Wednesday Book: Spirit of Plato alive in Silicon Valley

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The Independent Culture


IMAGINE FLORENCE in the Renaissance. Brunelleschi's dome dominates the skyline; Michelangelo's David stands majestically in the Palazzo Vecchio; commercial banking thrives as feudalism declines; the ancient city-state is reinvented for the modern era. By any standard, quattrocento Florence was a city of awesome achievement. The question is how. What forces converged to make Florence, in this golden age, one of the great cities in world history?

Peter Hall's superb account of over a dozen such great cities tells a story of bewilderingly impressive accomplishments. But Cities in Civilisation does not seek simply to rehearse the individual histories of cities; rather, Hall attempts to provide an eclectic theory to understand the complexity of how great cities come to be. As his thousand-plus pages suggest, this is no mean feat, so it is to his immense credit that he almost convinces us.

This study is divided into four sections, comprised of case studies of cities ranging from ancient Athens to California's Silicon Valley. Most of the book is taken up with exploring the extraordinary innovations in culture and technology that mark great cities, and suggesting ways in which their histories overlap. With such an approach, Vienna's musical revolution and Manchester's industrial revolution, both in the late 18th century, share something - a willingness to embrace the new, signalling shifts in the dominant paradigms of knowledge and practice. That creative spark and the impulse toward innovation, combined with geographical luck and economic prosperity, are ultimately what leads some cities to a glorious golden age.

Hall is most impressive in the first section, which deals with artistic creativity. His chapters move effortlessly between an overview of "the world's first entertainment business", the Elizabethan stage, and the importance of cinema in Weimar Berlin. He is as comfortable discussing Pericles in Athens as Picasso in Paris. Such rich erudition, concisely and elegantly expressed, assures our attention.

Hall's many insights help us unravel the complexity of cities. As a guide that synthesises a tremendous range of writing about the city (in political philosophy, economic theory, urban planning, architecture and history), this book has no equal.

The importance of transitional moments in the history of great cities stands out. "Creative cities... are places of great social and intellectual turbulence, not comfortable places at all," Hall writes. He is not an urban utopian and admits that such cities are difficult places. But for him, the disjunctures that occur, the exclusionary practices that often separate individuals rather than unite them, is what allow a city to become great.

As he suggests of the dominance of ancient Athens - a city that relied on exploited labour, an aristocratic elite and a resident alien population - the sort of creativity that produced Plato's philosophy, Aeschylus's drama or Phidias's Parthenon frieze was not a stable condition.

On the contrary, "it was the tension between the old order, the order of the gods and of the world they ordained, and the new, the order when people were masters of their own destiny, that brought the creativity".

Despite the impulse towards instability and tension in the great cities of the West, there is also an impulse towards order. Dirty streets must be cleaned; street crime must be policed; traffic must move. In the final section, Hall maps out creativity in infrastructures to show different solutions to the problem of urban order. Ancient Rome's great public works, Victorian London's railways, Los Angeles' stacked highways, Stockholm's Social Democratic vision of satellite cities, each represents a negotiation between public and private interests in an attempt to order the city, prevent decline, and make city life as comfortable and equal as possible.

Ultimately, Hall does not provide a single overarching concept for great cities. He moves fluently between the literatures on each, but to understand ancient cities and Silicon Valley under any umbrella theory seems unlikely. Notably, almost none of his case studies (except Tokyo) relates to non- Western cities. Are we meant to understand Bollywood in the same way as Hollywood? Can Chinese cities be accommodated within Hall's ideas about creative tension and innovation in the same way as American cities? Hall does not quite manage to suggest a theory which can hold all the cities of the world together throughout history, but his ambition and intelligence are laudable.

What is most exhilarating about Cities in Civilisation is its belief in the future of cities, its "anti-[Lewis] Mumford thesis". Hall argues that cities are not in perpetual decline towards the point of extinction. Despite the problems which have always faced cities, and will continue to face them tomorrow, he enthusiastically believes in their creative abilities. "Cities were and are," he writes in the final paragraph, "places for people who can stand the heat of the kitchen." For Hall, the kitchen is the only place to be.