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Architecture Week: Invisible Cities

Illustration by Anna Seibæk Torp-Pedersen

At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passers-by meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, p.147.

Filtering stories on the online design and architectural magazine, Dezeen, by the tag ‘paper’ returns six pages of results. Click through to the earliest entry. It documents a graduate show in which a young designer has shaped an armchair from papier-mâché using pages of the Metro newspaper. One of the more recent results is a story about PaperBricks – a project by a designer living in Eindhoven called WooJai Lee, this time using newspaper to form building blocks that can become tables, benches and shelves. These designs make use of the printed page as a material of construction; attempts to contest the ephemerality of text by making it into something more substantial. As if to say, ‘printed words can be sturdy’. They can be shaped into building blocks. They can support. They can take a person’s weight.

Sometimes, literary architectural spaces can exist in more concrete terms than those made from the material itself. Some fictional lands are navigated and some imagined buildings are used more often than real ones ever are. Successive generations of children and adults alike have been led down – and in some cases have refused to leave – the corridors of J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. The very fact that these places don’t exist makes them all the more enticing – in the mind’s eye they can be perfected. We also interpret our physical environment by means of these imaginative models. We describe certain parts of London as ‘Dickensian’ while others are ‘Orwellian’. The inconvenient reality is that the cities that surround us – and our feelings about them – change. What happens when we submit to the ephemerality of words and ideas? What happens when literature, rather than offering us something definite, proposes a more fluid imagining of the built environment?


I bought my copy of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities one summer a few of years ago from Judd Books – one of the academic bookshops on Marchmont Street. There, the paperbacks sit piled high on large central tables while large art monographs loom from the high shelves overhead. Between visits, a change of stock subtly alters the shop’s configuration. It was an appropriate place to discover Invisible Cities. Calvino’s meditation on the shifting experience and conceptualisation of place is told through a dialogue between Marco Polo and an aging Kublai Khan. Polo recounts his travels to countless cities across Kublai Khan’s sprawling empire ­– from Isuara, the city of a thousand wells, to Baucis, a metropolis built above the clouds – each more improbable than the last. And yet, it transpires that the stories Polo shares with Kublai Khan always refer to one city: Venice.

Whether it is subterranean or sky-scraping, the truth in Marco Polo’s plural interpretations of Venice lies beyond the city’s bricks and mortar. This truth is one based on a myriad of encounters. He demonstrates how the experience of a city is never fixed. Like something floating in the fluid of your eye, the truth shifts when you attempt to focus on it. Marco Polo’s descriptions of Venice cannot all be true – they contradict each other. Maybe this only makes them all the more accurate?

Calvino’s cities expand and contract. They regenerate and decay. The physical stuff of buildings, the texture of the city, becomes immaterially fluid. "You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours”, Polo tells Kublai Khan. These aren’t answers to questions for which we might usually turn to Citymapper. These answers couldn’t be relied upon. They could not be used plot a map. They couldn’t tell you which bus to take or how long you’d be waiting for it. Each description of a city is a thought experiment; the idea of a metropolis that might exist in physical – but also mental and textual – space. As described, they are materially, and so conceptually, mind-bending.

The attempt is not to pinpoint an exact experience of one city, but to demonstrate the multitude of truths that are encompassed within it. Walter Benjamin would realise it when he constructed his mammoth Passagenwerk – an accumulation of snippets, essays and ephemera that T.J. Clark has described as the ‘wreckage of a book that did not get written’. Originally planned as a study of Paris in the nineteenth century, Benjamin’s scope eventually extended to something at once much more fragmentary and inclusive. Rather than chapters, each section is a kind of folder – described as a ‘convolute’.

‘Convolute’ is an appropriate word to have to hand when thinking about Invisible Cities. Calvino’s prose can itself be convoluted; twisting and turning in what seems like an attempt to shake the reader off when they get too close. The structure of Invisible Cities, like Benjamin’s Passagenwerk is also convoluted. Calvino’s novel contains descriptions of fifty-five cities. The book is divided into nine sections. Each section is introduced and concluded with a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Spread across these nine sections are his accounts of cities described by eleven thematic groups. The first and last sections contain twice as many descriptions as sections two through eight. And so on. Many have tried to map this structure. One graphic designer enjoyed puzzling over how you might construct an app menu around it.

James Joyce used a map of Dublin to work out the walking routes and timings while planning Ulysses. Present day Bloomsday celebrations chase through the streets, attempting to transpose Joyce’s textual Dublin back into the physical space of the present-day city. Similarly, downloadable walks enable you to retrace the steps of Virginia Woolf’s characters in Mrs Dalloway across London. Many have variously tried to reconstitute, through more concretely spatial means, all that these famous city books of the twentieth century had previously made unstable. But these texts – by Benjamin, Calvino, Joyce, Woolf and others – all play with the mutability of memory and human experience within the structure of the metropolis. There can be no reconstitution. This is most true of Invisible Cities.

Above, I described Invisible Cities as ‘Calvino’s meditation’ on shifting space. Actually, reading the novel is a somewhat meditative experience in itself. Marco Polo’s tales induce a trance-like state. You begin to wonder if you are visiting Euphemia for the first, second or third time. The feeling is that of being disorientated on a street you can’t convince yourself you don’t know. The further you progress the more you recognise. Gradually you once again begin to doubt yourself until you emerge onto a square you’ve never seen before. Or perhaps you have, just not from this angle?

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