Imaginary Cities is a roaming exploration of the way Western civilization has grappled with humanity’s proclivity for living together in ever-denser urban settings.
Imaginary Cities is a roaming exploration of the way Western civilization has grappled with humanity’s proclivity for living together in ever-denser urban settings. Author Darran Anderson investigates the anthropology of cities—the way in which humans have theorized, fantasized, designed, rebelled against and begrudgingly accepted “the city”—through a rigorous reading of hundreds of books, architectural schemes, films and visual art. The product of all of this research is an exhaustive, engaging book whose lack of both narrative and rhetorical focus is easily overlooked because of the sheer joy it generates for the curious reader.
As Anderson repeatedly demonstrates, humans have been anxious about the effect of the city on the human psyche for as long as we have been able to preserve our thoughts in writing. Some of the oldest literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Tower of Babel story) as well as the earliest ancient philosophy (more or less the entire corpus of Plato) pondered the urban-human interaction. Romantics of all stripes and all times have yearned for a rural existence, citing an escape from the city as the pinnacle of human liberation from an alienating life to an authentic one. Our apocalypses always call for the destruction of Babylon, Rome, London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo or Gotham. Cities are pits of death and vice, hovels where nefarious states can monitor us or neon-lighted Gomorrah-esque pleasure domes or the province of greedy advertisers constantly trying to sell us shit we don’t need.
Yet a majority of the world lives in cities, by choice. Cities are heralded as the centers of progress whether it is defined intellectually, scientifically, politically, artistically or socially. Many of our utopias are also urban, particularly in the heady days of late-19th-century positivism when economic and technological development were foolishly posited as an ever-increasing linear growth. Architects—Anderson’s chief interest in both this book and his work in general—have designed thousands of “ideal” cities where humans would flourish and live happily ever after. Cities will solve our environmental profligacy. They can be re-engineered to suppress terrible traffic or the highly-concentrated amount of waste or the blaring noise that currently plague them. We will have cities in the sky, cities in the subterranean world or cities in outer space. Those who have imagined a new or better world often set it in cities.
So, the reader is presented with a contradiction: if doomsday is to come, it will be caused by and centered on our sinful cities and the inauthentic livelihood they promote; but if paradise is to be achieved, this too will involve urban concentrations of like-minded, happy people. Anderson discourses on this fundamental paradox for close to 600 pages, citing dozens of examples from several intellectual epochs for his arguments.
The result for the reader is a curated tour through the intellectual history of the city. Anderson clearly delights in unearthing the most bizarre conceptions of the ideal city, but he is just as faithful in discussing the linkages between utopia urban planners and totalitarian dystopian death cults. The Nazis, too, fantasized about urban paradises. What Anderson is careful to elucidate is that our theories about cities are also, theories about ourselves. To ponder the ideal city is to plunge into what it means to be human and determine what constitutes the good life.
While delightful to read, the book is not above reproach. Specifically, Anderson’s exuberance for his subject often results in unfocused prose and a book that feels more scattered and ad hoc than it is planned and carefully organized. The rhetorical and narrative through-lines are far from obvious. But Anderson gets his points across in due course and remains engaging even when it tosses the reader from topic to topic with no seeming purpose. Imaginary Cities is a voluminous tome that creatively and energetically approaches its subject matter so that it remains interesting and worthy of attention across its many pages.