I had the pleasure of talking to the Irish Times recently about Imaginary Cities, growing up in Derry, and the end of the world among other things. It was especially welcome because the interviewer was Karl Whitney, an exceptional writer whose work I’m a fan of (his book on Dublin Hidden City is essential reading). The Irish Times piece is available to read here with the full unedited talk below:
The book opens with a quotation from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. How important was that text (intertext?) to your thinking about cities, and to the form of Imaginary Cities?
Imaginary Cities is very much in Calvino’s debt. The first thing I did on finishing it was to raise a glass to the man. His book is a series of thought experiments in the form of fictional cities; mine suggests that all these things, however fantastical, have actually happened in real cities, in one form or another. Stories seep into the surroundings and vice versa, just as the boundary between fact and fiction is more blurred than we might readily admit. So rather than simply write about weird science fiction or fantasy cities on their own, I kept coming back to how they connect to reality and what they can tell us about the actual places we live.
Calvino was a starting point but even that has an element of fiction to it I think. Kierkegaard wrote that “we live life forwards but understand it backwards”. It’s tempting to pick a definitive origin but the more you trace things back or think about them, the less certain that seems. Mine could’ve come from reading Calvino or visiting Venice at an impressionable age or exploring Phnom Penh where I began the book or just growing up in the north reading 2000AD comics and watching Ray Harryhausen films and messing around with a long-wave radio. Or a thousand other places and experiences since. We let on that we know but it should be remembered that writers are professional liars, even to themselves.
Could you tell me why it’s so important to acknowledge that cities are the product of human imagination?
It’s something we often forget and I think it’s one of the reasons why we feel disconnected in cities at times. When you walk around a city, any city, every building that surrounds you originated in someone’s head. None of it was natural or inevitable. We’re led to believe that everything is as it should be, which bolsters those who benefit from the way it’s rigged; architecture and space being articulations of power. It’s often said that we’re apathetic these days but that’s not quite true; the problem is we think that nothing can be done, that things are fixed in stone and we have no input, but that disconnect is almost entirely artificial. In Ancient Greece, there was one word for a city and its citizens: polis. The two existed hand-in-hand and that’s been deliberately severed. So when we look at unbuilt plans and alternative versions of the streets and buildings which seem to us to have always been there, we are reminded that other cities have been and still are possible. Perhaps we might question why we should leave our cities to the imaginations of a select few? They’re so deeply intertwined that to become a passive spectator to our surroundings is to become a passive spectator to our lives. Thankfully it doesn’t have to be like that, provided we keep dreaming, not in some airy-fairy sense but in a way that leads to us questioning the way things are. Cities are nothing but impressive husks of steel, concrete and glass without the people who live there.
At a couple of points in the book, you mention Derry, your home town. Do you think your experience of growing up in Derry helped to shape your approach to cities/urban form?
Deep down, it informs everything I write and talk about still. Foucault once wrote, “Where there is power, there is resistance” and Derry was an explicit example of that. It gave you a sixth sense and a healthy scepticism of authority. You could read how power works in terms of space and buildings, how people are alienated by it and how they can reclaim it (Free Derry for example). Those experiences have stayed with me ever since. When I was a boy, I hung around in little gangs of street urchins and, for years, we continually broke into empty houses, building sites, condemned docks, abandoned buildings and fenced-off security areas. Long before we’d ever heard of parkour or urban exploration, we’d be hanging out on rooftops or underground tunnels. Part of it was a dissent thing but part of it was just finding a space that was ours, having been denied it. Every time I visit different cities now, I still have those experiences in my head and it can be enlightening as well as depressing. You see what’s going on beneath the surface because it was so overt in the north. I’ve spoke to several academics who’ve pointed out that many of the military and surveillance techniques used in Northern Ireland have seeped into civilian life elsewhere. So as well as being a battleground, it was a laboratory. It was an interesting place to grow up. We weren’t bored.
While people shape cities, cities also shape people – the city is a site of social engineering to a great degree. How does this happen, and how can it be combated?
