Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford [2007]


Murdo Macdonald

Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford

I at first thought Mumford had invented him, he sounded so improbable. [Alasdair Gray]

[Frank Lloyd Wright] was one of the handful of people I have known who, through the direct impact of their personalities, I would place at the same level as Patrick Geddes. [Lewis Mumford in Patrick Meehan, 1991, Frank Lloyd Wright Remembered; 200. ]

Here, then, are joined hands from Kropotkin through Geddes, Ashbee, and Lethaby, to Mumford and Read, and on to E F Schumacher and others like Colin Ward and Paul Goodman; and here, observably, is a tradition of warmth and human concern in a critical culture, linked at every point to the growth of the modern movement, and emphasising its roots in the necessary thinking of the twentieth century in respect to its complex inheritance. [Norman Potter  What is a designer: things. places. messages  3rdedition, 1989; 105.]

Many aspects of Patrick Geddes’s work can be illuminated by a quotation from Lewis Mumford. In this paper I want to explore the relationship between these two men in more detail. What was the link of the highly-influential American urban theorist to his self-declared master? This seems at first sight a question of somewhat esoteric interest, and yet it bears on a number of significant issues of twentieth-century cultural history, not least the continued relevance of the generalist, holistic, approach advocated by both these men in a time of increasing specialisation.

The contrast between Geddes and Mumford is a fascinating one. Sharing so much, their characters are nevertheless very distinct. Exploring this relationship has been considerably easier since the publication in 1995 of the Mumford-Geddes Correspondence. Geddes’s letters are a mass of notes, full of abbreviations and short-hand ideas. They are the bare bones of a construction which can be filled out by the reader as necessary. Mumford’s letters, by contrast, are self-consciously majestic in their fine prose. For Geddes writing is a convenient means of communicating ideas, for Mumford every word he writes has consequences for his own sense of identity. The letters are thus an intriguing interplay not only of ideas themselves but also of styles of thought. Geddes’s writing is like an informal geodetic structure depending on stress, cross-members and interlinks. Mumford’s is more like a carefully modelled sculpture of some heavy and infinitely durable material. These letters provide the essential foundation on which to base an understanding of the way that Mumford refers to Geddes in his published writings. He has two distinct tones of voice: the first is that of the uncritical disciple, the second is that of the critical, somewhat edgy disciple, but the constant factor is that in either of these tones of voice Mumford emphasises his role as a disciple of Geddes. The first voice, the uncritical voice, can be found in Mumford’s major published books, particularly in The Condition of Man from 1944. The second, critical, voice is to be found clearly in the well-known Encounter article “The Disciple’s Rebellion” which was published in September 1966. This is reproduced as an Appendix to the Letters and it’s inclusion adds greatly to the usefulness of the book. Even more significant is the inclusion of Mumford’s unpublished paper “The Geddesian Gambit”, which complements “The Disciple’s Rebellion” and gives further insight into Mumford’s uneasiness with his own views of Geddes.

Such raw material allows one to reflect on a factor in the Geddes-Mumford relationship which has not as yet received the attention which it merits. The dynamics of the Geddes-Mumford relationship are at first sight obvious. Mumford recalls Geddes saying to him, the day after they had first met in New York in 1923: “ ‘You are the image of my poor dear lad’, [Geddes] said to me with tears welling up in his eyes, ‘and almost the same age he was when he was killed in France. You must be another son to me, Lewis, and we will get on with our work together.’ ” Mumford goes on “There was both grief and desperation in this appeal: both too violent, too urgent, for me to handle. The abruptness of it, the sudden overflow, almost unmanned me, and my response to it was altogether inadequate, not so much from shallowness of feeling as from honesty.” All that sounds fair enough, and Mumford always asserted that much of the tension between Geddes and himself was because Geddes had the unreasonable expectation that he, Mumford, should replace Geddes’s dead son. But the first time I read Mumford’s “Disciple’s Rebellion” (from which the above quote is taken) I remember feeling that there was more to this matter than he was letting on, or even knew himself. In due course I realised that this unacknowledged element was that Mumford grew up without a father. This is what Donald Miller writes in his biography of Mumford: “Lewis Mumford would never see his father, Lewis Mack, nor would he ever lay eyes on the man whose name he carried, John Mumford, an Englishman his mother had married twelve years before his birth when he was only eighteen years old. That brief storm-swept marriage had been annulled, and John Mumford had disappeared; in a sense Elvina [i.e. Lewis’s mother] was twice “widowed” before she bore her only child at the age of thirty.” And, by the same token, Lewis Mumford was twice fatherless, and yet named after both.

