Imaginary Cities: A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between

Imaginary Cities: A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between

by Darran Anderson


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For as long as humans have gathered in cities, those cities have had their shining—or shadowy—counterparts. Imaginary cities, potential cities, future cities, perfect cities. It is as if the city itself, its inescapable gritty reality and elbow-to-elbow nature, demands we call into being some alternative, yearned-for better place.
This book is about those cities. It’s neither a history of grand plans nor a literary exploration of the utopian impulse, but rather something different, hybrid, idiosyncratic. It’s a magpie’s book, full of characters and incidents and ideas drawn from cities real and imagined around the globe and throughout history. Thomas More’s allegorical island shares space with Soviet mega-planning; Marco Polo links up with James Joyce’s meticulously imagined Dublin; the medieval land of Cockaigne meets the hopeful future of Star Trek. With Darran Anderson as our guide, we find common themes and recurring dreams, tied to the seemingly ineluctable problems of our actual cities, of poverty and exclusion and waste and destruction. And that’s where Imaginary Cities becomes more than a mere—if ecstatically entertaining—intellectual exercise: for, as Anderson says, “If a city can be imagined into being, it can be re-imagined.” Every architect, philosopher, artist, writer, planner, or citizen who dreams up an imaginary city offers lessons for our real ones; harnessing those flights of hopeful fancy can help us improve the streets where we live.
Though it shares DNA with books as disparate as Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, there’s no other book quite like Imaginary Cities. After reading it, you’ll walk the streets of your city—real or imagined—with fresh eyes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226470306
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/10/2017
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 578,045
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer residing in Scotland. He has written for a host of publications on the intersections of urbanism, culture, technology and politics.

Read an Excerpt

Imaginary Cities

A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between

By Darran Anderson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Darran Anderson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-47044-3


The Men of a Million Lies, or How We Imagine the World

Plato's Cinema

Before there were films, there was cinema; the flickering shadow play of fire and motion on limestone cave walls. We might assume the paintings the more bohemian troglodytes smudged with charcoal and ochre were simply representational, charting exaggerated auroch kills. What then of the oldest symbol archaeologists have found? A simple red disc carbon-dated to 40, 800 years ago, in the depths of Cueva de El Castillo, Cantabria. Was it the infernal crucible of our sun? It was logical for the life-giving ball of magnetic fields and plasma to be worshipped, before mankind's act of folly and vanity in creating gods in its simian image. In the thousands of years to follow, the descendants of the cave-artists would depict on stone, clay, bone, bamboo, wood, papyrus, wax, fabric, slate, paper and pixels, everything that existed beneath that sun; what is and, most crucially for our purposes here, what might be.

Consider, however, that red disc as something else entirely. We view the existence of everything bound by relativity. There is no escape from context. The eye, and its position, is the fulcrum on which the entire visible universe pivots. When the artist ventured into the caverns to leave a circular mark on eternity, he or she may well have been painting the singularity that is the pupil of a human eye. Interpretation is everything. Perhaps in the half-light, the artists, as much pattern-seeking mammals as we are, painted not simply what they'd seen but what they'd hallucinated or dreamt, in some kind of desperate prophecy or ceremonial magic. Humanity has always looked for the dubious reassurance of auguries and, through wishful thinking and pareidolia, has continually found threats of danger and promises of treasure. Might we have envisaged then what was to come? A floating city on a shimmering horizon. Minarets in frost. A Neolithic painter dreaming of skyscrapers.

Darkness is misconceived as nothingness; rather it is a state of 'intrinsic light', within which a great deal of visual information may be discerned; a catalyst for the unintentional creative process known as 'prisoner's cinema'. 'If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.' Whether hallucinations in the dark are a source of torment or liberation, or both, is down to the viewer. Banished to the bowels of the Earth, Milton's fallen archangel Lucifer declares, 'The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.' It can walk through walls or be imprisoned by the sky.

The Deceptions of Memory

In 1296, the middle-aged Marco Polo found himself inconveniently in prison. He had been captured in the Eastern Mediterranean at the helm of a Venetian galley by rival sailors from the Most Serene Republic of Genoa. Given that the two republics were locked in the War of Saint Sabas, this was inopportune, especially given he had a siege catapult onboard. Polo's fortunes improved however when he discovered his cellmate was a writer, Rustichello of Pisa, who was an enthusiastic listener to Polo's tall-tales of voyages in the mysterious Orient. This was good luck as it made Polo's fame. It was bad luck for the very same reason.

