Lewis Mumford:

Megathinker and Master of the Metaphor

D. Gene Pace

By the time Lewis Mumford, one of the great minds of the twentieth century, passed away in 1990, he had contributed in substantial and creative ways to a host of intellectual disciplines, including architecture, urban studies, literature, history, sociology, economics, political science, archaeology, geography, psychology, and anthropology. The author of an immense volume of published and unpublished material, notable for both its quantity and its quality, Mumford was truly one of the intellectual giants of his age, or of any age. Mumford created a number of powerful metaphors which illuminate not only the urban experience of humankind but, in many cases, the general human condition itself.

"Professor of Things in General":

Besides authoring thirty books, and over thirty times that many shorter pieces, the native of New York City also carried on a massive correspondence with a large number of individuals, including some of the leading intellectuals of the past century. Mumford corresponded extensively with his Scottish mentor Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), whose ideas about urban life profoundly influenced Mumford’s own. The American’s esteem for this Scottish thinker is reflected in the name that Mumford and his wife, the former Sophia Wittenberg, gave their son: Geddes. Mumford, like the older Geddes, focused intense intellectual energy on the role of the city, but also, like his Scottish mentor, proved to be very much a generalist. The case could be made, in fact, that Mumford merited even more that his mentor the label that had been attached to Geddes: "professor of things in general" (Novak 1). Geddes’s influence is seen in the expansion of Mumford’s interests and writings far beyond those related to his native New York to concerns affecting much of the world. That stretching of Mumford’s eminently stretchable mind involved both an enhanced geographic reach and a richer thematic diversity. Mumford’s prolific writing about cities and technology are part of the debt he owed to his inspiring European mentor and colleague.

Mumford also communicated extensively in writing with Van Wyck Brooks, with whom he shared a passion for writing and a deep concern for the often troubling quality of American culture. Mumford, like Brooks, sought to use his pen to better society. Brook’s idealism was evident in his desire for "The Beloved Community." American culture was, of course, integrally related to the American urban scene. In one study of American culture to which both Brooks and Mumford contributed (Civilization in the United States, 1922), Brooks wrote about literary concerns, and Mumford added a piece that "offered a scathing analysis of metropolitan civilization" (Miller 154). Mumford’s concern was not born of anti-American bitterness but, as he later explained, out of concerned love for his homeland (Miller 153-154). Mumford’s consternation over things urban was not limited to narrow matters of design; social implications persistently loomed large in his mind.

Mumford’s active pen, the servant of his even more active mind, created a host of memorable metaphors that illuminate the human experience generally, and the urban experience specifically. These powerful metaphors include imagery surrounding the terms magnet, container, Necropolis, megamachine, and Pentagon.


In his panoramic masterpiece The City in History, Mumford’s use of meaningful metaphors helps the reader conceptualize various aspects of urban life (and human life generally) that, like Mumford’s approach to scholarship, transcend time and space. His commanding personal presence, so apparent to those he taught verbally, has also been evident to that multitude of pupils he has taught indirectly through his writings. "As a lecturer," explained his biographer Donald L. Miller, "he exuded strength and power, and an almost Olympian certainty" (Miller 458).

Mumford’s confident use of metaphors infuses his writings with that same impression of strength, power, and certainty. When he argues that "the magnet comes before the container" (City in History 9), Mumford is employing two of his most important urban metaphors. The village, the town, and the heavily populated city have each served as a magnet, attracting both people and ideas. Drawing on the magnet imagery introduced by Ebenezer Howard, Mumford argues that this metaphor "is all the more useful in description because with the magnet we associate the existence of a ‘field’ and the possibility of action at a distance, visible in the ‘lines of social force,’ which draw to the center particles of a different nature" (City in History 82-83). This metaphor is effective and allows for varying and diverse interpretations. Social, economic, military, political, and religious influences each contribute to the magnetic attraction exerted by the city.


