A History of Future Cities

A History of Future Cities
Daniel Brook
Norton    430pp      £20

What do St Petersburg, Bombay, Shanghai and Dubai have in common and what can we learn from it? The simple answer is that each was more or less a newly created settlement with a specific purpose of ‘opening a window on the West’. The book is presented as a search for precedents for Dubai in places that were ‘ideas’ before they were cities. In each case the West meant modernity: challenging the norms of a settled religious and social order; expressing the challenge through new foreign building styles, new forms of economic activity. As a result each city virtually became an independent country on the edge of another, none more so than Shanghai, where the adjustment between China and the West passed through many iterations in the course of a single century, while in present-day Dubai the rules of Islamic life are suspended for the benefit of non-Muslim residents, all carefully corralled into different zones. Apart from St Petersburg, where French was its historic equivalent, the English language has played a unifying role for their polyglot populations.

Architecture on a scale from bombastic to dreadful was the invariable accompaniment to these projects, although Victorian Bombay may command our nostalgic admiration and St Petersburg did very well for lovers of neo-classicism. Dubai probably wins the prize for excess of postmodern superficiality, but each city, in its time, took the route of choosing a model style from somewhere else and, when possible, inflating its scale to induce maximum shock and awe, sweeping away older dwellings in its path.

With the exception of Dubai, each of the cities has taken a significant role in causing or witnessing dramatic changes in the politics of their host country at points when liberal economics and liberality of thought and expression were challenged. St Petersburg was the place where Vladimir Putin rose to power, as well as the flashpoint of revolutions against the Romanovs. Shanghai’s cosmopolitan free-for-all was the target first for the Japanese and later for Mao, until Mayor Zhu Rongji set it back on course as China’s most westernised city with the creation of Pudong, its new international business district. After Bombay headed India’s economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, it was split by the Hindu nationalist party of the working class, Shiv Sena, and in 1995 reverted to the pre-colonial Marathi name, Mumbai. Each city now contains huge inequalities between rich and poor.

Daniel Brook tells a fast moving story, filling in much of the political history of each city along the way. This is neither an academic book, although discreetly referenced at the back, nor lavishly illustrated. The main thesis is a composite of the impact of globalisation and the nature of East-meets-West, explored partly through politics and urbanism, combined with the interpretation of architectural styles taken to excess. Brook asks whether modernisation must always take its form from the West, as it has done hitherto. It is too soon to see what the answer could be, but it may no longer be the right question. In architecture, as in some forms of cuisine, an international fusion now provides a neutral answer. Politically, Mumbai currently exists within the only regime approaching a functioning democracy, although none of the cities currently offers a sustainable model for the coexistence of the haves and the have-nots. A further question of sustainability not raised here is rising sea levels, another of modernity’s hidden time bombs, and their possible effect on these cities, all of which might be underwater in a century.

Alan Powers is a contributor to The City of London: Architectural Tradition and Innovation in the Square Mile, edited by Nicholas Kenyon (Thames & Hudson, 2011).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week