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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.

Any modern lover of cities must live in dread of their wasteful power, must wonder and worry about any future where almost all human achievements are the properties of cities, but he need not therefore be more than mildly fascinated by the fullness and sweep of Ellul’s exposition. When, as with Ellul, all cities become The City, when all periods of history become the same moment, when like Ellul we are not interested in any differences between his city, my city, and ancient Nimrod, then Armageddon may be near, but until it comes, man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority, must continue to try to make distinctions.

Such as were made, for instance, by the Israeli-born Canadian, Mosche Safdie, when he returned to Israel after his spectacular rise to fame as the designer of Habitat, symbol of Expo 67’s great success in Montreal. Safdie meets a young Israeli soldier who complains that the trouble with the Arabs is that they are bad soldiers. “That may be,” Safdie answers,

but they build so much better than we do and their towns are so much more wholesome than ours. Their art, their pottery, their clothes, their jewelry, their music is the soul of this land; there is so much we can learn from them.

Safdie had been raised in a kibbutz and the teachings of that raising had remained with him throughout his career as an architect, yet for him distinctions are still possible: the Arabs built so much better cities than the Israelis. Did not, perhaps, design them better, but lived in them better, and made their cities the expression of that living.

The shame is that this moment is unique in Safdie’s Beyond Habitat; it took a return to his homeland and a confrontation with Israel’s “new housing projects that rape the hills and the landscape” to make it happen. At that moment Safdie is looking at what is and imagining what could be by seeing what has been. The trouble with the rest of Beyond Habitat is that it tries to do too many things and so does all of them incompletely. It offers an account of the way Habitat came to be, which is mostly a kind of self-justifying gossip about predictable hassles between designers and contractors and bureaucrats.

What Safdie means to tell us is why Habitat is not the building he wanted, which is fair enough, but he neither explains in sufficient detail exactly what he wanted nor describes what seems to him good and exciting about the building that was built. One suspects that on the one hand all the old wounds caused by the infighting have not healed but that on the other Safdie is no longer really interested in Habitat and is anxious to move on.

The trouble is that he has moved on too fast. He talks briefly about housing projects and designs which could take place anywhere: San Juan, the San Francisco State campus, the deserts of Palestine, Washington, DC, New York’s east side waterfront. But once again none of the designs is described in any detail, each is reduced to a political and topographical problem, each place becomes any place. The designer has traveled so much that he has become a designer with an idea, reworking that idea in disregard of place. Safdie knows better, knows that Frank Lloyd Wright was a great builder of buildings and a lousy thinker about communities, knows that to build as wonderfully as the Arabs have built one must live long in a place and sink into it. But his early and great and deserved success has prevented him from acting upon this knowledge, or from remembering it in Beyond Habitat except occasionally.

Along the way, however, Safdie keeps us nicely abreast of certain facts and problems. He is convinced that proper designing of mass-produced modules can create a much better environment than anyone who knows the usual modern apartment house or prefabricated house can imagine, and despite Safdie’s failure to offer many details about what Habitat or his other buildings look and feel like, one can believe him. He is very clear about the advantages of pyramidal structures over those built like houses of cards, about why a frame into which prefabricated units are fit or plugged is redundant, about the terrible and expensive inefficiency and stupidity of modern building as compared to modern airplane and automobile design.

You can’t have much modernization in plumbing when it is written into union contracts that all plumbing will be as it was a generation ago. You can’t sensibly build bathrooms and kitchens when all research money is spent on tile or stoves or bathtubs and never on whole units. You can, furthermore, design many projects which are much better on the drawing board than in completed fact. Safdie is enthusiastic about all kinds of possible developments in technology, especially in building materials, but he is fully aware that the aim of his designs is not just concrete walls an inch and a half thick or perfectly designed kitchens but places for human communities.

