This assessment of ‘masquerades of modernity’ is a refreshing contribution to the debate on the future of the city, says Douglas Murphy
The title of this book at first seems misleading. When one thinks of ‘future cities’ of the past, the usual suspects are places like classical Athens, renaissance Florence, 19th century Paris, or 20th century New York where new forms of urban existence were pioneered and new types of space came into being. Brook’s subjects – St Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai – are stories of mistranslated attempts to repeat the successes of the Western world in areas with highly specific histories of their own. But this is the point – as the balance of power in the world becomes more multipolar, each growing global metropolis must find its own route through the urban precedents set by Western cultures. It is these ‘masquerades of modernity’ that Brook seeks.
Each of the subject cities has a story to tell of its janus-faced relationship with the West. St Petersburg is perhaps the clearest, with Peter the Great returning from his travels across Europe in the early 18th century with a passion to create a brand new city of learning and trade, facing west towards the Atlantic rather than back towards Siberia. Of course, to create this beautiful dream required the nightmarish toil of multitudes of serfs, still living a feudal life that hadn’t existed in the west for hundreds of years. In future generations, leaders as diverse as Catherine the Great, Stalin and Vladimir Putin would turn alternately towards and away from the West as they hacked their way through history.
Brook tells an excellent story, with an admirable desire to speak about all people. From tsars and sheikhs to serfs and coolies, not to mention many architects, the experience of life in these hybrid cities is vividly conveyed. A major theme is the way local elites reckoned with their conflicted identities. For example, in 19th century India, condescending British imperial ‘improvement’ created an educated class of Indians who were forbidden to exercise any form of self-determination. In Shanghai around the same time, a lawless cosmopolitan capitalism meant anyone could hope to make a fortune in the grey area between opium running and more ‘legitimate’ trading.
Mumbai offered a different future when the University of Bombay was built: colonial improvement.
Against those who in the last decade breathlessly proclaimed Dubai’s urbanism to be without precedent, Brook teases out numerous conditions common to all the cities, whether hubristic land reclamation projects, pastiche buildings by architects who’d never visited, the suspension of laws to facilitate trade, or the collective lunacy of property bubbles. While sometimes too generous to the vulgarity of exploitative elites both Western and local, Brook is frustrated by the condition of all four cities, still seemingly trapped in the economic, political and existential problems of their past.
The work with which this book has most affinity is Marshal Berman’s 1982 All that is solid melts into air. But Brook’s work lacks a sense of modernity as rupture. For Brook, modernity seems to be about cosmopolitanism, the complex mixing of disparate cultures through trade. But if that’s true, there’s no reason to exclude pre-modern Venice or even ancient Rome from his schema. Avoiding a dialectical approach allows Brook to make mistakes such as favouring Art Deco over modernism, refusing to acknowledge what separates decorative luxury architecture in a modern style from a universalist aesthetic response to the new world of Fordism and total war. Despite this, there is much to enjoy in this timely and accessible contribution to our debates on the future of the city.
A history of future cities
By Daniel Brook, WW Norton, HB £20