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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Imaginary Cities

I have seen many imaginary cities.
I live with a three-year-old.

Between bursts of "Daddy! DADDY! Look at my wall!" and "Daddy, I have surprise for you," I found time to read Darran Anderson's fascinating book Imaginary Cities.

Don't let the voluminous endnotes fool you; Imaginary Cities is not an academic book. It's more like the delirium of an academic. Just as imaginations are limitless, so is the potential material for this ambitious project. Anderson jumps from reference to reference, none ever fully described or explained. Rather than imposing a linear narrative, instead of situating works and expounding on their significance, Anderson drifts from one vision to the next. It is surprising, and somewhat daring on the part of both the author and the publisher Influx Press to print a book dedicated to material of such visual nature without a single image. The images are supplied by the reader's imagination. Reading this book can feel in turn dizzying, frustrating, exhilarating, incomplete, and ultimately inspiring.

Gotham City
The discussion of Batman's Gotham City is Imaginary Cities at its height. Consider the way Anderson introduces the story and locale that have been retold many times in the making of a modern mythology:
In a dank alleyway, far beneath the metropolitan skyscrapers, there exists a temporal loop. A rich couple, having taken an ill-advised shortcut from the theatre to reality, are shot dead over and over, each time in slightly different variations but always with the same outcome.
p. 374
Rendering by Ferris
source: http://architecturemuseum.blogspot.com

"Gotham is Ferris gone wrong,
or perhaps Ferris gone according to plan."
This is an excellent writing style. It is both clever and appealing to frame the constant retelling and adaptation of the story as a temporal loop. Yet this is a point where I wish Anderson had delved a little deeper. The variations differ because our cities have changed over time. The unchanging outcome becomes a fixed point for navigating a shifting world.

There is meaning in the dark spaces of Gotham City. Anderson recognizes they are more than mere backdrop, they are a fundamental part of the story:
"Batman is a critique of failed urban planning and empathy. Alleyways have dead-ends as traps for the unwary. Abandoned buildings are warrens for criminals. A dark sanctimonious fear of rookeries and today's housing estates, projects and slums as inhuman breeding grounds, prevails." (p. 377)
Again, following the variations through versions over time would show differences in what lurks in the dark as some of our boogiemen have come and gone.

Referring to architectural illustrator Hugh Ferris, Anderson suggests, "Gotham is Ferris gone wrong, or perhaps Ferris gone according to plan." (p. 379) Batman has traditionally been grounded in a dark Victorian esthetic overlaid precisely with a Ferris image of the metropolis. Personally, I find this darkness fascinating and appealing; that is the Gotham City I prefer. I am more drawn to scenes filmed on Lower Wacker in Chicago in "Batman Begins" (2005) than to the increasingly glass-clad Manhattan of "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). Neither have the palpable anxiety of getting mugged on an urban street that "Batman" (1989) held in common with its audiences' own experiences during the 1980s. As street crime still continues to drop, cities increasingly gentrify with glossy new buildings, and the police militarize, Ferris may continue to fade in the image of Gotham City. This leaves the question of what fixed points remain from the Batman saga as landmarks for our collective consciousness.

Problem Solved
While Ferris's hold over the architectural image of Gotham City may be starting to loosen, the influence of Le Corbusier on cities both real and imagined has certainly waned in recent decades. His role as visionary hero has largely been recast as a villain responsible for urban destruction. Anderson steps in to check some of the gratuitous criticism:
The world Le Corbusier was railing against is forgotten but worth remembering for he was offering remedies as well as egotism. (p. 61)
Efforts to overthrow particular dystopias generally lead into the next dystopia because of unintended consequences. "One dystopia replaces another in space and memory, and we forget the reasons change was originally required." (p. 62) Taken too far, stifling the ability to opt-out or influence change over time, any utopian vision ultimately becomes a dystopia. "It is however the by-products that undermine utopias." (p. 62) When the new dystopia emerges, the criticism is often overblown or blame is misapplied. He reminds us that "Dystopias arrive as long-needed solutions. We forget what came before." (p. 363) Those blamed are not recognized for solving the problems that vexed society at the time. They are also blamed for the side-effects of their solutions. As he notes, "The future not only has side-effects, it is side-effects." (p. 65) True visionaries can see the range of potential changes they are about to unleash, so missing the side effects may erode visionary status somewhat.

I would argue that frequently the side effects were not a problem for the original visionary to address. Some of these effects are manifestations of disciples who uncritically follow an original vision like a formula without appreciating its goals and nuances. Other effects may have been foreseeable but initially minor compared to the original problem, and appropriately left for a subsequent solution that was neglected by later practitioners.

