:: Article

Impossible Cities

By Darran Anderson.


In 1298, the Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo found himself in a Genoese prison, having been seized at the helm of a war galley during the Battle of Curzola. There he met the chivalric writer Rustichello of Pisa to whom he related tales of his travels along the Silk Road into Asia in the previous decades. The resulting manuscript The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo became a literary sensation, being reproduced across Medieval Europe. Such were the extravagant claims in this “great book of puzzles”, many were taken to be fabrications and Polo earned the nickname “the Man of a Million Lies”. It was doubted by some that he’d even travelled at all except around his own evidently vast imagination.

The accounts did however contain many genuine discoveries alongside exaggerations, half-truths and myths (‘How the Prayer of the One-Eyed Cobbler Caused the Mountain to Move’ for example) mixed together without differentiation. We can now pour scorn on his claims of desert sirens luring the unwary to their deaths, colossal birds who fed on elephants, idolaters “adept in sorceries and diabolical arts” who could control sandstorms or witnessing Noah’s Ark perched on a mountaintop where the snow never melts. At the time, these were scarcely more unbelievable than his claims of “stones that burn like logs” (coal), paper currency, seeing the highest mountains in the world (the Himalayas) or visiting vast golden cities hung with the finest silks yet we know these now to be fairly accurate descriptions.

The backbone of Polo’s travelogue is made up of his visits to various Oriental cities (Baudas, Samarcan, Caracoron and so on) culminating in the opulent palaces of the Chinese Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, at whose court he was a guest for 17 years. His recollections of the centres and their populaces range from the mercantile (lists of industries and natural resources) to the fanciful; cities where the inhabitants are perpetually drunk, where men ride around on stags eating birds, where marriages are arranged between ghosts or the great Kaan in his marble palace drinks wine from levitating goblets. Often Polo would add boasts and hyperbole (“no one could imagine finer” is a recurring phrase) and even suggest he was holding back for fear of arousing incredulity in the readers (“I will relate none of this in this book of ours; people would be amazed if they heard it, but it would serve no good purpose”) which only served to further his ridicule. When he was on his deathbed, a priest giving last rites asked Polo if he wished to confess to exaggerating his recollections to which he replied, “I did not reveal half of what I saw because no one would have believed me.” Beyond their narrow confines, the world was more extraordinary than his sceptics were capable of imagining. Raised in the seemingly impossible ‘floating city’ of Venice, a maze of canals and alleys built on stilts in a lagoon, Marco Polo had no such limitations.


Five hundred years after they were written, Marco Polo’s accounts of his time at the summer residence of Kublai Khan found their way indirectly to the attention of Samuel Taylor Coleridge through their inclusion in the book Purchas’s Pilgrimage. Having read a sequence and “in consequence of a slight indisposition”, the poet administered himself with enough laudanum (a potent cocktail of opium and alcohol) to fall into a sleep in which he dreamt of exploring Khan’s palace Xanadu. Coleridge awoke with an entire epic poem formed in his mind, a description of “a stately pleasure-dome” surrounded by gardens, fountains, walls and towers. He would title it Kubla Khan Or, a Vision in a Dream. Jotting down the lines whilst it was fresh in his memory, Coleridge received a visit from a unwelcome guest referred to only as “a person on business from Purlock” who kept him for over an hour. When he returned to the poem, it had left his mind and would never return. Even in it’s fleeting, incomplete state, Kubla Khan is viewed as one of the masterpieces of visionary poetry. The scenes it describes are otherworldly and barely possible in any material sense; the contrasting climates of fire and ice, the mix of the sacred and profane from different eras, the images of “caverns measureless to man” and “a lifeless ocean”. Again we are in the deceptive shifting hinterland not merely between fact and fiction but dream, reality, myth and memory.


This sense of not conforming to what is actually possible has it’s charms and has informed the ambitions of many would-be city-builders. The Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin designed his Monument to the Third International for the new Soviet Republic, a bewildering and beautiful helix structure with chambers that would rotate at varying speeds, radio transmitters and projectors to beam messages onto passing clouds. There was a slight problem though that had been overlooked; Tatlin’s Tower was effectively unbuildable. It was thus casually dismissed by leading Bolsheviks, particularly Trotsky who wrote in Literature and Revolution, “the props and the piles which are to support the glass cylinder and the pyramid… are so cumbersome and heavy that they look like unremoved scaffolding. One cannot think what they are for. They say: they are there to support the rotating cylinder in which the meetings will take place. But one answers: Meetings are not necessarily held in a cylinder and the cylinder does not necessarily have to rotate.” The fact it was not, or could not be, built has not lessened the fascination Tatlin’s Tower scale models and blueprints still evoke. This remains a curious ghost of a building and a haunting glimpse of what might have been before Stalin and the monumental betrayal that was to follow.

At the apparent opposite end of the political spectrum, the remarkable Futurist architect and writer Antonio Sant’Elia drew blueprints for his Città Nuova (“New City”) and wrote a manifesto in which he announced, “We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail… like a gigantic machine… it must soar up on the brink of a tumultuous abyss: the street will no longer lie like a doormat at ground level, but will plunge many stories down into the earth.” Sadly, Sant’Elia was killed at the age of 28 on the Isonzo Front during the First World War, before any of his buildings could be built, if indeed they could.


