Wednesday Book: Spirit of Plato alive in Silicon Valley

CITIES IN CIVILISATION: CULTURE, INNOVATION AND URBAN ORDER

BY PETER HALL, WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON, pounds 30

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power