It tends to happens relatively subtly here, and it’s all predicated on us not noticing. It’s happening in London right now with the inflation of a housing bubble that’s pricing out the poor, the disabled, even the workers who keep the place running. You see it more explicitly elsewhere; the Gulf states, the US, South Asia. I started writing Imaginary Cities in Phnom Penh where a government-anointed business bought up a massive lake in the city, drained it and filled it with sand, evicted dozens of families living there, and arrested and harassed anyone protesting. They’re replacing the lake with an ‘eco-city’. It’d be hilarious if it wasn’t so disastrous. What happens very obviously there, in terms of the theft of public space and resources into private hands, happens much more subliminally here, but it still happens. Part of the critical rehabilitation of modernist housing estates is down to the fact that some of them have been converted into luxury apartments. So it seems the problem in the past wasn’t with Brutalism after all; it was social housing and the poor that were the problem. Take a look at how our skylines have changed in the past twenty years and whether you can actually enter those shiny new starchitect-designed buildings or how many cherished places that once had character now resemble airport lounges. The first step is recognising what’s taking place and who it benefits.
A recurring theme in the book is inequality – apparently expendible people who died while building vast constructions, or the poor excluded by the modern city. Do you think this inequality is, in part, due to a failure in the way cities are imagined?
It’s a failure to the people whose lives are ruined but inequality is also a huge success for some. We don’t like to admit that. With notable exceptions, cinema and television have largely reinforced comforting fictions; the underdog eventually wins, the good or the meek are rewarded, the sinister are punished. I think part of the reason those clichés occur so much in fiction is because they happen so little in real life. We think we live in cynical times but such fairytales abound.
We’re endlessly told that all utopias are dystopias but the opposite is equally true; all dystopias are utopian for a lucky few. It’s a horrendous thought but one we should confront because it happens. In Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands, he quotes from a member of the SS in occupied Minsk, in the midst of the mass slaughter of Jewish families, writing back home to his girlfriend, saying he is in ‘paradise’. After the war, you had SS veteran organisations under various names meeting up to drink and reminisce about the ‘good old days’. I’ve personally spoken to people from Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Deep South of the US who have all condemned their present societies in favour of nostalgia for a time they had their boots on the throats of other citizens. It’s hard for us to acknowledge that that exists. And it’s hard for us to face that the beneficiaries of inequality largely get away with it. Who goes to St Petersburg or Giza or Brussels and remembers the dead who built these glorious places? Who remembers the slaves of Dubai right now? The answer of course should be, “We do”, but I think we’d be too kind on ourselves in claiming that.
At one point you describe utopia as ‘our only hope’. But you’re also careful to illustrate how utopian schemes can become hellish. Is it better that utopia remains unbuilt? Or is most architecture actually the result of utopian thought?
I think everyone who builds, whether it’s a shed or the Shard, has some utopian desire in there somewhere. Inevitably reality disappoints because, unlike the imagination, it’s imperfect and finite but that shouldn’t stop us trying. We all know the dangers of utopian thinking. We’ve had a hundred years of dystopian fiction, and the media telling us that even the slightest glimpse of progressive thinking is the slippery slope to Pol Pot or Stalin. We’ve now reached a point where we’re paralysed by cynicism and a sense of helplessness that simply does not equate to reality. I mean we’re surrounded by technologies that would’ve seemed utopian just decades ago. We enjoy health and life expectancies that were virtually unthinkable for large swathes of our history. We can go online and talk to people virtually anywhere on the planet, we have free access to knowledge that would’ve made the Library of Alexandria seem feeble, yet we act as if we’ve never been more helpless. In Britain they built a welfare state whilst bankrupt having just defeated the Nazis and now they insist they can’t look after the disabled, the sick or the unemployed. We’ve bought into a malevolent lie. There is actually no shortage of utopian thinking but it’s in the wrong places. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” as Yeats put it.
Utopia doesn’t and can’t physically exist. That’s been clear right from the beginning; it means, after all, ‘no place’. At best, it’s a direction and a point from which to look back upon ourselves and an impulse that says, things need not be like this. It is the tantalising prospect, one that mocks and shames us, that better worlds are possible.
You discuss cinema and video games – what fascinates you about the relationship between these cultural forms and architecture?