Initially written as a guide for budding merchants, the asides and tangents that made up the quartet of books 'Description of the World' were fascinating yet scarcely believable. They quickly became immensely popular yet they earned Polo the cruel nickname 'Il Millione' ('the man of a million lies'). It was doubted by some that he'd even travelled at all except around his own vast imagination.

The accounts did however contain many genuine discoveries alongside exaggerations, half-truths and myths ('How the Prayer of the One-Eyed Cobbler Caused the Mountain to Move' for example) mixed together without differentiation. We can now pour scorn on his claims of desert Sirens, colossal elephant-eating birds, idolatrous sorcerers who could control sandstorms, or witnessing Noah's Ark perched on a snow-bound mountaintop. At the time, these were scarcely more unbelievable than his claims of stones that ignite, paper currency, seeing the highest mountains in the world or visiting golden cities draped with the finest silks. In an age when travel took months, even years, myths abounded in the land between cities. The further away, the wilder the myths, and Polo had traversed the known world.

Polo's travelogue notes many curious cities on his winding road (Baudas, Samarcan, Caracoron) culminating in the opulent palaces of the Chinese Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, at whose court he was guest for seventeen years. The explorer's recollections range from the mercantile (lists of industries and natural resources) to the fanciful; cities where the inhabitants are perpetually drunk, where men eat birds and ride around on stags, where marriages are arranged between ghosts, and the lord in his marble palace drinks wine from levitating goblets. Often Polo would add boasts, 'no one could imagine finer' recurs, and even suggest he was holding back for fear of arousing incredulity in the readers ('I will relate none of this in this book of ours; people would be amazed if they heard it, but it would serve no good purpose') which only served to further his ridicule. Beyond their narrow confines, the world was more extraordinary than his sceptics could imagine. Raised in the seemingly-impossible floating city of Venice, a maze of canals and alleys built on stilts in a lagoon, Marco Polo had no such limitations. Imaginary cities posed no threat to a man who was born in one.

When a book leaves the protective custody of its creator, it is rightly at the mercy of its readers but also, if prominent enough, at the hands of those who have not read it. In the age before the printing press, Polo's tales spread largely through word of mouth, with cumulative error compounded by jealousies and speculations. The stories, already partially there, metamorphosed further into myth. To accuse Polo of inventing fictions is to assume that perception and memory are not partially fictional to begin with. 'I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering,' the narrator in Chris Marker's Sans Soleil acknowledges, 'which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.' Fragments of the real are retained, though they evolve with time to fit the wisdom or fallacy of hindsight and are juxtaposed with memories of dreams and thoughts and memories of memories. We are unreliable narrators even to ourselves.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be. In Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes, the director remembers a blissful, family tableau at Christmas, where an old streetlamp and snow appear within the living room. It did not strictly happen and yet there is no lie involved. This streetlight occurs again and again, through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, the glow of light through Victorian London fog in Holmes and Jekyll, the impossible coexistence of night and day in Magritte's The Empire of Lights series. By its ethereal light, things we think we know appear to change.

All great imaginary cities merge the matter-of-fact with the surreal. They are adrift in the skies but are, at least momentarily, anchored. In the Chinese epic Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin wrote 'Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true / Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.'

It appears as an engraving on an arch leading to the Land of Illusion, but the traffic is not one-way. The state of ambiguity between real and unreal is still one we broach with a degree of hostility. Yet the border is a disputed one. Consider the way cities brand themselves; how the fictions of Meyrink, Kafka and Hašek were moulded by the versions of Prague they lived in and how that same city is now moulded by their fiction. Consider how, upon visiting, the mind turns to murderers haunting bridges in St. Petersburg, diabolical cats walking upright through Moscow, a Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, Martian invaders stalking the streets of Woking and any number of such tales.

On Bloomsday, Dublin celebrates its fictional recreation in a text dedicated to the day and the city in which Joyce had first courted his wife. City begets text begets city. Despite writing in continental exile for years, Joyce claimed 'I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.'

Perhaps it could be but it would be as much Joyce as Dublin. Joyce's father once remarked of his son, 'If that fellow was dropped in the middle of the Sahara, he'd sit, be-God, and make a map of it.' The mapmaker would be partial myth-maker. Would such a place, with its semi-fictional characters, selective editing and bias of perspective(s) be accurate, a deception or simply how we subjectively inhabit all our cities? The truth is refracted through many prisms and our reflections are as true and as distorted as a hall of mirrors. All cities are subject to the Rashomon effect. Even the assumption that cities are simply settings falls short when considering architecture as narrative – the Avenue of Sphinxes at Luxor, the Churning of the Sea of Milk at Angkor Wat, Trajan's Column in Rome. In Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, Frollo claims the book will kill the building, 'Small things overcome great ones'; an intriguing idea but one disproved by the fact that all cities can, and should, be read.