This is the context for Mumford being taken aback at Geddes wanting him to replace his dead son. Mumford was uncertain of what it meant to be a son in relation to a father and he must have been very confused by Geddes’s hopes. But more than that – and adding a further layer of complication to his feelings – Lewis Mumford really wanted a father. And from his insistent and almost embarrassing description of himself as “disciple” and Geddes as “master” it is reasonable to suggest that it is Patrick Geddes whom he wanted as his father. This puts a rather different gloss on Mumford’s record of his first meeting with Geddes. One really feels for Mumford in this situation. An impossible demand is made on him, namely that he should replace Geddes’s dead son. And yet it is the one demand that he would like to fulfill. No wonder he says that the experience “almost unmanned me” by which I presume he means he nearly burst into tears. Perhaps he should have.

Ironically enough, one can see the relationship between Geddes and Mumford as a balanced one. Geddes wants his lost son, Mumford wants his lost father, but neither of them can be the person that the other wants. They are thus both doomed to be disappointed in the other, and the playing out of this is seen most clearly in their often-repeated intentions to co-operate with one another (a frequent theme of the Letters), which – not surprisingly, given the psychological complexity of their relationship – never happened. But in spite of, or because of, these stresses the Geddes-Mumford relationship was one of the most creative exchanges of ideas possible, and it is important to emphasise this. They were both genuinely interested in the ideas of the other and they genuinely liked each other. The fact that they rarely worked together can be regarded as a side issue, the real issue being the fertile interplay between these two great generalist thinkers.

Inevitably the relationship was assymetrical because of the reality of the master-disciple relationship in simple age terms, and here its worth remembering that by the time Mumford met Geddes, the latter was within ten years of his death. It is also worth recalling that Geddes had already made a major contribution to urban conservation and renewal – not to mention facilitating the work of the Celtic Revival in Edinburgh – by the time of Lewis Mumford’s birth (1895). It is in this psychological and historical context that Mumford writes of Geddes in his books; and I now want to turn to those writings. For all the idealisation of Geddes (and we have considered from whence this idealisation springs) Mumford is a perceptive writer at all times and provides an invaluable source of information about Geddes.

Mumford is quoted by Geddes’s biographer Philip Boardman, as saying: “Geddes gave me the frame for my thinking, my task has been to put flesh on this abstract skeleton.” His own account of the beginnings of his awareness of Geddes are given in the preface to his collection of essays entitled City Development, published in 1945, and named as a direct homage to Geddes: “In 1915 … I first came across City Development: A Study of Parks, Gardens, and Culture Institutes, by Patrick Geddes.” Mumford is referring here to Geddes’s major study of the civic potential of Dunfermline in Fife. He goes on to say that the book “stirred one of the chief interests of my life” and that the title of his essay book is given “in a spirit of piety”. In 1922, seven years after his introduction to Geddes’s ideas, but a year before he met Geddes face to face, Mumford’s first book, The Story of Utopias, was published. This book contains an insightful account of Geddes’s thinking particularly with reference to his ideas of Regional Survey. Mumford notes that the point of origin of the Regional Survey Movement was the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh and continues:

“The aim of the Regional Survey is to take a geographic region and explore it in every aspect. It differs from the social survey with which we are acquainted in America in that it is not chiefly a survey of evils; it is, rather, a survey of the existing conditions in all their aspects; and it emphasizes to a much greater extent than the social survey the natural characteristics of the environment, as they are discovered by the geologist, the zoologist, the ecologist – in addition to the development of natural and human conditions in the historic past, as presented by the anthropologist, the archaeologist, and the historian. In short, the regional survey attempts a local synthesis of all the specialist ‘knowledges’.”

