Cities and “The City”

Cities on the Move

by Arnold Toynbee
Oxford, 257 pp., $6.75

The Meaning of the City

by Jacques Ellul
Eerdmans, 209 pp., $5.95

Beyond Habitat

by Mosche Safdie
MIT, 244 pp., $10.00

The Architecture Machine

by Nicholas Negroponte
MIT, 153 pp., $5.95

By all rights, these four books on various urban matters should be all wrong. Two are European, somber, gloomy, full of long views taken as though from the long end of a telescope, seeing God and History but seldom anything so complicated, dirty, noisy, or interesting as a city. The other two are North American, young, cheerful, uninterested in history, seeing new ways of designing houses and environments where the cities their projects are placed in appear as through the right end of the telescope. They are full of pictures of things that look as if they’re made of origami, without anything so complicated, dirty, noisy, or interesting as a city. On the one hand history is everything, and it moves in long, decisive swoops and whirls; on the other hand, history never happened and the most interesting facts about people are that they like sunlight and privacy. Yet it turns out that none of these four books is worthless, that the perspectives they offer can be useful, and not simply as ways of reminding us of what we always knew.

Arnold Toynbee’s Cities on the Move is the latest in a spate of books he has published since he finished A Study of History, and while Toynbee has not learned much over the years, he is, as always, a cheerful, charming, and learned man. He is one of the world’s largest reference libraries, everything is down on three-by-five cards, all carefully cross-indexed. If the category is “The Choice of Capitals for Convenience,” Toynbee can spout up Constantinople, Paris, London, Patna, Memphis (Egypt), northern Chinese cities from Chang-an to Peking, Rome in a unified nineteenth-century Italy, Seleucia and Ctesiphon in Afghanistan, Kamakura and Yedo (now Tokyo), on and on, with side trips along the way to look at capitals created to avoid clashes of power between existing cities and efforts to rule from twin capitals.

The “conveniences” which dictated the establishment of each city are briefly described, then Toynbee flips his card and leaps hundreds of miles or years just by moving on to the next card. If the subject is holy cities, paragraphs will begin with sentences like “Being a charismatic personality’s birthplace or being the scene of his subsequent mission are not the only forms of local association with such a personality that can make a holy city” and “Neither a martyrdom nor a tomb is indispensable for the making of a holy city; the belief that the place has been the scene of a miracle can be equally efficacious.” The paragraphs that follow such openings practically write themselves.

Toynbee’s name appears on Esquire’s latest list of the world’s hundred most important people, but it is my impression that in the fifteen years since A Study of History he has been increasingly ignored by professional historians, and with some reason. His idea of history is so simple, his method so easily reduced to a system, that not only churlish or myopic specialists object to his cheerful,…

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