The Culture of Cities

The Culture of Cities

by Lewis Mumford

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A visionary survey of urbanism from the Middle Ages to the late 1930s, with a new introduction by Thomas Fisher

Considered among the greatest works of Lewis Mumford—a prolific historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and longtime architecture critic for the New Yorker—The Culture of Cities is a call for communal action to


A visionary survey of urbanism from the Middle Ages to the late 1930s, with a new introduction by Thomas Fisher

Considered among the greatest works of Lewis Mumford—a prolific historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and longtime architecture critic for the New Yorker—The Culture of Cities is a call for communal action to “rebuild the urban world on a sounder human foundation.” First published in 1938, this radical investigation into the human environment is based on firsthand surveys of North American and European locales, as well as extensive historical and technological research. Mumford takes readers from the compact, worker-friendly streets of medieval hamlets to the symmetrical neoclassical avenues of Renaissance cities. He studies the squalor of nineteenth-century factory towns and speculates on the fate of the booming twentieth-century Megalopolis—whose impossible scale, Mumford believes, can only lead to its collapse into a “Nekropolis,” a monstrosity of living death.
A civic visionary, Mumford is credited with some of the earliest proposals for ecological urban planning and the appropriate use of technology to create balanced living environments. In the final chapters of The Culture of Cities, he outlines possible paths toward utopian future cities that could be free of the stressors of the Megalopolis, in sync with the rhythms of daily life, powered by clean energy, integrated with agricultural regions, and full of honest and comfortable housing for the working class. The principles set forth by these visions, once applied to Nazi-occupied Europe’s razed cities, are still relevant today as technological advances and overpopulation change the nature of urban life.

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The Culture of Cities

By Lewis Mumford


Copyright © 1970 Lewis Mumford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3134-9



1: Stripping Off the Medieval Myth

Before one approaches the medieval town one must strip off the false wrappings in which successive generations have swathed this portion of the European past. The Middle Ages were defamed during the early Renascence for vices that actually belonged to their defamers: history offers many instances of the "transferred reproach." Thus the earlier inhabitants of historic cities were vilified for demolishing precious Roman monuments that were not in fact destroyed until the very period that professed to value them, the age of the new humanists.

Let us depart, to begin with, from the notion that the period from the tenth to the sixteenth century was a compound of ignorance, filth, brutality, and superstition; for such a description does not altogether fit the life of Europe as a whole even during the worst parts of the Dark Ages, which still felt the civilizing influences of Celtic monasticism and the resolute order and economy of Charles the Great. This view of the Middle Ages is partly a product of the eighteenth century "Gothic Romances," with their lurid pictures of torture chambers, cobwebs, mystery, and madness. No doubt such elements existed; but they no more characterized the civilization as a whole than the existence of armed gangsters and organized rackets and fascist pirates entirely characterizes our present civilization. One must not magnify the black spots in the past nor minimize those in our own day.

One must of course equally set aside the charming tapestry of the Middle Ages, composed by Pugin, Ruskin, Morris, and similar writers: they often treated intentions as if they were facts and ideals as if they were realizations. Above all, this version forgets that if the Middle Ages were governed by bold warriors and patient craftsmen, it was likewise a period of embryonic capitalist enterprise and audacious technical improvements: eager merchants, adventurous entrepreneurs, canny inventors: a period that invented the mechanical clock, made radical improvements in mining, sailing, and military attack, and learned to cast iron and manufacture glass spectacles and utilize physical energy on a scale never before achieved by any other civilization.

Our Middle Ages is far richer in detail than the earlier versions; and as respects the management of industry and the building of cities one finds even more to commend than did the most ardent early advocates of Catholic piety. There is a social kinship between our own age and the age of the guilds that parallels the relation I pointed out in Technics and Civilization between the eotechnic and the neotechnic complexes. And in the domain of cities, we have tardily begun to realize that our hard-earned discoveries in the art of laying out towns, especially in the hygienic laying out of towns, merely recapitulate, in terms of our own social needs, the commonplaces of sound medieval practice. Does this seem topsy-turvy? On the contrary: it was the myth that was baseless.