Imaginary Cities warns of the risks of utopia, but recognizes its usefulness. Anderson cautions, "By denying the utopian as some kind of failed parlour game, we exclude ourselves from understanding its appeal and the power it still grants those who can offer it." Moreover, the real power utopia holds can in fact result in real world success, as well as providing the means to maintain it. As he notes, "It is easy too to forget that every public park was a utopian idea and their continuing survival remains a utopian struggle" (p. 248). Dystopia is a frequent result of utopia run amok, but the lack of utopia and dreams of better cities would be a far worse fate. The solution is never final nor complete, but imagining utopia is a means to bring improvements into the cities where we live.

Just Pretending
One seemingly obvious area left unexplored by Anderson is the pretend. I say obvious, of course, since using imagination to pretend is such a large part of daily life with a small child. "I just pretending!" is a familiar, sometimes problematic, response to questions about what happened. In the creative vortex of a young mind, there is not always a clear distinction between pretending and lying, and the ambiguity is an area that a little troublemaker may try to exploit. It is interesting to consider the imaginative ways cities and those who seek to reshape them pretend they are something else.

Location shooting is essentially a form of pretend. Real locations are reimagined as an alternative version of themselves, or they impersonate entirely other places. Much like pretending to be superheroes can help children build their sense of self, cities develop their own myths and reinforce their landmarks through imaginative fiction. It is interesting to consider if pretending to be other places also helps lead to transformations. Perhaps the practice of pretending their streetscapes were Manhattan has played some role in the increased densities and interest in urban living that have taken hold in Toronto and Vancouver.

Then there are the famous movie backlots, the pretend cities comprised of outdoor sets of diminutive streets and two-dimensional facades. These are the most tangible of imaginary cities, physical manifestations that exist only to conjure up an imagined city.

Beyond the film industry, there are probably many other forms of pretend that blur real places into imaginary cities. Theme parks and imitation Bavarian villages, for example, are physical realities that require all the authentic urban functions to support their inhabitants and visitors, yet their identity, their very purpose, is to allow the visitors to pretend they are other, imaginary place.

Then there is the problem of cities pretending their superficial images cover problems of inequality. Anderson hits this underlying point without discussing how pretending creates the cover:
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. Dystopias will have cycle lanes and host World Cups. (p. 187)
...cities hide their poor and unwanted (but not unneeded) from business and tourism, pushing slums out to the periphery or downwards into cavernous depths. Anti-homeless grills are fixed to hot air vents, spikes to flat surfaces. With housing bubbles pricing out the young, the result is pristine cities in which those who run the city cannot afford to live there. (p. 366)
New York City alone could probably fill a book or more of stories about progressive images covering disparate treatments. Supportive housing is touted as a social responsibility to get people back on their feet while segregating populations with disruptive issues in lower income neighborhoods. Advocates for "affordable" housing rationalize union busting. The imaginary progressive city overlays and protects systems of exploitation.

All of This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again
Some imaginary cities seem conspicuous in their absence. Caprica from "Battlestar Gallactica," for example, would have been a natural fit. Over the course of only a few years of writing, Caprica built layers upon itself, touching many of the topics Anderson covers in Imaginary Cities: utopia and dystopia, architecture, and ruins.

At the outset, there is the imaginary city of Caprica itself. Its destruction in the pilot episode is the basic premise behind the series. As humanity's scant remnants flee in exile, this city's presence remains in the memories (or perhaps delusions) of the refugees. Tired of their nomadic drift through space, there is eventually a decision to establish a permanent settlement: New Caprica. Its utopian hopes quickly give way to a dystopia of occupation. There is a mission back into the ruins of Caprica itself to rescue survivors, and there is a foray into the ruins of an original home world that had been abandoned and a curse put on anyone who returns. It is eventually revealed that "All this has happened before, and it will all happen again." Another ruined world is discovered, the "Earth," they had been seeking as a utopia; it had already gone through the same cycle of creating artificial intelligence on the path to self-destruction.

The cities and their ruins are well developed architecturally, with bold combinations of ancient and modern forms. The series even makes a couple clever references to the esthetics of its 1970s predecessor. Together, it all reinforces the theme of circularity.

In the series finale, this cycle reaches Earth, our Earth, colonized by these survivors and named after the utopia they had been seeking for so long before confronting the rubble-strewn ruins of its dystopian reality. In the heart of Times Square (supposedly, based on aerial views and a painted backdrop, before moving into a streetscape filmed in Vancouver), the final exchange raises the question of breaking the cycle:
"Commercialism, decadence, technology run amok: remind you of anything?"
"Take your pick: Cobalt; Earth, the real Earth, before this one; Caprica before the fall."
"All of this has happened before..."
"But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?"
"This time, I bet no."
"You know, I've never known you to play the optimist. Why the change of heart?"
"Mathematics. Law of averages. Let a complex system repeat itself long enough, and eventually something surprising might occur."  
Most people probably assume the implication is that this time, we won't destroy ourselves. Anderson notes a recurring bias toward a belief in our own exceptionalism. If we heed his notes of caution, we must consider that perhaps the results would be different this time; instead of survivors beginning anew, the annihilation may be complete. As Anderson notes, "Someone will be the last human and somewhere will be the last metropolis." (p. 471)

Following on the success of "Battlestar Galactica," a short-lived spinoff titled "Caprica" delved into the origin story. The show elaborates on the imaginary city at the heart of the series, but then goes one better. The main character dies and her consciousness is retained within the gamers' "New Cap City." We have delved into a virtual reality of an imaginary city. Trying to follow Imaginary Cities can be dizzying, and the sensation follows beyond the content of the book itself.