But, unlike the Arabs he rightly admires, he has not yet slowed down long enough to realize how the poet and the implicit historian in him can be genuinely at odds with the designer in him. For long stretches in Beyond Habitat human beings are only those odd creatures who like sunlight or play space for their children or furniture and wall colors which “express” them. If the book were more technical, had more drawings and demonstrations of problems of wind stress and concrete, this would be fine, but it isn’t, because Safdie means to be wise and perceptive about human problems, and he doesn’t often enough compensate for the lack of more technical detail. And when an architect’s talk about design is neither technical enough nor sufficiently rooted in the urban worlds he knows, it can seem very self-defeating. In Safdie’s case we have an explanation—he simply tried to do too much—and have ample grounds for hoping for better books in the future.

But if Safdie offers us only glimpses of real cities, Nicholas Negroponte’s The Architecture Machine does not do even that; “design” is everything. Near the beginning Negroponte rightly notes that the architect is not “well trained to look at the whole urban scene,” nor is he “skilled at observing the needs of the particular, the family, the individual.” It is only “building-size” problems that architects handle at all well, and the result is “urban monumentalism…foisted upon us by opulent, self-important institutions.”

That is well said, and very much worth saying, enough to justify our going a long way with Negroponte into his labyrinths. Negroponte feels that the architect needs a machine that can correct him, that can discuss with him things he can intuit but cannot satisfactorily realize, that can remind him of all that he enthusiastically leaves out. Well, Mosche Safdie is a very good architect, but he is guilty enough of Negroponte’s charge against architects that he, and we, might pay attention to Negroponte’s idea of a machine that “problem worries” rather than “problem solves.”

To show that this idea is not just fanciful, Negroponte describes at some length a machine he helped design a few years ago called URBAN5. It was developed from an IBM 2250 computer, and worked with both words and graphics. URBAN5, for instance, had a heading called ACTIVities under which it was asked to consider a number of simple design qualities, each one of which had to be explained to it exactly as its makers wanted: age groups, play space, shady areas, times of day, noise levels, etc. When a new activity, like playing football or cocktail parties, was described to the machine, it then ran through all its programmed design qualities and decided whether the activity and the qualities were compatible: Can you play football on a shady veranda? Does the average sized cocktail party destroy the privacy of the nearest neighbor?

The machine gradually learns a vocabulary and contexts in which its words and pictures can be used in ways that make sense to it. It probably could not learn from what it is told about football and cocktail parties that some people when drunk are likely to start throwing footballs on a shady veranda, but, had it been told this, it could be expected to store this information so that it could bring it to bear in some other context in which people are getting drunk.

I have never seen an IBM 2250 and Negroponte does not stop to explain its mechanics and capacities, so there is a good deal in his descriptions which I simply have to take on faith. Furthermore, URBAN5 was built as a research project and never had any capacity to handle what might be called the real world, for which more sophisticated machines will be necessary. But Negroponte makes quite clear the outlines of what he thinks is possible: a machine that evolves as it comes to learn and understand the human being with whom it talks so that its virtues will not be those we usually associate with machines—computational figuring and reminding—but, those we associate with friends or colleagues—anticipation, hesitating, counterproposing. The task for the architecture machine is to enter into a dialogue with the designer so that nothing is overlooked and hierarchies of fact and value can be established. Negroponte begins his book by admitting that the machines he wants do not exist yet, but he says enough about those that do exist to make clear that their shortcomings lie in their crudities, not in their theoretical incapacities. Machines that can see and hear are with us already, though they are only babies; machines that can show us what we had not known or perhaps even imagined are on their way.

The question is, what will they see? For Negroponte the essential problems of “design” are like those raised by Mosche Safdie in his lesser moments; they are abstract matters of form and behavioristic amenity. If Negroponte’s architecture machine does not see and worry about different problems from these, then we may find we have moved out of the various pasts created for us by the likes of Toynbee and Ellul and into the futures imagined by the likes of Safdie and Negroponte without ever quite knowing where we are now or seeing our urban world rightly.

