5 / 5
The Fictions We Inhabit: Walking the Cities of Material and Myth with Darran Anderson
With films like Tomorrowland currently screening in cinemas across the world, and with amusement park installations like EPCOT, Disney World attracting millions of visitors every year, it is clear to even the most relaxed observer that humanity has not lost its impossible fascination with the future. Such observations are perceived with a unique and intelligent eye in Darren Anderson’s latest book Imaginary Cities, which walks the desolate undercarriages of cities in motion and peers into the dripping corners with a mining lamp at a world that was. Traversing histories of whole continents, Anderson provides via his book a blueprint to a world of potential, of possibility. The cities he explores are equally weighted in the realms of physical reality versus visionary predications, and his work accurately details why the former physical cities exist and why the latter imaginations can never be.
Perhaps the central theme of Anderson’s work is the timeless human obsession with immortalising themselves, ensuring a permanent fixture of their existence will reside on the surface of the planet they leave immemorial. He talks of the “second death”, the moment when all memories of the deceased become lost from those still living, and thus pass from extant minds into the grey area beyond. Cities and architecture, Anderson argues, are the most enduring forums for human expression and eternal existence:
“We are conceived in rooms and die in them. We live and die in them. We remember the rooms of childhood and adolescence, the sound of rain like an imitation of infinity on skylight windows, the bedrooms of different lovers. They are gone forever even though we can see and walk their dimensions in our mind’s eye.”
It is this simple beauty of Anderson’s writing that makes his book so compelling, so full of prescient knowledge of a world we think we know, though are devastatingly ignorant. The allure of the great cities of the world, of New York and London and Paris and Tokyo, are a beacon to the wandering youth of the world because of their secrets and immensities that are not known. People travel to these cities to learn what others do not know, to see what others have not seen. But such idealized dreams of knowledge and contentment lying behind the Art Deco front of Miami Beach or reflected back in the crystal stare of London’s Shard are merely examples of the myths we hopelessly believe in. “Cities are, by definition, full of strangers” is Jane Jacob’s commentary on the true horror of the city. In towns, people know everyone and nothing happens in isolation or secret. The windows in fog-laden Victorian hamlets twitch with the candle-light knowledge of families and friends who listen to the distant footfall of the stranger, the outsider, with an acute fear of the unknown. In cities, all sense of this familiarity that shuns the outside world is lost. Cities are “melting pots”, Anderson writes; they are a crucible that binds together everything that has been before. The famous Parisian graffito that inspired Anderson’s macrocosmic study, ‘Under the paving stones, the beach’, is an inadequate appraisal of the colossal unknown that is the modern city. Anderson would rather remove the trap door paving slab, hollow out the silt beneath and descend into the labyrinthine of time that stretches into infinity beneath the surface on which we all walk.
Anderson’s true genius lies not with his ability to express the feelings that others cannot, the strange melancholy of Paris Syndrome or the awed silence one feels when standing at the apex of a city looking down on man’s creation, but with his consideration of all art forms. Video games and cinema have been erecting cities of the past and future since their inception and, like their real life counterparts, explore the neon line between dystopia and utopia. An appraisal of Bioshock‘s city of Rapture, found in the center of Anderson’s work, looks at how politics and ideology (namely the Objectivism of Ayn Rand) can take an artist’s dream and permanently stain it with the grey blood of dystopia. The underwater Art Deco masterpiece of Rapture is a marvel of design and engineering, but as history has shown, it is the humans that occupy its many spaces that bring it to ruin. Anderson writes that “the urge to destroy is a creative passion” and in doing so explores the moral compasses of architects, who view themselves as the cartographers of a new Earth. They sign the earth with their creations; their buildings become the metal and glass calligraphy of the artisan, underscored with a neon signature.
The concept of the city, what we think of as the beating heart to the varicose roads of the Earth, is a transitory portal into the future and past simultaneously. One can stand at intersections in the great European cities and place one hand on Gothic stone and another on metal and glass. We live in a time of automation, of cities that evolve and collapse, evolve and rebuild, yet we still do not fully understand this world we inhabit. Anderson’s book is a powerful work of philosophy on the physicality of our world – it is a map of that which cannot be chartered. It seems that under the paving stones of our modern epoch, there is neither sand nor dirt; there is the abyss into which all life will fall. Anderson is waiting on the edge, shining a light inside, watching the past and the future collide in one great temporal singularity and his new book is the closest we have yet come to staring into it ourselves.
William Carroll, Literary Critic
Photo credit: Imperial Boy