2: The Need for Protection

Between the date that symbolizes the fall of Rome and the eleventh century, when the cities of the West awakened to a new life, lies a period that is hard to describe but important to understand. It was out of the incurable misery and terror of this age that certain special attitudes toward life grew up which powerfully affected the development of all the dominant social institutions of the West — particularly the city. Five centuries of violence, paralysis, and uncertainty had created in the European heart a profound desire for security. When every chance might prove a mischance, when every moment might be one's last moment, the need for protection rose above every other concern, and to find a safe haven was about the most one asked from life.

In Italy and France the old ways, it is true, had never entirely disappeared: hence the pagan undercurrents in that life: hence the twelfth century Renascence, so much more vital, both as continuation and as rebirth, than that which was to follow. But a disorganization and diminishment of the forces of civilization did characterize this period: the worst effects became visible only around the ninth century. Slavery, which had taken root in Roman agriculture, was introduced on a wide scale by the conquering barbarians; and the population, never far from famine, actually decreased. Military terrorism and its parasitic economy led to a devolution of the city: people left these stony wastes because they were driven to accept life at a subsistence level. Even when they remained in the neighborhood of an old city, like Mainz or Trier, it was no longer a meaningful part of their active life: only the shell remained. Its stones served as caves in the rock might have served — bare hiding places for those fleeing from the wrath to come.

If the Saracen encirclement of the Mediterranean hastened the passage from the uniform organization on the old imperial lines to a feudal economy of local production, barter, and consumption, under special local customs and local laws, the final blow was given at the other end of Europe by the invasions of the Norsemen in the ninth century. The final blow — and the first move toward recovery. These Norse raids were conducted in small boats that pierced the heart of the countryside between Brittany and the Elbe: no district was immune to their sacking, burning, slaying. The terror of these visitations must have created a new community of interest between the feudal lord and his dependents; but it also showed the technical inferiority of the local war-band in opposing attacks carried on by more audacious, perhaps more highly specialized, opponents.

Sheer necessity led to the rediscovery of an important fact. In the crude state of Western military technics in the ninth century, the strength and security of a fortified stronghold, perched on some impregnable rock, could be secured even for the relatively helpless people of the lowlands provided they built a wooden palisade or a stone wall around their village. Such a wall, particularly when surrounded by a moat, kept the attacker out, and made his weapons ineffective. In terror of the invaders, the inhabitants of Mainz, for example, restored at last their dilapidated Roman wall. Under commissions from the German emperor, Henry I, walls were built even around monasteries and nunneries to guard them from attack. And in Italy, too, walls were built again at the end of the ninth century in order to repel the Hungarians and other invaders.

This discovery, fortunately, proved to be double-edged. If the wall could protect the town from outside invasions more successfully than the feudal war-band, could it not also protect the community from the invasions and usurpations of these greedy and arrogant "protectors"? By means of the wall, any village could become another stronghold: people would flock to that island of peace, as originally they had submitted in desperation to the feudal gang-leaders or had given up the hopes of domesticity to find protection in a monastery or a nunnery. Life in the open country, even under the shadow of a castle, ceased to be as attractive as life behind the urban wall. Stockades, such as one still sees in Lucas Cranach's woodcut of the siege of Wolfenbüttel in 1542, were a cheap price to pay for such collective security of life and property, such regularity in trade and work, such peace in thought and worship.

Note the sequence. First the cowering countryside, with its local production and mainly local barter: social life gathered in little villages or in "suburbs," as the agricultural settlements that nestled under the castle's walls were called. Then a deliberate physical reconstruction of the environment: the wall: protection made permanent and regular. In this security from outside raids and impositions, local craftsmen and peasants and fishermen, under privileges wrung from their local lord, came together for a regular weekly or fortnightly market: presently they sought permanent quarters for themselves in a spot that combined so many advantages in living. It is significant to note that, as Hegel points out, the new quarter of Regensburg, in the eleventh century — as distinguished from the royal and the clerical quarters — is that of the merchants. As social life became more solid and compact, this industrial and merchants' quarter, the suburb, became the town center; and the seats of feudal and ecclesiastical power tended to become more suburban.

