fri 04/12/2020

Ben Wilson: Metropolis - A History of Humankind's Greatest Invention review - urban resilience throughout the ages | reviews, news & interviews

Ben Wilson: Metropolis - A History of Humankind's Greatest Invention review - urban resilience throughout the ages

Ben Wilson: Metropolis - A History of Humankind's Greatest Invention review - urban resilience throughout the ages

A canny, occasionally refreshing history arguing for more not less urbanisation

Historian Ben Wilson

Like the novel, painting and God, the city has long been pronounced dead – along with a few other things, like civil politics, society and the art of conversation that were said to have thrived there.

Like the novel, painting and God, the city has long been pronounced dead – along with a few other things, like civil politics, society and the art of conversation that were said to have thrived there. As with all the above, historian Ben Wilson suggests in this omnivorous, adventurous and generous history of the city, the death knell of “humankind’s greatest invention” has been tolled since time immemorial – and always too soon.

Cities have a habit of reviving, reimagining and reorganising themselves, much to the chagrin of the warlords, emperors, dictators and modernist city planners (a particularly nefarious group in Wilson’s eyes) who would raze them to the ground and do away with their supposed evils: their health hazards, overcrowding, diversity and liberal cultures which draw people to them in their thousands (200,000 a day) like moths to a flame.

MetropolisWilson lays the blame (lightly) for any sense of its demise at the foot of the dominant Anglo-American culture. Its distrust of the city seems to stem from the early Judaeo-Christian disgust with the very first metropolises which rose from the Mesopotamian delta from 4000 on and which perhaps reached their pinnacle in the Babylon of biblical fame. Tightly packed, ethnically diverse centres of roaring trade, stunning temples and heady delights (all of which Wilson unpacks and lists with obvious relish), their impression of rampant crime, promiscuity and amorality still motivates attempts to sanitise, organise or privatise the city out of existence today, of which LA and London are the prime examples.

Some of Wilson’s brightest moments come in the chapters on the two global megacities which show off his eclectic research and cultural fluency. He rereads the emergence of the semi-rural suburban paradise not as a seismic cultural shift led by individuals naturally “lured by the siren song of the Californian suburban lifestyle” but as an attempt by the US government to disperse the city as “a pre-emptive form of defence against nuclear strike” during the Cold War. They also helped to draw workers (with hefty incentives) to military testing and manufacturing sites on the city’s “edgelands”, all of which collapsed along with the Soviet Union, leading to the sort of outer (not inner) city struggles expressed in landmark hiphop records such as Straight Outta Compton.

Undoing LA’s “tangled topography” to fill it with far-flung family houses was preceded by London’s sewing up of the city’s social life into ever more exclusive and private spheres. The “New Babylon” of the late 17th century was a hotbed of babble – and therefore ideas and alliances, news and speculation, stock brokering and trade – thanks to its explosion of coffeehouses. This unprecedented sociability across (nearly) all levels of society helped to draw cultural capital out of the hands of the royal courts and universities, and more of that ever-precious thing – human capital – into the city. That chatter would fall quiet as the diverse array of coffeehouses devolved into elite paid members' clubs and financial institutions. Apparently in the stainless steel clad ivory towers of Lloyd’s of London, “underwriters still perch on stools and the tail-coated staff are called waiters.”

These accounts are compelling and, particularly in the case of London, intensely sensual. In a slightly overhasty introduction, Wilson states he is “more interested in the connective tissue that binds [a city] together, not just its outward appearance or vital organs” but he spends a long time contemplating what passes through citizens’ stomachs and before their eyes. Who knew London was once a street food capital to rival medieval Baghdad? Throughout, Wilson also seems fond of drawing literary and art history parallels. He considers the Epic of Gilgamesh almost as a city-planning blueprint. Later the canvases of the Impressionist painters are treated like eyewitness accounts of the urban alienation brought about by Paris’s famous Hausmannisation – the cataclysmic renovation responsible for the tree-lined boulevards of uniform “butter-yellow Lutetian limestone” tourists flock to today.

There are fewer engrossing details as the book goes on and Wilson eventually turns his attention to places like Lagos and Tokyo, where his argument edges more aggressively into the frame. Those cities, he argues, though avowedly “messy to Western eyes” (maybe a little bit sweeping given where Nigeria sits) are some of the most vibrant and exciting, possessing a fully resilient “differentiated urban fabric”, because city development has been left in the hands of the people. “Left to their own devices, people are very good at constructing their own communities,” Wilson claims. As well as a paean to grassroots ingenuity, Metropolis is a quiet lament for moments in history where even well-meaning “authoritarianism and paternalism denied a role to individuals and urban micro-communities in deciding the future of their cities”, such as in post-WWII Warsaw, the housing projects of the US and the Garden Cities of the UK and elsewhere.

Wilson’s writing itself seems to take its cue from the “dynamism” (a favourite word here) of Earth’s more close-quartered, ramshackle, improvised places. Some of his paragraphs are like mini-citadels built on multiple foundations, crowded with examples from the ancient to the modern. Navigating these sometimes takes more mental acrobatics than Wilson’s otherwise down-to-earth conversational style would seem to encourage. The little detours also lead to some repetitiousness. Early on in his account of the rise of Lübeck – the city at the heart of Eastern Europe’s powerful Hanseatic League during the Dark Ages – Wilson tells us that like “many European cities, it was hardened and shaped on the anvil of war”. A couple of paragraphs later, we are told “holy war and city building went together”. A couple of paragraphs after that, that “there was intimate connection between holy war and Europe’s urban take-off.” Metropolis might have benefited from some tighter editing but you get the sense that that would be just the kind of clean-up job Wilson is fundamentally opposed to.

For the most part, though, you are happy to be taken down some unfamiliar paths – Uruk, Harappa, Malacca – as well as along the better-trodden pavements – Athens, Rome, New York. Metropolis is suggestive of ground covered by more focused studies – The Silk RoadsWanderlust, London: A Biography are a few which spring to mind – but none are as kaleidoscopic. While the conclusions the book reaches risk the platitudinous – essentially, we will get through this (“this” being anything from COVID-19 to climate change) – the centuries-spanning chronology as a whole is studded with fascinating facts handled with dexterity, and the odd rarely ventured line of argument to pick up and run with.

Some of his paragraphs are like mini-citadels built on multiple foundations, crowded with examples from the ancient to the modern

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