Interview: Darran Anderson, author of Imaginary Cities, on architecture, power & The Jetsons

Can we blame all this on The Jetsons? Image: Getty.

I’m five minutes into a Skype interview with Darran Anderson, and we’ve already discussed comic books, the Situationists, Iain Sinclair – and a river that flows backwards after heavy rain.

“Every city is more fantastical than fantasy,” Anderson is telling me. “Barcelona, Berlin, Tokyo, London – they’re more bizarre than we think.”

It’s the premise that’s at the centre of his new book, Imaginary Cities, a vast collage which teases out the links between fictional urban environments – the “imaginary” cities of its title – and real, inhabited places.

When I ask Anderson where the idea for such a mammoth undertaking came from, he first cites an evening in Phnom Penh – the city with that backwards-flowing river – before backtracking. “I keep thinking of growing up, reading 2000AD comics and applying those city spaces to my world as a child.”

Anderson grew up in a terraced house in inner city Derry which overlooked a “pastiche of a Russian Orthodox roof spire” on top of St Patrick's Church in Pennyburn. “Reading Arabian Nights as a kid”, he tells me, “I continuously made the connection. It was this link to the outside world, but fantastical.”

"Would the garden bridge have been a good idea if Tony Benn proposed it?"

It’s this attention to popular culture which makes Imaginary Cities so rewarding. The book traces the influence of Le Corbusier, Gericault and radical architecture group Archigram, but also Dr Caligari and Judge Dread.

“It’s accepted that an architect will be inspired by the natural world,” Anderson explains, “but there’s been some reluctance to accept the influence of ‘frivolous’ sources like cinema, comic books and the like”. This is a particularly self-defeating form of elitism, he thinks: “Architects were all kids once, and civic planners were – even politicians were once children”.


Childhood influences get into architects’ heads just as much as seashells and forests. “You see, in the 1960s, the influence of something like The Jetsons. The architects of tomorrow are more than likely playing Minecraft at the moment. We ignore how these things seep into the consciousness”.

I ask him if the Jetsons are therefore actually to blame for The Shard. Unsurprisingly, the building is something he has a lot of thoughts about. “There’s a tendency to let on that you’re going purely on aesthetic judgement, when actually it’s a political stance,” he argues. “I may disagree with a lot of what The Shard stands for, or The Garden Bridge, or various other vanity projects, high towers to Mammon and all the rest. But I think it’s important to look honestly at their aesthetics”.

If The Shard had been designed by The Constructivists, an early 20th century group who argued that art should come with a purpose, Anderson suggests, people would admire it. “It’s the same with a lot of North Korean architecture. A lot of it’s absurd, and oppressive. But if you took those towers and you translated them to Dubai, certain critics’ opinion would change.”

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

The fraught relationship between architecture’s politics and its aesthetics is a recurring point of tension in Imaginary Cities. From writing elegantly on the ransacked houses of Krisstalnacht and other sites now predominantly associated with historical atrocity– there is a particularly affecting anecdote which describes how the composer Shostakovich used to sleep in the corridor, bags packed, so that when the Black Marias came to take him his family would not be disturbed – Imaginary Cities gestures to how things could have been different.

“We do not like to think it, facing the obscenity of the football stadiums of Pinochet, the churches of Rwanada... that for a few sadists these were utopias.”

You can tell what the predominant ideology is by what the tallest towers are

This interest in the link between buildings and the distribution of power also stems from Anderson’s childhood. “Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, it was very obvious where the zones of inclusion and zones of exclusion were. Now any time I go to a city, I always apply that [logic].”

He cites Paris as an obvious example: a romantic and beautiful city, whose wide boulevards were designed with the purpose of preventing revolt. The use of kettling as a police tactic is similar: “It’s a form of constricting architecture.”

In Anderson’s mind, buildings are always a clue as to where power resides. “In every city, you can tell what the predominant ideology is by what the tallest towers are. In medieval times, it would have been the churches. In Northern Ireland, it was the military watchtowers. Now it’s the banks.”

We’re back to The Shard again. “The glass and chrome... it’s intangible. It’s all shiny glass and you can’t see in”. We discuss the idea of Marc Auge’s “non-places”, the heavily mediated spaces like airports and tube stations where people’s movement is defined by commerce and transport. I suggest The Shard might be like that, too. “Yes. People have said about The Shard that it’s a kind of arch villain, like a lair... I wish it was that interesting!”

At a recent event at the V&A Anderson was described as pessimistic, but he insists there is hope. Imaginary Cities makes reference to Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect and theorist previously ranked in Time magazine’s list of “100 most influential people” who has recently emphasised the importance of situating buildings in place.

“The push towards regionalism and more democratic forms of architecture is a very welcome one,” Anderson says. “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.”

“It shows a profound lack of imagination that every tower that goes up is a tower to commerce,” he adds. “It could be towers to music, and culture... there’s no reason we can’t dare to dream again. Where are the towers for everything else? It’s just a matter of nerve.”

Imaginary Cities is out now from Influx Press.

Darran Anderson is on Twitter as @oniropolis, where he posts an ongoing stream of imaginary cities.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.