The inventor of the safety razor, business magnate and socialist, King Camp Gillette had similarly ambitious plans, writing The Human Drift in which he urged a single vast city to be built on top of the Niagra Falls (powered naturally by hydro-electricity) to house the entire population of the United States of America. It would measure 135 miles by 45 and consist of cylindrical skyscrapers made from porcelain. Pre-empting Fritz Lang’s Expressionist dystopia by decades, it’s name would be Metropolis.

We can identify the surreal and the imaginative in such characters but also varying degrees of megalomania. In the most extreme such case, there’s Adolf Hitler, failed painter and draftsman, in the depths of his bunker fantasising over scale models of New Linz, even as the Red Army was at the gates of an obliterated Berlin. Considerably down the scale from the Nazi leader but nevertheless notable for their egomania, both simmering and rampant, writers have a rich history in inventing cities and playing God over them. “To add provinces to Being, to envision cities and spaces of hallucinatory reality, is a heroic adventure,” claimed Jorge Luis Borges and proved so by creating many throughout his writing career. In one of his famous fragments ‘The Immortal,’ we encounter a city that symbolises the nightmare that is the idea of infinity, “rich in bastions and amphitheatres and temples… a chaos of sordid galleries,” a labyrinth of “dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows, portentous doors which led to a cell or pit, incredible inverted stairways whose steps and balustrades hung downwards.” The narrator seems to reel nauseous with vertigo at the sight of this maddening, endless conurbation like a fever dream of M.C. Escher “so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way jeopardizes the stars.” In Borges, there is a profound sense of wonder at contemplating the absolutes and paradoxes of the universe but also the terrible flip side. A note of caution to be careful of what we wish for.

Other writers have approached impossible or improbable cities from different angles. Sometimes it hinges on one particular philosophical proposition. In J.G. Ballard’s Chronopolis, we have a city with no clocks. In AristophanesThe Birds, an apparently perfect idealised city in the sky called Cloud Cuckoo-town (which is where the related saying comes from). In Gabriel García Márquez’ magic realist classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, we witness what might happen if a city was largely isolated from the world with ‘the city of mirrors’ Macondo.


There are writers who have the rare patience, talent and scope to incorporate the infinitesimal details and levels of a working city in their books: China Miéville’s New Crobuzon or Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork for example. Equally, sometimes it’s one physical characteristic we latch onto as readers that’s enough to identify the setting, as with Gotham City, an atmospheric noir pastiche of New York or more precisely “Manhattan below 14th Street at 11 minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November.” Sometimes the strength of the proposition is such that it dominates the story and becomes more interesting than any of the human characters; Isaac Asimov’s planetwide kilometre-deep city Trantor or Jules Verne’s underground city of New Aberfoyle beneath the Trossachs, lit by electric suns and stars. No matter how memorable Titus Groan, Steerpike, Mr Flay or Swelter are amongst others, the central character in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is the castle-complex itself (Peake seems to have thought so in naming the series). Crumbling but teeming with life in it’s reeking kitchens, darkened attics, grand halls, turrets and rooftops, it is one of the most ambitious creations in 20th century literature.

In a few notable cases, writers have created cities that not only could not be built but could not even be plotted or envisaged in the traditional sense. The central setting of Palimpest by Catherynne M. Valente is (in her own words) “a sexually-transmitted city,” a place that can only be visited in dreams after having had sex with someone who has been there previously. Upon returning the visitor is marked with a partial map of the city and can pass on the experience to their next sexual partner. If the gateway to Palimpest is through coupling, the path to James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night is manifestly through solitude. Thomson envisaged a necropolis built from solidified abject misery, on which the sun has never shone and where streetlamps continuously burn, illuminating “the soundless solitudes immense / Of ranged mansions dark and still as tombs.” It’s an intriguing though spirit-sapping epic that takes the Cult of Melancholia, fashionable in the 17th century, to it’s furthest extreme. This is a city of despair with a godless cathedral and a river of suicides (recalling that other city of sorts, with it’s concentric circle layout, Dante’s Inferno). You have to wonder about the mind that conjured up such a creation; a psychiatric disorder mapped and constructed in stone.

Perhaps the most abiding imaginary cities are those built for the purpose of satirising the actual civilisation of the time, whether in an attempt to improve it or to herald its deterioration or demise. As with so many literary inventions, the arch-satirist Jonathan Swift was a pioneer of the form. In the third book of Gulliver’s Travels (often excised from the work due to it’s radical sentiments), the eponymous hero discovers the city of Laputa which, using magnetic forces, levitates in the sky. Ruled by a dictatorial monarch, the city (representing the London government) can be transported over rebellious regions (in particular Lindalino representing Dublin) to prevent the sun or rain reaching their crops. If disobedience or simple independence continues, projectiles can be dropped down on top of the unruly insubordinates. It was a singularly inventive way of describing and protesting against what Swift saw as the English subjugation of Ireland.

