The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with P. D. Smith


City A Guidebook for the Urban Age is the fascinating new book by British writer and reviewer by Peter D. Smith. Published by Bloomsbury, it is a wonderfully meandering collection of essays on cultural history of the world’s cities and an exploration of architecture and urban life from the earliest cities in Mesopotamia to the future dystopias of The Sleeper Awakes and Blade Runner.

I first came across Peter via his reviews for The Guardian newspaper and his lively Twitter feed which, if you are interested, provides the curious with steady stream links about books, history, science and architecture of the kind one might expect from another cultural magpie, William GibsonCity was still a work in progress at that point and having followed it’s development over the past couple of years, I was glad to finally have the opportunity to read it last month. It didn’t disappoint.

Peter and I talked by email…

When did you first become interested in writing?

As a child I was always writing stories, usually fantasy or science fiction. When I was about thirteen we had to write a story for school during the summer holiday. Mine was a space opera about bug-eyed aliens on a distant world. By the end of the holidays I had filled a whole exercise book and even designed a cover for it. I doubt my poor teacher read it all. But I got top marks for effort at least.Afterwards the other kids in my class started reading it and passing it around. Then this boy from another class got hold of it. He had close-cropped hair and wore Doc Martens boots. Weedy bookworms like me generally tried to keep out of his way, but one day he stopped me outside the school gates. I thought he was going to hit me. Instead he started talking about my story. He liked it! I was astonished and I’ve never forgotten that moment. It taught me something about writing and its ability to connect with people.

Your previous books are about superweapons and Albert Einstein. Why did you decide to write a book about cities?

My doctorate was about scientific ideas in German literature, from Goethe to Brecht. The biography of Einstein and the cultural history of doomsday weapons grew directly out of my interest in the way science and culture influence each other. But for my next book I wanted to do something a bit different, from the point of view of both subject and style. I like subjects that cross boundaries and, right from the start, I loved the idea of writing a history of cities. It allowed me to explore everything from the technology of cities to the invention of writing and theatre. It also gave me the opportunity to experiment with different narrative structures. The vast scale of the subject meant it was impossible to explore in a straightforward narrative. Eventually I decided to write it as a guidebook to an imaginary Everycity. Of course, this brought its own challenges, but it was also fun. Most importantly, it made the whole project – which is in a sense a survey of civilisation – manageable as well as opening up the idea of the city, both as an idea and as a physical reality.

Is learning more about the subject you’re interested in part of the impulse for your writing?

Absolutely. I love researching a new idea. Writing a book is a bit like juggling with different bits of information, ideas, places, and characters. You have to keep them all up in the air, then gradually bring them down to the ground in some kind of order. It’s always an immense challenge and sometimes you feel you’re not up to it. But it’s a great thrill when you find something new – an idea, a fact, a juxtaposition. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Which books most influenced your thinking about cities?

Lewis Mumford’s The City in History was one of the books that inspired me initially. It’s an immensely impressive survey. Similarly impressive in both scale and erudition is Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilisation. The sheer imaginative range of Geoff Manaugh’s writing on architecture and urbanism on BLDGBLOG is also a constant source of inspiration. And, of course, Italo Calvino’s wonderful Invisible Cities was always there in the background. It’s such an evocative piece of writing about cities and the urban experience.

Why do you think there has been renewed interest in urban living in recent years?

In the US, the 2011 census showed that more young people are choosing to live in cities. For the first time in a century, big cities in America are growing at a faster rate than the suburbs. That’s happening elsewhere too. Perhaps this is because, after the recession, people are less inclined, or able, to buy homes and prefer to rent instead. Or it could be that a new, wired generation has rediscovered the joys of urban life: of living somewhere with public transport, where you can experience diverse cultures and lifestyles, and where you can tap into the creative buzz of city life. In the developing world cities are also growing at an unprecedented rate, morphing into megacities of 20 or even 30 million people. They are the largest artificial structures ever built. People are drawn to them as they have always been – to find work, education, health care, or to escape the confined world of the village. As the medieval German saying goes: Stadtluft macht frei – city air sets you free.

The book covers a lot of different topics, but the idea of ‘the city’ is a vast, open-ended subject. Were there things you were sorry to leave out?

