#bordertown: The Canonical City

Paul Raven @ 26-09-2011

“We all like to congregate at boundary conditions. Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where bodies meet mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other” – Douglas Adams


Perhaps the concept of the border goes right back to the most basic bits of biology. Imagine yourself in the primordial soup of a young Earth, and look around: barring the physical limits of the sea itself as it thrashes against rocks (which in this instance counts as the edge of the perceivable universe, beyond which is beyond imagining), the only walls you can see are the cell membranes of the crudest lifeforms, each tiny critter an independent fiefdom of security and gathered resources, a little living city-state. And even here, even this early, we see the necessity of border permeability; food must be brought into the city for it to survive, so the walls must allow for that passage, as well as for the expulsion of the toxic and unwanted.

Some evolutionary biologists hypothesise that the earliest stages of single-celled life consisted of symbiotic mergers. It might well be that mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally independent bacterial lifeforms that finagled themselves through the walls and into the security of one of those little city-states, wherein they discovered that their own unique abilities would improve the lot of their adopted home; there we have the hopeful narrative of the economic migrant, born before even the first multicellular lifeforms.

Chloroplast 12000x

And what a border the surface of the sea must have been to the first creatures to contemplate it – as challenging, unassailable and inhospitable as the border between the atmospheric envelope of Earth and outer space seems to us now, if not more so. We’re drawn to borders, challenged by them, inspired or intimidated by them. They are a function of our sense of identity, a mapping of ourselves onto the world around us. We understand their necessity, and yet we dream of transgression, of the meadow on the far side; the grass is always greener in the other guy’s stash.

The work of British science fiction author Chris Beckett is full of explorations of that contradictory tension between manning the city walls and sneaking through the postern gate, in either direction (because to leave the city is only to enter another territory). As climate change, post-growth economics and the inevitable evisceration of the nation-state make a mockery of map and territory alike, the questions he asks will only become more relevant.*


Given its harrowing history, it seems almost inconceivable that you could meet a Berliner who resented the loss of the Wall. And while no one but a last lingering few folk with a hard-on for the authoritarianism of the past (so much less subtle and velvet-gloved than that of today) would ever wish for a return to the oppression and hypocrisy that the Wall symbolised and enforced, it doesn’t take a long stay in that fine city for you to encounter the symptoms of a nostalgia for division. It’s probably clearest (and most commercially viable) at the level of aesthetics; there was a successful campaign to resist the replacement of East Berlin’s distinctive Ampelmännchen walk/don’t-walk signage characters, for instance, and – much as in any major city – the tourism industry makes money from tying ribbons around things dug up from the boneyard of the not-so-distant past. Sepia photography, the patina of age… these things have an authenticity that we find to be rare in the altermodern swirl of our mediated lives, an authenticity we seek to overlay on our experiences here at the cutting edge of time.

Conrad Schumann

(I can get an infinitely reproducible copy [reproduced from Wikipedia under Fair Use terms; please contact for takedown if required] of the iconic shot of Conrad Schumann leaping the checkpoint barricade within seconds of googling for it, but the symbolic buttons it presses get pressed much harder when one buys it as a postcard from a shop on Unter den Linden before sitting down among the glistening new constructions of Potsdamer Platz 2.0 to scribble a suitable message on it and send it to a friend back home. Geography has a residual emotional power, even when we think it doesn’t, or shouldn’t… and time is just another dimension of the map.)

But I encountered a different, deeper sense of loss among the Berliners I met – a contradictory thing that baffled (and sometimes angered) people as they tried to explain it to me across the pocked no-man’s-land between our native languages. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that I have misinterpreted what I was being told, of course, but the sense I got was that while no one misses the cruel and arbitrary physical schism of the city, they miss the sense of unity that the schism gave them. Berlin was once united in its hatred of the Wall; as such the Wall became a huge part of Berlin’s sense of identity. The euphoria that accompanied its dismantling is long gone, leaving behind the unscratchable itch of a once-hated phantom limb. Formerly united by their division, Berliners are now divided in their responses to their unity; their discussions of contemporary civic politics now include the same gripes about zoning, gentrification, class and race as any other big European city, but there’s always an underlying sense that, even if the Wall was a horror, it at least made things simple: you always knew where you stood, even if you didn’t necessarily want to be stood there.

Graffiti on the Berlin "death strip"


China Miéville’s novel The City & The City reminded readers of Berlin, the Gaza Strip, and many other brutally divided territories, past and present; indeed, the ease with which the book could map onto the politics of postmodernity is a testament to Mieville’s powerful command of metaphor. But there is a crucial difference: Miéville’s twin cities share the same physical space, and for the most part there is no physical or material obstacle between one city and the other. Indeed, the mapping of the two cities – and the necessity of unseeing the city that you do not belong to, and all the people in it, despite them sharing the street or building or park with you – is entirely the work of the citizens themselves. Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, at least in the crudest architectural sense, but their mutual invisibility is rigorously policed and enforced.