Ellul creates cities under a terrible but indefinite curse; Negroponte creates dialogue between men and machines intent on designing away everything except original sin. Both past and future seem too simple, too easily reduced to system and drawing board, too oblivious of that which the naked eye can see. All four writers seem implicitly arrogant, though of arrogance in its usual sense only Ellul is guilty. By this I mean a fatal tendency to imagine more is seen and understood than really is. Toynbee and Ellul subject all cities of the past to the same simplifying historical perspective, Safdie and Negroponte look at spaces and shapes and tend to call what they see the world, or as much of it as they will be professionally concerned with. It has taken a great deal of writing like this to make everyone forget what he knows as matters of common sense: cities are dense, massive, entangled, extraordinarily difficult to understand.

The primary antidote to this implicit arrogance is to give up the distant past and the future, the things about which we know so little except patterns that we can be tempted to ignore our ignorance. The recent past and the present do not admit of easy simplification because what we know of them tends to be blurry, contradictory, and bewildering, and because the naked eye can come into play. We are usually confronted with two kinds of evidence, social scientific analysis and personal testimony, patterns and lore, and one trouble with this evidence is that what is often too small, too detailed, too eccentric to be measured in patterns is still too large and confusing to be recorded well in personal testimony.

For instance, I spend three months in London and am endlessly fascinated. This is what a city should be: dense, various, a city where expertise is still a matter of experience rather than a function of the educational system, a city where elegance and plainness can both mingle and sort themselves out, where perspectives offered by different historical periods are endlessly and unself-consciously available. Yes, the man who is tired of London is tired of life. Yet in every newspaper and magazine, from every Londoner and every American who knows the city better than I, comes a clear verdict: London is dying, dead, the whorish queen of an empire gone welfare. So I recoil, and then reply by asking why people don’t know the blindness of such certainty. Don’t they know that a hundred years ago every intelligent and farseeing man in London was saying the same thing and producing as his evidence Victorian London, a city we now find anything from interesting to priceless? But they are not interested, they have the evidence: London is strangling itself with traffic, its schools are stupid and overcrowded, its housing is deplorable beyond the dreams of Harlem, its governmental machinery puts latter-day Byzantium to shame.

Fortunately, for me and I hope for the pattern-makers too, London is blessed with a writer who really knows the city, and in ways that do not ignore or abjure social scientific analysis or personal testimony. Ian Nairn, author of Nairn’s London, is practically unknown in this country. Someone who read Nairn without ever having seen London would not know how accurate are his off-hand, impressionistic descriptions, but he would see on every page Nairn’s fascination and absorption with his city, his many ways of making available his sense of history and its cunning passages. One selection is hardly enough to show this, but here is his description of the waterfront at Twickenham:

It begins only a few yards from the clogged shopping centre, down Water Lane or Bell Lane. There was some bombing here, and the area has been left to decay instead of being put on its feet again. The borough council now have comprehensive proposals for comprehensive beastliness: long may they be postponed. Straight away, there is the footbridge to Eel Pie Island, quite an elegant concrete design (1957) that is not wearing too well. Eel Pie Island is one of the private worlds that London excels in and that modern planning abhors. No cars, but boatyards, shacks, every man his own eccentric. One of them, Hurley Cottage, is so pretty and so beautifully painted in blue and white that it would be worth a special visit to Twickenham on its own account. Places like this produced the kind of person that sailed the little boats across to Dunkirk and we’d better not forget it.

Mind and landscape, feeling and history, brought into single focus, on the page and in the scene when one looks at it. One can be delighted and pleased at Toynbee’s elephants, but know that that knowledge leads to nothing; one can feel in reading Nairn one’s own capacity to see and know being challenged and therefore growing.

Not that Nairn need serve as a necessary model; in this context he is offered mostly as a possibility and as an implicit criticism of those who see their cities through telescopes. In this respect many journalists and planners are perhaps even more guilty than the long-range historians and the shortsighted designers, but because most bad journalism is simply ignored while bad planning often leads to bad everything else, maybe the onus should fall most heavily on them here. What Nairn’s London offers is also offered by Augie March’s Chicago and Jane Jacobs’s New York: a vision so dense that we learn why in great cities all planning should be on as small a scale as possible.