Thus we see Geddes not just as a key to Mumford’s thinking but we find in Mumford’s concise appreciation of Geddes’s work a key to our own ability to appreciate Geddes. Note the statement that “the regional survey is a local synthesis of all the specialist ‘knowledges’.” Here geography, epistemology and education meet.

Having illuminated the concept of Regional Survey in the Story of Utopias, in The Culture of Cities, Mumford’s seminal work, published in 1938, he quotes Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford to illuminate the notion of the City:

“The Central and significant fact about the city is that the city … functions as the specialized organ for social transmission. It accumulates and embodies the heritage of a region, and combines in some measure and kind with the cultural heritage of larger units, national, racial, religious, human. On one side is the individuality of the city – the sign manual of its regional life and record. On the other are the marks of the civilization, in which each particular city is a constituent element.”

Note here the regional commitment to the notion of the city as an independent entity and the wider commitment to the city as a part of a national or global civilization. Later in the same work in a section entitled “Cycle of Growth and Decay”, Mumford, having rejected as unsatisfactory the ideas of Toynbee and Spengler, comments: “The most significant summary of all [of the way cities develop], from the point of view developed in this book, is likewise the earliest: that put forward by Patrick Geddes a generation ago in his outline of the six stages of city development, from polis to nekropolis.” Mumford continues “Like a true disciple, I have modified Geddes’s scheme ….” . But what both Mumford and Geddes are trying to do here is to give some sort of form to the way cities evolve, trying to make sense of the fact that some cites are functioning civic spaces and others little better than massive slums. Thus, to the horizontal idea of the city as a kind of autonomous entity in its own right, giving focus and cultural meaning to a region (yet at the same time looking outward to a wider civilization); Geddes adds the vertical, historicist notion of the city’s own evolution from basic civic forum to de-industrialised junk heap, and this is what Mumford adopts. Geddes believes, of course, that we can do something about this evolutionary process if we are conscious of it, and it is to this point that his book Cities in Evolution is addressed. It becomes obvious again that Geddes’s message is not just a regional one but is also an ecological one, and although he is referred to as a pioneer of town planning, “pioneer of ecology” is just as appropriate. It is also, of course, an appropriate description of Mumford.

Lewis Mumford’s most extended appreciation of Geddes comes in his book The Condition of Man, published in 1940, where he devotes several thousand words to an outline of his career and importance, and this section of his book still stands as one of the key introductory texts to Geddes’s significance from a generalist point of view. The context, for Mumford, of this passage is that of the failed project of the modern world. Mumford is writing in 1944 but, sadly, he could be writing today when he says: “Here, then, is the modern world, with its over charges of empty stimuli, it’s perpetual miscarriage of technic, its materialistic repletion, its costly ritual of conspicuous waste, its highly organised purposelessness ….” which, in Mumford’s view, leads to disaster, both psychological and physical. Then he explores an alternative to this dissolution, this catastrophe. He argues that a dynamic syncretism of doctrines and creeds and philosophies is needed and he reflects on the attempts of Ruskin, Morris and Tolstoy to bring person and machine back into balance, concluding that these thinkers who were on the side of life, did not understand that the machine itself, if properly utilised, was also an instrument of life. He sees the efforts of Emerson and his New England successors, Thoreau, Whitman and Melville as further attempts towards a positive synthesis, a new world picture, replacing that of the machine with democracy, vitalism and co-operation which he sees as “elements in a new syncretism which will nourish once more the spirit of man.” And as the representative figure of this new world view he turns to the “one figure whose life interests fully represent the forces I have been describing: one whose conscious philosophy reached a fuller stage of formulation than either Emerson or Whitman: one whose actual life, coming later, faced more fully the corruptions and devitalisations of the present scene.” This is, of course, Geddes, whom Mumford describes as : “Obscure in his own lifetime, hardly better known today, a dozen years after his death, he incarnated the organic and made an orderly constellation of the vitalities.” This is a view of Geddes we take for granted today, but it bears closer examination, for Geddes’s “obscurity” is hardly supported by the fact that he was offered a knighthood in 1912, which he refused, and was offered one a second time in 1932 which he accepted. So how much is Mumford creating a myth of Geddes’s obscurity here? There are two aspects to be considered. On the one hand Mumford draws attention to a reality, namely that Geddes was a figure operating outside the mainstream, and was less known than he ideally should have been. But on the other hand Mumford – for the psychological reasons already discussed – seems to be determined to discover Geddes and to pull him from an obscurity which perhaps at the time of Mumford’s writing he had not actually entered, at least to the extent that Mumford implies.