Cemeteries, with their potent emotional pull, have been important in the magnet function cities have played. "The city of the dead," Mumford maintained, "is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city." Cemeteries, he argued, had exerted a powerful influence on urban life. Ultimately, Mumford grimly noted, the Necropolis, that "final cemetery" awaited each civilization (City in History 7). Deploring the negative legacy of the Roman urban experience, Mumford hurled a bitter barb at that negative urban role model by tracing Rome’s descent from Parasitopolis to Patholopolis to Psycho-patholopolis (Nero- and Caligula-style) to Tyrannopolis. By then it was too late. "Only one further stage of city development remained, and that came soon: Necropolis, the city of the dead" (City in History 234). In typical Mumford fashion, he could not leave the Roman disaster alone, even after consigning it to Necropolis.  "Rome remains a significant lesson of what to avoid." Mumford warned his contemporaries of the "classic danger signals" to watch for: "Wherever crowds gather in suffocating numbers, wherever rents rise steeply and housing conditions deteriorate, wherever a one-sided exploitation of distant territories removes the pressure to achieve balance and harmony nearer at hand, there the precedents of Roman building almost automatically revive." Never one to gloss over contemporary urban ills, Mumford warned of the existence in modern America of both the "classic danger signals" and the inevitable consequences of those signals: "the arena, the tall tenement, the mass contests and exhibitions, . . . the constant titillation of the senses by sex, liquor, and violence." The focus on the trivial, he complained, was resulting, as in ancient Rome, in the "magnifications of demoralized power," and in the "minifications of life." "Necropolis is near," he cautioned, "though not a stone has yet crumbled" (City in History 242).


Although the magnet preceded the container in Mumford’s urban logic, the latter, he insisted, exceeded the former in importance. The container is a fitting symbol for the city. One can picture, for instance, the walled city, providing its human occupants with protection from outside intrusion. But more is implied by the concept. To Mumford, "the city was primarily a storehouse, a conservator and accumulator" and "by its command of these functions . . . the city served its ultimate function, that of transformer." Mumford’s container imagery is flexible, and is equally applicable to physical aspects of urban design and to other nontangible characteristics, including influential ideas. The city’s role as container of "storable symbolic forms" has coincided historically with its function "as a self-contained" entity. "Glyphs, ideograms, and script," along with "abstractions of number and verbal signs," contribute to the pliable notion of city as container (City in History 97).

Associated with the container metaphor is the notion of the urban power "implosion." As civilization progressed, asserts Mumford, "the many diverse elements of the community hitherto scattered . . . were packed together under pressure, behind the massive walls of the city." The chief, the king, or a comparable leader played a major role in this urban development. "Under pressure of one master institution, that of kingship, a multitude of diverse social particles, long separate and self-centered, if not mutually antagonistic, were brought together in a concentrated urban area." This mutually-reinforcing combination of king and container helped to produce a reaction that could not have occurred, according to Mumford, had there been no implosion. Living in close quarters had its advantages. "As with a gas, the very pressure of the molecules within that limited space produced more social collisions and interactions within a generation than would have occurred in many centuries if still isolated in their native habitats, without boundaries" (City in History 34).


In the concentrated space of the city, the first megamachines emerged. These mammoth entities were long overlooked by archaeologists, posits Mumford, because the evidence of their earlier existence consisted of so many distinct and disjoint parts: the human bodies whose exploited toil had constituted the megamachine. "Composed" of dynamic human components in life, the defunct and "dismantled" megamachine consisted only of "decomposed" humans who had formerly been part of the megamachine. Mumford’s remarks about the machine in general apply also to the megamachine phenomenon: "The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises" (Technics and Civilization 6). That "human spirit" can, of course, use power either to ennoble or to debase other humans. However, the very nature of the machine augments its potential for decreasing human opportunities for meaningful personal development, a theme that very much interested Mumford. "One of the by-products of the development of mechanical devices and mechanical standards", he lamented, Ahas been the nullification of skill" (Technics 279). Although Mumford was critical of much of what he saw in the application of technology within human society, he maintained a guardedly optimistic hope that humankind could harness that technology in socially beneficial ways. As Casey Nelson Blake notes, "Mumford looked to modern social science and technology for forms and values capable of restoring community on a modern, scientific basis" (Blake 279). Mumford believed, for example, that Ebenezer Howard’s vision of the Garden City could be implemented on a regional basis by utilizing such technological innovations as the automobile, the radio, and steel-based construction.

