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Lost Worlds

Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment

by Eugene Victor Walter
University of North Carolina Press, 253 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Architecture of Exile

by Stanley Tigerman
Rizzoli, 192 pp., $35.00

All three books under review, though each in a quite different way, are concerned with man’s loss of a religious attitude toward his environment. They seem to imply that the end of the old cosmologies and the weakening of the old religions have deprived us of the power to situate ourselves in relation to the moving forces of the universe. Losing hold on man’s place in the cosmos has had, they say, disintegrating effects on the way we make our local habitats. According to Joseph Rykwert, “We have lost all the beautiful certainty about the way the world works.” For him this has had especially deplorable results for our cities, which have lost the religious defenses against disorder and squalor enjoyed by their predecessors in the ancient world. He sees the religious and cultural traditions that preserved the buildings and cities of ancient and medieval civilization as irreparably destroyed:

The arbitrary forms thrown up by harassed planners and architects are evolved on an irrational residue, motivated by unstated spiritual as well as aesthetic prejudice whose very irrationality contributes further to the instability of the community.

E.V. Walter holds the more optimistic position that “the archaic way of seeing, thinking and caring is not lost,” although he thinks that science, and especially social science, has gone a long way toward destroying it. Stanley Tigerman, the most pessimistic of the three, and the closest to revealed religion, is gloomy about our prospects for recovering spiritual health. He thinks that the kind of search for origins that the other two authors have pursued is doomed to failure, and that the only way forward is through scrupulous, devout attention to biblical texts. Or so I interpret his message, which is put in language that I find far from clear.

E.V. Walter’s Placeways is the most attractive and accessible of the three books under review, although the philosophy on which its conclusions are based is hard to accept in detail. Walter discusses prehistoric caves, Renaissance cities, and modern slums, among many other places, all by way of expounding a “holistic” theory of the way people authentically experience the places they live. He maintains that

in ordinary life, some people still do grasp a place as a whole through a balanced experience of intellect, common sense, feeling, and imagination. Our technical languages, however, do not express the unity and coherence of this holistic experience, which gets factored away by geography, local history, architecture, city planning, sociology, environmental psychology, and so forth. Fragmenting the experience of place in the abstractions of the special disciplines reinforces the split between our methods of feeling and our methods of thinking. It also spoils the human environment, vitiating our ability to build and inhabit good houses, communities, and cities, because the conventional ways of thinking about houses and urban space do not grasp the reality of places as wholes.

He tends to identify this process of fragmentation with the intellectual inheritance of Aristotle, and he wants to offer the reader a Platonist antidote.

The kind of “environmental degradation” that especially concerns Walter is the loss of meaning that he finds in conventional thinking about town and country planning. “For the first time in human history, people are systematically building meaningless places.” For Walter, feeling and imagination are at the core of the way in which we apprehend “topistic reality,” or what might be called the nature and characteristics of places. He aims to correct our approach to the environment through a mental integrity that balances intellect, common sense, and imagination. He rejects the intellectual assumptions of social science and its idiom of “social problems,” which seem to him mere “graveyards of inert ideas.” He criticizes people who have a merely manipulative approach to the environment, and regard it at best as an organism that must be made to serve their needs, and who fail to take account of the interdependence and interpenetration of things that together confer their individual nature upon a place.

Walter’s book tries to offer a point of view and a vocabulary (“theoretical resources”) to people who are seeking a new way to look at the built environment and the natural (as he calls it) landscape. He especially commends to them the sense of place he attributes to archaic cultures, from that of the paleolithic artists of the French and Spanish caves to the dream world of the Australian aborigines. However, ancient Greece is his central reference point, and the core of his argument is that Plato, as he interprets him, believed places to contain a complex of immanent powers and energies. Wherever he touches on Plato, he emphasizes the elements in Plato’s thought that insist that the apprehension of truth needs qualities that are not primarily intellectual.

Walter’s treatment of Plato’s theory of knowledge, an austere subject, is not quite rigorous enough to carry conviction. It is, for example, very hard to identify in the Phaedrus the full-blown doctrine of the affective energy of sacred places that he sees in it. Walter also sees Aristotelianism not only in a hostile but in a rather fluffy manner. To make Aristotle’s philosophy the single parent of Newtonian physics and modern science is too loose for a philosophical argument, and too much in the spirit of William Blake’s taking the bad angel into a stinking pit containing the moldy skeleton of Aristotle’s Analytics. Some people may assent to Walter’s doctrine of the immanent energies of places, but it is hard to see how they could be persuaded by his philosophical argument alone.

As a critic of urban life Walter is in the tradition of Lewis Mumford, and therefore in the tradition of Ruskin and Carlyle. He seems drawn to the Victorian sentimentalism about the Middle Ages and would like to see it revived. Still, to judge from the way he cites a modern study of an Anglo-Saxon industrial slum in Thetford, he is uneasily aware that the Victorian myth of the Middle Ages was founded on fictions that no self-respecting modern medievalist would tolerate. He reproduces an engraving by Pugin, that prince of visual romancers, of a “medieval alms house.” Neither Pugin nor Walter mentions that the Pugin’s alms house is an idealized representation of the Hospital of St. Cross at Winchester, still less do they remark that Cardinal Beaufort’s refoundation of the hospital was not for the indigent poor but for distressed gentlefolk.

Walter also follows Mumford in praising the social equality reflected in the topography of medieval cities, in which rich and poor were not usually segregated into different quarters. It is true that the quarters of medieval cities often owed their identities either to the region of origin or to the trades of their inhabitants, or to the powerful family that dominated them; apart from those in newly cleared thoroughfares, the rich were not clearly separated from the poor. But it must be added that the big housing groups, often like small villages, in which the rich lived were literally fortified against the rest of the city (in Italy they were often “towers,” in London “castles”). Great displays of civic solidarity were made for the big religious festivals, but most medieval cities were as cozy socially as rattraps, as can be verified from reading Dante about Florence. Walter’s apology that “hatred and repugnance added meaning to the texture of daily interaction” is feeble.

Medieval societies were not kind to the poor, as Walter thinks; they were harsh and often cruel. In Henry II’s England wandering men were mutilated and exiled even if found innocent of crime. Walter shows too much indulgence for medieval conditions, ignoring the frequency of internecine feuds and claustrophobic squalor. He manages, in a long discussion of plague in medieval cities, which were thereby rendered “bad places,” to disregard the fact that plague often killed as high a proportion of the population in the countryside as in the towns. The hideous and frequent combination of famine and epidemic that affected these old societies, known to modern historians as “demographic crisis,” seems to have passed Walter by, along with other things that do not fit with the rosy Victorian-socialist view of the old order.

Though Walter makes mistakes, they are warmhearted ones. He sometimes wins over the reader by his very inconsistencies; for example, having gone to Manchester, the historical seat of the wicked industrial city stigmatized by Engels, Walter fell in love with the enemy. Poor old Manchester of the 1970s, its industries gone, its heart bombed out, its low-grade housing being demolished in favor of concrete boxes—all this inspired affection in Walter, not contempt; and even a protective love of the brokendown neighborhoods that the planners were then busy in leveling. I suspect that Walter would approve of the conduct of a bright student I have heard of at the prestigious Manchester Business School, who quit his courses and went to live in the ruinous Moss Side nearby, where practically no one had a job within a radius of two miles.

Walter’s feeling for the particularity of places, for what he calls their “expressive space,” is impressive and convincing. His peculiar gift is not to suggest or to describe places, but to stimulate thought about the manner in which we conceive them. He writes:

Once, standing in a crowded lift inside the Manchester Central Reference Library, I heard one passenger ask another, “What is Crimble?” The other replied, “Crimble is a place—a place in the world.” The world and its places, I mused. I never did discover Crimble, but the fragment of conversation served as a catalyst. What could one say about Crimble, I wondered, or about any other place, to describe it, capture its qualities, and reveal its meaning? The dialogue in the lift set me thinking about the world and its places, and how we represent them. For some reason that still puzzles me, my whole self tuned in to the whole experience of Manchester, communicated by the living and the dead, expressed in its streets, buildings, and people, as well as in the old books, maps, and pictures. The images of Manchester that flooded my consciousness are not private fantasies. I did not invent them. They inhabit the collective imagination.

Walter’s feeling for space is justified by a Platonic realism that is hard to swallow; but his argument for a total, personal response to places has deep roots in our culture, and is hard to reject out of hand. It is true that a large part of our lives is taken up by the emotions we feel for places, either as we know them or as we remember them. He is quite right in saying that by ignoring these feelings common to all, social scientists and urban planners make new wildernesses in our cities. Walter’s message is broadly conservationist and populist: he insists that we should not demolish what is old, ugly, or run-down, if ordinary people live there and are happy there. How he wants to handle the more prosperous parts of town is much less clear, though redevelopment is clearly not his favorite word.

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