Miéville strongly yet politely resists attempts to canonise any single reading or interpretation of his books, but given the inescapable facts of his staunchly Marxist politics and life-long love for England’s ancient capital city, we can make an interesting case for TC&TC as a model of a schismatic London – the same class-riven metropolis that erupted in riots earlier this year. (I can’t take credit for that interpretation, though it was astonishingly obvious in hindsight after I saw it made by Owen Hatherley, who himself saw it made by a commenter elsewhere.)

Anti-cuts Riot in London

As Hatherley and others have noted, Paris has long had “no-go” underclass neighbourhoods prone to violent car-burning unrest, but they are geographical outliers, their inmates unable to easily attack anything other than the squalor that surrounds them. For more reasons than one could ever list – historical, political, economic – London is marbled with strata of class, the privileged living cheek-by-jowl with the poor. Physical borders would be impractical, expensive… and so Londoners soon learn to unsee those places and citizens who do not belong to their own city. (The same doubtless applies to many British cities, including my own hometown of Portsmouth, which has been so often described as a Northern industrial city that somehow ended up in the South that no one knows who said it first; I dare say it applies in many other countries, too. We’ll notice which ones, soon enough; keep an eye on the headlines.)

There are streets you don’t walk, shops you don’t use, pubs you don’t drink in, people you don’t acknowledge; the borders are powerful, and they cascade down to the scale of individual citizens in fractal complexity, but they only exist only in the collective, by an unspoken consensus. When enough decide to abandon or defy that consensus, a liberating permeability offers itself, and the underlying fragility of the city-as-system is laid bare, its viscera exposed, twitching in the dirt of the street like the victim of a Ballardian mugging. Within the city are many cities, interwoven or entangled, sometimes at detente, sometimes at war; an organism so complex and poorly understood that, as medicines for the body civic, contemporary politics and economics look little more rational than leeching and the balancing of bodily humours. If we have a long-term future as a species, the city will be an ever-larger part thereof; its diseases must be studied, lest we treat only the symptoms while we watch the patient die.



Cats are territorial animals, but their conception of territory is four-dimensional. Where a dog works on the theory that its back yard is always its back yard, accessible only to pack-mates (of whatever species, honorary or otherwise), cats make allowances for their greater ability to get past physical obstacles by timesharing their favourite locations. That spot on the corner of the garage roof might be a young tom’s turf until the midday sun makes it more desirable, at which point it becomes the fiefdom of the local bruiser; as the sun moves on, so does the boss, and the residual warmth gets soaked up by someone else; then, at 3am, the whole breadth of the roof might become a hybrid of nightclub, knocking shop and backyard fight venue.

It’s a lot like the way we share cities, isn’t it?


Donning our speculative techno-urbanist hats for a moment, we can assume that once augmented reality navigates its way rightwards across the Gartner hype cycle and gains widespread adoption, the post-geographic schisming of physical space will become even more normal, with Miéville’s metaphorical act of unseeing becoming one component of a multitude of possible layered maps of the city. Offended by rotting Brutalism, or the glistening thrust of postmodern monstrosities in the heart of the city? Then choose a layer where they do not exist, and never see them again. Do the same with the homeless, or the rich; choose to swap the iconic London buses for steam-driven robot elephants, or to swap brown skins for a lighter (or a darker) shade; see the city of the Reformation as Sam Pepys would have seen it, bumbling down a side-street to some secret assignation; see the Londons of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s Freakangels, or Ballard’s Drowned World, or Moore’s From Hell; see a city, see any city, see every city. Geography is just the screen, the Canonical City, the hardware on which we run the software of urban life: we project the city on to it, drawing our borders in the gaps as instinctively as we draw the line between me and you, between Us and Other.

A metaphor too far? I disagree; I’ve seen and participated in layerings of exactly that sort in my own home town over the years, and I expect the same happens wherever people may be found – but the complexity of manifestation is a function of population. The layers are cultural, and they’re spooled out in realtime on the wetware between our ears. My city is not the same as your city.

Albert Road

When I walk down Albert Road, nominal main drag of Portsmouth’s unevenly distributed bohemian quarter (as in London, geographical constraints to expansion have led to a patchwork demography), my cultural affiliations and long period of residence determine the things I notice most: the second-hand bookstores; that flat-above-a-shop where I once DJ’d to a full room at 5am on a summer morning in 1996 before the police turned up and impounded the sound system; that guy sat eating lunch by the window of Little Johnny Russell’s, who was in a band that a friend once played bass for; the plastic nick-nacks and Spongebob lunchboxes in the window of Passionfish, one of the few indie stores that’s been a going concern since before I moved here, and which has employed at least a dozen of my friends; and of course the Wedgewood Rooms, the music venue that has employed and entertained a hefty tranche of P-town bohemians over two and a half decades.

