On Imaginary Cities

CONSIDER Gotham City. A fictional, fanciful place, dark and dirty but not without glamour or grandeur, where threat posed by petty criminals and super-villains is forever set against the hope of protection and salvation symbolised by The Batman.

In the universe of DC Comics, the city of Metropolis is just across the river. It’s slightly brighter and more colourful, and of course the earthly, workaday residence of Superman (who is usually on good terms with his equally famous crime-fighting neighbour, despite their falling out in the recent blockbuster movie Batman V Superman).

As first drawn by comic artist Joe Shuster in 1939, Metropolis was modelled on Toronto, where Shuster was born and raised. Soon enough though, it grew to resemble the Manhattan of the period, with its soaring Art Deco skyscrapers. Gotham, created one year later, was also said to be a shadowy reflection of New York City – local newspaperman William Safire sourced it to the zones “below 14th street, from SoHo to Greenwich Village … and the sinister areas around the base of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges”.

Graphic novelist Frank Miller later said: “Metropolis is New York in the daytime, Gotham is New York at night.” Around the globe, across the full spectrum of artforms, there are countless other non-existent cities superimposed over real ones.

Authors, painters, film-makers, video game designers draft and redraft skylines in their minds’ eyes, drawing on memory, history, fantasy. The original, fictional Metropolis, as seen in the iconic 1927 movie of that name, was also made in response to director Fritz Lang’s first vertiginous sight of New York, but Lang was thinking about Germany’s Weimar Republic too, and the biblical Tower of Babel as painted by Pieter Bruegel circa 1563.

Neo-Tokyo, meanwhile, is a futuristic iteration of the Japanese capital as seen in Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series Akira, and its anime adaptation. King’s Landing is the capital of the Seven Kingdoms and centre of the quasi-medieval realm created by George RR Martin for his literary saga A Song Of Ice And Fire. In print it resembles ancient Byzantium (later Constantinople, and later still Istanbul). But its TV incarnation on the hit show Game of Thrones was shot in the fortified city of Mdina, Malta, and the walled port of Dubrovnik, Croatia – exotic real world locations augmented with set dressing and digital imagery.

In his recent book Imaginary Cities, Irish poet and essayist Darran Anderson makes the case that none of these chimerical cityscapes are much more unlikely, when considered in the abstract, than existing urban environments. His title is partly borrowed from Italo Calvino’s wondrous 1972 novel Invisible Cities, which took the form of dialogues between the wandering 13th century merchant Marco Polo and his dangerous host Kublai Khan, in which Polo describes, or invents, the places he has seen.

Anderson’s favourite of these was always a city called Ersilia, where “the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency”.

“How perceptive that is about cities,” he says. “The way they’re kept alive by connections and relationships that you can’t usually see. It sounds almost like the internet.” His own book explores the links and loops that run in both directions from purely conceptual places to points on the map as we know it. For example: Samuel Coleridge’s famous 1797 poem Kubla Khan was inspired by “a vision in a dream” about the Mongol ruler’s palace at Xanadu (where he hosted Marco Polo, if Polo is to be believed).

But, as Anderson writes in Imaginary Cities, contemporary chronicles recall that the plan for the actual Xanadu, or Shengdu, summer capital of the Yuan empire, had itself been first envisioned in a dream by the Khan himself. “Dream city begets dream city.” Anderson, for his part, grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland, at the tail end of the turbulent political period generally referred to as The Troubles. Wracked by sectarian violence and effectively occupied by the British Army, his hometown was then inlaid with a maze of security barriers, dividing walls, checkpoints and watchtowers.

Today, he remembers “all these weird metal grids like something out of War of The Worlds, which I think inspired my interest in strange, radical architecture, and my curiosity about the ways that power is manifested in space”. Reading offered escape from an oppressive environment, but also suggested other ways to look at those surroundings. Immersing himself in 2000 AD, a popular comic set in the sprawling future dystopia of Mega City One, and best known for its authoritarian anti-hero, Judge Dredd, Anderson projected that setting onto the streets around his house.

