Here's the transcript of our interview with "Imaginary Cities" author Darran Anderson

Are these the architects of the future? Kids playing Minecraft last year. Image: Getty.

A few weeks ago, we ran an interview with Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, a book which aimed to tease out the links between fictional cities and their real world equivalents.

Anderson said so much interesting stuff that, inevitably, not all of it made it into the final edit. So here we present the full transcript of Stephanie Boland’s interview with him.

 

The origins of the book

STEPHANIE BOLAND: I’m very intrigued by your attempt to “move beyond psychogeography”. Obviously I’m a fan of Iain Sinclair and co, but it’s exciting to see something different.

DARRAN ANDERSON: Yes. Iain Sinclair’s got an amazing style, but it’s entirely his. Anyone who tries to ape it is going to fall massively short. It’s like someone trying to write a Kafka-esque novel.

Weirdly for something that’s very expansive in terms of ideas and history, psychogeography is very London-based, very Paris-based, very male, very middle aged. They’re not necessarily bad things, but I’d like to move in different directions and go a bit further afield.

SB: What was the impetus behind the book?

DA: It’s a giant folly.

The standard answer that I’ve been telling people I’m starting to doubt. I was living in Cambodia, helping a friend out with a film on land grabbing and human rights violations. There’s a part of Phenom Penh that used to be a lake, and the government, and property developers, have bought it up – the entire lake – and drained it. A protest movement has started, people have been arrested; my friend’s been there five years, making a documentary.

I was helping him out when I was there, and got very interested in the dynamics of change around that area in particular. The idea that they could have this massive lake that fills to the brim in rainy season and they just got rid of it, because it was prime real estate.

So the origin of the book: one day I was drinking in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. They’ve got a rooftop terrace place, and I got into conversation with an architect from Finland. We got onto the topic of visionary architecture – Catalan modernism, which I’ve been obsessed with since I was a kid, Barcelona in general. We were discussing how amazing this architecture was. Since it was rainy season, these massive thunderstorms started coming towards us. And the thought occurred to me: fictional cities, that I’d read about in science fiction and magical realist novels, were actually less strange than the city I was in.

An aerial view of the Phenom Penh. Image: Milei Vencel/Wikimedia Commons.

Take Phenom Penh’s history: not only is there this vanishing lake, but the Khmer Rouge... There was a city of 3m people, and they completely emptied it. For four or five years, the city was just a ghost town. There was no-one there, except for some Khmer Rouge cadres who stayed. It’s a gigantic metropolis, completely empty, and it occurred to me in that moment: if you made that up in a science fiction novel it would be completely improbable. But this really happened, and it happened in the place that I was situated.

And the physical aspects: they have a river that swells so much in the rainy season that it runs backwards. That’s like something from a Gabriel García Márquez novel. The more I followed that thread of thought, the more I started thinking how every city is more fantastical than fantasy. Every example that popped into my head – Barca, Berlin, Tokyo, London – they’re more bizarre than we think. More poetic and interesting.

That’s where I thought the origin of the book came from.

 

The role of science-fiction

DA: I’m beginning to think it was earlier than that, though. I keep thinking of growing up, reading 2000AD comics and applying the cityscapes that were in Judge Dredd to my world as a child, walking around. Even earlier, I remember reading a copy of Arabian Nights that had engravings, these fantastical buildingsI grew up in a terraced house in a working class, inner-city part of Derry, and from my window as a child I could see a church that has a pastiche of a Russian Orthodox roof spire. Reading Arabian Nights as a kid, I continuously made the connection. It was this link to the outside world, but fantastical.

It all fed into the book. It’s a mad collage of various different influences. Which is appropriate, given that one of the themes of the book is collage.

SB: Is there something about that science fiction weirdness that appealed?

DA: One of the things that I’ve come across is that we never question if architects are influenced by the organic. There’s so many cases of cities being built around the sun, buildings taking influences from woods – any number of things.

It’s accepted that as an architect you’ll be inspired by the natural world – that’s been accepted for at least a hundred years. There’s been some reluctance to accept the influence of manmade sources, especially frivolous sources like cinema, comic books and the like. 

