Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00

1895-1990

Lewis Mumford

By Ada Louise Huxtable

This is not a personal tribute because I did not know Lewis Mumford personally. My contacts with him were limited to an occasional note from Olympus in his later years, and if he approved of something I had done, it changed the color of my days. In fact, Lewis Mumford changed my life. As a student in a field where no curriculum existed, obsessed with the art and history of buildings and cities in a solitary, passionate and unprogrammed way, I read Mumford—the early Mumford who wrote so perceptively on the built world— and found not only an obsession shared but a way of looking at places as setting and incubator for all human endeavor;  an overreaching view, perhaps, but no one before had so brilliantly analyzed how cities and their structures become the measure and expression of our beliefs, achievements, and personal and public values, how buildings can demean or ennoble those who use them; no one had ever succeeded in making it so very clear that we are all touched, or formed, by a process, and a product, of enormous complexity with profound human and social implications. We are, he taught us, quite literally, our own keepers, by what we build and how we build it; by this inescapable art we enrich or impoverish our lives.

This is really the tribute of a generation for whom Mumford was teacher and model, and for all who have come after us, including those who are busy recording his faults and failures. Because even revisionist critics, endowed with infallible hindsight, are dealing with the world according to Lewis Mumford, with his vision of cities in a larger context of design, history, and humanity. He defined architecture as an art in the service of society, as an instrument of the highest human achievement. This point of view has fallen out of fashion among postmodernist architects—I suspect there are no postmodernist planners—but it is regaining currency now. Some of his ideals were too fragile or flawed to survive. His insistent and sonorous warnings—for him cities were also morality tales, the battleground of good and evil—lost meaning in an era of increasing material pragmatism. What has outlived the sermons is an impeccable eye for the art and beauty of building; an eye informed by aesthetics and reason and an intensely personal kind of scholarship. The insights and cogency of his architectural criticism could not be matched, then or now. Intent on defining the American contribution in literature and the arts in company with other intellectuals of the day, he wrote books that pioneered American studies in architecture and urbanism, Sticks and Stones, and The Brown Decades. The Culture of Cities and The City in History are enduring volumes that give an unparalleled overview of the cultural origins of modern industrial society. He did not pretend to objective scholarship; he wrote history as criticism, based on a remarkable synthesis of existing knowledge, current trends, and firsthand observation. It is hortatory history, aimed at improving the quality of modern life, as Mumford saw it, or as he thought it should be.

Although his prophecies misfired, the results he predicted are not far off the mark. He simply fingered the wrong agents of doom. While he railed against the machine as a leveler of spontaneous culture and destroyer of the soul, the job of reduction and standardization was being done quietly and relentlessly, with the enthusiastic cooperation of its victims, by the far more banal and efficient means of consumerism—megamarketing and the megamall—the twin instruments of a homogenized culture of megamediocrity. What Mumford never understood was that this, and the little houses with their backyard barbecues that he ridiculed in richly formal prose, was the real American dream.

But if history is often irony, Mumford is not a casualty of the perversities of change. His distinct and original gifts become more apparent with time. He will continue to illuminate our age for future generations. What sets him apart are his extraordinary insights, intellectual vigor and compelling humanity. This is a life, and a work, that are, quite simply, unique.

Read at the Institute Dinner Meeting on April 3, 1990.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters