October 19, 2015
The most celebrated book of gifted American urbanist and critic LEWIS MUMFORD (1895–1990) is The City in History, the 1961 study which firmly established the legacy of perhaps the greatest writer on the built environment the world has ever known. But already in 1944, in The Condition of Man, Mumford had demonstrated the largeness of vision he could command when it came to anthropology of modern existence. His views on technology are prescient and yet shamefully unacknowledged by the current run of free-market gadgeteers and libertarian techno-prophets. The conflict between “megatechnics” and “biolivability” characterize the age, with ever more complex and self-replicating systems threatening the basic conditions of human flourishing. All of this is awesome and magisterial, but it is worth recalling the young Mumford as well, cutting his teeth as a committed street-level architecture critic for The New Yorker, a position he would hold for three distinguished decades. Here, in the magazine’s “Sky Line” columns and an occasional brash autobiographical foray — the best posthumously collected in Sidewalk Critic (1998) — a single corner storefront or automat could excite Mumford’s vast imagination as much as a towering skyscraper or urban megaproject. Now that’s being a city man!
READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).