Not only did Mumford yearn for technological assistance in solving thorny modern urban problems, but he was also inclined to look, to some degree, to technocratic solutions. Although tinged with these technocratic tendencies, Mumford was certainly no mundane technocrat. AI have confined myself as far as possible to cities and regions I am acquainted with at first hand, and to data in which I have long been immersed," wrote Mumford in his detailed and broadly-ranging The City in History (xi). Most technocrats do not go to such lengths to inform themselves. It may well be that expressions such as learned, experienced beyond his years, and wise describe Mumford better than the term technocrat. One senses, both from reading Mumford directly and from reading about him, that he would have been uncomfortable in the presence of genuine technocrats. His variety of technocratic leadership was certainly much broader than theirs; Mumford’s brand of top-town oversight (an oversight that did not employ narrow ideological blinders to prevent insights emanating from the periphery) included input from such nontraditional public policy advisors as poets, humanist thinkers, and artists. In spite of an atypical receptiveness to the wisdom of such nontraditional consultants, Mumford’s approach was, nonetheless, technocratic, relying as it did "on expert leaders who would demonstrate to the public the best route to organic community, as revealed by social science, biology, and other specialized disciplines" (Blake 283).

Mumford’s ideas about the roles of the machine in human society are perceptive, penetrating, and unusually creative. His related notion of the megamachine--a broadly defined concept that is flexible enough to encompass labor, bureaucratic, and military varieties--provides a timeless metaphor. A megamachine exists when a centralized power structure exerts extraordinary control over people or over nature. Understanding the megamachine was considerably important to Mumford personally. He believed that uncovering its origins and development, as well as discovering the attendant myths relating to the acquisition of power, would yield meaningful clues regarding the modern world’s overemphasis on mechanical solutions to human dilemmas. In his exhaustive research, Mumford learned that megamachines, both ancient and modern, rely on a combination of guarded scientific expertise and a subservient bureaucracy. Exclusive knowledge and a deferential bureaucracy--not merely vast amounts of human muscle--are essential components of the megamachine.

Historically, the megamachine exerted a hegemonic influence over its subjects, on whose shoulders (sometimes quite literally) the objectives of the machine were carried out. Religion, royal absolutism, and capitalism all contributed to such megahegemony. As Miller observes, "the megamachine, after all, was largely a product of the mind" (527). One might amend this skilled biographer’s statement to read: "the megamachine, after all, was largely a product of the minds, of those exerting control and of those supporting the hegemonic arrangements imposed upon them (commonly with their consent)." Megamachines built the pyramids of Egypt, constructed the St. Petersburg of Peter the Great, and assembled (and financed) the gigantic arsenals of the major Cold War antagonists. Whether upheld by a belief in Re (the ancient sun god), or by a reverence for the modern computer (with its immense capacity for oversight, and for obliteration of privacy), megamachines have exerted a powerful influence on urban affairs, on human thought, and on the public and private behavior of humankind.


Among the most powerful symbols Mumford ever employed was the that of the Pentagon, a loaded metaphor that allowed him to vent some of his most profound concerns about the incongruity between technological potential and societal woes. The Pentagon--a potent symbol of militarism, power, and destruction--represented for Mumford the illogical modern obsession with megastructures and megapower. Mumford worried that this colossal structure, the physical manifestation of a Power Complex, encapsulated a technocratic minority that sought to exclude outside information that failed to mesh with its own utilitarian vision and aims. He lamented the terrible irony inherent in subjecting vast numbers of humans to the decision-making capacity of a relatively minuscule number of technocratic experts whose insulation and narrow specialization bred professional incompetence and potentially deadly consequences.

