Ktismatics

10 May 2011

With Cities as with Dreams

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 4:52 pm

“…from the number of imaginary cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled without a connecting thread, an inner rule, a discourse. With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, its fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

“I have neither desires nor fears,” the Khan declared, “and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by chance.”

“Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

“Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx.”

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1972

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17 Comments »

  1. From BLDGBLOG I read about a “Design Fictions” symposium:

    How do designed objects and environments tell stories, and what genres do they favor (science fiction, fantasy, romance, satire)? …How do fiction writers and literary journalists incorporate designed things and designed landscapes into their stories?

    One of the presenters focuses on camps as cities of indeterminate permanence, an architectural space used to good fictional effect in District 9. I’ve become interested also in processions as movable spaces: religious pilgrimages, military maneuvers, refugees on the move, Felliniesque carnivals. Bin Laden’s compound tells a story: the shape of the enclosure, the height and composition of the walls, the location within a city dominated by the military. Calvino invokes a series of imaginary cities whose delirious architectures embody fictional ideas. I’m reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, who details most of the dark gothic stereotypic features of haunted houses but to good effect.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 May 2011 @ 10:36 am

    • “I’m reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, who details most of the dark gothic stereotypic features of haunted houses but to good effect.”

      This one is especially hard to do, I think. I’ve usually not been very sold on these, although Jackson herself did ‘The Lottery’, one of the greatest stories ever written. That story about Yvette Vickers’s house in the 90210 section of Beverly Hills has as much of that in it as of Raymond Chandler, or maybe more. There was obviously no foul play, and in Chandler/MacDonald, bodies are usually found within 24 hours.

      This ‘designed objects’ is so vast sounding a term (I looked briefly at the link for now) that I just noticed the brand names and other corporate product placement things, which has been pretty commonplace in commercial movies for a long time. Don DeLillo does that pretty well in novels, but I’m not sure how ‘imaginary cities’ are ‘designed objects’, or rather, how anything wouldn’t be. Burroughs always had some delirious cities with weird things like ‘cat coins’, and I recently read that there are some New Agey ashram-nightmares (I guess I could do that one if I could stand immersing myself in the horror of the memory of it–I saw a website of the one I went to 25 years ago, and the same horrible people are running it, and you are just supposed to wash dishes with great cheer, and then if you’re allowed any leisure after your prison sentence, you are allowed to put your feet into a stream and feel the ‘different vibrations’) where they do use ‘alternative currency’. If my experience at that horrid place is any indication, I assume that if they have to go to town to buy a toothbrush, they’ll bargain like sons-of-bitches about the correct change of non-alternative currency, just like some garden-variety office manager watching over the the box of ballpoints.

      Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 11 May 2011 @ 11:22 am

    • It might be interesting that some of the most influential design ideas for cities in the 20th century originated from organizing traffic: the city as an open space which enables fast entering and escape by cars and trains. I would like to see this idea being generalized for the green/decelerated cities of the 21st century where the exterior – a park like landscape, used by pedestrians, cyclists and animals – and the intense interior of housing, business, car traffic and so on follow the same principle of fast access and escape. Like two completely spaces that are woven into each other, which cross each other and being indefinitely extensible.

      Comment by Kay — 11 May 2011 @ 12:40 pm

      • I think it may already be ‘generalized’, I don’t think we have to wait for it. Therefore it ought to be de-generalized even if it’s in the decelerated green zones. Such as this now exist over where the derelict piers used to exist as sex haunts on the Hudson, the the riverfront businesses were downscale. This is now where the Richard Meier glass all is, with Kidman, Stewart, the rest. And didn’t Ballard already do similar things, at least related, with his business parks which naturally would invite workaholism relieved by bad S & M, drugs, and snuff movies.

        Reminds me of when I was quoting the ‘living at Xanadu’ part of the Didion to John last night. Later i thought of Times Square, which in the the late 60s and early 70s had just become very raunchy with ‘porno as free speech’ and the stores were all open. But it was still magical. It’s now neoned to death, combinatiion of Las Vegas Strip and everything Shanghai is most proud of (meaning so loud even the Marxists grovel at its feet and shut up about capitalism), and has Zero Romanticism. I mean NONE. Times Square is so relentlessly uninteresting and deadening, with videos flashing over all walls, including even the old Knickerbocker Hotel, that I do anything to stay away from it, although 42nd Street between 7th and 8th is by far the worst and ugliest. Cuomo said when he announced it ‘This’ll clean up the filth’, but they just replaced it with more filth. Hateful place.

        Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 11 May 2011 @ 1:01 pm

      • I think it may already be ‘generalized’, I don’t think we have to wait for it. Therefore it ought to be de-generalized even if it’s in the decelerated green zones.

