The Golden Flame Flickers Most Brightly In Cities


BOOK FACTS: Cities in Civilization, by Sir Peter Hall. Pantheon Books, New York, 1998. (Pantheon is a division of Random House). First published in Great Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. 1,169 pages.

Thanks to Peter Hall, I know a lot more about theater, music and the formation of democracy. I know a lot more about shipbuilding, computers, car-making, movie-making and the birth of rock and roll. I know a lot more about electronics, painting, cotton-spinning and the printing press.

I also know a lot more about cities, although at first I wasn’t sure. Was studying the fusion of blues and country music in Memphis in the 1930s studying cities? But Hall has changed my definitions.

He has written a curious book, which, by the way, just happens to be a masterpiece. It is a huge tome of a book, a doorstop, weighing in at four pounds on my bathroom scales, a mere 1,200 pages, including footnotes. It is Hall’s life work, the probable conclusion to a long and distinguished career of writing more than 25 books, most of them about cities. Sir Peter Hall, already knighted for his contribution to his native England, took 15 years to think it up, research, and write it.

I say it is curious because Hall has written what is basically a history of creativity, using cities as a connective theme. Rather than talk about finely-built churches or elegant streets, the usual stuff of city study, Hall talks of what cities produce — their art, culture, technology, science and industry. Only in the last of the volume’s four books, does Hall talk about sewers, streets, water lines, and growth patterns, which I think of as the basics of city study.

Hall’s thesis is that most innovation in art, science, philosophy and everything else comes out of urban centers in short, dramatic bursts, usually just lasting a generation or two. These intense flowerings produce most human forward momentum.

Why did democracy, humanistic philosophy and the dramatic arts explode out of Athens in 400 B.C.? Why did painters and sculptors rediscover the naturalism of ancient Greece in Florence in 1400? Why did dozens of men, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, suddenly write hundreds of great plays in a short 40 year epoch in London around 1600? Why did the best and most innovative work in computers come out of the Silicon Valley in our present era?

Why indeed?

Hall takes these short epochs — New York at the turn of the century, Detroit at the birth of the car, the creation of socialist Stockholm in 1950, in all 21 city epochs — and lays them out for the reader. He asks the question, Where, and why there? and then seeks answers thoroughly. And I do mean thoroughly.

In asking why impressionism, post-impressionism and cubism all came out of Paris between 1870 and 1910, Hall tells a concise history of art, delving into the backgrounds of not just Picasso, but dozens of other painters, tracing how they arrived at Paris to begin revolutionizing what it means to put color and lines on canvas.

With shipbuilding in Glasgow, Hall tells us a history of the steam engine, a geology lesson on the importance of coal deposits near the city, and a discourse on the shift from wooden to iron shipbuilding.

With the rock and roll in Memphis, Hall tells how the fusion of negro blues and white country music produced Elvis Presley, which of course includes discussing the differences between African polytonalities and the diatonic European scale.

Whatever you are reading about, Hall takes you deep, deep inside. Did you know that the great Japanese electronic firm, NEC — Nippon Electric Corporation — was founded by Western Electric, the American company, in 1899? I learned this reading about the rise of electronic industry outside Tokyo at the turn of the century.

The book is a masterpiece not only because of the astonishing range and depth of Hall’s writing, but because he begins to answer his question Where, and why there? He begins to outline the murky shape of what defines the conditions of creativity.

At first glance, Cities in Civilization seems like a companion and answer to Lewis Mumford’s great master works of the 1938 and 1961, The Culture of Cities and The City in History. But while all three books are huge, and both authors trace cities through time, Mumford’s story is much more rooted in the physical world. He makes you see the design of cities, their architecture, and even when spinning heady theories about social order, he traces them back to things like density, streets and regional growth patterns.

Hall, on the other hand, sometimes ignores the physical world completely. In writing about the Silicon Valley, Hall expends hardly a word about the Santa Clara valley’s disjointed, sprawling, automobile-oriented form. Instead, he tells how William Shockley moving from Boston to Palo Alto in 1954 and founded the modern electronics industry.

