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Conceptualising Fictional Cities

Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, an ecumenopolis with a population of 1 trillion

Technology is reproducing cities very rapidly. Or shall I say producing cities? Not artificial cities, but experiential cities that are pure hyper-reality, a simulacrum space par excellence (to mesh Baurdiallardian and Deleuzian language). Reproducing cities is as easy as driving a car with a camera mounted on top and putting the results online, but virtually producing entirely new cities from scratch requires a certain technology that can interpret the most creative of urban planners/builders; a technology which has only really been available in the last few decades or so. Visual arts technologies are creating architectural masterpieces that we immerse ourselves in, allowing us to exit the desert of the real and enter an avatar-populated hyper-reality which invokes upotian, but often dytopian fantasies of excess, violence, hedonism and inequalities. Film and computer game technological production techniques are at the forefront of this process and our cultural landscape is awash with these hyper-real cities that we can plug into and add to our memories of mental cityscape construction (a notable exception to this is the wonderfully crafted Ecstacity by Nigel Coates which exists on the pages of it’s Guide Book). But given this increase in the variety of destinations, which city is the best one to visit? Liberty City? Caprica? How can we analyse these fictional hyper-real cities, and how can we navigate them to fully comprehend the multiplicities of narratives, read the layers of urban palimpsests and listen to the heteroglossic voices? This post tries to find out….

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Visualising Cities: Part 4 – Ecstacity

During the course of navigating the gargantuan library of literature and visual material on urban life, finding a book which encapsulates the complexity of the urban condition succinctly and concisely is much like searching for some sort of knitting implement in some sort of stack. This is in part due to the inherent paradox that our linear, one dimensional mode of communication, language is woefully inappropriate for conveying the vastness of emotions, experiences, memories, attributes etc that are associated with the modern day city. Hence, it becomes all the more important to embrace books and films that attempt to convey the city in a non-linear way. By stretching the comfort zone of the reader’s or viewer’s capacity to enjoy an uncomplicated narrative, authors or filmmakers can sometimes evoke urban complexity, if even for the briefest of moments before our brains begin the computation process which establishes order and functionality upon such chaotic neuron activity.

That is why, happening across ‘Ecstacity’ was a very exciting moment. This 2003 ‘book’ (the scare quotes will become apparent if you have ever flipped through it’s pages) is part of a wider spectrum of media from the architect slash urban designer Nigel Coates. The premise of the book is to coagulate 7 cities together – London, Bombay, Tokyo, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Cairo – to form a ‘factional’ city called Ecstacity.

Metro Map of Ecstacity (page 140)

However, the book acts a kind of surreal ‘tour guide’ of Ecstacity, pointing out the experiences and emotions connected with its various artifacts and places. The amalgamation of these seven cities is most visually evident in the maps on pages 134-5, and the metro guide (page 140-1 – pictured to the left). Placing the Vatican to the north of Blackfriars station, and the Cairo Museum next to Tokyo station creates a visually representative version of a world city network – collapsing cities from around the world in on themselves and emphasising the fact that many ‘world cities’ have more in common with each other than they do with national neighbours (Taylor, 2004).

More than this though, Ecstacity painstakingly creates an urban environment that is centred around the emotional, experiential and architectural difference that is so absent from many contemporary world cities. Creating and celebrating difference is key kernel of thought in this book; and while it is partly a vehicle of the (sometimes downright) weird architectural urban designs, and some of Nigel Coates’ real-world pieces have been the focus of considerable debate (the Body Works in the old Millennium Dome is one that immediately springs to mind); there is a sense of chaos, complexity and convolution throughout the book which resonates with the urban condition in ways unparalleled by other books, films and other media. The complexity and short-circuiting of urban areas is exemplified in the following quote, part of the section ‘Around the world in Ecstacity’:

“Ethnic places in Ecstacity are full of distraction and scramble the choices on offer. Activities interfere with one another constantly. A single door may connect quite different cultures. It’s the inhabitants of Ecstacity who make sense of it, and not the buildings. Check the Japan Centre on Picadilly, or Babington’s Tea Rooms in the Piazza diSpagna. Go through the right door and they’ll join up” (Coates, 2003: 265).

The mixing of city cultures and styles and reliance on the inhabitants to make sense of them is symptomatic of world cities across the globe. More than this however, Ecstacity’s architectural mantra is inherently ‘networked’ with the city itself, and not isolated from the functioning and operationalisation procedures of the city by what Coates calls ‘pumplanning’:

“For some reason, [twentieth century] architecture felt safe by separating itself from the day-to-day world. ‘Pumplanning’, had reversed all that. Pump up the body, pump up the city. Every act of lobbying counts, whether online or picketing parliament. Pumplanning is Ecstacity’s mechanism that fields the contest between control and everyone’s desire, however different. It regenerates the city in a way that straight planning never by working with what’s literally there” (Coates, 2003: 143).

Following Thomas More, Ebanezer Howard and other utopianists, Coates is purporting a city of calm and overriding tranquility. However, unlike these other utopianists, Coates’ utopia is based on a disjointed, multifarious heteroglossia, but is connected through the collaboration between people, places and buildings. Echoing the concerns that Jane Jacobs (1961) had with utopianists, Coates’ Ecstacity rejects a central planning ethos, instead embracing complexity, difficulties and in many cases, untruths.

This ‘book’ is not without it’s faults, and a reading of it is difficult, disjointed and confusing. But given that these are the prevailing qualities of the contemporary world city, then for me, it is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a theoretical and philosophical grasp of the city.