        I nowhere talked about “zones”.

        Comment by Kay — 11 May 2011 @ 1:58 pm

      • In US military jargon a “green zone” is an area that is heavily secured via weapons and surveillance against attack or insurgency; e.g., the “Green Zone” in downtown Iraq housing government headquarters and most of the international presence. I recently watched “The Green Zone,” a 2010 fictional film starring Matt Damon that takes at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. In this film, Pentagon intelligence kills one of Saddam’s former generals because he is about to reveal the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. This sort of “green zone” constitutes an interesting engineered space in its own right, though of course it’s not what either of you is talking about.

        European cities are more attuned than American ones to the green interconnectedness of parks, people, motorized vehicles, and buildings. I picture getting off the train in Amsterdam — or perhaps it is Antwerp — with vast numbers of bicycles parked at the station and dedicated bicycling lanes flowing into the city. The entire downtown area of Montpelier is automobile-free, with toll-free trams carrying people to and from parking structures erected on the outskirts. To extend this idea into the suburbs would perhaps require underground roadways and parking structures. Mixed-use buildings also seem essential, making it possible to walk from home to office to grocery. Again, this European architectural style is absent in most American cities and suburbs, New York City being a notable exception.

        Comment by ktismatics — 11 May 2011 @ 3:00 pm

      • In European cities are more attuned than American ones to the green interconnectedness of parks, people, motorized vehicles, and buildings. I picture getting off the train in Amsterdam — or perhaps it is Antwerp — with vast numbers of bicycles parked at the station and dedicated bicycling lanes flowing into the city.

        In Munich there is a continuous north-south corridor along the Isar river. At some point it unites with an actual park, the ‘English Garden’, but in some sense the whole banks of the Isar river are a park landscape and cultivated as such. It is surely not a Ballardian zone of industrial decay and wild re-naturalization, some ‘life after people’ vision and also no green zone for managers. One can effectively travel through the whole city without ever touching it. So understanding it in terms of infrastructure and (slow/pedestrian) traffic makes sense. An analog east-west axis is missing.

        By no means does it have a hippie-like feeling or it comes up as an anti-thesis to modernism. Some requirements are added to the planning of a city and we do not symbolize the unity of inside and outside through some glass box in a park, as it was done with the Farnshworth house.

        Comment by Kay — 11 May 2011 @ 10:28 pm

  2. I tracked down Jackson’s book after watching The Shining — Stephen King has written that he regards The Haunting of Hill House as the best haunted house story ever, and used it as inspiration. Kubrick used a Victorian hotel exterior — ripe for haunting — but the interiors were decidedly 70s. This was particularly important in contrast with the 20s interior redecorations perpetrated by the ghosts. But haunting contemporary spaces requires a cleverness in mood design that’s avoided by gothing things up.

    An ashram is a good fictional place, though I’ve never visited one. Findhorn came up in conversation with a local New Ager recently — I believe that the denizens channel Gaia, who tells them where to plant their vegetable gardens and so on. I “did time” in a Jesus-people commune located in Tangier, which makes a nice complement to Burroughs’ deliria. I might have looked him up while I was there, and also Paul Bowles, but regrettably I’d not yet read anything by either of them. For years I’ve had a recurring dream of being held in a Moroccan prison, with vivid images of the place, though I never was imprisoned or saw a prison there. I’m sure I dreamed this prison before seeing Midnight Express, but the place in my dreams is similar. The cops did roust me from a hotel room in Marrakech, hash smoke hanging thick in the air, but they were looking for someone in particular and were clearly unconcerned about my little indiscretion.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 May 2011 @ 12:28 pm

  3. ‘Green zones’ would be applicable to big cities where a huge development is made which erases all previous marks of anything at all, as in the West Street development. A ‘green/decelerated cities of the 21st century where the exterior…’ etc., might be like Pittsburgh or other smaller cities, or Manchester, where all the industry has been removed which made the place to begin with. There may be one or two of the buildings left as museum-like things. But you explain it if it’s so important that it be ‘generalized’ and you’d ‘like to see it’. Esp. since if it’s ‘decelerated green cities of the 21st century’, which could mean rearranged older cities which were different before, or new cities which are just being built or conceived. That’s your interest, though, I’m not concerned, and ‘green zones’ is quite clear enough since I described a version of it here. London has long been a ‘decelerated green city’ in the older sense, although that’s mainly just a matter of a greater profusion of parks and mews.

    “Again, this European architectural style is absent in most American cities and suburbs, New York City being a notable exception.”

