Paul Anderson, Tribune, 2 February 1990
Lewis Mumford, the American writer on architecture, town planning and technology, who died last week at the age of 94, described himself as a “radical conservative”, but no one who has read any of his books would ever confuse his politics with those of the current British government.
He was an unorthodox man of the humanist libertarian left, a precursor of the sixties new left and, particularly, today’s greens in his consistent criticism of centralised power and capitalism’s inherent alienation and wastefulness. Technics and Civilisation, first published in 1934 and recently reissued by the anarchist Freedom Press, is a history of the machine age that argues for using modern technology to allow us to work less; Culture of Cities (1938) is a sociological study that includes a visceral radical critique of the effects of uncontrolled urban expansion.
In Art and Technics (1951) and The City in History (1961, still available in Penguin paperback), he developed these themes further, and, during the sixties, he was an outspoken critic of the American military-industrial complex and of the war in Vietnam. In Britain, his work has been much praised by planners and architects – the writer Colin Ward is probably the best known of his admirers – but his ideas have rarely been put into practice, especially in recent years.
As anyone who lives in or visits our blighted inner cities will know, the case for the planned, human-scale development advocated by Mumford throughout his life has never been more relevant.