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Tale of the Lost City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia, Ivan Bilibin (1929)

The Perfect Book for a Phantom Traveler: Imaginary Cities

Believe, Inspire

Darran Anderson has put together the most exhaustive collection of imaginary cities in art and literature. It is a book that we should all visit.

Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had.

— Italo Calvino

“I have probably spent as much time thinking about the cities in the background of Street Fighter 2 as I have in the impressions of Hokusai, the blueprints of Le Corbusier or the paintings of Fra Carnevale or Brueghel,” says Darran Anderson, a fascinating character who spends his time exploring the cities imagined by artists and writers, and in which it is possible to “live” even if it just for a few moments. A man for whom the mere mention of Baghdad, Kabul or Kyoto is an irresistible poetic and romantic pleasure, above all when it is juxtaposed with the sound of drunks, rain and helicopters in the night.

His most recent book, Imaginary Cities, is one huge ghost, drawn by the winding thread of Ariadna. It is until now the most exhaustive collection of the cities that others have imagined, written about, drawn or digitalized, and inspired of course by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but also by Marco Polo, the so-called man of a thousand lies, René Magritte, Narnia, the London of Jekyll and Hyde, Doctor Faustus, Borges and so many others. Anderson maps the metropolis of the imagination and their symbiosis with our real cities. “All cities can, and should, be read,” he says.

Anderson brings Kierkegaard’s phrase into play: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it can only be lived forwards,” to explain the relevance of visiting fictional cities and in that way understand how our cities ended up being what they are now. Because each of them was first imagined, piece by piece, building by building, by thousands of highly egomaniacal engineers and architects. Because there is no human ‘work’ that carries more ego than architecture. Darran believes that we should be fed up with the future that is often promised us: a city of glass skyscrapers built to house companies and not families. A tyranny disguised as bicycle lanes.

Illustration of Tower of Babel.

I think it all comes down to a single image replicated a thousand times; the Tower of Babel falling. They built the tower as a direct challenge to god, to invade the heavens, to assert the primacy of humans over their deities. […]My aim is to show such ideas have never and will never go away and how much myths permeate everywhere we live, no matter how shiny and modern and rationalist it seems. We cannot dispel our fictions because they are embedded in everything, including our heads.

The true urbanism of the future should occupy itself with deciphering the allegorical, egoistic and contradictory advertising or industrial language that cities deploy to at least understand that citizens’ ‘concessions’ are part of – and always the same as – the arrogance that began in the imaginary city of Babel.

Illustration of the Tower of Music.

One very pertinent matter that we can look at, is how and why we have allowed commerce to take over our entire skylines (and indeed most of the territory of our cities). It’s a case of apathy and cowardice. We’ve allowed ourselves to be fooled into thinking that the towers that dominate our cities have to be those of finance, and not innumerable other subjects; the Tower of Philosophy that Hugh Ferriss envisaged for example or the Temple of Music sketched by Robert Fludd.

In the book ,the reader can jump from outside to the inside and be wholly inhabited by a city. One can live inside the book. Anderson has a Twitter account (@Oniropolis) through which he shares all his materials and research as well as the content of his book. Another kind of an alive and fragmentary text, like one more chapter in a vast and never ending project.

Image credits:

1. Tale of the Lost City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia, Ivan Bilibin (1929) via Wikimedia Commons

2. The Little Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563) via Google Art Project

3. The Temple of Music, Robert Fludd via Art & Popular Culture

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