    Except that the riverfront parks and residences and luxury businesses are confined to neighborhoods, or zones here. As in the one I described. Most of New York is pedestrian-friendly, but it’s one of the least ‘green’ cities you can find, because of the concentration of buildings. Even the most prestigious residential areas are not ‘green’, unless you want to included views of Central Park from 5th Avenue. But the new, maybe 15-20 year-old Hudson riverfront development is unique in Manhattan, because it started some 20 years ago with Battery Park City in the Financial District and then parks were built going down till these two run into each other. I don’t find it to have much charm, as everything is pretty generic and even the roses are exactly alike here. About 5 years ago, when they were nearing completion, I saw them tow in with a small barge pulling it, a piece of pre-planted park, about a half-acre in size, and plop it down in one of the sliver-like park pieces. They were probably all brought in like this. Too much like the Crystal Palace of 1850 somehow for me.

    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 11 May 2011 @ 4:00 pm

    • Wonder if Calvino means several things by ‘imaginary cities’, whether he means the subjective city of the observer, or really futurized or thought-up cities. Obviously probably not cities that are being laid-out by mundane designers of actual cities. Although I guess he means already-existing cities, since the ‘answer it gives you’ or the ‘question it asks you’ is something one definitely experiences in existing cities. Now that I think of it, though, cities are no more like dreams than anything else: Dreams are the larger context, and cities subordinate. Although I know I’ve had waking and sleeping dreams of thousands of cities that come out of the same one that’s sometimes equally owned by thousands of others who may or may not dream about the city they are in or not in. And that much of the time it’s not ‘like a dream’ at all, and no different from anyplace else. Cities capture certain romantic imaginations more than small towns, but there’s much that’s been written of equal value about rural places. That’s what you were talking about to begin with, with that quote, I don’t know about sci-fi, not being very interested in it, but I imagine satire doesn’t have much to do with environment so much except in the sense of milieu, but this is already pretty generalized to me, one of those topics on which you could say anything, it’s so vague. ‘Romance’ and ‘fantasy’ could be anywhere, just a matter of taste for what kind. You couldn’t have pornographic romance in the country without it coming out like Lady Chatterley; most of the time it’s going to be highly stylized, designed.

      I guess I don’t think of literally imaginary cities the way sci-fi writers and maybe Burroughs and some others do.

      Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 11 May 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  4. The conceit of Calvino’s book is that Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan various cities he has visited in Khan’s empire. These cities are fantastical; finally Polo tells Khan that all of these cities are actually one city, Venice, his home, as he imagines it in different ways. I’m intrigued by this book as an experimental fiction in which the descriptions of cities constitute a collection of “stories,” with the barest narrative thread linking them together. I find it successful even without the dynamic of plot and character to propel it — not unlike walking through an art gallery.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 May 2011 @ 5:28 pm

  5. I guess I see how it works, I believe you have to put a slash inside the second outside piece.

    Kay–that’s interesting about Munich, and I hope you’ll say more. Some of your things are too ‘touchy’ for me to say much; for example, there may be nothing ‘hippie-like’ about it, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean ‘hippie-like’ was always the worst alternative. What you get in the Westway development here is a movement from old wharves to a ‘greenbelt’. Also, while I’m right that ‘green zone’ should make sense, I concede I oughtn’t to use it, because it’s so associated with the Green Zone of Baghdad. ‘Greenbelt’ or ‘greenway’ is more often used in urban talk, although some are made into parks later, instead of being natural.

    What was most controversial in your original post was how you’d like to see something ‘generalized’. It is not at all obvious whether you meant that as something you’d like to see in literary cities, or whether you want to see other cities ‘become like this’ or what. It sounds like a nice way to develop a river and make a specific city very pleasant, but not nearly the only way. A huge city would have to already have it built in, wouldn’t it? as London does, by its long tradition of mews and parks around nearly every block. The two cities most often cited as the ‘most comprehensive’ in the world are New York and London, but New York has no such thing. In fact, when the West Village was ‘hippie-like’ in the 60s and early 70s, it was much more pleasant. That probably made up for the fact that we don’t have but one half-major park in it (Washington Square, which is unsatisfying except when the season is perfect, as now or in October; it is usually just sort of sweaty and dirty.) Likewise, this ‘we don’t do some inside-out thing with a glass box like Farnsworth House’, well fine. I hadn’t even known about it, it looks like a lovely house, but nobody expects it to be what you were talking about with Munich, and nobody would have known whether you were talking about real cities or cities for literary use. The description of ‘the exterior – a park like landscape, used by pedestrians, cyclists and animals – and the intense interior of housing, business, car traffic and so on follow the same principle of fast access and escape. Like two completely spaces that are woven into each other, which cross each other and being indefinitely extensible’ is very evocative, though, for whatever reason you chose ‘exterior’ and ‘interior’–this is an idea I find very attractive, because the ‘interior’ of a city ought to be those things associated more with any city, and those are traffic, business, and housing. This ‘exterior’ is interesting as well, but will probably in most cases not be so large if it’s going to still be identifiably urban–crowded business districts still mean ‘urban’ and ‘city’ to more people than greenized formerly industrial sites, as in steel cities like Pittsburgh and Birmingham (Alabama, although I think the U.K. has probaby undergone a similar transformation), north of England.

