Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
An upcoming book shows that the architecture of fantasy isn't so far from reality.
Writer Darran Anderson stumbled upon the idea for the book he's writing the way many of us find great ideas: through drunken conversation. It was a few years back, when he was living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Over drinks one day, Anderson started talking to a Finnish architect about their mutual love for architect Antoni Gaudi and the city of Barcelona.
"It suddenly occurred to me, in a city [Phnom Penh] that had been completely emptied within living memory, seen utopias and dystopias, and where the [Tonle Sap] river runs backwards ... the cities we live in are every bit as fascinating as the cities we imagine," Anderson explains in an email.
He started working on Imaginary Cities—a book about how fictional cities and fantastic architectural ideas seep into the real-life cities we live in.
To start his research, Anderson began sifting through piles and piles of books. He found fascinating literature, from works on obscure architectural "-isms," and blueprints to mythical structures that featured in pulp-fiction novels.
There was one thing they all had in common: The weird and wonderful images were otherworldly, but still strangely recognizable, he says.
In order to share the treasures he was uncovering, Anderson started tweeting the images out, name-checking often-overlooked designers, architects, and texts. He also started getting feedback; fans and wonks shared their own favorites, giving him new nuggets of material to track down for the book. The Imaginary Cities handle, @Oniropolis, has gained a significant following for something that started only a year ago.
Hugo Gernsback's 'Automobile of 1973' (Science & Invention, 1923) pic.twitter.com/PMzkfiOzzD— Imaginary Cities (@Oniropolis) October 1, 2014
If you're interested in visionary architecture, track down everything by Brodsky & Utkin pic.twitter.com/uPGNvlweea— Imaginary Cities (@Oniropolis) September 30, 2014
Betelgeuse Walking Cities (1944) by Frank R. Paul pic.twitter.com/9EkKXyZ6ye— Imaginary Cities (@Oniropolis) September 28, 2014
Here are highlights of Anderson's conversation with CityLab about how his ongoing Twitter conversations have changed the course of his research and writing for the forthcoming Imaginary Cities.
How have you been using the Twitter handle so far?
At its best, it's been great for connecting with interesting people I'd have very little opportunity to cross paths with in real life. It's no great revelation, but being able to transcend geographical distance online is a marvel. It's fitting as the book begins with Marco Polo's voyages around the world—voyages we can recreate electronically to an extent. Being able to follow links and become lost in this babel of information is as liberating as it is maddening. You find things while losing yourself.
What are the limitations you have encountered?
There's nothing online that comes remotely close to actually going to the places you're writing about—which I've tried to do as much as humanly possible in recent years. I always get suspicious of cyber-evangelists hailing supposed brave new worlds when really it's just another arena for human interaction—same as it ever was, just more so.
While it's amazing to have information that far surpasses the Library of Alexandria online—a dream that's haunted writers for centuries— in terms of interacting, there's nothing online that wasn't foreseen and described by Aristophanes or Plato thousands of years ago. You talk to people who restore your faith in humanity and then seconds later you talk to foul-tempered, frothing pedants who insist that a building you posted made entirely out of clouds couldn't possibly be built and demand you defend imaginary buildings you haven't designed. The mediums change but the humans remain, for better and worse.
I've been trying, with everything I write, to question received opinion. Twitter helps with that. Sometimes you'll get a view that shifts your perspective, making you see something afresh. Sometimes it brings you back to reality—face-first, makeshift wings flapping, into the sea.
Has it changed the course of the book you are writing?
It's happening all the time, whether consciously or unconsciously ... online or offline. I think the central themes I'm looking at haven't changed much though, if at all, but the details have. I think, again, it's because the old mediums still retain a lot of power, which is not a trendy point of view, but one I hold to. The substance still comes from books and actual three-dimensional experience but a lot of the decoration comes from the internet.
What are you hoping to achieve through the book and through the Twitter handle?
If there's anything I'd like to achieve with the book (aside from escaping years of crushing penury), it's to remind the reader and myself that the cities we live in need not have been as they are. In fact, they aren't as they are. There's a strange desperate hope in realizing how much of life is fiction. Writing about it is like trying to wriggle out of quicksand—but I can't think of a better plan for the time being.
Were you surprised by the following you have gained on Twitter?
The Twitter following is great and inspiring, but given the amount of people who live in cities it has some way to go. Encouraging, though.