On Imaginary Cities
Inspired by the surreal accounts of the explorer and 'man of a million lies' Marco Polo, Imaginary Cities charts the metropolis and the imagination, and the symbiosis therein. Here Bookseller Darran Anderson from our St Andrews shop reveals the books that inspired him to write his imaginative work.
I only mention Invisible Cities a couple of times in my book but it’s always there. Calvino begins his book with the explorer Marco Polo, ‘the man of a million lies’, at the court of Kublai Khan. The author, via the emperor’s reports, takes off into a series of thought experiments about fantastical metropolises. They consist of wildly extravagant and poetic cities of symbols, desires, dreams and fears. I tried to begin Imaginary Cities from the same starting point in non-fiction, to explore the how and why of the cities we invent. It is written always in the light and the shadows from Calvino’s book.
I’m keen to demonstrate in Imaginary Cities that the unbuilt plans of architects, designers and city planners have very often been more surreal than science fiction or fantasy. Le Corbusier planned to level central Paris and replace it with tower blocks, whilst turning Algiers into a linear apartment block with a road on top. Bruno Taut wanted to transform the pinnacles of the Alps into crystal palaces. Kenzō Tange designed a floating Tokyo. One of my favourite collections of this kind is Hugh Ferriss’ The Metropolis of Tomorrow, which combines stirring critical writing with illustrations of colossal art deco buildings rising out of the night. It also inadvertently inspired Batman’s Gotham City. Imaginary Cities charts how ideas like these reverberate and resurface in the most unlikely and unintended places.
Architecture is partly an expression of power and you can often tell who is dominant by looking at the tallest buildings on the skyline. Growing up in Derry during the Troubles, it was very easy to see how it could be used to oppress and exclude but also how it could be subverted and reclaimed. This is evident the world over and it’s reflected in fiction, especially dystopian novels. Atwood’s book delves not just into how this might appear, the mixture of medieval and modern, puritanism and obscenity, but also the human drives behind it. It also shows how we can resist or at least bear witness in defiance. It’s an exceptionally dark book yet one not without hope.
Space can be passively oppressive as well as actively; substituting living rooms for living dead rooms. Augé examines how non-places (airports, office spaces, waiting rooms) have increasingly invaded our lives and our planet, places that are everywhere and nowhere, where “people are always, and never, at home”. You’ll never look at a shopping mall in the same way.
There are many comic books that tell us a great deal about real cities; Gotham obviously, Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités obscures, Dean Motter’s Mr X, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, the comic books of Katsuhiro Otomo, and Moebius. My favourite growing up was Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One from 2000AD. Every future city is a roundabout critique of the present and Judge Dredd was wickedly satirical of fashion, politics and the casual derangements of existence. It was also a thrilling reminder that the future will contain the wreckage of the present, and also that the future is already here in fragments.
We give cities singular names but really they’re plural. They are teeming not just with life but perspectives. Since mistaking Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of hell for ‘Where’s Wally?’ as a child, I’ve been drawn to art and writing that explores the multiplicity of life; Breughel’s paintings, Hokusai’s prints, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books, the Cubists and Futurists, The Waste Land, The Waves and so on. Building Stories takes its lead from the brilliant Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec. In both, you have structures where multiple stories are happening in different rooms. It’s a little disconcerting at
Places have stories too. Here is the remarkable fragmented biography of the corner of a room. Cities have far longer
We don’t like to dwell on it but cities contain their own ruins. Civilisations believe themselves to be immortal, even when flirting with destruction, but history has other ideas. As children, we dream of being the last person left in a city and the freedom that would bring. As adults, the same prospect disturbs us but we are still fixated. There are many compelling apocalyptic books; for London alone, there’s The War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, After London, The Last Man and so on. In the post-England of Riddley Walker, language has evolved and partly deconstructed, knowledge has slipped into superstition and hearsay, the remnants of civilisation have rusted away or have
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