“I couldn’t really get into the superhero thing, not even Batman. But 2000 AD had these amazing cityscapes, and gave you this sense of cities as complex organisms … ” He has travelled widely since, and found very few urban spaces that did not seem somewhat imaginary in their own way – “fictions we inhabit”.

Take Dubai, he suggests. Coming in to land there on a recent visit, the Emirati city appeared to him as “this shimmering mirage rising out of the desert, like something from the Arabian Nights”. Or Venice, which almost obsesses him: “this impossible place, this floating city, a complete work of art in its own right”.

Or Phnom Penh, where Anderson was living and working, and watching a rainstorm blow in over the buildings from the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, when he first had the idea to write this book. (Long, dense, endlessly elusive, it was even longer in manuscript form, thousands of pages that he carried in a briefcase from Cambodia to Paris to Edinburgh, writing as he went – Anderson now lives near St Andrew’s, Scotland.)

Of the many lines of thought running through the text, the argument emerges quite clearly that there are no utopias, past or present. (The word utopia itself means “no place”.) Even the greatest cities in history have only been paradise for elites and ruling classes, with lesser, lower residents – slaves in many cases – consigned to more hellish quarters.

Asked which bygone metropolis he would most like to see by way of time-travel, Anderson lists off “the Aztec cities, Angkor Wat at its mightiest, Kublai Khan’s Xanadu at the time of Marco Polo”.“But only as a visitor. Living in any one of them would be a different story.” He is also fascinated by the cities that might have been, if visionary architects like Cedric Price, or the 1960s avant-gardists Archigram were given license to blueprint the future.

“A lot of the wildest, most exciting ideas in urban design are laughed at and treated as dead-ends, but later they’re often vindicated as quite sensible, even prophetic. The timing was wrong, but the concepts were entirely sound.”

Given the growing menace of climate change and related sea level rise, for example, it’s worth remembering the unused designs of the Japanese “metabolists” in the 1960s. “Long before we knew anything about global warming, they were addressing the problem of earthquakes, and the lack of urban space. They had all sorts of ideas for docks and floating buildings on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, a whole Marine City. Which you might say is exactly what’s needed 50 years later, in Tokyo and elsewhere.”

Japan is only one of the places where the future of cities can now be seen arriving in real time. Analysts and theorists such as Parag Khanna are already mapping it out. Khanna’s recent book Connectography shows Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka fusing together into a single “urban archipelago”, as also seems to be happening in Mexico City and the vast coastal municipality of Chongqing, China.

The sociologist Christophe Chase-Dunn has recently written that “world cities” like London are becoming more powerful than the states they’re located in – growing almost independently of the social and political landscape outside their city limits.

But Anderson thinks we too often look to the same places when we try to imagine what life on Earth will look like in 50 or 100 years. “It’s always New York or Hong Kong, cities with dazzling skylines.” His own sense of the world to come has lately been shaped through the work of Swedish concept artist Simon Stalenhag, who draws “huge mechanical machines next to little wooden houses, beat-up old cars within these amazing futuristic spaces”.

“I think that’s probably closest to what’s going to happen. An urban future that is also partly rural, and all this new technology surrounded by much older remnants of the period we’re living through right now.” If our present cityscapes are defined by commerce and dominated by financial towers, they may yet be adapted to other, more urgent priorities – retreat from rising tides, perhaps, or defense against space invaders.

“Yeah that seems to be the bigger fear at the moment, judging from all these apocalyptic movies. Urban life has become very complex, and it makes us uncomfortable. And it’s hard to make subtle film about those anxieties, which is why you get giant robots smashing into skyscrapers. We’re coming to a point where we have to start thinking more seriously and realistically about what happens next, which shouldn’t stop us dreaming up different ways to go.”

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