Later Mumford makes what might be construed as a similarly misleading comment about Geddes’s publishing: “Geddes published little but he propagated much.” In fact Geddes wrote and edited a great deal. In addition to his seminal work Cities in Evolution, there were substantial book-length planning reports like City Development, the work that had inspired Mumford in the first place. But by implying that Geddes “published little” we find ourselves adopting Mumford as Geddes’s representative on earth so to speak, which is what Mumford wants. One can almost feel him in this passage insisting that he has discovered Geddes for the world. I stress, however, that I do not think that Mumford was conscious of this, I also doubt that it did Geddes any harm, probably the reverse.

Mumford’s enthusism for propogating Geddes’s message is attractive and engageing: “What he was, what he stood for, what he pointed toward will become increasingly important as the world grows to understand both his philosophy and his example. … one who followed the darting glance and eager footsteps of Geddes, rambling through a city, or wandering with an armful of plants along a country road, might have said: There goes one enriched and energised and sensitised by the life-force which he studied so fervently: his is the touch that will make the dry wand burgeon. Such a man has worshiped the burning bush and beheld from afar the promised land.”

This is certainly an idealisation but for all that it reminds us again that the Geddes who planned cities was also the ecologist who said “by leaves we live”, and the gardener who interpenetrated grey urban space with green. What Mumford gives us is a run up to Geddes’s contribution in which Ruskin, Morris, Tolstoy, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman, are seen as merely precursors and Geddes ends up as an old testament patriach ready to lead the peoples of the world out of the wilderness. On reflection, and whatever the idealisation, we can’t dismiss this as merely some sort of over-the-top hero worship, because Mumford is basically right. One finds an echo in the passage from Norman Potter which forms the epigraph of this chapter in which Potter links Kropotkin, Geddes and Mumford among others in a “tradition of warmth and human concern in a critical culture, linked at every point to the growth of the modern movement …”

Mumford’s enthusiasm, like that of Potter, is founded on a critical but emotionally involved examination of Geddes’s thought. He continues his assessment by noting that Geddes was born in Scotland which he calls the home of the “paleotechnic” revolution. Here Mumford uses a word coined by Geddes to describe the crude technologies of the Industrial Revolution. Following the semantic contrast between paleolithic and neolithic, Geddes contrasts the notion of paleotechnic, that is to say old-technical, with the notion of “neotechnic”, which is Geddes’s desired state for technology, that is to say a technology which serves the needs of society rather than threatening to suffocate those needs; an environmentally-friendly technology rather than a polluting technology. So paleotechnic is the first stage of industrialisation, uncontrolled, socially divisive, dirty, profit-orentated rather than society-orientated, while neotechnic is the stage upon which, according to Geddes and Mumford, we must now embark.

By noting Geddes’s birthplace Mumford also situates Geddes’s achievement with reference to a place and a culture. This seems a very obvious point, but the underlying point is that Mumford does not take Geddes’s birthplace for granted. As Geddes himself would, Mumford recognises the need to give thought a geographical and historical context. Geddes’s more immediate intellectual context is given in the same line for Mumford notes that Geddes was born in the decade that saw the publication of Spencer’s First Principles and Darwin’s Origin of Species. Thus just as the city is in history so is the individual. For Mumford, Geddes is a nexus of influences which are synthesised by a remarkable personal energy. Geddes’s early training as a biologist under Huxley in London is noted and with a sense of the significance of generalist juxtaposition Mumford goes on to describe the cultural, regional, national and international awareness which balanced Geddes’s scientific interests when he notes that “this naturalist was also open to the positive currents of life that sprang from the folk: not for nothing was he born in the land of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. As a student, he had watched the resurgence of the French nation after 1870, when it rose from its humiliation to rebuild the country: an interest in Provence, the birthplace of Comte, made him aware of the kindred movement towards regionalism and political decentralisation which Frederic Mistral had started.” Mumford then suggests that it was from Geddes’s Outlook Tower on Castle Hill in Edinburgh that the first publications of the Gaelic Renascence, as Mumford calls it, came. As we have seen, Geddes made a major contribution here but he was very much part of a continuum which, even if one ignores James Macpherosn, has a number of “starting points” prior to Geddes, whether one looks back to W.B.Yeats and his 1893 essay “Celtic Twilight”, or further to J.F. Cambell’s Popular Tales from the West Highlands from 1860 (?ch). Nevertheless what is important here is Mumford’s awareness of the significnance of this Celtic Revival dimension to Geddes. Whatecver the tensions and the idealisations there was a part of Mumford that saw Geddes steadily and saw him whole.

