I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities only a few months before coming to Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities, which Anderson describes in a footnote as a ‘diminished non-fiction mirror’ to Calvino’s classic work. I think Anderson’s a little over-modest here: although he doesn’t have Calvino’s great economy (Imaginary Cities clocks in at 570 pages to Calvino’s 148) what he’s done is something of profound originality all the same. We’re used to new books about architecture and the urban space. Writers like Owen Hatherley and Anna Minton looked at what successive rulers did to the modern city. But it’s when that caustic perception is allied with a staggering historical memory and the imagination of an Iain M Banks or a Kim Stanley Robinson that one becomes hopelessly lost.
Anderson is an ex contributing editor to 3:AM magazine. I say this not just by way of disclaimer (having written there myself) but because it part explains Anderson’s extraordinary range of reference. He’s inspired by SF, utopian fiction, dystopian fiction, detective fiction, comic books, video games, French romance, brutalism, magical realism, the flâneur, the golem, Dante, Swift, Rushdie, Tintin and de Sade. He travels widely in time and space. Lost cities. Sky cities. Underground cities. Moving cities. Cities that come out of tubes. Cities that change according to one’s mood. Imaginary Cities is 3:AM in book form.
Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a marvellous panorama but also a narrative in itself. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, that resonates as strongly as anything in more conventional classical storytelling. Anderson’s book isn’t quite a story but there are some interesting themes. ‘All buildings contain their own ruins,’ Anderson says. This is most obvious in the Nazi death cult: ‘Hitler urged Speer to encapsulate ruin-value in his monuments. His were cities designed to die and leave grandiose millennial corpses; his passion for prosperity being proportional towards the present.’ And yet ruination doesn’t necessarily make an ending:
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 Turks. It has been dedicated, and rededicated to, and ransacked by, waves of empires and gods that no longer exist in any meaningful sense.
Another point Anderson hammers home is that every dystopia is a utopia for someone. For every millions who perish in the concentration camp an elite grows fat on gold teeth. And you can’t divorce great monuments from the circumstances of their creation – what would the pyramids look like, or the skyscrapers of Dubai if you were one of the nameless slaves that died building them? Yet Anderson’s is an optimistic vision. What lives, changes, and that’s true of cities and buildings as well as living organisms. Imaginary Cities offers the progressive’s one true hope: things don’t always have to be like this, in fact things are destined not always to be like this. ‘This is, of course, as we see from perpetual struggles, a threat to those who benefit from orthodoxies, control and stasis.’
It strikes me that at least in the UK we live in a time where the city has barely got started. It has only been a couple of hundred years since we put down the plow and walked to the nearest conurbation. Contra the nimby doomsayers, most of our land is barely developed, while in overcrowded London the super rich extend their mansions into the underground. Who knows what the city will look like in another 200 years, and how it will adapt to a changing world? As I write floods pile into the Calder Valley. Anderson has a new take on climate change: he imagines how the urban will respond if the worst comes to pass. ‘It’s worth considering whether the sunken cities might become modernised. Will the sound of bells be joined by phones ringing, car alarms, the glow of neon in the depths?’ In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Anderson said that ‘For the past twenty years, every time I go to a new city, I keep a notebook of thoughts and the things I see and experience there, very often on night-walks’. There’s something good and comforting about the thought of Anderson wandering and thinking through the night.