Circular Ruins
Throughout Imaginary Cities, we keep coming back around to the topic of ruins. A few examples:
"All cities are built with their ruins in mind, even if only subconsiously." (p. 26)
"The glory of Ancient Greek architecture has long out-lasted the gods it was dedicated to." (p. 102) 
"Ruins have a remarkable capacity for reinvention. In its (after-) life, the Parthenon has been a church, a mosque, a battered hideout against Venetians (who blew its 300 defenders to pieces), the palace of a Duke (complete with a now-lost Frankish tower), a place of execution and target practice for turs. It has been dedicated and rededicated to, and ransacked by, waves of empires and gods that no longer exist in any meaningful sense." (pp. 103-104)
"...when we gaze on the urban wonders of today, we are gazing on future ruins" (p. 290)
"All buildings contain their own ruins... There is something seductive about the destruction that time wreaks and also the idea that we would survive to bear witness." (p. 454)
"The fall of Rome, or what they wished Rome had been, haunted generations. It cast a memento mori shadow onto all achievements. The fall could, and would, happen again." (p. 456)
I have argued before that our city building should leave something worth remembering. Anderson fully grasps the power of this urge, and he highlights the danger that comes with it through the cautionary tale of Hitler's obsession with building magnificent ruins for his own Nazi empire.

Despite the recurring interest in ruins and the reach of Anderson's sources, I feel a sense of absence. One of my favorite books, The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics by J.B. Jackson, is not included. When Anderson mentions "the seductive deceptive idea that there was a golden age that requires resurrecting" (p. 163), it brings Jackson to mind:
First there is that golden age, the time of harmonious beginnings. Then ensues a period when the old days are forgotten and the golden age falls into neglect. Finally comes a time when we rediscover and seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty.
But there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins. (p. 101-102)
More conspicuous is the absence of "The Circular Ruins," since Anderson draws inspiration from Borges. About a man inhabiting ruins who discovers he is merely someone else's dream in an ongoing cycle, playing out a scene that happened centuries before, the story by Borges feels like it should be part of Anderson's overall narrative. As a result, the discussion feels oddly incomplete. Such a widespread survey of literature and art, leaping from one time and place to another, invites the term "fragmented." The book feels like the fascination of somebody perusing fragments, like somebody lucky enough to examine burnt and incomplete scrolls that remained from the fire at the Library of Alexandria. Either through intent or by chance, I am not sure which, the text itself evokes a sentiment of ruins.

Extensive reading won't be enough to keep pace
with the dizzying references in Imaginary Cities

Taking Secrets with Us
I am an urban planner who grew up watching science fiction. I am interested in psychogeography. I knew most of the references in Invisible Cities, yet despite many years of avid reading, many references were still unfamiliar to me. Imaginary Cities is Anderson's personal path. We have the privilege of a narrated tour, but we will never recognize the full meaning of each of its landmarks.
We inhabit our actual cities through these personal mythologies, walking the ghost trajectories of earlier events, of debaucheries, breakups, griefs and glories, sanctuaries and pillories. (p. 194)
Because we will never share all this personal knowledge, the cities we inhabit will never be quite the same. Anderson illustrates this well when he observes, "There is one Paris, for example, and yet innumerable Parises. The New Yorks of Scorcese's Taxi Driver and Woody Allen's Manhattan are almost contemporaneous." As each of our own paths diverge following our own literary knowledge, lines of interest, and personal experiences, it will always feel like there was more he didn't include.

I think he is fully aware of this. I suspect he structured the book around it. Early on, he introduces us to the fantastic stories of Marco Polo, and he returns to Polo to end Imaginary Cities, recounting his dying words:
"I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed," he replied, and he took these secrets with him. (p. 475)
We are left to wonder what more Polo could have told us. Reading Imaginary Cities, we are left wondering about everything Anderson didn't include. Anyone who delves into imaginary cities will find that there is always more. The things we feel are missing are not a problem with Imaginary Cities. They are its success.

Anderson guides us into imaginary cities; we are on our own to find our way out. There is much to see once immersed. We are surrounded by creative imaginations (even if you don't know a three year old), and we can better develop our own.  As Imaginary Cities notes, "The idea of cities will exist so long as there is a mind left to imagine them." (p. 474) Imaginary cities have been dreamt before, and they will be again. Each one is unique, and if we look closely, something surprising might occur.

Imaginary Cities is inspiration to dive into the utopian visions around us and into the depths of our own imaginations, and then hopefully take some of the secrets we find there back into the realities of the cities we inhabit.

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