There’s a tendency for elitism and things within all genres and art forms. But the reluctance to accept influences coming across from other art forms is particularly self-defeating. I’m self-conscious of how architects… I mean, it’s there in architectural history. Archigram were taking a lot from comic books. Some people would say that was an interesting dead end, but for me a group like Archigram paved the way for Zaha Hadid.

There’s all sorts of strange buildings going up that were unthinkable, and people like Archigram, and the German Expressionists, and the Metabolists, who were taking influence from comic books, film – they were clearing the theoretical space that has made what we all accept possible. A lot of their buildings were, and remain, unbuildable, but they made a space for us to think in broader terms. They opened up the catalogue. They took the flak so that buildings could be as weird as they are today.

In the 1960s, you see the influence of something as frivolous as The Jetsons. Architects were all kids once, and civic planners were – even politicians were once children and innocent. They may have had a soul sometime. These influences get into your head at a very young age. And though we might not admit, although we may not even understand how they permeate, they resonate. A child growing up watching The Jetsons as a kid – that does get in there! 

I did a talk in the V&A about video games in architecture. There’s a really easy way of looking at it – the architects of tomorrow are more than likely playing Minecraft at the moment, in the same way they would have played with Lego fifty years ago. We ignore how these things seep into the consciousness.

If you consider Archigram, or the Metabolists, as clearing theoretical space, then comic books have done the same for decades and decades. 

There’s a sort of time lapse between the conception of these ideas and the realisation of them. We tend to think we’re at the end of this linear process of progress, but we’re not. It’s just a matter of time, and the right materials, and technology.

 

The meaning of the Shard

The official opening of Londons' pointy new overlord in July 2012. Image: Getty.

SB: So is the Shard actually the fault of the Jetsons?

DA: Well, one thing I’m increasingly interested in... I always come from a progressive view of things, but I’m increasingly questioning the people around me, the fellow travellers. What happens is, they get involved – rightly so! – in the ethics of things. There are these amazing towers going up in Dubai and places, but they’re built by slaves, and so people have investigated, protested and fought against it.

But there’s a tendency to let on that you’re going on purely aesthetic judgement, when actually it’s a political stance. So I may disagree with a lot of what the Shard stands for, or the garden bridge, or various other vanity projects, high towers to capitalism and all the rest. But I think it is important that we honestly look at their aesthetics side by side.

The Shard... it’s a really crazy building when you think of it. There’s a possible lineage from Bruno Taut’s expressionist glass temples, right through to the Shard. That’s an interesting tradition. But because they object to what the Shard stands for, they cut themselves off from that exploration, because it represents something appalling. I think we lose out if we do that - we also cede a lot of ground to the property developers.

Put it this way: if the Shard was designed by one of the constructivists, and it was on a blueprint somewhere and unbuilt, people would admire it.

It does work the other way. The condemnation of a lot of North Korean architecture – a lot of it’s absurd, and it is oppressive, and all the rest. But if you took those towers and you transplanted them from to Dubai, or London, certain critics’ opinion would change. It’d get ringing endorsements as innovative and dynamic. I’m questioning that knee-jerk reaction.

The Shard, well, paying money to go in and having body scans and all the rest, that doesn’t interest me at all. What these high towers to Mammon represent is despicable – and it shows a profound lack of imagination that every tower that goes up is a tower to commerce! It could be…. Hugh Ferris drew towers to philosophy, there were towers to music and culture, it could be any number of things.

London and Britain generally are getting absolutely decimated by the Tories, and there’s a tendency to shoot down any vanity project, seeing if it’s actually a good idea. Would the garden bridge have been a good idea if Tony Benn had proposed it? I have a feeling that people would have warmed to it.

 

Zones of exclusion

SB: This idea of imagination is so important in your book, in terms of power – what you can think of and can’t. How do you distribute the environment.

DA: Yeah. I think that architecture’s a lot of things, but it’s always a concrete demonstration of power. It’s territory. There’s zones of inclusion and zones of exclusion.

