Written cities

Utopian fiction, spatial ordering, and absurdity

Authored by: Malcolm Miles

The Routledge Companion on Architecture, Literature and The City

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472482730
eBook ISBN: 9781315613154
Adobe ISBN:


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In a period of post-truth politics when realities are regularly denied by those in power, I want to re-examine the relation between the real and the invented in what I call ‘written cities’ – by which I mean the description or prescription of spatial practices for planned or imagined cities. These abound in the literature of utopianism, for example in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) or Samuel Barnett’s The Ideal City (1894). They also appear in the plans made by states, such as The Laws of The Indies (1573) issued by the Spanish crown as a means to introduce social order in its conquered territories. Yet if The Laws of the Indies were intended to be implemented to the letter, ambivalences emerge when such documents are juxtaposed to utopian texts (which may seem no less prescriptive but are fiction). Further, the plans prescribed for cities in New Spain were not as original as their authors claimed, consisting in conflation of earlier directives and borrowing from pre-Colombian precedents. Still, the Laws and previous plans did assume New Spain to be an uninhabited land. Utopia, however, does not exist at all, despite More’s detailed description of its cities and social codes. In the nineteenth century, Etienne Cabet, reading Utopia in the British Museum, described the fictional island of Icaria in similarly idealised terms. Cabet went on to found a settlement in North America based on his book. But while Samuel Barnett’s Ideal City was based on the real city of Bristol, it was intended as critique, a plan only in its implications for social policy. Perhaps the gap between the unreal and unrealised haunts utopianism; another gap appears today between the unreal and the all too real false narratives in politics and advertising. In answer to criticism, the purveyors answer that there is no alternative to the way things are (which is always a lie).

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