I read most of this book in Brisbane, where I live, with detours to Canberra, which is still the ultimate imaginary city. Burley-Griffin’s dream remains half-realised and curiously underpopulated, the Federal centre as ghost town. Perhaps that makes it the perfect stage for a national politics that becomes increasingly absurd and fantastical, with dystopian detention sites, politicians who don’t know what nationality they are, and a half-hearted grasp at best on what the digital future bodes for us all. Dreams may take us anywhere, but they are dreamt on real ground – the places we sit, stand, sleep, write, and speak – and, when dawn comes, dreamers’ decisions become actions with consequences. It matters where you dream, and it matters where you read.
Darran Anderson’s book is a grand literary tour of urban environments that never were: visions from movies, screeds by utopian cranks, grand plans from dictatorial regimes. It covers a spectrum of imagination from citadels of myth to more manageable fantasies of the kind you’d find in Walt Disney’s EPCOT centre, and links all these dreams to the reality of urban life as we experience it in the early twenty-first century. He is interested in the imaginary cities of his book’s title, but also those real, long-gone places which are only “retained perfect and vast in myth and memory.”
While the book itself is entirely without illustrations, it is complemented by an endless social media stream of images from video games, sci-fi, art and design, futurism and historic archives, curated by Anderson under the Twitter handle @oniropolis. Imaginary Cities, understood as the iceberg tip of a vast and ongoing online project, can feel like a Wikipedia deep dive, tab after endless tab clicking open in your browser: in a single sentence, the image of a glowing streetlight will take Anderson from Narnia to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Jekyll, then the surrealism of Magritte. Another paragraph will bounce from Nietzsche to JG Ballard via Marco Polo without pause, and later Perugino’s Temptation of St Anthony will be described as having “a cityscape that extends off into the distance like a marble Tron.”
Living with this book – at almost six hundred pages, you’ll be living with it for a while – leads you to look at the space around you through Anderson’s lenses. He leaves you struck by the weirdness of commonplace streets, the ways in which imaginary cities are always present. It’s not just the fact that even Brisbane has its own history of weirdos and wanderers (they include Thomas Pennington Lucas, who wrote 1894’s dystopian/utopian sci-fi The Curse and Its Cure but is now remembered for the pawpaw ointment still sold under his name today). In 2017, the imaginary city is also present in the way Brisbane serves as the tax-break Hollywood stand-in for all manner of blockbusters: Queensland’s capital happy, for a fee, to veil itself as Los Angeles when the Rock has an earthquake to deal with, or to put on a coat of yellow cabs and play at New York when Thor and Doctor Strange come to town.
Anderson invites you to acknowledge the narrowness of the gap, in any city, between dream and reality. He points out that the murderous Japanese movement Aum Shinrikyo, founded in a Tokyo bedsit, drew not just on religious texts and conspiracy theories, but also Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy – sci-fi novels that served as inspiration for Star Wars. He reminds us that Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia, with its public monitors of leisure time, its disapproval of idleness and “foolish and mischievous games” is not so far from the age of Fitbit, health metrics, and public laments over video gaming.
If you think of Imaginary Cities as a gazetteer, an eccentric and imperfect guide to the territory past and present, it becomes a useful tool for those of us who wish to stand, pause, and ask, “But why do we have to live this way?”
Against Smart City mantras, the surveillance state, real estate developer mania, punitive rents and the smashed-avo fantasy that millennials have brought their housing crisis on themselves through the sin of brunching, Anderson shows us that the future of cities can always be written differently, and that the futures intended for us by yesterday’s leaders have often fallen apart – thankfully.
A Northern Irish writer, he is mindful to point out the ways in which imperial dominion imposes itself on the landscape – “to chart and to collect is to attempt to control and to control is to doubt and fear” – in ways that resonate with Australian experience. Yet against Australia as ongoing colonial enterprise, or set-dressing for Hollywood imaginings, we might set some alternatives specific to the Lucky Country.
There are the science-fiction elements of Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light, where an Indigenous-led Australian republic finds itself wrestling again with colonial challenges as it settles newly risen islands with their own Indigenous “plant people”. In visual art, we might turn to Frontier Imaginaries, a 2016 joint exhibition by Queensland University of Technology and Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, which challenged and rethought Australia's colonial and postcolonial encounters across history. The show included a work by Indigenous artist Ryan Presley which transposed the colonial myth of George and the Dragon to the world of apocalyptic high finance, with the battle taking place against a background of skyscrapers and 9/11. Like Imaginary Cities, Presley’s art captures the slim distance between today’s towers of commerce and the European empires’ old towers of faith.