This urban movement was a chequered one. It marched under various banners, issued out of different circumstances, and produced diverse results. Sometimes urbanization was deliberately promoted by the feudal lords; often it was opposed by them, particularly by the princes of the Church, above all, when the rights of political and economic independence were claimed by the new townsmen. In some countries, as in England and France, municipal freedom was promoted by a temporary coalition with the central power, as a means of weakening the feudal nobles who challenged the king's dominion. But, opposed or helped, the population flowed into these protected centers, built and rebuilt them, and in a few centuries created perhaps the highest type of urban civilization that had been known in Europe since the fifth century in Greece.

3: The "Increase of Population and Wealth"

The revival of trade is often taken, even by eminent scholars like Pirenne, as the direct cause of the city-building and civilizing activities that took place in the eleventh century. But the fact is that this urban renascence and its characteristic agents date from the previous century: their locus is not the isolated market, but the monastery.

Up to the time of the Norse invasions, the monasteries had served as a secure haven amid all the stormy uncertainties of life. In fact, the monastery had during this period performed the functions of the city in transmitting, if not greatly enlarging, the social heritage. Thanks to the knowledge the Benedictines preserved, sometimes even of Roman agricultural practice, it was many levels above the state of the surrounding countryside. Here the arts of building flourished and the technics of glass manufacture and decoration were carried on; above all, it was here that the written record was preserved and manifolded. In facing the new conditions of life in the ninth century, the monasteries were not in the least backward. The nunnery of Gernrode in Germany was called Kloster und Burg; and this meant something more than that the place was fortified.

A regular market worked to the advantage of the feudal lord or monastic proprietor. Considerably before the grand revival of trade in the eleventh century one finds under Otto II (973–983) that permission was given to the Widow Imma, who was founding a cloister in Kärnten, to provide a market and a mint and to draw taxes there-from: typical characteristics of the new urban foundations. In the time of Otto, according to Hegel, most of the market privileges were granted to religious proprietors rather than to temporal lords. These markets, under the supervision of the monastery, were probably older than the walls which later provided security of a more material order; for as early as 833 Lewis the Pious in Germany gave a monastery permission to erect a mint for a market that was already in existence. The market peace, symbolized by the market cross that stood in the market-place, could not be broken without suffering heavy penalties. Finally, under this royal aegis, a special market law, applying to fairs and markets, with a special court having jurisdiction over traders, came into existence. The various forms of security offered by religion, by jurisprudence, and by standard economic practice entered into the foundation of medieval towns.

The revival of trade in the eleventh century, then, was not the critical fact that laid the foundation of the new medieval type of city: many actual foundations antedated that fact. Commercial zeal was rather a symptom of a far more inclusive revival that was taking place in Western Civilization; not least, it was a mark of the new sense of security that the walled town itself had most potently helped to bring into existence. If trade is one symptom, the political unification of Normandy, Flanders, Aquitaine, and Brandenburg is another; and the land reclamations and forest clearance of the monastic orders, such as the Cistercians (founded in 1098), is a third. The confusion scholars have fallen into here derives partly from the fact that they read present motives back into past situations, and partly because they have not distinguished carefully between local, regional, and international markets. Local merchants, as distinguished from craftsmen who sell their own goods, could have played only an insignificant part in the eleventh century revival.

In general, the early trade revival on semi-capitalistic lines was confined to the luxury wares that entered into international commerce. This was incapable of fostering the growth of towns until the towns themselves had come into existence. Moreover, the special international market was the Great Fair, held usually once a year: there merchants from all parts of Europe would come together. But this type of merchant, with his caravan and his armed guards and his special treaties for political protection moved from place to place: he was a glorified peddler, more like the Yankee merchant captain of the early nineteenth century than like an urban business man. To fancy that these wandering international traders were responsible for the original growth of the medieval town is to put the cart before the horse.