Change anything in the city and you are apt to change a great deal; widening a street, putting in a fountain, rezoning a block, all can have considerable consequences, and these things should be undertaken only by people having a genuine claim to knowing the area in question so well they can at least hope to be able to calculate the consequences of a plan. In past years my neighbor’s basketball hoop has been a magnet for kids who come from as far away as eight blocks to shoot baskets, talk, and remake their social selves. The kids tended to be both older and blacker than those who lived on the street, and so tended to dominate the street life.

Within the last year the hoop has come down, the street is deserted most of the time, and the kids who live on the street are freer to play there. The black kids who live on the street now go elsewhere to play. The younger among those remaining are delighted at the change, but some of the older ones are not so sure, and I am inclined to agree with them. We have a quieter street, a less bothersome street, but that silence can be ominous. I then turn for confirmation to a neighborhood south of mine, about which; I must confess, I don’t know a great deal. I drive in it a lot and know people who live there, but most of what I know is patterns: the burglary rate is the highest in the city, higher than in my own; in the public schools in that neighborhood the affluent have been at war with the poor and the black, again even more than in my neighborhood.

If I accept those patterns, I then can assert that one possible consequence of the loss of the basketball hoop on my street is an increase in the burglary rate. There are no such hoops or their equivalents, at least that I can see, in the neighborhood to the south. That’s just the kind of thing there wouldn’t be because the hoop provided for a mixing of ages and races and income levels; the mixing was far from being entirely harmonious, but it did work well most of the time.

When the silence on the street seems ominous I may be overestimating the value of such mixing, and I may be accepting too easily the patterns offered me by the neighborhood to the south. But in this context that is of secondary importance. The point is that no one living more than a block away would consider that basketball hoop as a planning matter in the first place, and so they would be oblivious to the possible consequences of its being up or down. And it is precisely this kind of mistake, this failure to see what is and is not crucial in any given area, that I myself may be making when thinking about an area that I “know” but in which I do not live.

The scale on which I am trying to consider things here is terribly small because it seems to me necessary that most of our thinking about planning take place on such a scale. The moment I move very far from my street I am more likely to accept patterns as truth; the moment I move outside my own city I am the victim of the few things I see and the few people I talk to; I suspect the reason I loved Atlanta and hated Detroit in a short visit to both cities was as much the vagaries of the weather as anything else. What is scary is the thought that so much of what is written and planned about our cities is the result of people believing that personal experience of that sort, or statistical analysis, is all we need or can have.

Of course we will have planners, just as we will have mayors and governors and presidents, and we know these men will make decisions on the basis of almost hopelessly inadequate information. For having sought and gained positions almost totally isolated from all that might help them in their deciding and planning, such men earn our occasional contempt, our occasional pity, and our obligation to tell them whenever they seem to have chosen well or ill concerning those few areas about which we really know something. In these matters, “areas” cannot be a metaphor, because cities take place in literal space, because each one must be known slowly and carefully.

Arnold Toynbee is probably always going to be a gatherer of lore on file cards, so being a world traveler is all right for him, though it is a shame that most public officials will learn about cities in Toynbee’s way. More can be expected of Mosche Safdie, however, and so he must be urged to settle for Montreal, or Jerusalem, or some one place, where his intelligence and sensitivity can lead to places for people to live in that are, like the Arab music, the soul of the land. If and when he does this he will be able rightly to use the architecture machines Nicholas Negroponte is going to build. For the wonderful thing about Negroponte’s machines is that they acknowledge their ignorance, they learn their patterns only by seeing and hearing and discovering gradually what is relevant for a particular situation. This acknowledging, this learning, this discovering, is what makes them problem worriers rather than problem solvers, and that makes all the difference.

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