Yes, certainly. There were many topics that had to be dropped. They included urban myths, street painters, and secret cities, like the ones built during the cold war. Even without these, the first draft was too long and more material had to be cut. But I’m very happy with the finished text. Sometimes in a book like this, less is more.

One of the more sobering part of the book addresses climate change. But you see cities as part of the solution. Why is that?

The population of the world is rising inexorably and cities are growing larger. We need to reduce the ecological footprint of our cities. This can be done with good planning and the use of cutting-edge technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cities can be green: they can generate their own energy, they can provide bicycle lanes and efficient public transport, they can even grow some of their food in rooftop greenhouses. Concentrating people in cities is a highly efficient way of supplying large numbers of people with clean water, healthcare and energy. By contrast, suburban living, where everyone drives cars and lives in detachedhouses, is wasteful of scarce resources and is unsustainable as a model for the world as a whole. Although New Yorkers produce many times more greenhouse gasses than those who live in Mumbai, New Yorkers are responsible for only a third of the carbon dioxide of the typical American. City living can certainly be part of the solution to the environmental challenges of the future.

Has new technology changed how we live in cities?

Yes, new technologies are always changing the shape of cities. Think of the automobile. The internal combustion engine has had a huge impact on cities and how we live in them, as did railways and subways. In the future, cities will be more aware of their inhabitants. Surveillance technologies and electronic chips and sensors will pervade the structures and spaces of the city. Buildings and streets will respond to your presence, automatically adjusting things like air temperature and lighting. But no matter how advanced our technology becomes, cities will still have to satisfy the same kind of demands that city dwellers have had for millennia. We are social animals and our greatest cities will always be dynamic centres of work, culture, entertainment, and shopping.

Why do you think Blade Runner’s dystopian portrayal of Los Angeles has become the prevalent cinematic vision of the city of the future? 

It’s true – in modern fiction and film, future cities are usually depicted as dystopias. Blade Runner – one of my favourite films – draws on a rich fictional tradition, including HG Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But this has not always been the case. In the Renaissance, dreaming up ideal cities seems to have been something of a philosophical game among intellectuals and artists. They wanted to reform society and they believed people could be improved by creating perfect cities. The quest for ideal cities continued among architects and city planners into the twentieth century. But writers and filmmakers became more pessimistic about the urban future. Today these dystopian visions have become something of a cliché. People are no longer fleeing the city as they were in the second half of the twentieth century. Maybe the time is ripe for a new idealism about the urban future. As Calvino said, ‘With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed…’.

Do listen to music while you write? What did you listen to writing City?

Yes, I do usually listen to music, both while reading and writing. If I’m writing non-fiction it tends to be classical music, such as Mozart or Bach, especially the cello suites played by Paul Tortelier, which I really love. But it depends on my mood. Sometimes I’ll choose something by Michael Nyman, Keith Jarrett or Brian Eno’s Apollo soundtrack, which is one of my favourites. If I’m writing fiction then it can be anything from Radiohead or Bjork, to Pink Floyd or Talking Heads.

What books have you read recently?

Fiction: Balzac’s Old Man Goriot, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, and Sam Thompson’s Communion Town. Non-fiction: Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger, Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune, and Man Ray’s Self-Portrait.

Do you have a favourite book?

Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan. Gormenghast is such a powerful imaginary architectural space – a kind of Gothic megastructure. It’s a remarkable creation.

What are you working on right now?

A new non-fiction book about the city of crime. It’s still in its early stages but I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s a wonderful excuse to watch film noir and to read lots of great crime fiction.

Are you concerned about the future of books and book reviews?

Not really. The world of publishing – both of books and newspapers – is certainly changing. I’m writing this on my new iPad which I’ve bought mostly in order to be able to read e-books. I’ve run out of shelf space in my house, so I’m going to expand my library into the digital realm. I’ll always love paper books, just because that’s the technology I’ve grown up with. But a new generation will grow up using e-readers and they’ll see (and read) things differently. I think people will always want to read book reviews in newspapers, whether they are on paper or online. But now book lovers also read and write book blogs and they want to discuss what they’re reading on Twitter. Once if your book didn’t get reviewed in the press that was probably the end of the story. Now a book can become a bestseller because enough people rave about it online. Clearly there are major challenges facing publishers, especially regarding piracy and the pricing of books in an age when many people seem to think they should be free. There’s no doubt it’s a tough time to be making a living as a writer! Plus ça change…

Thanks Peter!

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