    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 12 May 2011 @ 10:16 am

    • as in steel cities like Pittsburgh and Birmingham (Alabama, although I think the U.K. has probaby undergone a similar transformation), north of England.

      By ‘north of England’, I was referring to all cities of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which I’ve seen and been surprised by: I thought you’d still see a lot of it, that some of it would even still be operative (on a train ride from Manchester to Liverpool), and none of it is. otoh, at least I expected to still see visible remnants, which I either didn’t, or they weren’t obvious–whereas in New Jersey, there has long remained much industrial slum, and when this is redeveloped, it’s almost always commercial buildings with very little plan, they’ll just stick a free-standing one-storey building on some piece of property near the Meadowlands Arena with no consideration for anything except what money will be made. That’s suburbs, though, and anything goes in that sprawl.

      By the way, Manhattan may be fairly unique (at least in the Western world) in that there are almost no free-standing houses in it, as there are in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx. I know of 3 in the West Village, and there are none in Midtown or DT unless they are some historic thing, or as in the case of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence until Bloomberg, who prefers his East Side townhouse. There are also NO shopping malls with parking areas, although this may change, since there is a Kmart and Wal-Mart is still trying to get in. The few free-standing houses have often been brought in on giant trucks, and they’re little quaint things. A back mews with a few leafy townhouses, all attached, is what passes for quaint here. Someone who lives in Queens told me she couldn’t imagine living in the City, because it would be like ‘never leaving work’. I thought that was pretty good, although you get Archie Bunker just as specified in the show in Queens, and there are rednecks in Staten Island.

      But literarily, any kind of place can be used. It’s just according to whether there’s a feeling for place or not. I’ve read non-fiction books about specific places that weren’t even very evocative about the place they were supposedly focussing on, although you could usually pick up something.

      Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 12 May 2011 @ 10:30 am

    • What was most controversial in your original post was how you’d like to see something ‘generalized’.

      It was about the basic idea that traffic shapes the modern city and turns it into an open space which can grow indefinitely. All I’ve done is to paint this “green” or slow-motion but add it to what exists instead of replacing the current infrastructure entirely e.g. by some Utopian garden-city or dismantled industrialized sites which are of course for real.

      Munich is a city where this is partially realized – not unintended but also not with an agenda, riding on some ‘landscape speculation’ or an architectural discourse. Instead you can buy city-maps specially for cyclists at patrol stations. It’s as if it wouldn’t even touch our imagination and our mythologies. Just look at your pet author, Nick Land, who moved to China to re-experience the big industrial take offs, like our grand and grand-grandfathers. Not sure what he is actually doing there. Maybe being caught up in a traffic jam each morning and watching all those immobile towers?

      Comment by Kay — 15 May 2011 @ 3:48 am

      • There’s always something.

        Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 15 May 2011 @ 10:13 am

  6. I just skimmed two reports on transportation subsidies in Europe. Both observe that private transport is more heavily subsidized that public transport, because governments pay for building and maintaining roads and highways. The situation is even more extreme in the US, with ever-expanding suburban sprawl supported by an ever-expanding networks of roads. This geographic spread makes it more difficult to provide public transport as well: more buses and tram routes are needed to cover areas of low population density, which increases costs and transport time. From my observation, European countries consist of densely-populated cities and towns separated by large areas of low population traversed by small number of connecting roads.

    In my town the houses are built quite close together, and the government has purchased land to create an undeveloped green belt surrounding the town. However, buildings cannot exceed a specified height limit purportedly to make certain that no one’s view of the mountains is occluded. As a consequence the town consists mostly of two-storey single-family residences build on small plots of land. So even here the bus service isn’t particularly user-friendly.

    Comment by ktismatics — 13 May 2011 @ 8:51 am

  7. Another sublime imaginary city:

    It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay under deep snow. There was no sign of the Castle hill, fog and darkness surrounded it, not even the faintest gleam of light suggested the large Castle. K. stood a long time on the wooden bridge that leads from the main road to the village, gazing upward into the seeming emptiness.

    – first paragraph of The Castle by Kafka

    Comment by ktismatics — 13 May 2011 @ 9:32 am


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