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.


Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.

On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.