PRINT April 1999


Lewis Mumford

I USED TO THINK OF MYSELF as the love child of Lewis Mumford and Diana Vreeland. Meaning, architecture critics need a moralistic streak (Mumford’s was a mile wide), but we should also know how to wrap and tie it into a fetching bow from time to time. If the ethical dimension of architecture is giving you a headache, Why Don’t You . . . wear a headache band?

Everyone of my generation grew up with their heads glued to two previous paperback collections of Mumford’s New Yorker Skyline columns from the ’40s and ’50s, The Highway and the City and From the Ground Up. This new volume of New Yorker columns from the ’30s is a useful thing to have. Unlike the earlier collections, it shows that Mumford wasn’t limited to major pronouncements on big civic projects. He also had a fine sense of style. Some of the freshest pieces in the book deal with ephemeral designs, like the interior of a new Longchamps restaurant (“vermilion walls are kind to girls’ complexions”) or the facade of Helena Rubenstein’s Fifth Avenue salon (“it is one of the few places on the Avenue that might effectively use a nude figure sculpture or a well-composed abstraction of cosmetic bottles to suggest in austere fashion the holy Corinthian rites that are practiced within”).

Shades of Jungle Red. There are also nice short takes on shoe stores and cheap but refined eateries like Schrafft’s, the Horn and Hardart Automat, and the Little Whitehouse chain of lunchrooms. Mumford’s deftly rendered sketches beautifully evoke New York before World War II and the mass suburban exodus in the decades that followed, when style helped ease the pain of the Depression for rich and poor alike.

Mumford’s Skyline columns of the time are emblematic of the city’s rise to cultural preeminence in the period between the two world wars. In those years, European architects were mobilizing themselves into the Modern Movement, but New York was eclipsing the European city as the fountainhead of twentieth-century energy. Mumford was the most vigorous writer on architecture since Ruskin, and these pieces are an extraordinary record of that era. Like Ruskin, he can appear wildly off in his critical judgments, but we don’t hold it against him. As Pauline Kael observed, “We read critics for the insights. The judgments we can usually make for ourselves.”

Of Mumford’s journalism from the ’30s, I’d read only excerpts from articles he’d written for The New Republic, and these didn’t whet my appetite for more. There was a Depression on, and many intellectuals who’d lived through the rollicking ’20s, like Mumford and Edmund Wilson, veered toward the radical left. In The New Republic, Mumford attacks individualism as the great American evil. We can’t afford individualism anymore. Individualism must be stamped out. In hindsight, you begin to have more sympathy for figures like Philip Johnson and Charles Lindbergh, who careened toward the radical right. Both extremes seem achingly naive and idealistic. Both understood that the economic crisis was a cultural crisis and believed that the only way to resolve it was to attain solidarity of one sort or another. If equality could only be achieved at the expense of freedom, too bad for freedom.

Mumford’s New Yorker pieces take a much softer line, but his political outlook still influenced his architectural judgments. If he’d had the power, he would have whisked away what we now call SoHo, i.e., the Cast Iron District, formerly known as Hell’s Hundred Acres, because it was notorious for sweatshops where nonunion workers toiled in squalid surroundings that often burst into flames. Nor could he stand Rockefeller Center. He viewed it as the ultimate expression of the capitalist jungle that had overtaken American society. In fact, Mumford did not like skyscrapers, period. To him, they represented corporate greed.

Mumford’s failure to appreciate tall buildings somewhat cramps his style. Perhaps his column should have been called “The Anti-Skyline.” In the ’20s, New York came into its own as a global capital and this was symbolized by the convergence of vertical and horizontal forces. The latter were represented by the great transatlantic liners that, as late as the early ’70s, one could see along Manhattan’s Hudson River piers: beautiful British, French, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, and German steamships, each of them like a city, suckling at the breast of the mother metropolis. This heart-lifting spectacle was a visual reminder of the country’s roots in westward emigration, and also a sign that the Old World now paid homage to the New.

The skyscraper boom of the '20s, meanwhile, had accelerated New York’s powerful sense of vertical thrust, with new towers like those for Standard Oil, Paramount, and American Radiator, their skyward push captured in the charcoal renderings of Hugh Ferriss. Inertia kept the boom going into the early years following the stock market crash, with the City Services, Empire State, and Chrysler Buildings, and that “series of bad guesses, blind stabs, and grandiose inanities,” Rockefeller Center.

