‘A History of Future Cities’ by Daniel Brook

This uncommonly interesting and intelligent book considers how two powerful human urges — to imitate the things we admire and/or envy, and to be in the vanguard of modernization — have played out in the histories of four of the world’s oddest and most prominent cities: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai. “A History of Future Cities” is not a linear account of how these cities developed but is divided into four stages in which they sought to become more modern and, specifically, more Western. Daniel Brook writes:

“These four unlikely sister cities are unified by the sense of disorientation they impart. . . . The disorientation imparted by St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai results from their being located in the East but purposefully built to look as if they are in the West. Their occidental looks are anything but accidental. . . . For Western visitors to these cities, love/hate reactions are common. Yet love them or hate them, these dis-orient-ed metropolises matter. They are places to be reckoned with because they are ideas as much as cities, metaphors in stone and steel for the explicit goal of Westernization. . . . These global gateway cities raise the question of how to be a modern Arab, Russian, Chinese, and Indian, and whether modernization and globalization can ever be more than just euphemisms for Westernization.”

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(W. W. Norton) - ’A History of Future Cities’ by Daniel Brook.

Brook, a freelance journalist who lives in New Orleans, is not your basic patronizing First Worlder turning up his nose at cities whose powers-that-be think that erecting an ersatz Big Ben will somehow turn them into London or that cramming the royal palace with the greatest art of France and Italy will somehow turn them into Paris or Rome. Brook is sympathetic rather than condescending to their ambitions. The “draw of Dubai in the twenty-first century — as the draw of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai historically — is more than just the lure of great wealth,” he writes. “It is the lure of participating in modernity. To go from being a South Indian rice farmer to a construction worker who erects the tallest building on earth is to untether oneself from the past and build the future. . . . Writing off Dubai is writing off the world as it might be. It is writing off modernity itself, smothering the hope that in the age of jet-powered globalization, we can all learn to live together as a community, sharing a single city and, ultimately, a single world.”

That is a laudable if somewhat sentimental goal that is not remotely within the reach of any of these cities. Dubai, for example, could not exist in its present form without air conditioning and as a result it has a carbon footprint of astonishing dimensions, wildly out of proportion to its minute population and territory; global-warming deniers to the contrary, sooner or later a huge price will be paid for this by the rest of the world, not merely by Dubai. There and in the other three cities under discussion, efforts to improve the lot of the poor have been half-hearted at best; that rice farmer who left India to help build the 163-story Burj Khalifa may be participating in modernity, but he and his family almost certainly live in a slum, probably with undrinkable water. Many of the grandest buildings of central St. Petersburg have glittering facades, but their interiors are crumbling.

A central difficulty is that all of these cities haven’t so much evolved as sprung into being full-grown. Legend has it that St. Petersburg was “built in the heavens and dropped whole to earth,” which ignores its fairly long history (one that includes its incarnations as Petrograd and Leningrad) but gets to the point that it was artificially created by Peter the Great in the early 18th century as Russia’s window to the West, artificially re-created by the communists in the 20th century and now artificially polished up as a tourist destination. Shanghai in the 19th century was refashioned by Western traders who built and inhabited their own settlements, or concessions: “They would wrest Shanghai from China and build a Western city that just happened to be in the Far East,” just as the mighty high-rise Shanghai of the early 21st century has flung aside most remnants of its Chinese culture and “has yet to live up to the city’s historic promise — to sort out what it means to be Chinese and modern.” As for Mumbai, in its long earlier history as Bombay it was “a kind of factory for producing Westernized Indians,” while today it is in danger of becoming “a city of world-class institutions walled off behind fences where unconscionable numbers of people live in poverty.”

In today’s Mumbai, an architect named Hafeez Contractor has made a fortune designing offices and residences: “Contractor’s philosophy is market nihilism — he will build anything, for anyone, in any style, as long as the checks clear. And what his clients typically want is a funhouse-mirror image of the West transposed onto the East — like more-Western-than-the-West neoclassical St. Petersburg edifices taken to their most unhinged extreme . . . less a copy of the West than a fantasy of the West whose totemic power of modernity — even in its most mundane incarnations — appeals to upscale Indian customers. It is a West as experienced by the global Indian, where all its differences from India rise to the fore and the distinctness of the Indian city, most notably its vibrant informal commerce, is dismissed as an embarrassment that must be expunged.”

The sad irony is that all of these cities, in their ardent (and wholly understandable) ambition to be powerful and great, have cast aside the local, regional and national characteristics that brought them into being. Even Dubai, youthful though it may be, has a history rooted not in Las Vegas but in Arabia, and Shanghai, before foreigners discovered its supreme advantages as a seaport and made it over, had a past that was Chinese and had nothing to do with Miami on steroids. Today’s fast-lane, first-class global businesswoman can travel from Dubai to Mumbai to Shanghai and believe herself to be in the same place all the time; then, if she wants a taste of Disney World with a slight foreign accent, she can have a nice vacation in St. Petersburg: “The city built out of [the Russian] inferiority complex is now firmly a world capital of high culture, and it revels in its ability to look down on upstart Eastern metropolises as Western Europeans once looked down on it.”

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” famously wrote that old imperialist Rudyard Kipling, and the jury is still out on whether he was right. Reading “A History of Future Cities” leaves one sensing that he was more right than wrong, that in copying the cities of the West, those of the East are losing more than they are gaining in the exchange. But Brook is quick to defend imitation. “That the Romans copied the Greeks hardly means that their civilization was a fraud,” he writes. “The Romans went on to make their own contributions, far surpassing the Greeks in fields like engineering and logistics. That the Romans copied does not mean that history is nothing but copying. But it does mean that copying is an integral part of history.” Indeed, evidence of it is all about us here in Washington, where many of our most notable edifices and monuments are pretty much direct steals from Greeks and Romans alike.

We may be right to wonder around the directions in which the big new cities of the developing world are taking themselves, but we do well not to turn up our noses at them. Been there, done that.

yardleyj@washpost.com

A HISTORY OF FUTURE CITIES

By Daniel Brook

Norton. 457 pp. $27.95

 
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