CITIES IN CIVILIZATION by Peter Hall

CITIES IN CIVILIZATION

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Any book this size must pass the hernia test: Is the payoff from reading it greater than the potential discomfort from lifting it? Urban planning expert Hall's (University Coll., London) magnum opus passes, but just barely. He observes that certain cities, at certain times, pass through ""golden ages,"" and he seeks an explanation for these brief historical moments. Hall explores the cultural flowering of Athens, Florence, London, Vienna, Paris, and Berlin, each in their prime; considers the productive innovation of Manchester, Glasgow, Berlin, Detroit, Palo Alto, and Tokyo; and describes the merger of art and industry in Los Angeles and Memphis. This survey produces a wealth of information but doesn't pin down specific variables explaining the rise and fall of great cities, so the indefatigable author seeks out the organizational basis of the urban order in Rome, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Stockholm. The empirical description is supported by theoretical analysis drawing upon a wide array of thinkers, and Hall's ability to remain focused on his initial question through a thousand pages of material is remarkable. A reasonable reader, however, could feel cheated by his conclusion. While recognizing preconditions which can encourage or retard a city's development, Hall finds that ""time and chance happeneth to them all; it is a question of finding the moment and seizing the hour."" To explain that there's no explanation cannot satisfy. And the failure may reflect an authorial flaw. For Hall, cities are too much the grandest variable in human existence for them to be epiphenomena, so factors such as the rise and fall of nations or shifts in global economic patterns remain at the margin of his analysis. Unfortunately, excluding the variables most likely to be fruitful is a recipe for intellectual frustration. Nevertheless, his exhaustive case studies of cities are commendable.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1998
Page count: 1168pp
Publisher: Pantheon