Improbable cities \ Rodrigo Cardoso

Improbable cities
Rodrigo Cardoso
No report about cities is complete and plausible: it will overlook as much about the city it refers to as say a lot about particular aspects that belong to many other cities. Reports about inexistent cities aggravate this condition, as they describe things that, by not being there, are a bit everywhere. Building on this failure as a starting point, three illustrations, three futures in the shape of a city are proposed here. None is very credible, of course, because cities are never told through a single story; these reports are rather a glimpse into some unresolved loose ends: they describe absurd futures in order to illustrate things that we can lose and might be missed (or can simply change their nature until they become unrecognisable): freedom (and abuse), place (and erasure) and history (and power). However, since cities will do the opposite of what we tell them, these three could be called improbable cities.

Freedom. Assangia, transparent city
Don’t think. If you have to think, don’t speak. If you have to speak, don’t write. If you have to write, don’t sign. If you do all of that, don’t be surprised.”   
Joke told in the former Soviet bloc.
Anyone wishing to see Assangia, the transparent city, should arrive very early, when the morning light is clear and, say those who saw her, the magnificent crystal domes and glass walls that built the city glitter the most. Nothing is left today of that old splendour: Assangia is buried under what seem to be innumerable records, archives, artefacts recounting every minute of her and her inhabitants’ history. But what disappoints the anxious visitor means luck (or boredom) for the archaeologists digging up the city: there is no mystery, all is registered, and the death of Assangia could be reconstituted as follows.
Some citizens deliberated one day that it was illegitimate to keep secrets in Assangia. Since omission, or the opportunity for omission, was unwarrantable in absolute, every gesture and step of the governance in the city became immediately exposed, regardless of consent or prior contextualisation. Lacking the essential tools of reconsideration, diplomacy, negotiation and compromise, soon the political power declared itself unable to govern. In response, the same citizens deliberated that, in any case, it was illegitimate for them to be governed.
This set off a period of arbitrary management and fierce persecution of the notion of privacy, always mistaken for secretiveness and omission. Soon it was decided (tacitly since there was no government) that the heavy stone walls of Assangia’s buildings were a temptation for secrecy. Therefore, after a huge investment, the city was entirely demolished and rebuilt in glass and transparent materials. Assangia was now an open book, but every afternoon the western sun burned. A collection and registration service was created so that every commercial transaction, private conversation, furtive encounter and declaration of love could be thoroughly put on record, advertised for thirty days in a public area (which made no sense because everywhere was a public area) and then archived. As in the exorbitant map of another empire, the amount of information in material archive ended up matching the actual amount of communication, in any form, that occurred or had ever occurred in Assangia.
Rumours in neighbouring towns had it that Assangia was a living gossip magazine. Historians suggested a transparent iron curtain. There was certainly a vision of the kind, but the apparent extinction of power structures made it impossible to know where it came from. The public sphere of the city stopped being based on mutual tolerance to be forced to immediate approval, through self-censorship and political correctness, and without the notion of privacy, the idea of individuality was quickly eroded. Assangia’s inhabitants led two lives: one was oral and public, immediately scrutinised, and the other was mental, which they kept to themselves. If they would have spoken, Assangians would have praised their highly enhanced imaginative powers. But all human relations quickly ceased, and silence and immobility ruled. Before long, Assangia died, buried under tons of archives.      

