Invisible Cities

By nominating particular cities to carry the weight of significance, others are condemned to silence. Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatzqualifies as a text belonging to "The Pioneer Technopolis," but Joyce's Ulyssesis left out for the most part, along with the rest of Dublin. (Joyce doesn't even have a walk-on role in Paris, because he lived there at the wrong time.) Secret cities— Lisbon, Amsterdam, Cairo, Lhasa— have no part to play. The Prague of Rudolf II, where alchemists and cabalists mixed with visionaries and fanatics, is off-limits. Mountebanks and magicians are banished, as Plato banished poets from his republic. There's no room here to experience the city "as a labyrinth of fragmentary signs" (a phrase Hall quotes in relation to the critic Siegfried Kracauer). But without vision, obsessions, derangement, any city will suffer from atrophy of the imagination.

Hall is more comfortable with the "innovative milieu," the moment when geographical and political circumstances favor the sharp-eyed inventor, the entrepreneur. In his interpretation, Silicon Valley becomes a conceptual rather than a geographical city, the forerunner of future "techno-boho" environments and an age in which nobody knows anything except how to log on. We find ourselves on the cusp of a new barbarism, when we will be in danger of forgetting the qualities that made cities worth celebrating: the courage of immigrants who brought transfusions of otherness to settlements where self-satisfaction threatened to be their undoing. Without the street market, the ghetto, and the lowlife quarter, there can be no aspirational dream life.

London calling: Scams and sweetheart deals converted London's derelict Docklands into a virtual-unreality set.
Andrew Shaw/ FSP/ Gamma
London calling: Scams and sweetheart deals converted London's derelict Docklands into a virtual-unreality set.

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Cities in Civilization
By Sir Peter Hall
Pantheon, 1169 pp., $40
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Hall brings his story through to the contemporary world, defined as a "zone of instability" occupied by an underclass of casual laborers, short-termers, review-anything-for-a-dollar bounty hunters. What he is soliciting is the perfect audience for his heroic enterprise: the only citizens with the time and motive to read and evaluate a thousand pages of close-pointed text, the last survivors of Logopolis.

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