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.

 
 
 
 

Uber’s battle for Buenos Aires is shaking rule of law in Argentina

A 2016 protest against Uber in Buenos Aires. Image: Getty.

Just 12 hours after Uber’s service became available in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, taxi industry representatives took the company – and the city’s administration – to court. The case was similar to those faced by the company in London, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Budapest, Frankfurt and several US states and Canadian provinces. Uber has faced legal challenges in relation to labour and licensing regulations, as well as allegations of misuse of data and tax avoidance.

Uber’s expansion has become a global epic with regional episodes. While the specifics differ, the terms of the debate remain the same. On one side: the rhetoric of inevitable technological progress and free choice. On the other: claims that precarious work and exploitation have reappeared in a sleeker guise.

Yet the Buenos Aires instalment of the saga is, in some ways, unique. In other places, Uber has acted on authorities’ demands – in some cases leaving those markets entirely, in others reforming or waiting for new regulations to develop. But on 22 April 2016, when a Buenos Aires judge declared Uber’s activities to be in breach of local laws and ordered the immediate blockade of the app, Uber simply continued its operations.

Since then, protests by both Uber and taxi drivers have intensified, while the conflict has branched out on several legal fronts, dragging in more courts, Uber drivers, tax authorities, Uber officials themselves and most recently one of the company’s Argentine lawyers, who initiated legal action in the state of California for what his legal representatives describe as “the unimaginable harm Uber inflicted on him as a result of Uber’s recklessly orchestrated entry into Buenos Aires”.

Uber’s strategy might seem scandalous – perhaps even more so, because it’s working.


Power to the people?

From the beginning of the conflict, the ride-sharing company argued that existing rules were obsolete, and that it was willing to cooperate with authorities to develop a legal framework “adapted to 21st century technology”, so that people would be “able to choose freely” like millions of others around the world.

Among the middle classes of many developing nations like Argentina, these arguments and references to modernity have huge political significance. In countries where democratic institutions are haunted by spectres of corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement, citizens see in Uber’s platform a world of opportunities. Anyone can set out and drive someone for money, a completely impenetrable algorithm produces market values according to demand, and users rate each other based on their experience. And crucially, no local actor can interfere: Uber’s separation from the state is seen to guarantee its virtues.

As part of my PhD fieldwork in Buenos Aires, I was researching how the middle classes understood the place of Argentina in the world. To these people, Uber carried the promise of a modernity beyond local interests and petty regulations. It seems the company has effectively aligned itself with the side of “the people”, in a struggle against governments, unions and other interests, which appear to stand in the way of progress.

A test for democracy

The legal tug-of-war resulting from Uber’s strategy is testing the strength of Argentina’s governance structures. Cities and states seeking to enforce the rule of law can appear silly and provincial in the eyes of their citizens – even when similar laws are followed elsewhere. Buenos Aires’ minister of transportation characterised Uber’s business strategy as being “two-tiered”: respecting governments in developed countries, ignoring them in developing ones.

Uber’s regional director for Latin America George Gordon replied:

French president Emmanuel Macron received Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, and they jointly announced investments in new forms of transportation and the launching of an insurance policy bringing maternity and paternity benefits to drivers and accident and injury coverage. This is an example of the relations we want to build in each country and city where we operate. Uber will continue to operate in Argentina, committed to growing and in the hope of opening a space of dialogue and cooperation with national authorities.

The irony is that the modernity middle class people in developing countries yearn for cannot exist without government and the rule of law. The structures and policies of private companies are set up for profit, not for public interest. The point of the law is precisely to ensure there is a framework citizens can reach out for, when things go wrong.

If the driver of a ride-sharing platform commits a crime, would a low rating be sufficient sanction? Would it be for that platform’s management to decide what counts as evidence? Those opposing Uber asked such questions hundreds of times, but amid the race for modernity they have seemed to be somehow missing the point.

Uber’s legal conflict in Buenos Aires may be entering its fourth year, but the people have already decided their winner. A developing nation’s yearning for modernity proved the crucial battleground for a slightly different epic than usual. At the very least, this ongoing saga should prompt new debates about new technologies and their place in people’s lives.

The Conversation

Juan Manuel del Nido, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Manchester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.