It would be foolish to deny the value of lying. Marco Polo was always destined to be accused because it's what the audience was prepared for. When faced with the blank space on the map, we turn to the fantastical. Consider not simply the sea serpents and 'here be dragons' on archaic maps but the casts of extraterrestrials with which we have populated distant planets in our age of reason. The creator of arguably the earliest surviving science fiction text (True History), Lucian of Samosata justified the honesty of dishonesty, a quality he shared with Polo (with a nod to Epimenides), 'Many others, with the same intent, have written about imaginary travels and journeys of theirs, telling of huge beasts, cruel men and strange ways of living [...] my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar.'

Cartography and the Canvas of White Spaces

Faced with vast swathes of land that revealed the extent of their ignorance, the powerful in Europe sought to fictitiously colonise areas they could not reach. It was an attempt at control and reassurance. Centuries before installing favourable dictators in client states, they did so with imaginary characters, one of whom would be name-checked by Polo. In 1165, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos received a letter purporting to be from the hitherto unknown court of one Presbyter Johannes, the self-anointed 'Lord of Lords'. It boasted of a kingdom to 'surpass all under heaven', which 'extends beyond India [...] towards the sunrise over the wastes, and it trends toward deserted Babylon near the Tower of Babel.'

It boasted of housing a menagerie of creatures both scarcely-believable (elephants, rhinoceros etc.) and mythological ('griffins ... men with horns ... men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs ... cyclopses'). The scribe spoke of the lands of the known world and how apocalyptic misfortunes would befall them. In Biblical fashion, revelations of utopias were defined by contrast with dystopias, 'Our land streams with honey and is overflowing with milk. In one region grows no poisonous herd, nor does a querulous frog ever quack in it; no scorpion exists, nor does the serpent glide amongst the grass, nor can any poisonous animals exist in it or injure anyone' (the aforementioned cyclopses and griffins presumably being tame). Yet, even in this early example, it is clear that utopias and dystopias are intertwined, 'With us, no one lies, for he who speaks a lie is thenceforth regarded as dead – he is no more thought of or honoured by us. No vice is tolerated by us.' We might consider the practicalities of a world where no lie is permitted or the possibility of pleasure in a world without vice (bar cannibalism oddly) and how such a heaven, or any heaven for that matter, could function in any way other than as a tyranny.

The standard life-giving rivers, boundless jewels and protective amulets follow, though there are intriguing flights of fancy in fire-dwelling, silk-spinning salamanders, a river of vanishing stones and an ocean of sand in which fish thrive. The central palace itself is the stuff of wonders or gaudy baroque horror: crystal windows, golden tables, ivory columns and twin golden-apple glitter-balls. Knights joust indoors, sliding on splayed panicking horses along floors of polished onyx. If the inhabitants are not sufficiently awed or cowed into obedience, there is a prototype telescreen at hand: 'Before our palace stands a mirror ... guarded day and night by three thousand men. We look therein and behold all that is taking place in every province and region subject to our sceptre.' Such was the attraction of this innovation that it aided the rise of what became known as 'speculum literature', the surveillance and indexing of every aspect of life. To survey was to master.

At its most attractive, this desire to explore and to chart evolved into the fashion for wunderkammer or 'cabinets of curiosities'; deliberately eclectic assemblage of curios, from embalmed extinct birds to the tusks of narwhals. Many of these were inventions, whether explicitly – proto-surreal paintings by Bosch or Arcimbaldo for example, or deceptively – a desiccated dragon claw or the last bottled breath of Caesar. John Tradescant's Musaeum Tradescantium contained a mermaid's claw and a tree-grown goose. On occasion, they would report tantalising magical powers. In the case of the Cathay Chan mentioned in John de Mandeville's travels, there is both, with minstrels 'in divers' instruments ... lions, leopards and other diverse beasts ... and enchanters, that ... make to come in the air ... the sun and the moon to every man's sight.'

