In a comprehensive introduction, Gyan Prakash punches through the walls that have, until now, restricted the debate on urban dystopia and whether it is merely a construct of Western literature and cinema. Noir Urbanisms comprises ten neatly independent essays which, collectively, allow interdisciplinary interaction. Each chapter explores dark representations of the city that have become important pieces of urban criticism, using examples from real cities.
Rubén Gallo’s essay on Tlatelolco marks the lifespan of a doomed 1960s housing complex in Mexico City. Educated in Paris, architect Mario Pani envisioned Corbusian modernism for one million sq m of new housing. The architect even designed a ‘modernist pyramid’ (a traditional symbol of human sacrifice) to loom over Aztec remains found on site. The adjacent Plaza of the Three Cultures became the scene of tragedy in 1968, when the army massacred 300 students. Further catastrophe came when the powerful 1985 earthquake caused high-rise blocks to collapse. Of Mexico’s 9000 casualties that day, thousands came from Tlatelolco. Subsequent investigations revealed a web of corruption in the construction process. Utopic visions of a Mexican identity disintegrated into a real life dystopia with ruinous pieces of architecture standing monument to megalomaniac design and corruption.
Dystopic visions are perhaps most familiar from the cinema, in such films as Blade Runner and Sin City, but this book looks towards the ‘larger apparatus of perception in the modern city’: pieces of architecture and printed press, among others. The rise of the printed press is inseparable from the rise of technology and capitalism, and its influence has forged a dependence on the image in modern society.
In his essay, Topographies of Distress, David R. Ambaras concentrates on 1930s Tokyo to explore the urban representation that arose with modern journalism. Ambaras refers to the media coverage of a spate of infant deaths in the deprived area of Iwanosaka, which became the setting for the dystopic image of slum life – a reflection of the anxieties of Japan’s bourgeois class who understood poverty only through images. The increase in literacy and commuting by train fuelled the rise of newspapers and the thirst for sensationalism.
The dystopic image often acts as a warning of the dark future that awaits if we continue living the way we do. Mike Davis’ seminal Planet of Slums (2006) argues precisely this. It also exists as a representation of the existing city through a screen
of anxiety. Based on perception, this infers that there are many different images of the same city existing in parallel rather than one simple view, as before; echoing the belief of French philosopher Michel Foucault, that we are living in an ‘epoch of simultaneity’. Urban dystopia has entered modern thought at a time when globalisation signals the loss of both local culture and moral frameworks.
The belief that dystopia is the opposite of utopia is challenged by the utopic visions of 20th century regimes. In discussing the emergence of cinematic criticism of the fast transition to an urban lifestyle in China, Li Zhang poses the question: Post-socialist Urban Dystopia? Independent Chinese filmmakers such as the Sixth Generation focus on the ‘insignificant’ people caught up in the forced relocation of communities into cities. ‘The visible hand of the state has been replaced by the invisible hand of the market’ says Zhang, allowing crime and violence to prosper. Setting the tone for a dystopic narrative, the ‘other Chinese city’ plays the role of protagonist in films that depict the bleakness of everyday lives. These films have catalysed democratic discussion among their audiences.
The territory for new discussion lies in the interstitial regions of the chapters; hence this is not necessarily a book to be read in order. Prakash permits a nod to the more common themes – Fritz Lang’s Metropolis earns itself an essay, for example. However, the more captivating essays are the less conventional. A potent argument emerges that the history of urban dystopia is entangled with images projected by those most anxious about the future. Ironically, these perceptions usually belong to the part of society that is comfortable and in control – and not the real-life inhabitants of the dystopic city. It is a shame that this book is presumed to target a specific academic audience; Noir Urbanisms deserves to be widely read and debated. In describing why inequalities or disasters have occurred, this becomes a lesson for the architects and urban designers master-planning cities of the future.
Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City, Gyan Prakash (editor), Princeton University Press, £20.95