Mumford has nothing against the Rockefellers personally. He praises the Rockefeller Apartments on West Fifty-fourth Street. He likes the modesty of their drab brick facades, the interior layouts, especially the convex bays provided as dining alcoves, and the sympathetic scale in relation to the street. He is grateful to the new Museum of Modern Art for not looking like a temple or a palace and for enclosing a luxury of space behind a spartan front. He writes rapturously about the Cloisters, another cultural showpiece funded by the Rockefellers, though he cannot resist adding that perhaps this museum of medieval art has a hidden capitalist agenda. “Maybe this is an experimental model to help us face more cheerfully the Dark Ages,” i.e., the economic collapse precipitated, as Mumford saw it, by industrial tycoons like Rockefeller.

MUMFORD WANTS THE CITY to be rational. This is a function of his essential humanism. He wants a livable city, and for this people need adequate light, air, open space, ease of access, and a sense of community. This calls for rational planning. Mumford’s ideal locale is Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, where he lived for a time, because it places these things within affordable range. He is an early champion of the Regional Plan Association, because he recognizes the critical relationship of suburbs and city, a dysfunctional link that will become even more problematic with the emergence of mass suburbanization in the years after World War II.

Today, Mumford is useful mainly as an antidote, as a corrective to Nietzschean attitudes that we all tend to get so excited about. He was still writing when these antirationalist ideas began to surface in the early ’60s. He took vicious exception to Jane Jacobs’s 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities, which he described as “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer.” Jacobs, an editor for Architectural Forum, lived in Greenwich Village and led the crusade against Robert Moses in his attempt to run a highway through Lower Manhattan. Her book was an attack on city planning as then practiced. She celebrated diversity, attacked the uniformity of planning, and lit into Ebenezer Howard, father of the British Garden Cities movement and a hero of Mumford’s.

In 1966, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture continued the turn against planning with remarks like “Main Street is almost all right.” In the following decade, Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York extolled what he called “the culture of congestion,” an urban condition that Mumford would have considered simply pathological. Nor would he have looked favorably on Diana Agrest’s depiction of the city as the “subconscious of architecture,” the messy, unruly grab bag of memories, desires, and traumas lurking beneath the ordered surfaces envisioned by design.

Today, some of us who write about architecture find ourselves in the position of latter-day (or reborn) Surrealists. This is partly because of the work we’re seeing. Buildings by Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and others operate most fully in a relationship of intersubjectivity with the viewer. Also, at this moment in history, psychology offers an interpretive language critics and general readers are likely to share, even if it hasn’t been applied extensively to architecture in the past.

But the use of this language is also an acknowledgment that many of the forces shaping the city require a specialized knowledge we’re unlikely to master: global finance, political agendas, complex zoning codes, federal, state, and municipal land-use policies. Mumford writes of such things with impressive omniscience. Perhaps they were simpler in his day. Perhaps he was better informed. Perhaps he faked it much of the time. Whatever, Mumford is a reminder of the need to constantly update the Rolodex with sources of specialized information that an individual critic may never grasp.

Mumford’s literary persona is itself worthy of psychological study. He shows what happens when the conscience is made to do the work of the libido. There’s a voluptuous pleasure in his assaults on projects like Rockefeller Center and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He seduces readers into thinking we’re in his company. We’re all much smarter, more sensible—better people, really—than all these millionaires and politicians. And when the whip comes down, you can sense Mumford’s reveling in his power to administer real stings. This isn’t some Helmut Newton simulation; Mumford only gets off on the genuine Ouch. We get off on watching it, and, in the process, get to regard ourselves as superior cultural beings.

Unlike previous collections of his essays, Sidewalk Critic shows that Mumford had more in common with Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Franz Hessel, and other Weimar writers on the Berlin street scene than we tend to remember. Many of his early pieces are feuilletoniste in style. They comment on casual moments in the cityscape as well as larger social issues. Death and exile came to Berlin’s flaneurs in the ’30s. This collection demonstrates that Mumford continued his version of the walk much longer.

Herbert Muschamp is architecture critic for the New York Times_.