Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Lewis Mumford's Christian City

"If we dismiss medieval culture as a whole because of the torture chamber and the public burning of heretics and criminals," writes Lewis Mumford in The City in History, "we should also wipe out all pretensions to civilization in our own period.  Has not our enlightened age restored civil and military torture, invented the extermination camp, and incinerated or blasted the inhabitants of whole cities?"  The question leads Mumford to - like Pugin before him - see medieval Christian cities as the urban planning ideal.  Call it Jesus versus sprawl:
What was involved in a realization of the Christian city? Nothing less, I submit, than a thoroughgoing rejection of the original basis on which the city had been founded: the renunciation of the long-maintained monopoly of power and knowledge; the reorganization of laws and property rights in the interests of justice, free from coercion, the abolition of slavery and of compulsory labor for the benefit of a ruling minority, and the elimination of gross economic inequalities between class and class.  On those terms, the citizens might find on earth at least a measure of that charity and justice that were promised to them, on their repentance, in heaven. 
In the Christian city, one would suppose, citizens would have the opportunity to live together in brotherhood and mutual assistance, without quailing before arbitrary power, or constantly anticipating external violence and sudden death.  The rejection of the old order imposed originally by the citadel was the minimal basis of Christian peace and order....  In no previous urban culture was there anything like the large scale provision for the sick, the aged, the suffering, the poor that there was in the medieval town.
Mumford was well aware that such medieval ideals were not fully realized.  And yet, such towns came closest to his stirring vision of the modern city as an "organ of love."  Absent the kind of urban humanism realized in Christian Europe,  "the sterile gods of power, unrestrained by organic limits or human goals, will remake man in their own faceless image and bring human history to an end."   The sentence calls to mind Le Corbusier's terrifying Plan Voisin to bulldoze the right bank of the Seine.  Medieval Paris, thank goodness, was worth a pass