Cities of a Civilization

September 1, 2012 § 3 Comments

Cities in Civilization (Hall, Sir Peter)

Books are like cities. Some are sprawling but empty, like Wrangell, Alaska; some are small and densely packed, like Bogor or Titagarh; some are opulent but soulless, like Dubai, some clever, like Singapore; some raw and intense, like Mumbai, some languid and easy-paced, like Geneva or Mysore; some efficiently planned and logically organized, like Frankfurt, others chronically chaotic like Pune. There are books that are amazing ways to spend a vacation, books that are great to visit but no more than once; books that you keep going back to; and then there are a few books that you can live in all your life.

And then, of course, there are a few books that are massive, and bewilderingly overcrowded, and clever, and opulent and organized and chaotic at once: somewhat like New York. This is one such book.

Sir Peter Hall’s Wikipedia entry calls him a town planner, urbanist and geographer, but if this book is any evidence, he is a pretty nifty historian as well. Over a thousand pages, Hall regales us with the history of cities and golden ages, but also with that of ancient Athenian drama, of art in Renaissance Florence, of Bohemian Paris, fin de siecle Vienna and between-wars Berlin, of playhouses in Elizabethan London, of Glaswegian shipbuilding, Mancunian manufacturing, the Detroit auto industry, the Memphis music industry, the Silicon Valley revolution in nineties – and much more.

Vast, congested and awe-inspiring: The book that is New York City (courtesy: Mr. Thorngren’s blog –

Through all this, Hall tries to ask and answer the question, what makes a city great? To his credit, he doesn’t start out with a grand theory or formula, but tries to evolve hypotheses by establishing common themes from his case studies. These common themes include uneven distributions of wealth, conspicuous consumption, an evolving system of values that originally rated civic beauty highly, then rated civic order above all else, and now rates convenience and efficiency of commerce as its highest ethic. Further, Hall documents societies in transition, the influx of fresh ideas and talent from other cities; and above all, critical circumstances that forced a generation of people to collaborate and innovate.

Not every city that faced a crisis was great; but every great city faced crises, and faced them with innovative responses. Hall’s great city is nothing but a nucleus of feverish creative activity in times of opportunity or despair. To this end, he links the rise and decline of great cities to Kondratieff waves and other theories of innovation by Joseph Schumpeter, Francois Perroux and Philippe Aydalot, to the philosophies of Jeremy Bentham, Gunnar Myrdal and von Hayek, to colorful characters who shaped cities with their will and personality, like Georges-Eugene Haussmann in Paris, Edwin Chadwick in London, and Lewis Mumford in New York.

I drifted through Hall’s magnum opus like an open-mouthed first-time tourist to a modern megalopolis like London. I was presented, in order, with the art, the technology, the businesses, and finally with the intricacies of town planning itself –challenges presented by congestion, sewage systems, water supply, or transportation, and the political battles involved in responding to these challenges. Like the tourist, I found it all a bit overwhelming and intimidating. I could not wrap my head around it, to comprehend and possess it completely, and had to content myself with familiarity with some landmarks, a few weeks’ worth of memories, and a mental promise to return at some point.

I did have one fairly sizeable bone to pick with the book. Hall calls his book Cities in Civilization, but it is only one civilization that he has in mind. Greatness is debated, defined and extolled within the narrow set of bourgeois values that constitutes western civilization from medieval times to the present – with a nod to Athens and Rome, the ideological forefathers of this civilization. The section on the electronics industry of Tokyo is the only exception to this rule – along with a blink-and-you-miss-it mention of modern Singapore. This is unfortunate: a history of cities is surely incomplete without representation of all cultural, social, economic and political paradigms. When speaking of modern cities, it is inexcusable to miss Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, MumbaiSao Paolo, Manila and a dozen others. When taking an historical view, it is hard to  countenance the absence of Babylon, Mauryan Pataliputra, Ptolemaic Alexandria, 6th century Constantinople, Haroun al Rashid’s Baghdad, the walled city of Samarqand on the Silk Road, the poets’ city of Herat, the bustling boom town Timbuktu of the 15th century, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Lucknow and the Macchu Picchu of the Incas. Perhaps it is foolish to expect to fit all this into a single book, or even a dozen books. But to the extent that the author had pretensions of universality, as evidenced by his title, Cities in Civilization must be branded a failure, albeit a heroic one.

I have compared books with cities throughout this post. Both are integral components of a civilization. I suspect Hall would find the metaphor apt – after all, he calls San Francisco the world’s first post-modern city – but I must end with a different analogy. Lewis Mumford, in his pioneering classic, The Culture of Cities, a book that has clearly inspired Peter Hall and many others, says this as part  of a withering critique of the efforts of the town planners of his time:

“The ‘Plan for New York and its Environs’ is a badly conceived pudding into which a great many ingredients, some sound, some dubious, have been poured and mixed: the cooks tried to satisfy every appetite and taste, and the guiding thought in selecting the pudding-dish was that it should ‘sell’ one pudding to the diners, specially to those who paid the cooks. The mixture is as a whole is indigestible and tasteless: but here and there is a raisin or a large piece of citron that can be extracted and eaten with relish. In the long run, let us hope, this is how the pudding will be remembered”

Mumford’s culinary metaphor can be extended to both cities and books (and to books about cities). A civilization is defined by its cuisine, as well as by its books and cities. Some meals, like some cities and books, are heavily meaty, some spicy, some wholesome, some bland. What Peter Hall serves is a sumptuous ten course meal that left me gasping and slightly green around the gills. The ingredients are well-chosen and fresh, the proportions just right, and the chef a maestro; there was champagne to wash it all down. My only regret is it wasn’t a balanced meal.


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