by Eric Mumford. Yale University Press, May 2018. 360 p. ill. ISBN 9780300207729 (h/c), $40.00.
Reviewed September 2018
Eric Mumford, a licensed architect and professor of architecture and urban design at Washington University in St. Louis, has authored and edited a number of books on mid-century modern architecture in St. Louis, CIAM (the International Congresses of Modern Architecture), and architect and long-time (1953-1969) dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Josep Lluís Sert.
With a history of modern urban design survey course clearly in mind, Mumford situates the present work within a field of literature bounded by the writings of Francoise Choay, Leonardo Benevolo, Lewis Mumford, Manfredo Tafuri, Spiro Kostof, Peter Hall, and Stephen Ward. Mumford notes, “What is still needed, and what this book provides, is an overall account of the major efforts by designers to shape urban form around the world since the nineteenth century, combining social, economic, and political history with a clear focus on specific design ideas and their built outcomes.”
Designing the Modern City is, in fact, something new and worthwhile, an impressive achievement in both synthesis and narrative, making the sorts of connections that reveal relationships rather than ascribe them academically. Mumford traces ever-widening networks of ‘beholdens’ among educated elites and design practitioners over more than a century and a half, grounding these in European imperial and American patterns which he holds up as the models for global patterns, however transformed to accommodate local conditions. Chapters trace the emergence of modern urbanism in nineteenth-century Europe; city building in the Americas and the City Beautiful movement; housing reform and regional planning as responses to the stresses of industrialization and technological advances; and avant-garde influences in the 1920s and 1930s. Next, Mumford examines CIAM-led modernism at mid-century; the global spectrum of second-generation and post-CIAM critiques in the second half of the twentieth century; and ends with the varieties of traditionalist and/or ecologically-minded rejections of Modernism in recent decades.
The key figures and movements in this history are familiar: Haussmann, Cerda, Sitte, Olmsted, Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes, Le Corbusier, Sert, Henri Lefebvre, Aldo Rossi, multiple variants of CIAM, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and more—each presented in the context of antecedents, successors, and critics.
The book’s textbook attributes, however, undermine the potential impact of Mumford’s scholarship in niggling but consequential ways. Instead of footnotes, each chapter ends with a short list of titles for “Further Reading.” Maps, diagrams, and photos illustrations are distributed unevenly across the chapters and are often grainy and blurry due to over-enlargement or reduction to an illegible size. There is a good index, but no bibliography, and the book’s one and a half-page conclusion is less than conclusive. Nonetheless, this is a useful text for any architecture, urbanism, or history collection.