Lewis Mumford and Modern housing

Today I’m going to live on the edge and critique Lewis Mumford, one the giants of American urban planning and sociology.  According to Wikipedia, Mumford was born in 1895 in New York City and died in 1990. As part of my research for my forthcoming book, Building American Public Health, I read his essays from the New Yorker (he was the magazine’s architecture critic for over 30 years) as well as his very influential book, The City in History.  I read many other of his writings as well.  Mumford was a founding member of New York City’s Regional Plan Association and he strongly promoted mid 20th century orthodox urban planning:  strict separation of land uses, superblocks, and rationalization of the unruly chaos of city living.  He was very concerned with crime, most of his criticism of Jane Jacobs in his review of her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, focused on what he saw as her misguided approach to crime control – the eyes on the street and 24 hour uses as ways of keeping evil doers at bay.  The essay is not easy to find and it is at times sexist, but it is worth reading.

Mumford has an interesting relationship with Modern architecture.  He was one of its early promoters and he saw the cruciform and Y-shaped building of early Modernist housing as very health promoting, mostly because they separated people from cars and provided access to sunlight and ventilation.  In contrast, he called Park Avenue a high cost slum and predicted that the apartment buildings sprouting up on the Upper East Side would never hold their value once people realized how little light and air they allowed in.

I was in New York City recently and had a chance to compare Park Avenue in the east 70s, an area with apartment buildings tight to the street, to the Chelsea Homes in the west 20s, a mid-century Modernist superblock development. It’s sad to say that Mumford had it wrong.  Fortunately, New York City public housing has held its quality over the years, even the high rise housing.  But no one who could afford it would prefer the Modernist inspired superblocks/skyscraper in the park of the Chelsea Homes to the conventional buildings of Park Avenue.  Even Mumford, to his credit, turned eventually turned against the Modernist superblock ideal of housing.

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