IMAGINARY CITIES by Darran Anderson (Influx Press, 2015)
This eloquent, ambitious, challenging and, ultimately, fascinating book was conceived in part as “a diminished non-fiction mirror” of Italo Calvino’s Le Città Invisibili (Invisible Cities).
Darran Anderson‘s guiding principle is that cities should not be defined solely in terms of its built environments but ought to be seen as states of mind which can, and should, be read : “Architecture is not simply the construction of buildings; it is the construction of space, both inner and outer”.
He asserts that “a history of ever-changing cities, whether real or unreal, must also be a history of the imagination”, adding that “the boundary between ‘real life’ architectural settings and fiction has been an intriguingly porous one”.
Whatever can be imagined can be re-imagined and cities change and evolve according to fashions and fetishes of the people. Architecture is influenced by culture and vice versa; art and life are not separate things but are indelibly linked.
Anderson finds many pertinent, and smart, quotes such as that of William Gibson, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”. His point is that progress and technology may be conceived as serving the desires of people but what happens in practice suggests this is far from the case.
In the Capitalist model the wealthy benefit and the poor are mostly confined to soulless suburbs or ghetto areas : “With housing bubbles pricing out the young, the result is pristine cities in which those who run the city cannot afford to live there”.
The quest for Utopia is a recurring theme and is depicted as a Holy Grail that is forever out of reach and constantly blighted by human idiosyncrasies, selfishness, greed and/or plain stupidity. Our faults and flaws are what make us human and work against perfection. Dystopia for the needy masses is Utopia for the affluent few.
The Derry born author writes “We can Copenhagenise our future cities, make them as green and smart as we can, but provided we are still embedded in systems that reward cronyism, exploitation and short-term profiteering, that require poverty and degradation, it will be mere camouflage”.
Anderson covers a lot of ground, some more sketchily than others but he always a wise and well-informed guide. He is particularly perceptive, and entertaining, in his analysis of popular culture for example in identifying the Batman comics and movies as “a critique of failed urban planning and empathy”.
Anyone looking for neatly pigeon-holed concepts or seeking glib answers to complex global questions will find this roller-coaster of a book frustrating. There is no linear narrative and the story is deliberately open-ended because “there is no finality in architecture, only continuous change”.