Reflecting the cynicism of our age (healthy or otherwise), the dystopia is the most prevalent form of imaginary city where utopias once were. The writer as prophet traditionally warns us about how regimented our lives are becoming and how pervasive the forces of oppression are through surveillance technology, mass communication, manipulation of psychology, social conditioning and so forth. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ground-breaking We, the vast conurbation One-State is built entirely of glass, a city where the police can see everything and privacy has been abolished. In George Orwell’s 1984, the residents of Airstrip One have telescreens which can potentially see everything they do, even (or especially) in the illusory seclusion of their own homes. Both ideas sprang from the utopian reformist plans of Jeremy Bentham and his Pantopticon, a prison in which every cell can be viewed through a circular design and the manipulation of angles and optics. One of Orwell’s great advances in dystopian thinking was to demonstrate how grubby and inefficient even how old the future city would be in everything but control and repression. This can be seen in other cities created with the same explosive or degenerative combination of technological advance and human avarice: William Gibson’s The Sprawl and Chiba City or the Mega Cities of Judge Dredd in the 2000AD comics for example. Or we may see it all around us. Dystopias, sadly, are not just restricted to the future or fiction.

Another way of creating an imaginary city is to destroy an existing one; to warn us that if we continue on the path we are heading, humanity is doomed. We could describe this as ‘the city as wasteland’. Legends and historical accounts of lost cities have appeared in every major civilisation: Iram of the Pillars submerged by the desert, Atlantis (and its real-life counterparts Helike and later the pirate capital Port Royal) swallowed by the sea, Sodom and Gomorrah consumed by fire and brimstone, Herculaneum and Pompeii likewise by pyroclastic flow and volcanic ash. We can view the “dead city” of Opar in Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Tarzan series as one such reminder that the most powerful civilisations collapse, this “mighty city, its great walls, its lofty spires, its turrets, minarets, and domes showing red and yellow in the sunlight. Tarzan was yet too far away to note the marks of ruin,” that it was decaying and overgrown or that there were sinister eyes watching. This is akin to post-apocalyptic literature, where a straggle of humanity cling to existence following catastrophe. We have the compelling image of the empty city (in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend) or cities fearfully avoided altogether (Neil Shute’s On the Beach, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). In some intriguing cases, urban centres have not been entirely destroyed but survived as shells of their former selves (an echo of the Post-war German genre Trümmerliteratur – “rubble literature”), mirroring the bastardised wreckage of language and culture we experience in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Denis Jonson’s Fiskadoro. Sometimes catastrophe is not even required. With enough misanthropy, we can see the post-apocalyptic city as having arrived here already as Eliot did in his “Unreal City” passage (channelled from Baudelaire) in The Wasteland. One day it will happen to all civilisations, existence is finite after all, no matter how majestic or entrenched, as Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ prophetically warned.

A lasting consequence of these imagined cities is their effect on the way we view real-life cities. We have had left-wing utopias that could never exist dreamt up alongside conservative evocations of lost cities that have never really existed (Yeats’ version of Byzantium for one), two aspects Calvino identified as cities of “desire and memory”. Today, we largely deal with the cities we actually possess (or possess us) but the great fictional cities have not disappeared. Rather they are no longer restricted to books or film but seep out into reality. We have modernist and post-modern architecture (and especially sub-genres such as blobism and retrofuturism, which seem to have their precedents more in science fiction than classical design. The more adventurous speculative planners envisage walking cities, underwater settlements and space colonies that seem outlandish but may one day be achievable. In the present, we can experience ever-expanding virtual worlds in which we can build and interact with entire cities and populations from a God’s-eye view, with even the metaverse of the internet as arguably a new form of urban sprawl.

Perhaps the only way of really seeing a city is to consider the multitude of perspectives it’s population brings to it as well as movement, character and life. The modern metropolis, neatly planned though it may well be, is as chaotic as William S. Burroughs’ Interzone (itself deriving from Apollinaire’s multi-faceted depiction of Paris, ‘Zone’). Can we every really know a city then given that our viewpoint is so personal and a city so vast, fragmentary and protean? Add to this the constantly evolving nature of where we live, as Calvino pointed out, “sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves.” Psychogeography from Walter Benjamin to Iain Sinclair demonstrates the many layers that constitute a place beyond geography or mere stone and glass. In recording and editing our own view of a city, however real it is, are we producing a fictionalised version, warped by our preferences and prejudices, what we choose to include and leave out? Are Joyce’s Dublin, Dickens’ London or Döblin’s Berlin not just fiction too alongside the more obvious and fantastical examples of Bulgakov’s Moscow, Kafka’s Prague and Schulz’ Drohobych? Do we not, by the way we perceive and the influence we have on them, create the cities we live in? Imaginary cities need not necessarily be invented then. We already inhabit them.


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His critical study of the works of Jack Kerouac will be published by Reaktion Books in 2013. Photo courtesy of Nic McGuffog.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 9th, 2012.