Cities built not out of steel and concrete but ideas
All cities are alike, yet the same city can mean different things to different people. Each citizen sees it in a different way; each visitor brings with him/her a fresh perspective; each time we revisit a city, we see it in a new light. This diversity of thoughts about one place lies at the heart of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book that tells the story of the meeting between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, where the former describes to the curious emperor the cities that he has seen during his voyages. Like most of Calvino’s writing, its core message can elude the reader even after several visitations to the novel.
At some point, though, you realize that Calvino is not talking about cities at all, not in the way we perceive them. Calvino’s cities are made not of steel and concrete but of ideas. They are living entities in the sense that they reveal how the interplay of ethics, depravity, generosity and greed transforms their own countenance. Each city — caught in an “unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume” — then, represents a thought experiment; it is part of a larger “tracery of a pattern” that could help the city “escape the termites’ gnawing.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and the prolonged lockdowns that were enforced to contain it pose a similar question about the dynamics and morality of future, urban life. Our plagued cities are increasingly resembling Calvino’s Procopia, a city so crowded that the crush of bodies hides its façade, and even the sky, or — perhaps more aptly — Laudomia, where the land of “the living becomes crowded and expand[s]...” even as “the expanse of tombs increases beyond the walls.” Yet, even in cities marked by such degeneration, there remain possibilities from which, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan, a city of dreams can be formed.
Where, then, can we find the “tracery of a pattern” that will help us evade the termites? Perhaps it is in the idea of the home. Homes, unlike cities, are not all alike. A home — be it in the city or in the village — is about identity and self-definition; it is a spatial expression of belonging. There is another essential difference. Our cities privilege privacy and gated communities, opening up a chasm between us and them, creating alienation which, according to Marco Polo, means that their “walls and towers [are] destined to crumble”. In villages, however, community networks form the basis of life and living, much like Calvino’s Ersilia, where relationships nurture life, and “inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of [their] houses” to mark connections, be it for trade or fellowship. So that even when the walls come crumbling down and homes cease to exist, the “labyrinth of taut strings” would survive.
The pandemic may have magnified physical distance between people, but can the city of the future not be built on connections of empathy?