruments to be used in transforming "facts" through the transformation of "ideas". It was inevitable, in these circumstances, that cinema would arouse interest in Mumford, who was very happy to take the most direct route in reaching that public with whom he could produce shared moments of transformative participation.

It is not known what were the intentions of the National Film Board of Canada when they made their decision to produce the series of documentaries, Mumford on The City, but from the various shots in the film showing Canadian cities it is possible to identify themes that were under discussion in that country at the time: the demolition, in Montreal, of historic buildings to be replaced by the new skyscrapers of financial institutions; housing expansion in the regional suburbs of the major cities, as seen in the sequences filmed in Ottawa which, according to a comment in a passage in The City and its Region, "in order to be able to preserve its own magnificent natural heritage, has decided to restrict its growth… [establishing a] protection belt of at least 65 square miles around the city …behind which its future growth … will take place. The trend in regional growth will continue, but the equilibrium between city and countryside will be preserved for the benefit of everyone". In the early 1960s Mumford was convinced that he had a solution to offer against that process which would lead the western city towards self-destruction (8), through the corruption of established centres and the uncontrolled expansion of the suburbs. In the last chapter of The City in History he had formulated a concept of city to be used "in reassessing the whole re-planning process of the city", proposing an idea of "invisible city", (which we have achieved only now, in the Internet era, but which indicates the extent of the potential capacity of this writer) although only described in broadest terms. In order to understand the motive which prompted Mumford to take advantage of the occasion provided by the production of this television series, it is necessary to turn our attention away from the declared source of inspiration, the recently published book, and towards the series of articles published during the three subsequent years in "Architectural Records", and then republished together in book form, with The Urban Prospect. In reality, at the centre of these articles lies a dispute, at times direct, with Jane Jacobs' essay in 1961, entitled The Death and Life of Great American Cities (9), which Mumford acknowledges as having broken the critical models of architecture and urban planning hitherto conditioned by the "disastrous" theories of the Twentieth Century and which Mumford follows also by reconsidering not only the rationalist proposals (Le Corbusier, in Yesterday's City of Tomorrow) but also those naturalistic proposals with which he more closely identified (Wright, in The megalopolis as anti-city).

Nevertheless, according to Mumford, Jacobs did not have a convincing project to put forward and her arguments did not go beyond a plea to "increase variety" in the organisation of urban spaces, claiming to cure the cancer of the contemporary city with a "home made poultice". In one of the final comments in the last of the six documentaries, The City and the Future, he writes: "The city multiplies the capacity of man to think, to recall, to educate, to communicate in order to bring about the association which connects, which supersedes nations, cultures, beliefs and theories". And it is necessary to reproduce this in the old urban centres that have been redeveloped and in new developments for expanding old centres.


Here then is Mumford's need to take advantage of the opportunity of making six documentaries, which are rather repetitive, with recurring strands of a discussion which now seems unjustified and rather pathetic. As with Patrick Geddes, who greatly influenced him, whose urban studies served not to provide descriptive data but were instruments for transforming reality right from the experience of understanding, Mumford had made his writing the instrument for an activity that was always "directed towards practical concerns". "Geddes believed that abstract thought must be supported by the widest possible experience, clarified by a reflective study and completed by collective action. For him, the role of ideas was not only that of illuminating the mind, but of overcoming fixations, suggestions, and hallucinations" (10). Mumford must certainly have regarded television, for which the six documentaries were made, as a powerful instrument to be used in the process of constructing that "invisible city" whose creation he had begun to imagine.

(1) Cf. Robert Wojtowicz, City As Comunity: The Life And Vision Of Lewis Mumford, in "Quest", January 2001, vol. 4, Issue 1, available on
Cf also Robert Wojtowicz, Levis Mumford & American Modernism, Cambridge University Press, 1996. 
(2) Cf. Francesco Ventura (edited by), Alle radici della città contemporanea. Il pensiero di Lewis Mumford, CittàStudiEdizioni, Milan 1997 and Chiara Mazzoleni, Lewis Mumford. In difesa della città, text &pictures, Rome 2001.
(3) Cf. F. Ventura, Mumford e il suo "idolum", in Francesco Ventura (edited by), Alle radici della città contemporanea, op. cit. p.13.
(4) Cf. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York, 1961, in Italian Vita e morte delle grandi città. Saggio sulle metropoli americane, Einaudi, Turin 1969, p. 19 and 197n. 
(5) Cf. Giulio Rizzo, Il conferimento della laurea "honoris causa" a Lewis Mumford presso la facoltà di Architettura di Roma, in Francesco Ventura, op. cit. p. 231-236.
(6) In the 1920s he wrote for such magazines as "The Dial", "The Freeman", "The American Mercury", "The New Republic" and "The Journal of The American Institute of Architects". From 1931 he became architectural commentator for "The New Yorker", for which he wrote the column The Sky Line, in which he published his articles on themes concerning architecture and the city. Cf. Robert Wojtowicz (edited by), Sidewalk Critic. Lewis Mumford's Writings on New York, Princetown Architectural Press, New York 1998, now in Italian in Elena Marchegiani (edited by), Lewis Mumford. Passeggiando per New York, Donzelli Editore, Rome 2000. 
(7) Cf. Lewis Mumford, Storia dell'utopia, Donzelli, Rome 2008 (Calderini, Bologna 1971; The Story of Utopias, New York 1922).
(8) Cf. Lewis Mumford, Il futuro della città, Il Saggiatore, Milan 1971, p.126 (The urban Prospect, 1968).
(9) op. cit. in note 4.
(10) Cfr. Lewis Mumford, Sketches From Life, The Early years, Dial Press, New York 1982, p. 145.