Each journey I take has different highlights of attention, of course, but to a tourist passing through on their way to the historic dockyards or the Gunwharf “shopping experience”, it’s just a narrow and somewhat grubby strip of pubs and takeaways, devoid of places to park. Perception is reality. My Albert Road – our Albert Road! – is not your Albert Road, but all the Albert Roads – actual, virtual, fictional, possible – are anchored to that same physical space. You can’t touch the borders, can’t spray your name on them, but you can see them if you sidle up to them just right: try dressing a tad too metrosexual on beer’n’curry Wednesdays at The King’s Arms, maybe, or elbowing your way to the bar of the One Eyed Dog at 10pm on a Friday night while wearing a Square Mile suit.


That sharp hard glint of who-the-fuck-are-you in the eyes of the other customers?

That’s your border, right there.


For every wall we build in the world, we build one that matches in our hearts.


* In the interests of full disclosure, Chris Beckett is a client of mine, but I was a fan of his writing before that was the case.

With the exception of the Conrad Schumann image (which I ganked unashamedly from Wikipedia) the above images are linked to their originals as found on Flickr. The London riot cops were found using the indispensable Compfight search engine; some are my own, and the rest are by my good friend and erstwhile bandmate Rusty Sheriff.

When Manaugh met Miéville

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2011

With no qualification whatsoever, I commend unto you the BLDGBLOG interview with China Miéville, which is just about as full of good stuff as I could have hoped. If someone wanted to put on a symposium where Manaugh and Mieville could just talk about stuff that interested them for an afternoon – perhaps with guest stints from a few other smart people – I’d be there with figurative bells on. (Though I’d be careful not to jingle them while the clever people were talking, natch.)

The most interesting part for me (on my first read through, at any rate) was where Miéville explains why allegorical readings of his work are a little repellent to him:

… I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.

I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

There’s much more, so go read the whole thing. Miéville’s attitude toward allegory throws some interesting and hard-to-avoid caltrops into the road of criticism, because he’s simultaneously declaring himself to be a dead author while admitting (or so it seems to me) that the intentional fallacy is an attempt to graft nonexistent conscious impulses onto extant subconscious authorial concerns.

Of course, I could just be reading him wrong. 😉

Unleash the urban: regenerating America one city at a time

Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011

A guest post over at Freakonomics from one Ed Glaeser, who’s apparently way out in front of the whole “cities are the future and should be embraced as such” movement. It’s mostly a list of truths he reckons need acknowledging if the US is to pull its collective backside out of the economic firepit, but some of them are pretty interesting. F’rinstance:

Build, baby, build. Cities like New York and San Francisco thrive because they’re productive and fun, attracting millions of people over the years with the promise of one of the great urban gifts: upward mobility.  But increasingly, they’ve become unaffordable to the ordinary people that drive their innovations.   If a city has plenty of brilliant people, then give them space to live and work.  Don’t enact byzantine zoning codes or hand vast, architecturally undistinguished neighborhoods over to preservationists.  There is no repealing the laws of supply and demand, and if successful cities don’t build they become expensive, boutique cities that are inaccessible to mere mortals.  When New York City was building more than 100,000 new housing units a year in the 1920s, housing stayed inexpensive.  New York construction dropped dramatically from the 1950s to the 1990s, and prices rose accordingly.  Chicago’s sea of cranes on Lake Michigan helps explain why average condo prices in the New York area are more than 50 percent more than condo prices in the Chicago area.  In this case, the city has much to learn from the Second City.

Also of note: the “Get Over Jefferson” section, which applies just as well on this side of the pond (albeit with a different name in place of the dead prez):

America is, remarkably, still held captive by a Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers and country living.  The rest of the world, however, is not.  The rising powers of the developing world are seizing their urban futures — cramming smart people together, creating gateways for ideas, and building platforms for the serendipitous fortunes that proximity can provide.  Gandhi may have thought that India’s future was in its villages and not its cities — but India today is proving the great man wrong.

As mentioned before, the more I read about cities, urbanism and economics, the more I realise there’s a whole lot more stuff I really want to know. Anyone want to fund me to take a combined degree in economics and urban architecture with a side serving of speculative futurism?