At the same exhibition was anthropologist Beth Povinelli’s ‘A Symphony of Liberalism’, a timeline of colonial past, present, and future that the audience could add to with Sharpies. Povinelli, who has worked as an advocate with Aboriginal communities and used her research to scrutinise the impact of the settler state, argues that:
a new interdisciplinary literacy is the only hope for finding a way to square our current arrangement of life with the continuation of human and planetary life as such. Scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, politicians, political theorists, historians, writers, and artists must gather their wisdom, develop a level of mutual literacy, and cross-pollinate their severed lineages.
This “new literacy” applies to the ways we read and write a city too, and Imaginary Cities has its part to play in this. As more and more humans gather together in metropolises worldwide, as mining wanes in Australia and farming automates and cities glut the cool of the Aussie coast, working out a way for us to ‘do cities well’ becomes all the more urgent.
Artists like Van Neerven, Povinelli, and Presley offer new ways of imagining the world to come; institutions, too, are experimenting with novel methodologies that bring together communities, experts, and public bodies to solve social problems in equitable ways. The University of Western Sydney’s Invisible City uses digital mapping to geolocate emotional responses, making manifest the feelings and personal lives of young people in the sprawl. In Perth, the architect-led Henry Project explores co-living and co-ownership options with existing housing stock, recognising that accommodation is not just about quality of buildings, it’s about quality of community. These specifically Australian projects give the broad brush of an account like Anderson's serious local bite. To paint a picture of global urbanism gives context but not purchase on the levers of change. Australia barely features in Imaginary Cities, but this country does not lack for homegrown urban visions.
In Brisbane’s West End, currently undergoing gentrification against community protest, improvisational comedy troupe Big Fork Theatre have offered satirical walking tours under the moniker of the “Edenglassie Historical Society” – borrowing a former name for Queensland's state capital. Video games like Brett Leavy’s Virtual Meanjin also explore creative and immersive ways to question the past and present of our cities; Leavy’s game allows players to guide an Aboriginal character through the precolonial Brisbane of 300 years past, supplementing written and oral history with a simulated, self-directed journey across the land. Such playful experiences revive elements of the urban and pre-urban past, informing our perspective as 21st-century cities continue to change and grow.
Of course, even the most benign commentary on urban living merits critique. As thoughtful about the consequences of utopianism as he is eager to challenge the status quo, at one point Anderson ruefully reminds us: "You begin with the desire to free the occupant and you might well end with the monastic cell.” One of the darker routes out of our present situation is the one where, for the chosen few, dystopia feels fine because it has organic grocers, Parking Day festivals, and bike lanes. Perhaps that’s why there’s little polemic to Imaginary Cities, a certain wariness of vision and mission, even as Anderson is entranced by the designs and dogma of others.
He shows us not just artists’ impressions or filmmakers’ fantasies, but also the bitter truth of concentration camps, the gulag, secret cities of the Cold War and offshore detention sites: the anti-cities designed to control or destroy, dark mirrors of the places where we come together, share and collide, make new and messy ways of life.
"One dystopia replaces another in space and memory, and we forget the reasons change was originally required,” he writes, and: "When you invent the cargo plane, you invent the cargo cult. The future not only has side-effects, it is side-effects.”
Still, Imaginary Cities offers us a broad sense of the territory we need to understand: “All city planning requires a continual rebalancing of powers between the individual, the elite, and collective.” City visions can belong to the public as much as urban planners or architects; they can be works of art as much as infrastructure projects or social policy.
Against these glimmers of hope, set this vision: cities of unaffordable housing, ineffective public transport, nightlife-killing lockout laws neatly zoned to exempt casinos and pander to the millionaires. This is the world in which we read Imaginary Cities.
Anderson could trigger a real change in how we dream urban living, or he might just be court jester to the age of late capitalism. Wary of posing its own template for the future, more catalogue than manifesto, this book would serve equally as fuel for the revolutionary, or entertainment for those comfortably tickled by the thought of imagining a life less bland.
We readers will decide, by what we choose do with this book. “For all our reason and revolutions,” Anderson writes, “we still think in myths.” His book is a comprehensive chronicle of the mythic city in all its incarnations and aspects. It could be an unparalleled tool for reimagining our urban future.
The question is, what do we do upon the land where we find ourselves? And where do we dream ourselves next?
Matt Finch writes and creates fun things for people to do in institutions and public spaces. He is the writer of the newsletter Marvellous, Electrical.