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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, bland leaps across space and time. Yet I often remember, and in reading Cities on the Move felt I was right so to remember, that it was while reading Toynbee on Pope Gregory VII that I first felt the thrill of being a historian. The section is called “The Nemesis of Creativity” in volume IV of the History; the subsection is “The Intoxication of Victory.” Surely the pretentious titles and manner appealed to my own adolescent pretensions, but I don’t think that was all of it.

Toynbee’s innocence and simplicity can create in him and in his reader the sense that any place and any time can be made into the present tense; he moves from Gregory VII to Harun-al-Raschid, locks into place his correlative comparison of Innocent III and Suleiman the Magnificent, and never pauses for breath. Human beings simply are not mysterious to him, nor are their dwelling places, the distant past is only yesterday. This may be folly, but it can also be exhilarating:

The highlands of Afghanistan, however, are, in wintertime, even more inclement than Persepolis and the Isle of Thanet, and consequently the Ghaznevids’ climatic problem was to escape, not the summer heat of the lowlands, but the winter cold of the highlands. The Ghaznevids were not concerned for themselves or for their human troops; these were hardy; and they could have braved highland Ghazni’s winter snows if the maintenance of their rule had depended on enduring these rigours. Actually, however, the Ghaznevids’ master-weapon was not their soldiery; it was their elephants; and, for the elephants’ sake, the Ghaznevid Court decamped, in the autumn, from Ghazni to Lashkari Bazar, far down the course of the Helmand River, where the winter climate is almost as genial as it is in the elephants’ native Hindustan.

Every gesture in that paragraph is mechanical, but those elephants! those October journeys to Lashkari Bazar! Toynbee may be oversimplifying horribly, as the professionals have told us he so often does, but then we have many other places to go to be reminded of the density and insolubility of history.

And if we feel that these glances at the Ghaznevids take us a long way from the problem of cities, Toynbee can show us that part of the reason we do so is that the problem of cities as we tend to think of it is not age-old but new. Up until the time of what Toynbee calls mechanized cities, urban centers could be created and moved about by governmental decision, and those decisions could be based on the desire to find a good climate for the military elephants. Since the end of the eighteenth century, however, cities have become more their own masters, more subject to internal rather than to external change, and considerations of climate or prestige become less important. Constantine or Shah Abbas or Peter the Great could make a great city by command, but after cities became mechanized this could not be done, as Washington, Ottawa, and Brasilia show.

As to what creates internal change in a mechanized city, Toynbee is not only innocent but incurious; the problem is so complex that he cannot even see it. Thus, the closer he comes to the present, the more his simplicity seems defective, and, perhaps sensing this, Toynbee spends little time on his mechanized cities and moves quickly into the future, about which he can once again be grand and simple, via the Monopoly board visions of the Greek planner Doxiadis. The fault is not Toynbee’s alone. We will encounter more than once this tendency to avoid casting a naked eye on the relatively recent past and the present, to go to the telescope instead.

The views offered through the telescope of Jacques Ellul are very long, like Toynbee’s, but his spirit and temperament are very different. Apparently Ellul is becoming very big as a Protestant “thinker,” which may tell us more about the times than about Ellul himself. The Committee of Southern Churchmen has edited a volume called Introducing Jacques Ellul, which has contributions by such up-to-date people as Christopher Lasch, Julius Lester, and William Stringfellow, and which stresses Ellul’s “social thought.” Ellul himself is unsparingly gloomy, convinced of the folly of all liberal politics, anxious himself to become a Jeremiah who insists that the real names for our cities are Nineveh and Babylon. His latest book, The Meaning of the City, is filled with passages like the following:

The first undeniable element in this life is due to the city’s nature as a parasite. She absolutely cannot live in and by herself. And this, moreover, characterizes all of those works of man by which he seeks autonomy. Everything takes its life from somewhere else, sucks it up. Like a vampire, it preys on the true living creation, alive in its connection with the Creator. The City is dead, made of dead things for dead people.

This kind of thing really should not be thought of as the latest thing in ideas. Some of the contributors to Introducing Jacques Ellul identify Barth and Weber as Ellul’s mentors, but most of his tone and manner can more easily be found in the generation of Ruskin and Baudelaire. Which should not seem particularly surprising, because when a late twentieth-century Christian tries to adopt a biblical mantle, he will probably sound like nothing so much as a nineteenth-century prophetic city-baiter.

Ellul himself, however, tries very hard to avoid any sense that he can be historically placed just as he wants to insist that we should not try to explain the Old Testament hatred of cities by reference simply to the historical position of the ancient Hebrews:

In order to understand the history of the city and the situation as it now exists, we must take into account not only its beginning as a human enterprise, but also the curse placed on it from its creation, a curse which must be seen as a part of its make-up, influencing its sociology and the habitat it can provide. This curse is not only that placed on the entire world, but is a special curse on the city, both as belonging to the world and in itself. It is the curse expressed from one end of the Scriptures to the other by “I will destroy, says the Lord.”

Ellul’s popularity seems to derive from his insistence that God is not only not dead, but is judging us as absolutely as he judged the worshippers of Baal and the citizens of Sodom. Christian apologetics have tended to be rather fancy, liberal, and watered-down of late, and here is someone trying to call us back to the old truths: what is wrong with the city is not its technology, its filth, its sprawl, but its very nature as man’s fortress, pride, and home; the builder of the first city is Cain.

What is most attractive for Ellul about his position is its simplicity. Read the old texts rightly and ye shall know. But surely it takes no Gibbon to point out that the Hebrew and Christian God, born (as it were) in exile and nurtured in the shadow of the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, protected by but endlessly suspicious of the Alexandrian and Roman hegemonies, is not a cosmopolitan deity. For Him cities are where men go to hide from His judgment, where they will try to build a world in which they can do without Him; even the great Hebrew citymakers, David and Solomon, will not be exempt, and if Jerusalem is an image of the Heavenly City which can be man’s ultimate reward, it also, as an historical city, is not exempt from God’s curse. But if God can never be less than angry with man’s cities, His exegetes when they try to sound like His prophets cannot avoid the terrible limitations attendant on God’s simplicity.

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