Throughout history, cities have been the locations of intelligence, talent and wealth which have together generated the great centres and periods of artistic and technological creativity. Not a very original or startling assertion; if Peter Hall were merely intent on proving this uncontentious thesis, he did not need 1169 pages to do so. But the value of his magnum opus lies not in this trite summary, but in the fascinating detail he accumulates to show how greatness has happened at different times in different places.
Indeed, this is several books in one. Hall tells us about the London of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the Vienna of Mahler and Freud, the Detroit of Ford and Olds, and many others. Each of these detailed studies could happily be read on its own.
The conditions that produce a golden age or an innovative milieu are summarised. It needs surplus wealth; culture is founded on money. It needs talented individuals; in particular, outsiders with an awkward relationship to authority and power. Above all, it happens in a transitional culture, when a conservative, hierarchic society is being challenged. A city at the height of its creativity is an uncomfortable place to be. However, for all his academic cross-comparison and analyses, Hall has to admit that the coincidence of the necessary ingredients for greatness is unpredictable. Civic boosterism cannot produce an innovative milieu by prescription.
A serious contradiction that Hall admits is that, in every great city period, the learning, the culture, or the leading-edge technology has coexisted with poverty and deprivation for a large part of the population. The equitable city has yet to be built. The Athens of Pericles and Pheidias was based on slavery, and even its free citizens lived in primitive, insanitary hovels. Fin-de-siecle Vienna and Weimar Berlin contained huge disparities between the lives of the cultured bourgeoisie and those of the overcrowded, overworked and underfed industrial poor.
Hall's final chapter is a forward-looking one, to the city of the future. He concludes, against the cyberspace-critics, that the city will survive; both social life and software manufacturing still require propinquity. He observes that the growth in electronic telecommunications is closely matched by the growth in travel; the idea that place no longer counts is naive. But Hall admits that dystopian forecasts about the lack of jobs and growing social inequity between rich and poor cannot be dismissed.
The city, of course, is not just a container of people and wealth which enables culture and invention to flourish. It is also a precise form which is itself the product of culture and invention. Here I find some dissatisfaction with Hall's book. Its case studies of cities are contained in sections: cities of culture, of invention and technology, and of urban order. One can question whether culture and technology need to be separated; they thrive in similar circumstances, and are not mutually exclusive. But what architects and urban designers need is some evidence on the relationship, if any, between the quality of an urban culture and the quality of the physical environment in which it operates. The structure of Hall's book precludes this.
So we have a study on the culture of ancient Athens, with little about its urban form, but a study on the urban form of ancient Rome. We have a study on Haussmann's reordering of Paris, ending in 1870, and a study on the Paris of Monet, Picasso and Apollinaire, beginning in 1870. Each of these is wonderful in its own way, but their separation leaves important questions dangling. Did Haussmann's boulevards facilitate Impressionism in any way? Reading Walter Benjamin suggests there may be a connection, but Hall is quiet on the matter.
Hall's chapter on pre-1945 Hollywood seems to contradict his thesis. Hollywood had the right climate, it had the awkward outsider-geniuses, but the studios themselves were built on orange groves. The culture created the city. Similarly, Silicon Valley up the coast, home of the pc, certainly was not a city when Hewlett and Packard started work in their garage in 1938. Is it a city now? Hall argues that it is an urban network, rather like that of the Lancashire mill towns of Bury, Rochdale and Bolton of the nineteenth century, and certainly one of the models for the urban future. So there is really nothing new after all.
Joe Holyoak is reader at Birmingham School of Architecture, uce