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The City and the City

February 19, 2013
Cover of The City & The City, by China Mieville

Cover of The City & The City, by China Miéville

The most magical examples of architecture occur, not in real life, but in books and films. Perhaps no other genre exemplifies this better than science fiction, where new worlds and societies are limited only by the author’s imagination and ability to convey the images in his head.

Dune, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and even Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities…when we think about architecture and urban design, we have much to learn from these stories. They are not about technology, after all, but about how we as humans respond to the influences of that technology and the reality it creates.

Which brings me to The City and the City, by China Miéville. In this combination of cultural science fiction and detective noir, two cities share the same physical space while the inhabitants of one city “unsee” those in the other city. Maps of one city show only crosshatched areas where the other city exists. Instead of a two-dimensional border separating the cultures, a matrix of spaces exists in between.  The greatest crime is “breach” or breaking the imposed barriers between them, and an Orwellian secret police force constantly watches for violations.  And yet, these are societal decisions, not geometric or physical parameters. In the two-dimensional lines drawn on the map, Miéville finds room for a third society in between the two visible ones, striving to remain in control of both while safe in its anonymity.

Real life projections tell us that by 2050 there will be 31 cities with over 10 million inhabitants and that over 75% of the earth’s population will reside in urban areas. Intel Senior Engineer and Innovation Strategist, Herman D’Hooge, on teaching sabbatical at the University of  Oregon’s Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts, speculated recently about possible responses to this growth. In his talk D’Hooge, tackled the question of how technical innovation can help cope with the increasing density and demands on our resources. How do we understand the impact of these levels of density on society? How do we avoid social strata becoming increasingly divided as we become more densely packed?

Just as in Miéville’s book, we “unsee” people around us everyday: the panhandlers outside the Safeway asking for a handout as you walk by with a Starbucks and a snack. The homeless man sleeping in the office doorway whom you must step over each morning. The untouchables in India. The unseen legions of rag pickers and night soil gatherers in historic London. We protect ourselves by pretending to be unconscious to the things we cannot solve. By not acknowledging the presence of strangers who approach us, we hide from the problem of increasing urban density.

Miéville and D’Hooge have me wondering: what level of ignorance might we assume and what soaring heights of innovation will we maintain in order to cope with the 9 million new neighbors moving to town?

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