For as long as human beings have huddled together in communities, architecture has played a role in their lives. From the oldest settlements to today’s metropolises, structures and planned spaces have helped organize social relations in ways both intentional and unforeseeable. And, like a novel, these spaces and structures can be read and interpreted. What they say about their visionaries and their effect, or intended effect, on their inhabitants can be similarly understood—even the cities and buildings that exist only in our imaginations, whether they be fictional, planned but unbuilt, or lost to time. It is these dreamt-of spaces that author Darran Anderson puts under the magnifying glass in his latest book, Imaginary Cities: A Tour Of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, And Everywhere In Between.
While the book does address real-life cities, as well as unbuilt plans, it largely focuses on the work of totally fictitious spaces—from the worlds of J.G. Ballard and Ursula K. Le Guin to those of comics like Akira, Judge Dredd, and Batman. And while that may seem like the makings of a light and leisurely read, in Anderson’s hands it’s anything but. The book invokes an incredible array of architects, authors, and theorists to help interpret these cities: What do they say about the people who yearn for them? What collective anxieties and aspirations can be inferred from certain trends and motifs? How can we better wield future fictional places? These questions and more take us from the utopian Just City of Plato’s Republic to the Tower Of Babel and Blade Runner’s use of the Bradbury Building.
In a footnote in its first chapter, Anderson describes the book as “diminished non-fiction mirror” to the Italo Calvino novel Invisible Cities, but that comparison is a bit misleading. In Calvino’s fiction, which sees Marco Polo describing a series of cities to Kublai Khan, the city takes on a metaphorical property. Polo is, after all, describing the same city again and again—emphasizing and abstracting various aspects or angles of it. It is about the individual and the individual’s psyche as well as their perceived relation to others and to the spaces they inhabit. It serves as a report from the city at street level. Anderson’s non-fiction, however, offers as bird’s eye view; a third-person omniscient perspective, rather than the unreliable first person. The meaning he seeks to extract, and the methodology by which he goes about mining it, offer a radically different experience.
The result is a kind of survey of these cities and buildings, one in which you glide over them. One moment you are in the retro-future England of High-Rise and the next you are skipping over the various dystopias of BioShock, BioShock 2, and BioShock Infinite. Anderson’s prose, while dense, moves quickly from allusion to allusion and from insight to insight, ferrying you along at a fevered pace. And while its density is a product of its hyper-referential style, it remains surprisingly accessible for the layperson. “We are fascinated by small worlds from within,” Anderson writes, “from The Borrowers to Issun-Bōshi, and without.” You may not know what Issun-Bōshi (a Japanese fairy tale about a 3-centimeter-tall boy) is, but Anderson provides enough context that not only don’t you feel lost or confused, but you may even feel compelled to seek out these more obscure references.
And while Anderson’s work may not be the sumptuous macaron of prose its subject matter might imply, it’s still a nutritions book. He has a way of making his explanations—which skirt opaque theorizing at various points—compelling and fun. Like the French thinker Roland Barthes (of “The Death Of The Author” fame), Anderson structures his sections as direct, succinct theses, so that there is a point to each segment while avoiding underlining those points with a didactic or polemical tone. There is an ideological element to the work that’s interwoven through the text with nuance and subtly, urging you on along the way, carefully parceling out insights in well-distributed morsels. The book, as a result, offers readers a rich text worth pouring over carefully, one that defamiliarizes the mundane and familiarizes the exotic, but also one that readers entirely unfamiliar with urbanism or its discontents can easily get lost in and excited by.