by Darran Anderson
Cities don't have to be imagined to come into existence. By their basic nature, they are organic living entities. No city that was first imagined ever turned out as its dreamers envisioned. Few cities actually begin with the vision of a great city being placed at this particular spot. Human nature and human needs aren't so easily directed. Cities grow where needs and desires are met. Once a city begins to grow, however, the dreams quickly follow. The first cities (the Sumerian city of Eridu?) were born thousands of years ago and with them, the first dreams of cities, fantasies of great cities of gold, visions of great cities of the future, dark forebodings of cities destroyed, the small romantic moments of the cities we love. In this idiosyncratic book, in tone reminiscent of, but not exactly like Calvino's Invisible Cities, author Darran Anderson takes us on an epic meditation upon how humans interact with the idea of the city, how we build upon our dreams, and how we implement our darkest tendencies through our urban landscapes.
The book itself is hard to categorize. It is part history, part fantasy, part cultural critique, part dark prophecy, part comic romp from Marco Polo to Logan's Run. The book isn't a rant, but it is sometimes polemical. It is relentlessly erudite, becoming a game for the reader who can congratulate him- or herself upon recognizing its many droppings of names, sites, buildings, cities, artworks, theories and designs. Anderson's countless references to literature, architecture, history, film, art and fantasy will yet leave the reader wanting references and pictures, with which this book could have been lavishly supplied. But, Anderson and his editors are of the 21st century, even if his meditations go back millennia. They know the reader will keep the internet nearby, for the attentive will search pictures and bibliographies. The book doesn't need to carry that load, nor its many required permissions.
But, what is this book, really? This is sort of a thought experiment, a journey through cultural references to track threads of ideas and understandings of cities and our notions of meaning within and around them. Faraway cities of Marco Polo's expeditions delighted and frightened the folks back home, so much so that Marco became the man of a million lies. The Nazis proposed massive structures that would not only solidify their hegemony, but memorialize the many who would die and continue to die to maintain it. Fantasists such as Ron Herron, with his Walking City, and futurists such as Antonio Sant'Elia, with his dramatic mechanistic architecture, Fritz Lang and his visionary Metropolis, and many others, imagined complex, futuristic and mechanical visions of what cities might look like given one logical path of growth and development. In Orwell's 1984 the city is the very essence of dystopic fear, part grim fairy tale, part ominously prescient prediction. Then, of course, there is Utopia the perfect ideal (and idyll) to which writers, philosophers, artists and architects are irresistably drawn. It never works, of course. Anderson observes the basic notion that you cannot have heaven without hell. There is no Utopia without Dystopia, no matter how much you try. Eternity of perfection grows rapidly boring. These are just a small sampling of Anderson's musings, each of which is tied together with many others at his fingertips, as esoteric as works of 19th century poetry, and as gritty as a steampunk comic book, not to mention numerous cinematic connections. The book is not a scholarly work, despite its dizzying romp through cultural history. Whether the reader is engaged may depend largely on the kind of thinking the reader enjoys. Indeed, from one angle, the book is as much a bit of fun as it is a serious consideration of how cities have run through human culture.
But here's the thing. Writing on building, cities, urban planning, urban development, real estate, growth and decay, ruin porn and fantasy penthouses, all of this and more has exploded in recent years on the internet. As our cities begin to push their limits, as Middle Eastern office towers approach Frank Lloyd Wright's mile-high sky scraper, and suburban millennials flock back to the downtowns, the nature and understanding of cities have become a big slice of our media content. Where does any of that lead? Perhaps ruin porn, itself, and the Russian kids free-climbing urban towers point the way. In any case, some relief from the often tortured quality of our thinking on cities is needed. Certainly, Imaginary Cities offers that, while keeping one foot planted in the esoteric and eclectic world of literature and history from which it springs. A quirky book. Idiosyncratic and recommended.
(The one significant flaw of the University of Chicago Press printing of this book is that, while it is tied to the electronic internet city in which we now live, its bibliography, credits and acknowledgements are linked to a web site (www.imaginarycitiesbook.com) which no longer exists, and the reader may be left hanging.)
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