Rather than rhyming with Mumford, Cities in Civilization compares better to a smaller, but similar book, Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air (Simon & Schuster 1982). Like Hall, Berman is fascinated with why creative people emerge from particular places and time. Like Hall, he comes up with some similar explanations.

Both Berman and Hall concludes that creativity often depends on a kind of dissonance between observer and observed, an interplay between the status of outsider and insider. Berman says great literature often comes out of developing countries, like Argentina in this century or Russia in the last, because their intelligentsia gained a magnified perspective on the human condition by being aware of a vast world of ideas, but living in a poverty-ridden, earth-bound place.

Hall says creative people are often in a place, but not completely of it. Hall documents the incredible achievements of the Jewish bourgeoise elite in Vienna around 1900, who were almost, but not completely, integrated into the local culture. In ancient Athens, Hall informed me that a peculiar group labeled metics produced much of the art and philosophy. Metics were a kind of resident alien, not slaves, yet not fully citizens. Both Hippocrates and Herodotus, the founders of medicine and the study of history, were metics.

In addition to being the work of outsiders, Hall sketches other common conditions about where great things are likely to happen, which I loosely sum up here.

One, paradoxically, is disorder. Creative places tend to be swirling, often violent places, where social order is present but changing rapidly. The masters in renaissance Florence, for example, worked in a context of violent family feuds, political divisions, continual warfare and bloodshed.

Second: Great places at great times become so by being magnets for creative people of a particular bent. Paris sucked in potentially great painters from all over Europe, trained them, and then spat them out to the world as masters. The Silicon Valley today does the same with computer people. New York City, of course, has functioned like this for most of its existence in a wide variety of endeavors.

Third: The state usually fertilizes the soil of innovation, whether it be in shipbuilding or painting. The unaided Free Market is largely an illusion. French kings sponsored the great salons of art which first made Paris the capital of art in Europe, and which then provided a backboard for the impressionist to rebel against. Federal defense money underpinned the initial university and industrial computer work in the Silicon Valley.

Fourth: The group is as important as the individual. Even a Shakespeare or a Picasso does not act alone, but comes out of a big bunch of people working on the same challenges in the same time and place. Even a genius needs the shoulders of others to stand on.

Fifth: Money matters. Most creative periods either produced or were funded by great increases in the wealth. More money not only funds luxuries like art, but tends to produce the violent social change that fuels new perspectives.

Still, despite the rules, you can never predict just where great things are going to happen. Great creative epochs are like love affairs, which erupt suddenly, gather great speed and energy, and then quickly burn out. Which leads to another conclusion of Hall’s: great epochs are not sustainable. The necessary dissonance between a stable social or economic order, and a creative group of outsiders who challenge it, cannot last.

Hall’s thesis is fascinating. I could think of only one example to contradict it, but it’s a big one: The American revolution and U.S. Constitution. Founding a new nation in 1776 based on democracy, without queens or kings, that separated church from state and guaranteed personal liberty, was obviously a very big deal. Where did it come from?

Many of the most important thinkers and actors behind the American experiment came from Virginia, then an agrarian, plantation-centered land with virtually no cities at all. Because of the economics of plantations, the planters shipped their tobacco and cotton directly to England from their own wharves and had no need of cities, which are usually based around transportation. Because of this, larger urban centers never emerged in the state. Other than tiny Williamsburg, Virginia had no cities at all.

How then, was this agrarian state able to produce George Mason, who authored the doctrine of religious freedom and the separation of church and state? How did it produce Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry and many of the other intellectual underpinnings of the country? How did a a culture of enlightenment emerge from an agrarian, slave-based system of wealth and society?

How indeed. We’ll leave that question hanging.

Who should read this book? Its 1,169 pages are both alluring and intimidating. Rather than tackle it whole, I would advise most people to read the most appealing chapters first. If painting is your passion, read about Paris. If its the blues, read about Memphis. That way, you might gradually get suckered in to reading about shipbuilding in Glasgow, Swedish social thought in Stockholm, and event

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