His adoption of the Pentagon as a metaphor, one so recognizable to modern readers, is vintage Mumford. He introduces an image that is easily identifiable with a specific time and a specific place, and then discusses how that metaphor transcends both that time and that place. The ultimate generalist, he could do no differently; to be narrow and specific would be to cease to be Mumford. The New Yorker was characteristically not a writer to whom one could turn for thin volumes, thin metaphors, or (above all) thin thinking. The Pentagon was not simply a poignant image for Americans of the 1960s; it was also an image whose meaning stretched to other eras, including "the Pyramid Age." Megamachines have exploited society in many ages, typically using the most exploitative means currently available, whether horsepower or coalpower, oil power or nuclear power (Myth of the Machine 166). The key to the Pentagon metaphor is power, and that power, like the Pentagon complex itself, is embedded in complex societal forces. Its five vertices provide symmetry, each representing a key concept (each of which is, in turn, linked by alliterative symmetry): "power, . . . prestige, property, productivity and profit" (Myth of the Machine 192). The concepts represented by these vertices, so timeless in their applicability, are also, unfortunately universal in their dehumanizing capacity.


Mumford’s interest in the city was far more than academic. Mumford was largely the product of urban influences, and he viewed urban life, in its best sense, as both personally liberating and culturally enlightening. When he asked, "Will the city disappear or will the whole planet turn into a vast urban hive?--which would be another mode of disappearance," Mumford was speaking from genuine concern over contemporary issues. His personal quest to understand and promote a more human-centered urban existence was reflected by his query, "Can the needs and desires that have impelled men to live in cities recover, at a still higher level, all that Jerusalem, Athens, or Florence once seemed to promise?" He clearly hoped that contemporary and future humanity would respond in the affirmative to his probing question, "Is there still a living choice between Necropolis and Utopia?" (City in History 3).

No portrait of Mumford (of any length) can do justice to the wide-ranging nature of his thought. Reflecting on his metaphors, however, does at least give one a handle with which to come to grips with some of his major ideas. While many modern authors simply scratch the surface of their subjects, Mumford routinely penetrated deeply--very deeply--into his. The topsoil of his thinking was incredibly rich, like an intellectual rainforest which defied, and survived, the destructively fragmentational tendencies of his times. His experience was a far cry from the all-too-common tendency of his age to practice a "studious indifference to other human needs, norms, and goals," a proclivity that "operates best in what is, historically speaking, an ecological, cultural, and personal lunar desert, swept only by solar winds" (Myth of the Machine, 168). The intellectual rainforest that was Lewis Mumford spurned the disturbing slide of his era toward social desertification.

"I have taken life itself," Mumford once philosophized, "to be the primary phenomenon, and creativity, rather than the `conquest of nature,’ as the ultimate criterion of man’s biological and cultural success" (Myth of the Machine xi). Mumford, as his metaphors attest, promoted the creative life he sought so zealously to preserve, and to model. "That, in fact, is what this whole autobiography is about," Mumford explained in Sketches from Life: "the ways and methods and goals and meanings and rewards of a lifetime education" (335).


Blake, Casey Nelson. 1990. Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Miller, Donald L.. 1989. Lewis Mumford: A Life. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Mumford, Lewis. 1961. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Mumford, Lewis. 1964. The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power. New York:Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Mumford, Lewis. 1982. Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford, The Early Years. New York: The Dial Press.

Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Novak, Frank G., Jr., ed. 1995. Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence. London; New York: Routledge.

Spiller, Robert E., ed. 1970. The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters: The Record of a Literary Friendship, 1921-1963. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co.