Mumford continues by reflecting on Geddes’s nationalism noting that “he treated the nation, not merely as a political and cultural entity, but as a social and economic unit within a worldwide community. As a mere biological group, a product of ‘blood and soil’, maintaining and perpetuating a primitive element in the social heritage, the nation was as important to human culture as the primitive occupations of miner and woodman were to the technology of the machine. At the same time the nation was a conflux of energies, a focusing of light rays, that came from every part of the social cosmos: blood and soil were the foundations of man’s larger humanity, not a substitute for it.” This is an interesting commentary, not only on Geddes’s view but also as a direct riposte to the divisive notions of “blood and soil” nationality being promulgated by the Nazis at the time Mumford wrote it.

Elaborating this point he continues with the words I have drawn attention to earlier: “Geddes’s Scotland embraced Europe and his Europe embraced the world.” In this one sentence Mumford expresses something of the essence of Geddes: his outward-looking, anti-xenophobic, rootedness in place. For Geddes the international without the national was without meaning, and the national to have any meaning was reliant on the regional and the local, and the local could only be expressed in terms of people’s own experience; their own understanding of their own place, and the work and the folk associated with and appropriate to that place. And for Geddes, this personal and local understanding becomes the point from which understanding radiates out into the world, embracing other individuals, other cultures, other languages, other religions and other places through mutual illumination and co-operation. This is what Geddes’s Outlook Tower in Edinburgh was all about. From here a person could directly perceive the regional possibilities, both cultural and physical, which find Edinburgh at their centre, and then one could go on to explore, as if in concentric rings, the relation of this locality, this place, to the wider notions of Scotland, Europe, the World and indeed the Cosmos. This notion of one area of thought, activity, or culture, illuminating another is itself illuminated by Mumford in quoting a letter from Geddes to his friend Margaret Noble, who had become a Hindu sister (Sister Nivedita). Of the relationship between the cultures of East and West Geddes said: “Each in turn for thousands of years has stimulated the other; each in turn in isolation has suffered – we [i.e. the West] were hardening into external growths within which life shrivels: you [i.e. the East] concentrating yourselves in this inner life, till the external is depressed or forgotten.”

Lewis Mumford goes on to write of “the great Odyssey of Geddes’s old age, a decade of teaching and town-planning in India from 1914 on.” He notes that this was “not merely a repayment of Scotland’s debt to India: it served a higher purpose and involved the acceptance of a fuller obligation. Geddes learned from the Hindus even deeper habits of withdrawal and contemplation than those he had long practiced: he more fully united Eastern passivism and Western activism in his own life. His biography of Jagadis Chandra Bose was not merely a tribute to a great experimental physicist but a tribute to the Hindu intuition of the unity of all being that made Bose’s researches possible. He thus carried forward the earlier intiatives of Thoreau and Emerson. That example is a starting point for our future world culture.”

That might seem a good concluding sentence for Mumford’s advocacy of Geddes’s work, but in fact he continues to write about Geddes for another six pages in The Condition of Man. Whatever the psychological complexities of the relationship between Geddes and Mumford these comments from The Condition of Man still stand as one of the best appreciations of Geddes as a generalist thinker and perhaps, by extension, of Mumford himself as a generalist thinker.