The borders between different artforms interest me a great deal and I’m continually amazed at how elitist and territorial people get and how ultimately self-defeating that is. If there’s anything to be learnt, it lies very often in those crossover areas. I like how cinema not only instils certain places with a sort of mythic significance (say the use of Les Espaces d’Abraxas in Paris for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) but how it might make us view our living spaces in a different way. We are all living in constructed environments in a sense, just without the rolling cameras (discounting the fact that CCTV is now everywhere). I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the most intriguing figures have bridged the two fields (and more) from Inigo Jones to Edward Gordon Craig, Hans Poelzig to Robert Wilson.
Video games and architecture have fascinating intersections which not many commentators have bothered to pick up on. Both are trying to design three dimensional worlds via two dimensional media and, again and again, you see the same techniques being applied. The ideal cities in the background of Renaissance paintings and the isometric projections of Bauhaus designs, for example, reappeared in the early days of 8 and 16 bit computer games. I gave a lecture at the V&A on the subject earlier in the year, just responding to images, and it spiralled off to be three times longer than it should have been and they ended up closing the museum around us so it’s a topic that warrants further investigation. There’s some wonderful insightful writing about games within the gaming world and academia but not much outside those fields (considering it’s now bigger than cinema), which I’d like to address, being on the outside looking in. They can tell us a colossal amount and we miss out on so much by ignoring them.
Are cities just ruins waiting to happen?
In the long term, it’s unavoidable. You could say ‘thankfully we won’t live long enough to see it’ but I’d like to. I think the end of the world would be quite a sight if you had a nice view and a decent whiskey. I have a feeling though that we’re a more resilient species than we might think. The amount of apocalypses we’ve survived collectively is reassuring but the end of the world is always occurring for individuals. I visited this amazing medieval cathedral in Torcello, an island near Venice. The story I was told was that the population there became convinced the apocalypse was coming so they put their time and wealth into this magnificent mosaic in the church of The Last Judgement. Of course the end of the world didn’t come but they all died of plague, so in a sense it did.
We all think about mortality and what our legacy will be and architects are no exception. With someone like Albert Speer, who designed buildings for Hitler, you have a quite nihilistic monumental sense of ‘ruin-value’. They were designing buildings to last thousand years and make spectacular ruins. And of course they turned into ruins much sooner than they envisaged because only megalomaniacs think in that scale. The interesting thing about most modern buildings is that they aren’t built to last. If humanity suddenly disappeared, skyscrapers would start falling to pieces surprisingly quick. Modernity requires continual maintenance. So those old science fiction books that have pyramids at the end of the world are not quite as absurd as they seem. There’s the distinct possibility that the last traces of mankind will be concrete flak towers, nuclear bunkers and a desert of plastic, which sadly might be an apt legacy.
You mention that totalitarian states achieve ‘the removal of home as a possible place of sanctuary, sovereignty, conscience and free thought’. Some avant-garde architects also wished for an erasure of home to be replaced by movement and defamiliarisation. How important is the idea of home to the way we relate to cities?
Home is a tricky concept because as much as it can be a refuge, it can also be a prison. In both cases, it can be anywhere, even just inside your own head. I’m a huge believer in the freedom of being left alone. The idea of having sanctuaries in cities is crucial in this respect; somewhere you can escape to. Whether it’s deliberately malevolent or just over-designing, the main mistake I think architects and urban planners make is failing to account for this very basic human need. One of the real dangers for contemporary cities is that there seem to be less and less places you can go where you aren’t spied on and you don’t have to spend money. The good thing is this desire for refuge is so intrinsic to us that we’ll find it or create it even when it’s been left out of the designs. We underestimate our capacity for subversion.
Near the end of the book you discuss the potential impact of catastrophic environmental change on cities. How will cities change as a result of these conditions, do you think?
