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Transforming Cities

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Metroplex, the Transformer City

Metroplex, the Transformer City

Cities, on the surface at least, seem stable. The imposing physical materiality of concrete, steel and glass projects an endurance that is ‘built to last‘. Yet decades of urban critique have elucidated the fluidity of cities. From Walter Benjamin’s Arcades, through Cedric Price’s Fun Palace to Nigel Coates’ Ecstacity, people have been envisioning cities that are mobile, mutable and malleable. These concepts of literature, art and architecture articulate cities that are far from static; they are fluid assemblages that wax and wane in response to cultural representations, economic global processes and social practices. And one only has to take a short walk through seemingly any city today before they encounter some construction or development of some kind. This affirms that the urban landscape is constantly changing in response to development pressures, policy tweaks and financial speculation. The ‘stability’ of cities is hence only an illusion; there is far more than meets the eye…

Taking all this into account (and also in light of the release of Darran Anderson’s new book, Imaginary Cities, which I have yet to fully digest, but so far is excellent), I thought I’d return to my long-dormant, ‘Visualising Cities‘ theme of this blog, with a focus on Transforming Cities (having got the idea sorting through some of the ‘junk’ at my parents’ house and coming across some old G1 Transformer toys). Regular readers of the blog (Hi Mum!) will no doubt be aware of my infatuation with the original Transformers, and one of my favourite toy was Trypticon, a dinosaur robot that became a city. It was one of the first of the ‘city’ robots, with the Autobot rival being Metroplex (and they often fought, bringing a different twist to the idea of city competitiveness). I also had Scorponok, a Decepticon Transformer who turned from a robot, into a scorpion, and into a city. Scorponok was a joy to transform – the twisting of the claws to form turrets and the extension of the tail to form a ramp was full of haptic pleasures (perhaps only bettered by popping jumbo bubble wrap). Scorponok’s Autobot rival was Fortress Maximus (the two of them also battled it out once or twice), the toy of which I was never lucky enough to see let alone play with (although I do remember hearing it was the largest Transformer toy ever made, even bigger than Unicron).

In all four of these cases, by far the most interesting form for the robot to be in was the city. When playing, the zenith of any ‘battle’ was always transforming the city into its other state (be that a dinosaur, scorpion or robot). In their city mode, they each had they’re own compartmentalised, yet linked singularities. A gun turret there, a ramp here, a hideout over there; the city was a multiple of linked functions, held together by a potentiality of becoming a totality. So much like ‘everyday’ cities, they were a series of encounters, held together under the premise of something ‘larger’ but unexperienced – Waschmuth (2014: 79) articulates this urban theoretical idea when he states; “‘the city’ is a concept that mediates the everyday experience of urbanization processes that are too complex for us to directly perceive” (and I guess Transformers wouldn’t have the sensorial capacity to directly perceive the city as a totality either…).

Then came the act of transformation; it made the whole city very fluid indeed. It folded the city on top of itself, crumpled the urban form in a very Deleuzian manner. It startled the inhabitants, sent them scampering for cover. Incidentally, this process has been well visualised in those recent Nissan ads (which is why I think I like them so much, the adverts, not the cars…); and Alex Proyas’ brilliant Dark City (1998), which could be viewed as a city constantly in the throngs of transformation from one relational state to another.

Then, once the transformation is ‘complete’, the city takes on a different, more coherent representation (a humanoid robot or animal); it’s gone from a body without organs to very much an organised body. So, when transforming Trypticon or Scorponok into a robot, each part of the city became subsumed by the totality of the other form (I guess you could say that it was ‘memorability’ as image, a decidedly brutalist quality). But put in a less favourable way, the city has lost its relational qualities, it has become a singular form in order to ‘fight’ another one – city branding anyone?

So these wonderful transforming cities took them from a city as assemblage, to the city being intensely fluid, to the city becoming a coherent totality.

Autobot City from Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Also, from the original animated movie, is Autobot City (above). It is attacked early on in the film, leading to the scared Autobot inhabitants to ‘transform’ it into a fortification, attempting to stave off the Decepticon onslaught (although it is ultimately breached by Devastator). Such a transformation was done manually by two Autobots (Arcee – the only ‘female’ robot which smacks a bit of 80s ‘tokenism’ – and Springer) scurrying through the arteries of the city pulling levers, pushing doors and moulding the city into a battleship. The cynic in me sees this as a metaphor for the (overtly male-dominated/female-tokenist) processes of gentrification; the city being incrementally tweaked and changed to be more private, secure, fortified and surveilled. Although I prefer to remember the film fondly…

So, Transformer cities were far more than brilliant toys for little boys. They can be fascinating insights into the conceptual workings of urban theory; although I’m sure I didn’t think that at the time…

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Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

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