Damn. Didn’t think so. 🙁

Landscape urbanism: the sound of the suburbs

Paul Raven @ 31-01-2011

As the human species becomes majority-urban, the planning and maintenance of cities becomes an increasingly important matter… and where importance goes, there too goes profound philosophical disagreement on best practice. Meet the Landscape Urbanists, the newest new school of architecture and civic planning [via BigThink]:

The landscape urbanist vision propounded by Waldheim and his allies comes down to two central insights. The first is that American cities in the 21st century are not like American cities from the 19th century, and should not be expected to function the same way. The second is that the best way for urban designers to protect the environment is to prioritize the natural landscape. Design should accommodate the waterways and the wildlife that were there before you arrived; it should preserve the rainfall instead of shunting it into sewers, and perhaps use it to irrigate nearby vegetation.

Taken together, those two positions add up to a vision of city planning that doesn’t put a priority on city life over suburban living; it focuses instead on resource protection, the creative use of natural infrastructure, and so-called systems thinking — that is, exactly what landscape architects are trained to do. There are, as yet, few examples of the ideas put into practice: Supporters tend to point to projects still under construction, like the park being built on top of a landfill in Staten Island, N.Y. But Waldheim has said that his program is “specifically” and “explicitly” meant to dislodge the New Urbanists from their perch in the American planning world.


Proponents of the New Urbanism have not been taking the accusations of obsolescence sitting down. In a widely circulated November essay on the website of Metropolis magazine, Duany mockingly cast the rise of landscape urbanism at Harvard as a “classic Latin American-style…coup.” His fellow New Urbanists have weighed in with more substantive critiques that have been equally harsh. One planning professor in Arizona attacked the landscape urbanists for caring more about nature than humans; on the planning website Planetizen, the Portland, Ore.-based urban design theorist Michael Mehaffy published an indictment of landscape urbanism called “Sprawl in a Pretty Green Dress?”

The underlying argument between the groups goes beyond the relative merits of density, or the question of whether you should start a planning project with the buildings or with the watershed. It’s an argument about whether human beings should adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves, or try to change them. Is sprawl inevitable, or isn’t it? At what point does it make sense to come to terms with it and try to find pragmatic, incremental solutions that don’t rely on any paradigmatic cultural shift?

This is one of those moments where I find myself entertaining the idea of immersing myself in an entirely new academic discipline; I’m in no way qualified to take a side on that argument at this point, but its importance to the near future is blindingly obvious, and I’m a sucker for big questions waiting on an answer.

Redrawing the globe with the city at its heart

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2010

Very sincere thanks to @polgrim for flagging up this excellent article at ForeignPolicy.com. It’s like a heaped plate of geopolitical and socioeconomic Zeitgeist, full of favourite Futurismic riffs like the decline of the nation-state, the weakening of the “first-world” West, the shift toward urban living and the possibilities – good and bad – of rethinking the way we approach these things.

Be sure to read the whole thing (it’ll probably take you maybe twenty minutes max, and it’s worth every second), but here’s a chunk that made my brain chime like a temple bell:

Accelerating this shift toward new regional centers of gravity are port cities and entrepôts such as Dubai, the Venices of the 21st century: “free zones” where products are efficiently re-exported without the hassles of government red tape. Dubai’s recent real-estate overreach notwithstanding, emerging city-states along the Persian Gulf are investing at breakneck speed in efficient downtown business districts, offering fast service and tax incentives to relocate. Look for them to use sovereign wealth funds to acquire the latest technology from the West, buy up tracts of agricultural land in Africa to grow their food, and protect their investments through private armies and intelligence services.

Alliances of these agile cities are already forming, reminiscent of that trading and military powerhouse of the late Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League along the Baltic Sea. Already, Hamburg and Dubai have forged a partnership to boost shipping links and life-sciences research, while Abu Dhabi and Singapore have developed into a new commercial axis. No one is waiting for permission from Washington to make deals. New pairings among global cities follow the markets: Witness the new Doha to Sao Paulo direct flight on Qatar Airways or the Buenos Aires to Johannesburg route on South African Airways. When traffic between New York and Dubai dried up due to the financial crisis, Emirates airlines rerouted its sleek Airbus A380 planes to Toronto, whose banking system survived the economic shake-up in better shape.

And another:

Consider how aggressively Chinese cities have now begun to bypass Beijing as they send delegates en masse to conferences and fairs where they can attract foreign investment. By 2025, China is expected to have 15 supercities with an average population of 25 million (Europe will have none). Many will try to emulate Hong Kong, which though once again a Chinese city rather than a British protectorate, still largely defines itself through its differences with the mainland. What if all China’s supercities start acting that way? Or what if other areas of the country begin to demand the same privileges as Dalian, the northeastern tech center that has become among China’s most liberal enclaves? Will Beijing really run China then? Or will we return to a fuzzier modern version of the “Warring States” period of Chinese history, in which many poles of power competed in ever-shifting alliances?

Centralised governance is done; stick a fork in it. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… but “mere anarchy” might not be the horror that Yeats expected it to be. We’re adaptable critters, us humans; we’d do well to remember that.

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