Date Finished: March 6th 2019
If I recall correctly, I first became aware of Darran Anderson through Robert Macfarlane tweeting/referencing him on Twitter. Those tweets must have been intriguing because I soon ended up following Anderson. He regularly tweets on art, architecture and literature @Oniropolis. Through his Twitter I became aware of his book Imaginary Cities, which was something to do with, as the title suggests, imagination and architecture and sounded intriguing.
“Everything is continually changing and any such map will appear true only for a brief window of time and space. When Heraclitus wrote ‘you can’t step in the same river twice’, he meant not only that the river would have changed, but that you would have too. A history then of ever-changing cities, whether real or unreal, must also be a history of the imagination. Melville had a point when he wrote ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are’, but likewise imaginary places are never entirely realised. We can find them all around us.”
Then, one day, something in particular hooked me; a series of tweets imminently related to the work itself, and I came down with a sudden need to acquire this book. I don’t regret acting on said compulsion. I usually pepper my reviews with quotes; this one also features a lot of images (and one orchestral piece), all of which were found through Imaginary Cities.
Imaginary Cities is a work of creative nonfiction which works to map its titular territory. Anderson acts as our guide to the places that never were and uses them to assess those we do have. Through literature, art, architecture, film, video games, poetry and much more, he delves into every possible aspect of the city – from microcosm to macrocosm, megacities to ruins, attempts to marry rural with urban, visions of cities on water and in the air, better homes, a wealth of reasons to never let philosophers conduct city planning, how cities reflect their political systems, and an absolute ton more.
Imaginary Cities is a sprawling leviathan, a city whereby each short chapter functions like individual buildings; simultaneously separate yet connected. It is many things combined: a work of literary criticism, a meditation on architecture, a collection of lost blueprints, an exploration of social and political ideas through the lens of the city, an ode to the cartographic impulse, a history of how cities – both real and imaginary – have defined humanity, and much more.
On the way, Anderson takes us on a quest for utopia – yielding mostly dystopias along the way, introduces us to the megacities that could have been, gives a written history of mankind’s repeated hubristic efforts to recreate the Tower of Babel, ventures toward the Lost Cities that have eluded countless explorers, rows us out to the floating cities that have been proposed to save us from the ravages of climate change, blasts us off to the cities on other worlds we may one day colonise, and even takes us on a tour of the cities of damnation and eternal paradise.
Every vestige of human culture is explored. Myth and legend feature often, poetry, art of every era, speculative fiction, classic literature, politics, even music. Claude DeBussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie (below) is based upon the legendary Breton city of Ys, which sank below the waves when the king’s daughter gave the keys for the harbour gate to the Devil who just happened to be her lover.
I remember commenting that Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks felt like a hub of recommendations, with Macfarlane name-dropping writers, places, art, music and cinema throughout; a glut of his own discoveries waiting to be discovered in turn by readers. Imaginary Cities does the same thing, particularly for art, architecture and literary history, and I found myself frequently Googling for reference. Indeed, it’s a book that begs to be read next to a computer as Anderson’s name-drops require at least one search break per page. If that sounds annoying, then one is best off going into the work with that foreknowledge.
Therein lies one of the work’s weaknesses: it is highly visual, referring to buildings, artwork, ideas, blueprints both real and fictional, and to truly appreciate all these requires an interrupted reading. Of course, printing images of each and every thing referred to would be enormously costly, and make the book about twice the size. Nevertheless, it highlights an issue.
Imaginary Cities is additionally valuable for the depths of discovery it offers. A wealth of architects and artists are mentioned. I’m no connoisseur, so even the specific works of Frank Lloyd Wright were new to me. Le Corbusier and Gaudi feature often, as well as Sant’Elia, Gropius, Buckminster Fuller, Kikutake and a wealth more I can’t remember; alternative designs for famous Soviet buildings, the planned impermanence of the Ise Jingu shrine… all of it amounts to a consciousness-raiser as to the complexity and artistry of architecture. As for artists, I’ve included quite a few in this review, but some absent from this round-up include the distinctive Ottoman-miniature stylisation and cobalt spirals of Nusret Colpan, the saturated evil of John Martin’s work (particularly Pandemonium), William Robinson Leigh’s Visionary City, Fritz Kahn’s Man as Industrial Palace and, undoubtedly, a surfeit of others I can’t recall. Imaginary Cities is undoubtedly a work that can be revisited multiple times and yield new secrets with every read.
“All cities are built with their ruins in mind, even if only subconsciously; what one failed postcard painter and murderer… called Ruinenwert (‘ruin value’). The hidden momentary pleasures of life taking place in monuments ultimately built for oblivion.”
Although architects and artists are heavily referenced, Imaginary Cities is also a work of literary criticism, and Anderson is constantly name-dropping and quoting authors from various times and genres (though speculative and dystopian fiction inevitably crop up most). Within, he analyses Jules Verne’s lost novel Paris in the Twentieth Century which proves to be surprisingly accurate in its predictions of the future (indeed, it seems sci-fi writers are better prophets than any of the architects mentioned); the fantastical, Kafkaesque psychogeography of China Mieville’s The City and the City as a logical extension of real world division as demonstrated by the Berlin Wall and the Korean DMZ; and the corruption of the urban as represented by Batman’s Gotham and its roots in representations and incarnations of New York City (Georgia O’Keefe’s take on the Big Apple (below) would have fit right into a Batman comic). A wealth of other writers haunt the pages, from Jonathan Swift and Dante to Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick.
