Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the 20th Century

October 23, 2008

Books on the Garden City tradition are two a penny, and this slimmish volume looks like another one. At first I wondered why two historians of science had written the book at all. They fall for the old story that Ebenezer Howard wanted to found an isolated, "utopian" community rather than one piece in an efficient, regional system united by rapid transit. Some of Robert Kargon and Arthur Molella's case studies are new and even surprising, but their understanding of the world context of their "techno-cities" is superficial. Their historical techniques are no example to other scholars, especially when they lift so many primary quotations from secondary works without reading or even checking the originals.

However, there is much more to this book than meets the eye. Thanks to the internet, I discovered that it was inspired by a powerful Howardian figure, Jerome H. Lemolson (1923-97), America's most prolific inventor since Edison. Lemolson was unknown to me, but that was my loss. Anyone who meets his future wife on the Staten Island ferry is a friend of mine. Molella is director of the Lemolson Center at the Smithsonian Institution, while Kargon has written a biography of Robert A. Millikan (1868-1953), the experimental physicist, Nobel laureate and president of Caltech from 1921 to 1945. These are big, big people.

Now things start to get interesting. The authors have two main interests. The first is the role of great or powerful men in shaping new technology, communities and ultimately the world. Mussolini and his industrialist supporters figure here, as does (believe it or not) Hermann Goering of steelworks fame. Adriano Olivetti, boss of the typewriter company at Ivrea and a non-fascist, is the most sympathetic of these people, becoming a leading Italian planner after the war. Henry Ford, happily, is passed over in silence.

The second is the American tradition of high-tech settlements, which ends here in the New Urbanism but passes through Norris, Tennessee, Oak Ridge and (again believe it or not) the planned town of Celebration, Florida and earlier Disney initiatives. German planners and conservationists have never forgiven me for telling the annual meeting of the influential Die alte Stadt that the Anaheim Disneyland of 1955 promoted both the past and the future of American society in a planned "city", but this book says it much better than I did in my stumbling German. They would not talk to me after the lecture, dismissing it as ironisch, and I had to leave the conference early and in disgrace. But film fans have seen it all in The War of the Worlds (1953) whose hero professor had worked at Oak Ridge, by implication on the first atomic bomb. (Not that he could stop the Martians, though.)

The authors do not overplay their hand. The golden age of their "techno-cities" is the 1930s and 1940s, when they seemed to offer the answer to the Depression, and then drove the war effort forward. After 1945, techno-cities were absorbed in a broader planning and economic policy, and the British and French New Towns do not figure strongly here. Instead, the authors concentrate on the combined strength of community and technology in the United States, stressing the continuing influence of the town-country ideal but telling a powerful American story rather than a European fable.

A fascinating, original book.

Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the 20th Century

By Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella. The MIT Press, 208pp, £16.95. ISBN 9780262113205. Published 26 September 2008

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