Tag Archives: lewis mumford

In 1937, Lewis Mumford asked, what is a city? Mumford noted that cities have been handicapped because there is a poor understanding of the “social functions of the city”, functions that make a city what it is. “The city is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations: the first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of city life”. For Mumford, the city is a group of neighborhoods formed for economic organization housed in permanent structures in a limited area through a corporate or public regulation: “… a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity”. Because the city, according to Mumford, is primarily about the facilitation of social life, he demanded that industries and its markets, its lines of communication and traffic, must be subservient to social needs. Mumford viewed the polluted overcrowded cities, dominated by the motorcar and the factory, of his era the result of not controlling and ensuring that machines served human interests. Thus he called for limitations on size, density and area of the city. In Mumford’s view human needs and demands make the city what it is and therefore these “social” needs must be considered first; technology and machines must be relegated to second-class citizens and serve the needs of humans. For Mumford it is man vs. machine and we must ensure that man is the winner.

Although not commenting on cities, Bruno Latour outlines a different view of the social in his guide to Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) and therefore of the city. Both Latour and Mumford agree that the city is a collection of groups and associations but what these groups and association are made up of differs. For Mumford, the social is family and neighbourhood organized for economic modes of organization. Latour, disrupts Mumford’s stable notion of the social through his ANT approach. Latour understands the social as a type of connection between things that are not themselves social. Latour notes, “The sense of belonging has entered a crisis. But to register the feeling of this crisis and to follow these new connections, another notion of social has to be devised. It has to be much wider than what is usually called by that name, yet strictly limited to the tracing of new associations and to designing of their assemblages. This is the reason why I am going to define the social not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” (p.7).

ANT has three tests:

  1. Non-humans have to be actors and not simply the hapless bearers of symbolic projection;
  2. If the social remains stable and is used to explain a state of affairs, it is not ANT.
  3. Check whether a study aims at reassembling the social or still insist on dispersion and deconstruction.

For ANT what is a city? In every case you have to “follow the actors themselves”, so a city is its specific arrangement, is this a satisfactory answer? For ANT the city is not a collection of “men”, families or neighbourhoods but a collection of intricate relationships with a variety of non-humans and humans. For ANT, unlike Mumford, no stable category of what a city is can be produced, in each instance a city is the end result of the tracing what can be tied together. ANT does not provide a strong account for what a city is but prefers a question such as how does a city work.


  • Is ANT able to provide an answer to the question, what is a city?; if not do we need to change the question or ANT?
  • Could ANT result in us thinking about meaningless details of the city and stop us from making machines and technologies serve human needs?


Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. (Part 1)

Mumford, Lewis. 1937. “What is a City?”. Architectural Record.

Today is the first dUrban Arrangements.001ay of classes and the start of my course Urban Arrangements (Syllabus_Assemblage Urbanism_Fall 2014_Sharp_CCNY.2). The first text we will engage is by former City College student Lewis Mumford and his 1937 article: What is a City?. A simple question and yet over seventy years after Mumford posed it, possibly more difficult to answer than ever. And this question is one that underlies the central thrust of this course, that attempts to interrogate the city through its “arrangements” (social, technical, political, economic… ).

The second piece we are going to read is by Bruno Latour and his introduction to Actor Network Theory: “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory”. In this work Latour is not asking what is a city, but what is a society? The latter question being very much related to the former, especially with Latour’s insistence of the precise role given to non-humans that “have to be actors and not simply the hapless bearers of symbolic projection.” In interrogating what is the social, Latour gives us some strong tools through which we can get closer to an answer about what is a city.

Ici-et-ailleurs (here and elsewhere) is the title of the new exhibition at the New Museum in New York on art from and about the Arab world that I have been to see twice now. The title of the exhibition is taken from the fascinating French documentary of the same title (see video above) by Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Goddard and Anne-Marie Melville.


Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani

The documentary made in 1976 is about Palestinian revolutionaries and focuses on the problematic between the image and politics. An issue of course more relevant than ever at the moment and what better place for it than here, New York. There is a lot a material in this exhibition and I am going to focus on one small part, of one small part, of the exhibition, specifically the use of mirrors in Qalandia 2087.

I was really interested in the use of “architectural” models as art pieces in the exhibition (I am thinking a lot about the socio-spatial uses of such models at the moment) and specifically Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani, the third part of a series called the Future Cities (see images of the artwork here).

Hourani has produced an architectural model of a utopian vision of Qalandia one hundred years after the first intifada. Online (here) I found an interesting timeline of Qalandia 2087 by Hourani that I did not see at the exhibition and that seems important to understand the piece. In 1948, following the Nakba, Qalandia became home to thousands of refugees. The name Qalandia comes from a nearby airport of the same name. The Qalandia refugee camp that formed became a pivotal space, located between north Jerusalem and south Ramallah. According to Hourani’s timeline, the year 2087 is when the Mirror Party sign a historic agreement with the new Israeli government and the Palestinians are given the right of return and the 1967 lands back.

Mirrors are important to the piece, and from the information on Hourani’s timeline, have been placed on the Israeli Wall by the Mirror Party “to create the illusion of more space, and seeing their reflection everywhere, begin to wonder how they got in there” and (of course) the mirror has made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the largest mirror in the world. In 2087 when the historic agreement is signed the Wall is not taken down but the cement is taken down and a mirror is fixed to the other side.


Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani

The insertion of mirrors and use of mirrors in this piece reminds me of two pieces and provides interesting connectors to Hourani’s piece and speak to two possible understandings of how this future city ended up with two of the largest mirrors in the world facing opposite each other.

The first is Mumford’s Technics and Civilization where Mumford highlights the introduction of the mirror (glass coated with a silver amalgam) in the sixteenth century and the transformative impact this had on society: “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror conversation developed with the new object itself: this preoccupation with one’s image comes at the threshold of the mature personality when young Narcissus gazes long and deep into the face of the pool – and the sense of the separate personality, a perception of the objective attributes of one’s identity, grows out of this communion.” This passage resonates with Hourani’s model that is a vision that provides a critique of Palestinian social life, as much as, the Israeli occupation. Later Mumford delivers this: “Indeed, when one is completely whole and at one with the world one does not need the mirror: it is in the period of psychic disintegration that the individual personality turns to the lonely image to see what is in fact is there and what he can hold on to; and it was in the period of cultural disintegration that men began to hold the mirror up to outer nature.”

The other piece of writing that this use of mirrors reminded me of is Eyal Weizman’s chapter in Hollow Land on Checkpoints: The Split Sovereign and the One-Way Mirror. And surprise suprise the chapter features… Qalandia checkpoint! “The upgrade of the Qalandia terminal crossing, which connects (or rather disconnects) Jerusalem from Ramallah, was completed, according to the principles of the Spiegel plan, at the end of 2005. The new system includes a labyrinth of iron fences that channels passengers en route to Jerusalem via a series of turnstiles… The inspection booths are encased in bulletproof glass. The glass is so thick that it tends to reflect the outside light rather than letting it through, thereby obscuring the security personnel inside, and effectively functioning as a one-way mirror”.