These forgeries, tall-tales and wild (tree-grown) goose chases belong to a bygone age but wunderkammers eventually evolved into the museums of today (with a curious tangent in the travelling circus freak-show). The original intention of cabinets of curiosities was not simply to showcase oddities but to propagandise the vastness and diversity of the colonial realm and reinforce dominion. It was also subconsciously an admission of the insecurity of the rulers in question. To chart and to collect is to attempt to control and to control is to doubt and fear.

The objects displayed in wunderkammers came with a smuggled form of revenge. Where they stood apart from or in opposition to conventional thinking, questions inevitably arose. Where these threatened the carefully-assembled hierarchies of the court and the heavens, they were damned as heresies, but investigations and collections went on in private. Enquiring minds, rather than vainglorious emperors, began assembling their own wunderkammers and through their studies they began to notice not just the differences in these strange fossilised creatures and elements but their similarities. Magic gave way to science, alchemy to chemistry, divine design to natural selection. The world could no longer be contained in cabinets.

Faust the Imperial Architect

Cities where the Enlightenment flourished were portrayed by reactionaries as places of sinister black magic. Edinburgh became known for body-snatchers and split personalities, as if warning that this is where free enquiry leads. It was likewise no accident that the fictional city of Wüttemberg (part Cambridge, part Stuttgart) in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is a university town. Learning, in an age where it was the light to theocratic darkness, was to be feared and reviled because it threatened vested interests. Steam propulsion and the telegraph soon meant information could no longer be contained as it once was in fiefdoms, either regal or papal. If there was a Faustian moment, it was when these advances were applied to the conquering of land and peoples. Imperial urban planners attempted to recreate their capitals in lands ill-suited topographically and sociologically. Traces of these experiments can be seen in mouldering buildings from Cuba to Congo to Viet Nam, and in the recycled names of homesick settlers from New York to New Zealand.

The waves rolled back. It was part of the fetishism of being a young European noble to undertake the Grand Tour through the remnants of Mediterranean antiquity. They would return with relics, new-found learning and the occasional exotic disease. They would also, in moods of quixotic nostalgia, attempt to recreate what they'd seen. Orientalist follies began to be built not only in the secluded grounds (the Chinese pavilion at l'isle-adam) or private rooms of landed gentry (the Arab Hall of Leighton House and Chinese palace at Oranienbaum for example) but as birthday-cake phantasias on the promenades of the capitals and seaside resorts. When the faux-Moorish Morozov Mansion was unveiled, the millionaire owner's mother turned to him in despair, 'Until now only I have known how much of a fool you are. Now the whole of Moscow will too.'


Excerpted from Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. Copyright © 2015 Darran Anderson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Men of a Million Lies, or How We Imagine the World

Plato's Cinema
The Deceptions of Memory
Cartography and the Canvas of Blank Spaces
Faust the Imperial Architect
The Dialectics of Inspiration
In Morphia Veritas
Here be Cities
Where the Wild Things Are
No North, No South, No East, No West

The Tower

The Sun King
Perfecting the Shipwreck
The Sublime, Twinned With the Abyss
Apocalypse Then
The Urbacides
Houses of Vice and Virtue
New Jerusalem, or Nevertown
The Ancient Modernists
The Map is the Real
Blueprinting Eternity
The Living Ruins
The Return of Mammon
City of Angels
Disovering the Diagonal
The Lightning Rod
Skyscraper Mania
Elevators Through the Stratosphere
The Golem
Vertical Suburbs
Sanctifying the Secular
Lift Off
It Came From the Depths
The Evaporating Cities
A Glowing Future

The Alchemical Cities

Cities Made Without Hands
The Wrath of God
The Drowned World
The Seven Invisible Cities of Gold

The Abiding Desire For No Place

The Thirteenth Hour
The Biological City
The Jungle
The Glass Delusion
The House of Constructions
Books Versus Stone
Remembering the Future
The Mechanical Heart
Further Sleepwalking
Of Steam and Clockwork
Tomorrow Will Continue Forever
Sealess Ships, Grounded Spacecraft and the Curse of
the Genie
Home is Where the Harm Is
The Cinematic Dystopia of the Everyday
In Love With Velocity
On the Road
The Crystal Palaces
Plotting the Stars
Flux Us
The Megalomania of Cells
Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!
Releasing the Golem

The Turk

The Pit and the Pendulum
The Gothic Trojan Horse
The All-Seeing I
In Defence of Cali ban
The Gaze
The Blind Watchmakers
Guest List
The Magic Kingdom
The Last Laugh
No Man's City
Of Wealth and Taste
Nothing Ever Happens

Flotsam and Jetsam

The Fall
The Wounds of Possibility
About the author

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