I did a piece for The Guardian recently suggesting that we need to consider the possibility that we’ve already lost the battle against global warming and how we can adapt cities and develop technologies to counter the damage. The hostility and pedantry that the piece provoked was as predictable as it was dispiriting. A week later and half the country’s underwater with analysts telling us more of the same is on the way due to climate change. I’m not suggesting for a second we stop fighting global warming but projecting ‘No Plan B’ onto the Eiffel Tower seems to me to be an advertisement of futility. Unless you trust politicians and corporations, we do need Plan Bs and Cs and Ds. The waters are already rising and the cities need to rise with them. There are various technologies in their relative infancy (ocean fertilisation, cloud seeding, space lenses, carbon capture etc) that might aid us but it’s clear, given how many of our megacities rest on the coast, that real physical changes will be needed in terms of flood defences and seasteading. We need to look at cultures who have adapted to the sea (from Venice to the floating villages of South-East Asia), designs that were perhaps too far ahead of their time like Kenzo Tange’s Plan for Tokyo Bay, and listen to often-derided or ignored leftfield architectural thinkers.
It may well be the case that the process is so far along that we’ll start seeing real urban catastrophes. My feeling is that it will be incremental, which has been a characterisation of global warming all along and one reason it’s so hard to wrestle with and so easy to ignore. Some cities will adapt and even use it as a dynamo for change. Others will decline. The only thing we can be certain of is that things will not remain certain for long. Nature isn’t going to run according to our plans so we need as many as options as we can muster.
Could you tell me a little bit about the process of writing the book? Had the idea to write about imaginary cities been on your mind for a while?
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 (being a fan of Dickens’ Sketches by ‘Boz’). I began to notice that my own particular fascination seemed to be the points where real cities blurred into fiction and vice versa; Saarinen’s stone statues guarding Helsinki Central station, Gaudi’s Barcelona, stories of the Golem in Prague or the gargoyles of Notre Dame. I got sidetracked for a decade mainly editing other people’s writing and it was only leaving Europe for Asia that I thought of writing something publically about the subject. Given the history it’s seen and the metamorphoses it’s undergone, Phnom Penh made me aware that cities aren’t necessarily fixed places. They are profoundly marked by the ideas of people, for good and ill. That opens everything up. In the end, I didn’t really use any of the notes I’ve been keeping on real cities or their stories in Imaginary Cities, so that might be a book worth returning to in the future.
Some writers (Jonathan Franzen’s the obvious example) talk about the internet as being inimical to the process of writing, and suggest writers should unplug. But it seems that you’ve been able to effectively use the internet, and Twitter, as research tools. Can you discuss the research/writing process, and whether the internet, and social media, were helpful to this process?
Condemning any technology outright is foolish; you very often lose more than you gain. Certainly Twitter is a magnificent way to waste time but, if it’s used as a means to an end, there’s potential there. To be honest, I wouldn’t see the point in using it, if it didn’t assist creating something tangible or enable me to communicate with people I otherwise wouldn’t encounter. Of course, there’s an ocean of drivel to wade through online and no shortage of contemptible human beings but that’s in every sphere of life. I tend to post curiosities I find sifting through books so it hasn’t been of primary importance for research but it has its moments. I did a fair amount of the writing huddled over books in cafes and bars in Paris, Vienna and Dundee (of all places), and finished it in a cabin in the woods in Scotland beyond the reach of wi-fi or even a telephone signal. It’s easy to criticise Franzen but I do get the feeling that being a writer isn’t a million miles away from being some kind of Victorian garden hermit. Solitude’s pretty central to it and it can be a form of blissful freedom, just as much as logging-off can.
In terms of connecting with people though, the internet’s pretty vital, provided you end up doing something with it in three dimensions. There’s no substitute for meeting people face to face or having access to a decent library but I’m old enough to remember a time when it wasn’t possible to talk to anyone anywhere in the world with the ease you have now. Or to have the breadth, if not necessarily depth, of information available to everyone: that’s a pretty revolutionary development. The small delights I take from it are the occasions when you see your book appear in cities you’ve never been to, something Ovid was romanticising centuries ago, or when someone messages to say that a blueprint you’ve posted is of a house they used to live in and where they watched the stars as a child from its rooftop. Again, its importance lies in our ability to connect it to reality and do something with it, otherwise it’s too ethereal. A lot of it is illusory. It doesn’t necessarily mean much at all. We shouldn’t treat it too much like the real world but then again we shouldn’t always treat the real world like the real world. Reality can be overrated at times.