Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. University of Chicago Press. $22.50, 576 pp.
Imagine a city that you cannot contain, a city that forms and reforms itself around you constantly, a city that continues to change while your memories remain lodged in a reality that moves further into the past every day. That is the city of a man with a ten-second memory. I know such a person. Severely injured in an accident more than thirty years ago, this man, a former client, is unable to lay down new memoires. He lives in the continual present, working from a frame of reference decades out of date. But in the moment he is a highly intelligent, logical thinker—he was a young lawyer at the time of his injury. To see him today, his memory impairment is not immediately apparent. He is meticulous about his appearance, well-spoken, and polite. He tries to cover for his confusion as much as possible.
For many years, this man has spent several hours a week volunteering at a downtown law firm. The purpose is to provide him with social stimulation, stave off boredom. He goes to “work” in a suit, briefcase in hand. A special needs taxi delivers him to and from his placement. One day, a storm slowed all traffic, and his ride was late to pick him up. In the driving snow he began to walk toward the last home he could remember. But he had not lived there in years, and downtown, with its signature landmarks, had shifted in the meantime. The city around him no longer conformed to the one he had known, but on its streets he was invisible, a business man like any other, lost in a truly imaginary city.
As one navigates the sprawling streets and avenues that spread out across the pages of Darran Anderson’s ambitious guidebook to the metropolitan ideal—past, present, and future—there is likely to be more than one occasion of disorientation, an invitation to entertain an entirely new way of understanding the possibilities of the urban reality. In this sense, Imaginary Cities is a map that encourages you to get lost. Subtitled A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between, this journey is an open-ended inquiry into the myriad ways that the idea of the city has been conceived in history, art, literature, social theory, and architectural design—for better or worse.
Unlike the standard guidebook, Anderson offers his traveler no pictures, maps, or diagrams. This is intentional. Side trips are encouraged as the fancy strikes, and generous footnotes are provided for those who wish to follow up on quotes and references. (Of course, there is also the ease of stopping into Google for quick access to an image, biography, or further background material.) Anderson’s extended essay feels like spending time with an entertaining, well-read explorer who has traversed the cities of the imagination and returned with exotic tales that stretch back into pre-history and out into the solar system. We are in the presence of a modern-day Marco Polo who understands that “all cities can, and should be read.” His aim is to help us learn to trace these narratives ourselves.
Our guide is an Irish writer living in Scotland. He is neither an academic nor an architect, but his focus of attention lies in the intersection of culture, architecture, and technology. In a recent podcast, Anderson traced the genesis of this project to long-standing fascinations with cities and with the point at which reality and myth meet. As he became increasingly obsessed with architects and started looking through their plans, he found that beyond their iconic structures, each had drafted countless schemes and designs that would remain, for a variety of reasons, unrealized. With a different set of circumstances, then, the skylines and urban landscapes we know now could have been very different—as they once were in the past and will be in the future. The modern city is in flux and can perhaps best be understood only through a shifting kaleidoscope of angles and perspectives.
Dividing his book into seven sections, Anderson manages to pull together a wide range of interrelated ideas—from sources as diverse as myth, archaeology, art, film, urban studies, science fiction, architectural design, and many others—into a thematically structured, meandering discussion, at once densely packed and tangential. Yet the quality that makes this project so impressive also makes it very difficult to adequately capture in a review. It is a slippery beast. The themes explored are neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Amorphous, the content exceeds the boundary of the pages. Each section necessarily offers more, and less, than it promises—echoing so many of the architectural, community, and metropolitan schemes that come in and out of focus along the way. Dreams cannot be contained—in their fulfilment sacrifices must be made.
Nonetheless, it’s inspiring to see just how much Anderson manages to squeeze into his thematic discussions. For example, the section, “The Tower,” with its twenty-seven chapters, starts with the quixotic. We meet Tommaso Campanella, whose proposed “City of the Sun”—with its utopian vision of a center devoted to intellectual engagement and physical pleasures—landed him in a dungeon as a guest of the Church during the Inquisition. But his mind could not be confined and he continued to construct his designs in his imagination. He was not forgotten, and his ideas would continue to the inspire the civic utopias of his contemporary Francis Bacon and, later, Ivan Ilich Léonidiv, who dreamed up urban plans to try to save himself under Stalin. None of these imagined designs were realized, but that did not lessen their influence.