Further Notes:
Through both Mumford and his New York adversary Adams (who was not only a Scot, but also a friend of Geddes), Geddes’s ideas had a major impact on American planning thought. Geddes’s direct influence on the developing discipline of town planning in Britain is clearly reflected in the writings of the doyen of that movement Sir Patrick Abercrombie. For a considered assessment of this relationship, one can read Helen Meller’s biography of Geddes, in particular the chapter “The Sociologist of the Town Planning Movement”. Abercrombie’s description of Geddes as “a most unsettling person” has become well-known, but it is important to realise the context of this comment. It occurs in Abercrombie’s classic book of 1933, Town and Country Planning, in which he describes the need for a comprehensive social and geographical survey before any planning is undertaken. He writes, “Geddes’s survey led the way in this country”, and goes on to note the inspiration that Geddes took from the “French Regional conception of Geography in this wide and social sense”. Speaking of the Town Planning Exhibition of 1910 at Burlington House in London, he continues: “…. it is safe to say that the modern practice of planning would have been a more elementary thing if it had not been for the Edinburgh room and all that this implied. It was a torture chamber to those simple souls that had been ravished by the glorious perspectives or heartened by the healthy villages shown in the other and ampler galleries. Within this den sat Geddes, a most unsettling person, talking, talking, talking … about anything and everything.” Thus for Abercrombie Geddes’s unsettling quality was a necessity to counter tempting utopian oversimplifications.

Sir Patrick Abercrombie identified Geddes as both pioneer and enduring mentor of the town planning movement in Britain. Lewis Mumford identified PGs outlook tower on Catel Hill as the starting pojnt of the regional survey movement. Geddes is thus situated with reference to the most influential British practical planner in the UK in the twentieth centuy and the most influential Amercian theorist of the city. This acknowledged degree of influence would seem to do justice to Geddes but it also raises interesting problem of the relation between theory and practice. Is it too simple to suggest that the practice that Abercrombie took from Geddes led him in one direction and the theory that Mumford took from Geddes led him in another? Geddes would not have endorsed Abercrombie’s plan for Edinburgh.

Through Mumford his ideas had a major impact on American planning thought – indeed Peter Hall has called Mumford’s Geddes-inspired book published in 1938, The Culture of Cities, “almost the Bible of the regional planning movement” – but what of his impact on this side of the Atlantic? For a considered and valuable assessment of the Geddes/Abercrombie relationship, the reader is referred to Helen Meller’s biography of Geddes, in particular the chapter “The Sociologist of the Town Planning Movement”. Abercrombie’s description of Geddes as “a most unsettling person” has become well-known, but it is important to realise the context of this comment. It occurs in Abercrombie’s classic book of 1933, Town and Country Planning, in which he describes the need for a comprehensive social and geographical survey before any planning is undertaken. He writes, “Geddes’s survey led the way in this country”, and goes on to note the inspiration that Geddes took from the “French Regional conception of Geography in this wide and social sense”. Speaking of the Town Planning Exhibition of 1910 at Burlington House in London, he continues: “…. it is safe to say that the modern practice of planning would have been a more elementary thing if it had not been for the Edinburgh room and all that this implied. It was a torture chamber to those simple souls that had been ravished by the glorious perspectives or heartened by the healthy villages shown in the other and ampler galleries. Within this den sat Geddes, a most unsettling person, talking, talking, talking … about anything and everything.” Thus for Abercrombie Geddes’s unsettling quality was a necessity to counter tempting utopian oversimplifications. A few years earlier he had written in a letter reproduced as an appendix to Amelia Defries’s The Interpreter Geddes: “Bluntly, what Geddes taught was, that if you wish to shape the growth of a town, you must study it” and not just the town, but its relation to the region and with world at large. Abercrombie continues: “It may with safety be said that the errors of our national reconstruction can be attributed to the neglect of this teaching of Geddes” and later: “Geddes’s influence will never be known to the world at large – he works by his disciples – his teaching is of such a sort that it does not get watered down in transmission; it is a sort of vital idea – a divine inoculation that goes on spreading its infusion without exhausting its original elan.” From the point of view of the present this statement has considerable interest, since it resonates with the paradox of Geddes’s lack of general recognition despite the enthusiasm his ideas evoke. Abercrombie concludes his piece: “…the full extent of the debt which England, Scotland, Ireland, India and Palestine owe to Geddes will never be adequately realised.” Thus for Abercrombie Geddes is both one of the pioneers of the discipline of town planning and its enduring, but somewhat concealed, mentor.