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.

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.