It was rather a revival of the protected towns that helped the reopening of the regional and international trade routes, and led to the inter-European circulation of surplus commodities, particularly those of little bulk, wine from the Rhine, spices and silks from the East, armor from Lombardy, woolen goods from Flanders, leather from Pomerania, across the footways and waterways of Europe. Cities formed stepping stones in this march of goods: from Byzantium to Venice, from Venice to Augsburg, from Augsburg over the Rhine — and so, too, from Baltic cities, down to the Mediterranean.

The great fairs of the Middle Ages no doubt laid the foundation for the international capitalism of the sixteenth century, localized earlier in Florence and Augsburg, and later in Antwerp and Amsterdam, before it finally crossed in the eighteenth century to London. No less than the Crusades, the Fairs furthered the interchange of regional modes and patterns of life. But if the cultural importance of international trade was high, its economic importance — particularly as a source of urban growth — has been grossly exaggerated for the early Middle Ages. The fact is that even at a later period than the eleventh century the merchants with their retainers accounted, according to von Below, for only a small part of the town's population: far smaller than today. For the producers in the early medieval town composed about four-fifths of the inhabitants, as compared with two-fifths in the modern city.

Once the food supply was enlarged, once urban settlements became secure, commerce did serve as a powerful stimulus to growth: above all because it was necessary to pay for luxuries in money. As the demand for finery grew, and as more money was needed for the equipment of the feudal soldiery, the feudal lords had a special incentive to transform their holdings into urban areas which brought in a large return in cash rent. Urban rents may not have exclusively provided the funds for capitalist enterprise, but capitalist enterprise certainly stimulated the desire for urban rents. This gave the feudal landlord an ambivalent attitude toward the city. As power ceased to be represented in his mind in purely military terms, he was tempted to part with a modicum of control over his individual tenants and dependents in order to have their responsible collective contribution in the form of cash payments: demands the land-bound serf could not meet. This was an important secondary stimulus to the building of towns.

Capitalism itself, however, was a disruptive rather than an integrating force in the internal life of the medieval city. It supplanted the old protective economy, based on status, mollified by religious precept, by a trading economy based on individual enterprise and the lust for gain: the economic history of the town is largely a story of the transformation of a group of protected producers living in a state of relative equality, into a small group of privileged merchants for whom the rest of the population ultimately toils. This change was already over the horizon when Chaucer wrote his wistful economium on the Former Age, when "ther lay no profit, ther was no richesse." By providing a nest in which the cuckoo bird of capitalism could lay her eggs, the walled town made it possible for her own offspring to be crowded out by the boisterous newcomer it harbored.


Excerpted from The Culture of Cities by Lewis Mumford. Copyright © 1970 Lewis Mumford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lewis Mumford (1895–1990) was a native New Yorker internationally recognized as one of the most distinguished urbanists of the twentieth century. The architectural critic for the New Yorker for over thirty years, Mumford was also the author of more than twenty books and one thousand articles and reviews, on subjects ranging from art and literature to the histories of technology and urbanism. His book, The City in History, won the 1962 National Book Award for nonfiction. Before his death in 1990 at age ninety-four, Mumford received numerous accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and the National Medal of the Arts in 1986.
Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. A graduate of Cornell University in architecture and Case Western Reserve University in intellectual history, he has written extensively about architectural design, practice, and ethics. His newest book, Some Possible Futures, Design Thinking Our Way to a More Resilient World will be available spring 2016. His current research involves looking at the implications of the “Third Industrial Revolution” on architecture and cities in the twenty-first century. Numerous tributes have been created in his name, including the Lewis Mumford Award from the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility and the Lewis Mumford Lecture at the City College of New York.

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