Contemplating a view of mediaeval Viterbo, Le Corbusier crystallised a characteristic simile: “The city is closed like an egg, full as an egg.” Brilliant; tangible enough to hold in the hand, extensible as an egg is breakable in the mediaeval image, the shell is the walls, the white the common wards of the town, the yolk is the communal core of cathedral, castle, guildhall; for the mercantile city the image is a cracked egg, the white spreading beyond the shell into the suburbs; the industrial city is a smashed egg, with the yolk spattered into suburban universities, new civic centres, parliament hills; the motorised communications-city is scrambled egg with all its elements irrevocably stirred… But suppose it was the wrong image? Suppose the implications of a spoiled perfection are simply another example of mediterranean sentimentality, like Le Corbusier’s ikonotype (coined at about the same time as the egg simile) of a walking man and the daily circuit of the sun. Who walks in cities nowadays? Who goes to bed at sunset? The ikonotype has already been forgotten, a piece of old-hat “humanism”, but the egg image, or its equivalent, still grips the minds of architects when they think town-planning. “Our cities must be compact” says one of the slogans of the SPUR exhibition, but who wants cities in that sense, and what is the margin on compactness ?
The egg-tight mediaeval city (which is probably a myth created by the generation of Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford anyhow, most were appreciably bigger or smaller than their walls) has one thing in common with the scrambled conurbations of today-outside of military necessity, the form is determined by the same mechanism, communications. Men carne together in cities, as Aristotele observed in a rare flash of common sense, to lead the good life. He didn’t detail the reasons why they couldn’t lead it without coming together, but they are obvious enough. While communication moved on the foot-and-mouth network whose limiting conditions are the carrying power of the human voice, the speed of a horse, the codability of semaphore or other visual systems-under those conditions, wit, democracy, drama, smut and other constituents of the classical tradition could only flourish while men stood close together-try making an Aristophanic pun by smoke-signal some time, or re-phrase the dialogue around the deathbed of Socrates so that the interlocutors could be as far apart as subscribers on a toll-call telephone system-only without telephones. The creation of any more than a barbarian work-culture required the participants to stand close enough to whisper and nudge, to get up and follow a rumour on foot, to gate-crash the Symposium.
While the foot-and-mouth network couldn’t be outspeeded, the general form of the city remained intact, even when its content had been utterly transformed by industrialisation-indeed, the trend of primitive industry was to increase the piling up of men into great heaps, owing to the un-dispersible nature of early sources of energy (there are obvious mechanical and economic limits on how far you can transfer steam-power by shafting and belts). The destruction of the procrustean form of the city, unassailed since Babylon, began with the suburban railway, which was already an accepted part of the landscape by the early eighteen-eighties-as in Seurat’s Baignade in the Tate, where the railway not only appears in the background, but also made the picture possible, by transporting both the bathers and the painter to the site. But the significance of the suburban railways goes much deeper than this.
It is an axiom in practical logistics that no large scale operation can be controlled unless the word of command travels faster than the bodies commanded. In addition, while the sergeant’s voice, travelling at Mach 1 can control infantry because he can keep up with them on foot, Mach 1 plus walking-pace will not serve to control cavalry with the same margin of accuracy, and the sarge must have a horse too. Where no sufficient margin exists, the only alternative is a ritual of interlocking safeguards to sort out the commanded bodies on arrival-such as the staff or token system used on single line railways. But this system is not, in fact, sufficient. Even a single-line system, let alone the fan of lines that converge on say, the Gare St. Lazare, cannot be controlled without the electric telegraph. Even in its primitive, two-tone-bell or left-right-pointer form, the telegraph can handle information of greater subtlety and complexity than a staff or visible signalling system can. lt was the suburban railways plus the electric telegraph the stearn-and-spark network-that initiated the rapid dispersal of the city form. By the end of the nineteenth century, the railways themselves were being electrified, and the telegraph was being replaced by the telephone. Yet the plate in Osbert Lancaster’s Here of All Places that records these developments takes the argument a step further. The small boy in the foreground is standing on a bound copy of The Time Machine in arder to listen to a His Master’s Dog type gramophone.
It is difficult to decide what is the most important development here. From the point of view of traditional culture, the preservative aspect of the gramophone is most highly prized-people who don’t mind destroying their ears on the appalling surface noise may still hear a denatured version of the voices of Alf, Lord Tennyson or Clara Butt. But from the point of view of the emergent culture of our own century, it is the ability to deliver the recorded voice to any point at any time that is of vital consequence. Entertainment began to liberate itself from social ceremony-and, with the development of radio and TV it became possible to deliver current events to anyone with the right equipment as well. It became possible to stay at home and not miss a trick, to see elections fought, gold recovered from the deep, Miss Worlds elected, the Parthenon floodlit, Sugar Ray Robinson defeated, heads crowned, princes married, toasts drunk. The purely mechanical compulsions forcing men together in heaps for culture, and all that, had been destroyed, just as the deliverability of electric power, and the ever-increasing deliverability of the labour farce (mounted on cars and bicycles as well as the established modes of public transport) helped to destroy the purely mechanical compulsions that heaped men together for work.
Aristotele was mocked, men could now stay apart and lead the good life, and so little ingrained did the habits of urban concentration prove to be, that men have dispersed themselves as rapidly as their command of the necessary mechanisms permitted. The scrambled egg conurbation is a going concern, and I don’t just mean Los Angeles. A large part of the population of Europe already lives conurbatively. A fabulous railway network has made everything between Amsterdam and Rotterdam into an effective conurbation. The Rhine-Ruhr as far west as Krefeld is another, and-as H. M. Powell implied recently in a subversive paper to the British Ass.-the London conurbation is now effectively larger than Los Angeles, reaching from Cambridge to Brighton, from Reading to Colchester. The ultimate condition of this type of development, extrapolated from here and now, can be found brilliantly realised in Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun a highly mechanised garden city spread evenly over a whole planet, its well-bred citizens communicating with one another electronically, not person to person. And they don’t appear to be missing anything of consequence. Admittedly they have colour-stereophonic telephony, but even with our present rig-out of steam-telly, radio, telephone, gramophone, print and so forth, mass-communication offers participation in far more activities than were available to old Socrates, gumshoeing around Athens in search of Sophists, or Boswell keyholing Johnsonian London.
With a big But. There are, notoriously, some things you can’t do by telephone or TV. An example from the mass-communication media is a sequence from the Cary Grant/Ingrid Bergman epic Indiscreet. He is in bed in Paris, she ditto in London, they are on the phone to one another. A split image on the screen shows them with their heads on visually adjacent pillows, and most of the humour of the sequence comes from what they look as if they are about to do, but can’t since he is in Paris and she in London. Sex is only the acutest case of the activities that require person to person contact, and there are plenty of others. Por all of them, the physical mobility that is half the cause of conurbative dispersion is a prerequisite.
As the song says-Drive-in movies every night DOUBLE FEATURES!
Reyner Banham, City as scrambled egg, Cambridge Opinion, n. 17 (1959): 18-24
Immagine di copertina: Guy Debord, The Naked City, 1957