‘Equally at home with the anecdotal and the theoretical’ – Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

icdaIn Sapiens, his history of human development, Yuval Noah Harari argued that the transition from mobile hunter-gatherers to settlers may have had a severely negative impact on human happiness. Although agriculture allowed humans a relatively consistent supply of food, the burdens of farming also significantly cut into leisure time, restricted the range of available food and made humans more prone to disease and starvation. In the first settlements, violence became rife, with human violence being responsible for as much as 25% of male deaths. It could even be said that the agricultural revolution had more benefits for wheat than it did for humanity. Each great leap in human productivity bought further privations, not least the industrial revolution, which saw workers forced to endure long, arduous days in factories, and cope with the alienating effects of the modern city.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that humans have long expressed their discontentment with urban living. The three Abrahamic religions were founded by nomadic peoples whose disapproval of cities is expressed in the stories of the Tower of Babel and the Cities of the Plain. Later, secular belief systems spoke of the atomising effects of cities. We have always dreamed of something better. Medieval peasants imagined the City of Cockaigne, in which daily tasks were automated, daylight hours increased and leisure time soared; this later found an analogue in the ‘big rock candy mountain’ of American folk song. The term ‘utopia’ was coined by Thomas More in 1516, although his work was predated by The Book of The City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (1405), amongst others.

Utopias are inherently unrealisable, as More acknowledged in his choice of name (literally ‘no place’), and are inextricably linked to the idea of dystopia (Margaret Attwood pointed out that utopias become dystopias when they deal with anyone who doesn’t fit their plans). They still leave some trace, however; through literature, architects plans, historical documents and films, Darran Anderson has been able to put together a detailed overview of buildings, cities and countries which have never existed outside of their creator’s imagination.

In Imaginary Cities, Anderson examines the history of never-built cities and structures, as well as our imaginative dealings with existing ones. He opens with the story of Marco Polo, the great explorer who was derided as ‘the man of a million lies’ when he returned to his native Italy with tales of desert sirens luring the unwary to their deaths, and colossal birds who fed on elephants. There was some truth in amongst the mythology, however, as Anderson points out: ‘at the time, these were scarcely more unbelievable than his claims of ‘stones that burn like logs’ (coal), paper currency, seeing the highest mountains in the world (the Himalayas)… yet we now know these to be fairly accurate descriptions’. This story illustrates the human need to create myths which will help us identify with our geographical surroundings. In archaic times, maps were filled with sea serpents and ‘here be dragons’ – today, we populate planets with extra-terrestrials.

This tendency to exoticise is not confined to geographically distant cities. Just as humans (according to Hegel) invented gods before ascribing powers to them, we have built cities and mythologised them simultaneously. Cities may be said to be immortal, protected by saints, built by angels, or possessed of great moral values. Totalitarian governments have gone further, attempting to build cities which will mould their populations into people of the future, with generally disastrous results. As Anderson notes, even the greatest city is a dystopia for some: ‘what was glorious Rome to a slave dragged there from his or her homeland?’

The invariably tragic consequences of trying to bring imaginary cities to life is a recurring theme throughout Anderson’s book. One salutary tale is the Ford motor company’s construction of a model city in the Amazon jungle. Built in 1928, Fordlandia was intended to provide Ford with a reliable supply of rubber for tyres, but the scheme was plagued by inept management from the beginning. The transplanted Asian rubber trees, packed closely together, were ravaged by ants, bugs and spiders, while workers rebelled against the prohibition on alcohol, women and tobacco. Fordlandia never produced any rubber, and was eventually sold at a $20 million loss.

While architects have long dreamed about the city of the future, architecture has also been used to influence our view of the past. Visitors to Warsaw’s Old Town are told of how the area was rebuilt from rubble after its destruction in the uprising of 1944, using plans liberated from the city hall to exactly recreate Warsaw as it was before the German invasion. This is not strictly true however; the builders were selective about which buildings to reconstruct, creating a romanticised version of the fin de siècle city.

Looking to the future, Anderson warns that ‘we are sleepwalking into future worlds created by others if we do not create them ourselves’. One possibility is a virtual reality city, in which Google Glass-type technology enhances or alters the city around us. Alternatively, we may be faced with the totalitarian panopticon state in which we are constantly monitored, and maybe the greatest desire is for fifteen minutes of privacy.

Imaginary Cities is equally at home with the anecdotal and the theoretical, with a huge range of references ranging from Thomas More to Judge Dredd. The pace with which Anderson moves from one topic to the next, and the sheer density of information, threatens to overwhelm the reader at times, but makes for a bracing experience. Appropriately, Imaginary Cities is something of a Quixotic venture in itself: this is a long book, running to 667 pages in my copy (with an extensive set of footnotes available online), but the original version was reportedly twice as long. Anderson’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, and his knowledge is impressive.

This is a creative work of great imagination and ambition, delivered with panache. It may be foolhardy to attempt to tackle such a vast subject, but there’s no hubris here. With all the determination of Fitzcarraldo dragging his steamboat over the Peruvian mountains in order to fulfil his glorious vision, Anderson corrals a world of information into the pages of Imaginary Cities.

Any Cop?: Readers will come away entertained and enriched. 

Thom Cuell



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