Subsequent chapters introduce Le Corbusier, the ambitious and eccentric pioneer of Modernism; stop by Mega-City One, the vast metropolis of the Judge Dredd comics; spend time contemplating the Ideal City in Renaissance art and philosophy; and spare a few minutes glancing at various attempts to envision a New Jerusalem before turning to the unfortunate, even tragic, communities founded by messianic leaders and madmen. And at this point, the journey is just getting started. From the ziggurat to the skyscraper, “The Tower” will examine the titular subject both on its own and as an integral part of the cityscape. In later sections, many of the projects and personalities met here will reappear in other contexts.
Ever avoiding the temptation to belabour a point with exhaustive detail, Anderson prefers to paint with broad strokes as he explores concepts and themes. But he continually manages to punctuate his narrative with pointed observations that bring us back, from wherever he has wandered, to moments and ideas we instantly recognize, tying his discursions back into the book’s multifaceted main thread. In the chapter, “Cinematic Dystopia of the Everyday,” for instance, he moves from the surreal silent cityscapes of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari to the futuristic noir of Blade Runner, then to the soullessness of the consumer-driven society depicted by French director Jacques Tati in his ambitious film Playtime, for which he constructed a set to mimic a modern city:
Tati foresaw it all. Everywhere looks sedately impressive and like nowhere in particular. People are inherently lost. Traffic crawls in barbiturate carousels. The shocking thing watching it back now is not how contrived his sledgehammer and slapstick satire is, but how pertinent. The open plan office floors with their individual cubicles are rife now. The large glass facades, echoing the quiet desolation of Edward Hopper’s paintings, are everywhere. This is life as a glistening empty waiting room and it is a life we are increasingly forced to live all over the globe.
Here we are reminded that, as what once was presented as part of a dystopic (or, for that matter utopian) vision arrives, it soon becomes commonplace. It is easy to forget that the future is now, or rather, to quote William Gibson, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”
The wide, eclectic sweep of Anderson’s project is fueled by an infectious sense of endless curiosity. One of the book’s greatest assets—perhaps the key to its success—lies in its author’s thoughtful, engaging tone. His lyrical, aphoristic prose offers a wealth of memorable lines. This is where his inner Marco Polo, channeled through Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, serves him well. He is an intelligent, witty, and consummate storyteller, never afraid to speculate, raise questions, and entertain ideas without the pressure to define and prove an overarching theory. But there is a persistent theme that runs through the book. It arises naturally from the earliest formations of human settlements and is so fundamental that it has essentially become part of the psycho-topography of the urban space, reflected in our mythologies, stories, and art. That is the endless tension between utopian aspiration and dystopian despair.
One might imagine that these are two opposite ends of the spectrum, but Anderson suggests that utopias and dystopias each imply the quality of the other, that is, every utopia contains its own dystopia and vice versa. Cities are fundamentally heterogeneous places. From their earliest incarnations, such as Uruk in Mesopotamia, they were marked by the production of an agricultural surplus and the development of social classes. Utopian visions with their idealistic, often philosophical or Puritanical agendas—the dream of a world without difference or inequity—tend to deny the very qualities that make city life possible, let alone vibrant and interesting. As a sort of heaven on earth, a utopia is rarely imagined for all, just as hell might be said to exist for those who want to imagine other people burning in it. And it is no question which scenario tends to capture the popular imagination. More visitors follow Dante and Virgil down into the depths of the Inferno than sign on for the subsequent treks through Purgatorio and Paradiso.
In the end, Imaginary Cities, is much more than a book. It is an ongoing project that invites participation. It opens conversations, challenges assumptions, exposes contradictions, and invites readers to lose themselves in the cities they live in, visit, and encounter in their dreams. And the discussion does not end when the final page is turned. Darran Anderson’s Twitter feed, @Oniropolis is a wonderful source of fascinating of images, links, and retweets guaranteed to keep the magic flowing.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Roughghosts. He is a contributor at Numéro Cinq and an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and appears in the 2016-17 Seagull Books Catalog.
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