The last non-fiction book on the subject of cities that I explored was the very informative Slow Burn City (2016) – this one specifically on London – by British architecture critic Rowan Moore. The Language of Cities (2016, Penguin) picks up similar themes, though it is more global in scope (and shorter in size). It is authored by Deyan Sudjic (born 1952), Director of the Design Museum in London. His other works include The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects and B is for Bauhaus, Y is for YouTube: Designing the Modern World from A to Z .
In six chapters, Sudjic asks the following questions: What is a city? How is it made? How does it change? How is it governed? What idea is it based on? What is the relationship between the crowd and the city? There’s a lot I loved about these discussions. Here are just a few observations:
The city, maintains the author, is humankind’s most complex and extraordinary creation. The city can be defined in different ways: one simple way of making sense of the city is by considering it a wealth-creating machine that can, at the minimum, make the poor not quite as poor as they were. A real city offers its citizens the freedom to be what they want to be. A city is made by its people and the possibilities that it can offer them. A city has a distinctive identity that goes beyond a mere agglomeration of buildings. Climate, topography, architecture and origins all help form this distinctive identity.
A city can originate in different ways. Example, some cities are built upon autocratic foundations, whereby they have a geographic structure that radiates from a centre – the seat of an all-powerful individual (Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo). Some cities are built on manufacturing (Manchester, Detroit). Some may grow out of settlements of refugees fleeing persecution (Tel Aviv). Also, cities can alter their constitution over time depending on political and religious affiliation (Byzantium–Constantinople–Istanbul).
Next, how do we distinguish between the city and not-city…the countryside? Deyan Sudjic points out that:
The possibility of anonymity is one of the most important qualities that differentiates a city from a village. The city at its best allows for difference, and tolerance. To walk into a bar or a store, to rent a room or buy a book or log in to the web without having to account for who you are, or where you have come from, is a precious quality.
(This precious anonymity is under threat with tech giants monitoring our every move at every location. All of the world is turning into a village. The internet, of course, in turn has expanded the very concept of the city by making possible interactions between people who would have not met otherwise in physical space.)
Finally, what makes a city successful? A successful city, according to the author:
is an entity that is continually reconfiguring itself, changing its social structure and meaning, even if its contours don’t look very different. And when it does take on dramatic new forms, the measure of success is the degree to which it maintains its essence.
Check out talks by Deyan Sudjic to learn more: