‘The end of the world would be quite a sight if you had a nice view and a decent whiskey’
Darran Anderson, author of the acclaimed Imaginary Cities, talks to Karl Whitney about his book, growing up in Derry, global warming, Twitter and cities of the future
Darran Anderson: 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. Photograph: Christiana Spens
Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015) – a work of nonfiction that traces the connections between real and imagined cities, from the lost cities of the past to the sleek glass and steel towers of the contemporary metropolis. It has been chosen as a book of the year by both the Guardian and the Financial Times. The Chicago Tribune called it “poetic, aphoristic and comprising a seeming infinity of quotable lines … a wonder cabinet”. Anderson, who is originally from Derry, is also the author of a monograph about Serge Gainsbourg’s album, Histoire de Melodie Nelson (Bloomsbury, 2013). His Twitter account is @oniropolis
Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (Penguin) out now in paperback.
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 20 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 publicly 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.
Why is it 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. 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 spoken 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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?
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. 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.
The small delights I take from using internet in this way 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. 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. We shouldn’t treat the internet 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.