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the troubles, it was very obvious where these places were. There were places we couldn’t go, areas, building; they used to fascinate me. I wanted to get in and explore. Often we would, we’d go to run down areas long before this idea of Urbexing [urban exploration]. We’d go up on the rooftops, run about. We would go into the Derry Walls, it was all fenced off, it’s a security risk. But we found it was the best possible place as a teenager to smoke! Once you were passed the security cameras it was this weird zone of freedom.

So that idea is very deeply embedded, of there being areas of inclusion and exclusion. That was fundamental growing up. Now any time I go to a city, I always apply that: I’m always thinking, where can we go, where can’t we go? What’s this building, it’s interesting, but there’s no public access… It’s a map of power essentially. Some places it’s obvious, some places it’s subtle. We tend to accept it quite willingly, but I think in places like, say, Berlin when it was divided, or even Belfast, the oppressive aspect of architecture is very obvious, but I think it’s at work in pretty much every city.

Boulevard Raspail, one of the beautiful wide Parisian streets created for the benefit of armies. Image: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty.

You walk into any old city: Paris itself. City of Romance. You walk around and there’s magnificent promenades – it’s basically built so there could be no more revolutions. The old warrens, the alleyways with cobbles – they were replaced by straight, wide boulevards so you can’t barricade, the army can march down it.

The same thing happened with the rebuilding of Germany. There’s always that rumour that parts of Berlin are built so Soviet tanks could roll down. The use of kettling is a really obvious example of that. It’s a form of constricting architecture. We need to continually remind ourselves of it.

In every city, you can tell what the predominant ideology is by what the tallest towers are. In medieval l times, it would have been the churches. Now it’s the banks. In Northern Ireland, it was the military watchtowers. You can see. It’s so obvious. Even in streets: what’s the big building at the end of the boulevard? That’s where power resides. 

It’s also the place in most cities you can’t just walk into. There’s this idea of cities being living organisms which is very true. Cities live in multiplicities, but there’s also these spaces where things don’t live.

 

Lessons learnt

SB: And that’s why global exchange is so significant. You can spot it in other cities where you don’t in your own.

DA: There’s a lot of wisdom which comes from being on the outside looking in. We have a tendency to be seduced by the exotic, and not realise the subtitles and complexities that go on. But spending a bit of time in Asia and South East Europe, there are obvious remnants of totalitarianism. It’s good to bring that awareness back. Ultimately architecture is just another battlefield. 

There’s also a tendency to point at these other places, but these tendencies are everywhere! Just as under dictatorships there’s fragments of utopia and resistances, in the great democracies there’s fragments of dystopias. There are forms of tyrannies everywhere, if you keep your eyes open. It’s good to have that attitude. It keeps us vigilant.

I didn’t realise how dystopian and pessimistic my view of things was until I did the V&A talk. I was talking about all the glass and chrome, how it’s a bit intangible, you’re wondering what they’re doing inside – it’s all shiny glass so you can’t see in. These non-places have invaded everywhere, even the skyline. It’s spectacular banality. There’s these building that are devoid of any... they’re beautiful, but they almost diminish the idea of beauty because they’re so liminal. There’s no sense of being able to go in. 

Yes – and Marc Augé’s non-places are so interesting because they’re textually mediated. You navigate them by looking for commerce, or travel, or bureaucracy.

Yes. People have said about the Shard that it’s kind of an arch villain, like a lair. . . I wish it was that interesting! I wish it was more like that! Instead it’s that trick of the light. What I was saying earlier was that it’s interesting in itself. A lot of critics who identify as left-wing will just shoot it down, but it’s fascinating, that it’s sort of horrible and intangible. Yet it’s still something to fight against, this idea of the liminal spreading right through our living spaces. 

The push towards regionalism and more democratic forms of architecture is a very welcome one, because it does mitigate the mediocrity on the horizon. Ultimately, these are our spaces. These are where we live and breathe, where we interact with each other. We need to take them back, because they’re becoming someone else’s.

There’s no reason why we can’t dare to dream again. Where are the towers for everything else? It’s just a matter of nerve.

 
 
 
 

What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?


NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.