We have invited partners and participants in the Festival of the Future City to contribute articles on areas of work they are engaged in of relevance to the upcoming events. Darran Anderson outlines some of the issues addressed in his recent book.
When Marco Polo returned to Venice after many years in the mysterious Far East, his tales of extraordinary sights and experiences were both marvelled at and ridiculed. For all their wild popularity, the tales of his travels resulted in the merchant-explorer being nicknamed The Man of a Million Lies. On his death-bed, a priest invited Polo to admit to his deceits. He replied, ‘I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.’ Polo knew that cities, from fabled Oriental palaces to his native lagoon-city-on-stilts, were a mixture of objective space and subjective perspectives. He understood that metropolises emerged from and were perceived through the human imagination. In his eyes, there was no lying involved. He had seen these places.
Imaginary Cities explores the symbiotic relationship between fact and fiction, between the cities we dream of and the cities we dream in. The forms our cities take often seem natural or inevitable. Streets and buildings can span generations, and, though there is continual change, many cities have existed over centuries and even millennia. Yet metropolises are not static or god-given, however much they may seem or purport to be. They are the results of conscious and subconscious decisions. Look at any urban skyline and you are gazing at a collage of individual dreams and designs. Cities have been imagined into existence and thus can be reimagined. Indeed, they already have been.
Every city has innumerable alternatives. Remnants of the city of Jicheng sleep beneath Beijing. The soil of London contains a stratum of burnt carbon; what’s left of a previous incarnation of the capital incinerated by Boudicca. Every gothic cathedral, leftover World’s Fair construct, Victorian railway station or Brutalist block of flats is a remnant of a previous largely-lost era. Every park, library, botanical gardens, sewer and playground is a fragment of earlier attempts at utopia. Every architect has unbuilt plans from Tatlin’s Tower to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Greater Baghdad, Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay Plan to Le Corbusier’s linear Algiers. Every architectural competition has those who do not win, tantalising paths that could have been but were not taken. There are countless structures that once stood but were destroyed, whose ghosts silently haunt cities; Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple in Brussels, New York’s Penn Station, Glasgow’s Tait Tower, London’s Crystal Palace and Skylon, and so on. In parallel universes and our imaginations, these buildings take their place alongside the actual buildings of today.
Imaginary Cities seeks to remind us that the city contains a multiplicity of viewpoints and narratives, that the city is plural under the guise of a singular name and the insistence of authority to the contrary. It charts the cities that could have been and could yet be, to show how strange and inventive the cities that do exist really are, and how the apparently unalterable can and indeed will change. It delves into the past through the stories, both historical and mythic, that permeate down through our streets. It examines futures that may come to pass, such as architecture made of pure energy or buildings which can be altered at whim through nanotechnology, homes that respond to mood or illness to cities on the ocean floor or floating in space. It also looks at past futures from medieval island utopias to the ‘50s prophecies of Arthur Radebaugh to the comic book visions of Moebius and Otomo, to show that nothing is ever truly lost but rather absorbed and remade, reverberating and resurfacing in unlikely ways and places. Children reading 2000AD, watching Blade Runner or playing Minecraft may be the architects of tomorrow. The virtual worlds of today will increasingly blur with the physical world through augmented reality. The designs of Archigram, the Russian Constructivists, Japanese Metabolists, Die Gläserne Kette Expressionists and French Visionaries like Boullée may not have been unbuildable after all but rather simply temporarily out of time and taste, and these inevitably change. What is ridiculed in one age clears space and takes the flak for what is accepted in later ages, when technology and people catch up. The clock is ticking.
In an age where most new towers erected are those of finance and plutocratic luxury, Imaginary Cities seeks to address not only the democratic deficit in city-building but the imaginative one. We can begin this process by challenging the continual assertion that things have to be this way and by seeing the vast myriad connections that will inspire alternatives. Future cities will be largely dictated by the powerful but there will inevitably be resistances, side-effects and advances that will unbalance the old certainties and structures. We must, to paraphrase William Blake, construct a system or be enslaved by another’s. Our business is to regain the daring to question and create. ‘Beneath the paving stones, the beach’ claimed the graffiti in Paris, May 1968. Instead, beneath the paving stones, the future.