Place. ___________, urbanalised city
Even in Kyoto / Hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Kyoto” 
Matsuo Basho
Mr G. lived in __________. Well, he lived there but really didn’t because, as Mr G. would often notice, it felt like his city was gradually disappearing before his eyes, and was being replaced by an unfamiliar landscape, vague and generic, that looked like everything but a city.
Mr G. was convinced he suffered from some kind of mental problem that led him to confuse memory with the observation of reality. Whatever he forgot about _________ truly ceased to exist in his real experience. In other words, Mr G. could see what he remembered and stopped seeing what he forgot. If he didn’t remember the colour of his usual coffee shop table, it would seem transparent when he returned; if he didn’t remember any specific path, building or detail in the city, it would literally disappear from the map. The real city would only resist while it still had a correspondent imprint within his memory.
This turned Mr G. into a very nostalgic person, because the city he remembered was really very beautiful - and besides it was home. But there were things that he would inevitably forget and he knew he would not see them again. At least that was his interpretation: the difference between subject (himself and his memories) and object (the city and its reality) was erased inside his mind.
Such an effort could not last forever, and one day reality just overtook him. Mr G. left home and found himself immersed in a generic landscape of anonymous buildings, grey streets and indistinguishable masses of people. That’s where he lived after all, and then it struck him - his real problem was attention deficit. The space around him was so vague and indifferent that it didn’t even produce enough excitation for Mr G.’s senses to apprehend it. And since the brain abhors a vacuum, this context was immediately replaced by the much richer memory of __________. When the mental strain became too much, Mr G.’s mind apparently lowered the bar, and he finally understood that __________ was in its entirety a memory from his past, and city longed for but already gone – what was it called anyway? – whose identity kept flowing from his memory at a slower pace than it had actually flowed from the face of the earth.

History. ANODYNE, subverted city
There were no street names in ANODYNE. There were also no monuments, preserved historical buildings or squares. The city’s buildings and public spaces seemed to have no intentionality, only serving their strict functions. In contrast with this austere scenary, ANODYNE was served by an extraordinary infrastructure. Roads, tunnels, railways and even cables, ducts and pipes justified themselves and proudly appeared in broad daylight, extremely well planned, designed and kept.
This happened because in that city, worn out as many others by decades of disagreement and conflict, people followed this reasoning: if historical narratives are the source of different interpretations, interpretations are the source of ideologies and ideologies are the source of conflicts, then it makes sense to erase, to the possible extent, the city’s memory and history, so that they can stop constraining people’s behaviour, thus stopping that tragic chain of events. The process of dismantling ANODYNE’s history started there, together with the erasure of all that could suggest ideological visions or ambiguous memories. Even the name of the city had to be written in capital Times New Roman, to avoid any suggestion of intentionality in the font design.
Obviously, this led to a redefinition of the focus of public policies, the purpose of investments and the imagination of ANODYNE’s architects. Hence the emphasis on infrastructure, which, as we know, has no ideology: it is democratic, equitable and immune to interpretation conflicts. It is what it is and means the same to everyone. Who would think of ‘interpreting’ the colour of a pipe or the asphalt of a road?
But emptying out meanings in the city retrospectively does not avoid the creation of new meanings that cling insidiously wherever they find an opportunity. When new lifestyles are stabilised, new practices are materialised, based on the new and specific urban conditions. And soon infrastructures acquired the ambiguous role that seemed impossible. Intentionality does not simply emerge, it is offered to spaces and objects, and, just like the squares and monuments of ANODYNE, also the ideologically empty infrastructure could soon be personalised, privatised, specialised and used as a source of power.
To enjoy this new segregationist potential was too big a temptation. Now used as a form of control, transport networks started to be managed in real-time to determine the accessibility of certain populations to certain places: the system allowed for temporary changes to define the amount of freedom that people had to move freely around the city. Sometimes, entire neighbourhoods were kept adrift from mobility for indeterminate periods and timetables were changed to impose a curfew to specific groups. This worked for other networks, from the control of water supply to the availability of wireless communication, as long as it served the exercise of power and the definition of rules. In response, ideological conflict returned, now based on the negotiation of access and the social significance of infrastructure. Street protest was achieved through cybercrime and the sabotage of the digital systems controlling infrastructure.
The people of ANODYNE failed to see several issues: first, friction, conflict and their syntheses are a creative force that makes cities resist; second, they are also factors of aggregation and belonging; third, ambiguous meanings and symbols of power can be attributed to any material space: like parasites, they will look for their next host and use its potential. In the end, ANODYNE was still a city of conflict, but now it had also lost the memory of how to reconcile it.
Images 1 and 2 from author. Image 3:
Rodrigo Cardoso is a PhD candidate at the Bartlett School of Planning in London (FCT doctoral grant), where he is preparing a thesis about metropolisation processes in European second-tier cities, supervised by Professor Sir Peter Hall. Between 2002 and 2011 he worked as an architect in a variety of projects in Portugal. He has an architecture degree from FAUP (Porto, 2001) and a Masters degree from the Metropolis Program at UPC (Barcelona, 2009).