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Potemkin cities

Daniel Brook examines the cosmopolitan condition of the modern city in his new book A History of Future Cities

What have Shanghai, Bombay, St Petersburg and Dubai got in common? On the face of it, not much, but this book argues convincingly it is that they were all ‘built to look as if they were not where they are’.

That is to say that this is the tale of four cities that have transcended their localities, their nationalities and their eras to emerge on the world’s stage. These cities, Daniel Brook argues, were founded on the promise to build the future and this book is a celebration of that modern condition.

Brook presents a measured analysis and a critical paean to cosmopolitanism, recognising that things are not fated to turn out well. It celebrates the progressive development that urbanity brings, but acknowledges that such advances are not linear nor are they guaranteed. The focus is on several cities (and their peoples) that have been propelled onto the world’s stage − leapfrogging the steady evolution of urban development, often by non-democratic means.

It examines the beneficial outcomes as well as some of the unintended consequences of that radicalising forward movement. There are a considerable number of desperate authors hinting at the beneficent nature of benign dictatorship: Jacques, Hawksley, Sixsmith, etc, but this author seems to be much more humanistic than they.

The book opens with the amazing tale of St Petersburg, exactly 300 years old this year, which became the Imperial capital of all Russia. Created by Tsar Peter the Great it was modelled on Amsterdam, which was the leading economy of the time and an exemplar of Western values, culture and civilisation.

Built on the Neva River on the Gulf of Finland, it became known as the ‘window on the West’, but it was built by an autocratic ruler at the cost of thousands of lives. Boldly, Brook suggests that it was worth it.

Ditto Mumbai née Bombay which was devised on the whim of a colonialist’s pen. Modern Bombay, Brook argues, sprang from the mind of Sir Bartle Frere of the East India Company who had the dream of making the urbs prima in India (first city of India). Here, ‘even Indians could be properly civilised through exposure to Western culture and education’.

We baulk at the non-PC phraseology, but miss the positive ambition at our peril. Similarly, the seeds were set for modern Shanghai to emerge during the country’s Century of Humiliation. It was because China was under foreign domination, and because Shanghai was being designed with Western creature comforts, that the indigenous population was inspired to challenge the system. It culminated in social revolution, self-definition and Jazz-Age modernity.

These urban stories are recounted with fascinating detail, sometimes veering off at tangents, some less helpful than others. As a result, this book is really three in one: the opening section − the most engaging − recounts the historic origins of cities ‘rushing into the future’. The second book is an intelligent travelogue, with interesting anecdotes, a strange cast of characters and shrewd observations.

It would be enlightening to visit any of these cities armed with this book. The third book is an exploration of the interregnum between the cities’ formation and today. This is the urban promise denied, an explanation of how these urban centres messed up.

The central section has less coherence, purely because the unifying theme of progress and modernity that Brook has established as their raison d’être in the first section is no longer there. The cohesion of the book falls away into loosely connected episodes as the promise of these cities ebbed away due to war (St Petersburg), revolution (Shanghai) or bureaucracy (Mumbai).

However, even though each city has failed in many ways, Brook hints that such problems are part of the process of growing up. These global, emergent cities can survive and regroup precisely because they capture the human spirit.

Enter Dubai. ‘Whether or not Dubai itself endures’, says Brook, ‘the idea of Dubai will endure.’ It might be a strange land ruled over by an unelected autocrat of whom we know little, but it also happens to be a forward-thinking, dynamic, future-oriented, experiment in universalism.

Brook is no romantic and recognises the inequalities taking place behind the scenes, but he takes an optimistic stance. ‘Writing off Dubai’, he says ‘is writing off the world as it might be.’ This is an impressive line, and all the more so for the contemptuous sniggering that it will no doubt engender. 

When Bjarke Ingels, the over-flattered wunderkind of contemporary urbanism, argues that ‘the majority of the cities that will be our cities of the future are already here’, we should worry about the state of creativity and social ambition. This kind of End of History whimper should give us pause for thought about what passes for vision these days. This is all the more reason why Brook’s book is a necessary challenge for our miserablist times.

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