Anderson explores architecture in cinema such as Metropolis, Escape From New York, Playtime, Brazil, Total Recall, Children of Men, Star Wars and how these works relate to their surroundings. Great cinema utilises architecture in a way that transcends mere setting: Blade Runner isn’t set in a Futurist-inspired cityscape – it’s defined by it, as is A Clockwork Orange’s by Kubrick’s carefully selected Brutalist architecture. Similarly, Anderson looks at architecture in a couple of video games, notably the libertarian utopianism of the Bioshock series. It’s a little brief, although Anderson apparently has designs on a work dedicated to this topic. However, this quick foray nevertheless raises an intriguing proposition: almost all video games contain habitations of some sort and those habitations need designing: architecture is ever-present in game design, and some of those games have taken cities to the next level.
There is undoubtedly something to interest everyone in Imaginary Cities, provided one takes the Googling suggestion seriously. Anderson mentions Campanella’s ‘City of the Sun’, an imagining of a theocratic utopia invented by an imprisoned radical. This City of the Sun was rendered in paint by Ivan Leonidov an architect who, somewhat strangely, engaged in the work whilst imprisoned in Soviet Russia. While his work isn’t exactly practical, or even vaguely reminiscent of blueprints, there is something arresting about the images. The whole book is composed of these tangents and tidbits, offering different takeaways for every reader.
Early on I did find myself dismayed that Anderson failed to offer any grand thesis, or unified theory, of imaginary cities. However, as I delved further I realised that no such thing would be possible and that Anderson’s disparate, puzzle-piece approach was about as unified as such a topic gets. As such, it’s best to approach Imaginary Cities as a collection of essays, some of which continue on from one another but, broadly speaking, are never explicitly connected. This inherent dip-in-and-out quality also helps with the works near-600 page length and all those google rabbit-holes that readers will inevitably fall down.
“Utopias are indeed dystopias but the real secret is that all dystopias are utopias, for some inhabitants at least.”
Anderson deftly guides us through a swirling sea of art movements, historical eras and events, genres, countries, religions, mad eccentrics, hubris and much more: Art Nouveau, art deco, brutalism, futurism, Archigram, modernism; World’s Fairs and Expos; the Third Reich, Ancient Egypt, Victorian London, the Soviet vanity works; the space age, the industrial revolution… a complete index (which the work unfortunately lacks) would run another hundred pages given the sheer amount of people, places, buildings, artworks, films, books, events, etc., referenced.
Anderson approaches the city as an organism: it evolves, it is born and it dies, it can reproduce, some of them can move (what were The Crusades and other gigantic war parties if not moving cities?). If each building is a cell, cells are constantly dying and being replaced; the city’s cells all have different specialised functions. A city can contract cancer. The city is crammed full of lives, ghosts, fictions. All buildings were, as Anderson points out, the mere dreams of their architects. All cities reflect their inhabitants, and this gives Anderson scope to delve into an array of very human issues: feminism, colonialism, war, rumour, entertainment, hedonism, and more litter the pages. Just as every building in a city yields a new story, so every chapter of Imaginary Cities yields new meditations and reflections.
“There is a comfort in the liminal, for the liminal broaches an undeniable if repellent but addictive comfort. ‘A foreigner lost in a country he does not know… can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains. For him, an oil company logo is a reassuring landmark.’ When non-places and their omnipresent brands feel like home, something has gone distinctly wrong with the idea of home.”
Despite it’s immensity and comprehensiveness, the work does have blind spots. Anderson admits that the work is Western-focused: North America, Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Japan are covered, but to the detriment of other nations/continents. Indeed, I googled African architecture on a whim and received a mind-boggling diverse set of beautiful designs, none of which receive even a mention. The work is also very male-focused, perhaps because Anderson is often delving back beyond the 20th century and women have historically been excluded from many of the domains of which he writes. However, I don’t recall a mention of, for example, Zaha Hadid, whose work is definitely up Anderson’s street.
Imaginary Cities is a goliath undertaking, all-encompassing in scope; a Borgesian confabulatory journey through cities past, present, future and never.
It is easy to take architecture for granted and, to some degree, who can blame us when we live in copy-and-pasted housing estates, the same monopoly of retailers, eateries and betting shops languishing on every dying high street? Anderson’s work, however, is a consciousness-raiser, begging us to pay more attention to the function and history of cities, and take pleasure in the revelatory and grandiose designs that have been realised, as well as those too impractical, expensive, silly or impossible to ever be. These are not just celebrations of art and form, but reflections of society, of the psyches of their often-mad creators, of the fundamental drive of human nature to continually transcend itself. To reach such grand levels of perception and truth in a work ostensibly about buildings that don’t exist is impressive, and its testament not just to Anderson’s breadth of vision, but also his masterful prose and perspicacious analysis.
“Architecture, design and art always begins as fiction, though we soon forget this. Gaze out of the window at any city and you’ll find the skyline is a collection of ideas that emerged from certain minds. Each building contains name, reasons and dreams within it.”
Is Imaginary Cities a perfect book? No, I don’t want to go that far. But, for me, it has opened up a new realm I didn’t know existed. It might be parochial to say, but I never knew that architecture could be such a profound, meditative, expansive topic with such far-reaching implications into the human condition. For that power of consciousness-raising, of opening doors as yet unseen, it deserves the highest possible praise. This is a work that can convert, that can change. It may not be perfect, but it’s sure as hell an ambitious and erudite accomplishment. It’s a work that fosters a greater appreciation for architecture, art and imagination. It transcends the borderline between fiction and reality. With a little more coherence, and at least a nod to some of the realms he misses, Anderson could have created a truly perfect book. I fully believe he has one in him, and will definitely be reading his future efforts.