Calvino’s Tales And The City | Invisible Cities

Charrar Village in DHA Lahore has shown on maps  of the city since 1850 and its residents provide the bulk of today's domestic labor. However, DHA houses now engulf the village, and authorities routinely cut the village off, carry out raids, and has set up checkpoints at entry and exit points.

Charrar Village in DHA Lahore has shown on maps of the city since 1850 and its residents provide the bulk of today’s domestic labor. However, DHA houses now engulf the village, and authorities routinely cut the village off, carry out raids, and has set up checkpoints at entry and exit points.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities, published in 1972, now enjoys an almost cult-like status for those who study the built environment. Not only did it act as a breakthrough in traditional methods of literary narrative, it also offered a unique perspective on how to read cities.

This is not to say that cities never fared in writers’ imaginations before Calvino; it was the rather revelatory claim he makes in the middle of the novel. The premise of the novel centers on a conversation between two historically known figures – Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, where Polo is recounting tales of all the cities he has visited in his travels. Only, halfway through his recounting of 55 cities through themes of memory, desire, signs, etc. is it revealed that in describing each city, he is “saying something about Venice.” Polo was not speaking of 55 different cities; he was describing the 55 parallel realities of just one city.

To be able to read a city in such a way is what makes cities such fascinating conglomerations of human density that are reflected so intensely and in such multidimensional manners through the built environment. As urban beings, we use the city as a canvas to mirror or seek our own reflection; indeed, that is what makes the idea of a ‘city’ one of the most successful projects in human history. It is because these reflections are allowed to accumulate, layer upon one another, and linger within the spaces they occupy that we are able to strengthen our relationship with cities. It is this palimpsest-like quality of cities that creates feelings of belonging, and allows us to remain healthily productive in urban environments that can otherwise be very alienating or discomforting, be it due to scale or intensity.

In recent years, with increasing urbanization, there has been a renewed focus within academic and policy circles on the concept and idea of ‘the city.’ Throughout most policy circles, particularly in the Global South, cities are seen as the engines of growth and the spaces where the future is based; they are developed as sites of increased connectivity for global capital, and sources of increased competitiveness in the global economy.

It comes as no surprise then that cities across the world are becoming increasingly homogenous spatially and experientially. As global citizens we can visit almost any city, and comfortably roam the streets and witness familiar sights, tastes, and smells.

Yet, this comfort often comes at the cost of the well-being of millions of urban poor (often members of ethnic and religious minorities) who are pushed out to the peripheries often through direct state repression. Consider, for instance, the fishing communities in cities ranging from Colombo to Maputo whose livelihoods are threatened by upcoming luxury hotels and apartments fuelled by foreign investments, built on city coasts. Or, residents of squatter settlements in cities such as Islamabad, Mumbai, Lagos, or Dhaka who continuously resist state authorities in order to avoid being evicted from their homes. Frequently beaten up, arrested, tear-gassed and intimidated, they witness a state that prefers to make way for parks, luxury apartments, roads, or large-scale events. While such forms of displacement are dehumanizing in themselves, it is not uncommon for the marginalized to be blamed for the conditions they live in by more powerful and dominant groups. In effect, the direction that cities around the world are headed in seeks to further marginalize the already marginalized, and render them invisible through the rhetoric of development and progress.

Yet, there are numerous groups of people who have organized and mobilized for their rights, adopting innovative strategies in the process. For instance, residents in squatter settlements in various cities, under the threat of eviction, have linked up with other communities under similar conditions, used social media and the internet to their advantage, often developing their own plans as an alternative to demolitions. Similarly, there are groups who have undertaken various initiatives (for improved access to housing, water, sanitation, transport) to make the city more equitable and limit the social and spatial segregation between the privileged and the non-privileged.

The aim of this Tanqeed blog, Invisible Cities, is to study the city not (only) through analytical markers, datasets or market trends, but rather, first and foremost, through the human. The blog aims to focus on decision-making within rapidly urbanizing regions – the actors and structural forces that are determining the shape of our cities, the role of commodification, and the struggles and efforts of various actors in attempting to improve urban experiences. While our focus is on cities in the Global South, and particularly in Pakistan, we aim to draw out the lessons that emerge from similar events globally. Through this Tanqeed blog we hope to explore issues of the urban situation with a self-imposed academic discipline, but at the same time with a somewhat creative and curatorial freedom of method – using text, data and diagram as tools of research and interpretation.

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At the end of Invisible Cities we find Kublai Khan leafing through maps of cities in his atlas, wondering about the futility of it all: “It is all useless, if the last landing-place can be only the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, and then make them endure, give them space.”

Because the former is a depressingly resigned choice to make, consider this blog an attempt at doing the latter of Polo’s charges: to be able to make sense of what is happening in the cities of the Global South, or even particularly in the immediate context of Pakistan or South Asia, to be able to acknowledge urban realities for what they are as the first and necessary step of making sense of what enables them and by extension, their implications for a major portion of the world’s population.

Invisible Cities is a new Tanqeed blog that seeks to explore alternative discourses on the urban question in cities of the Global South. For pitches and submissions to the blog, please contact fizzah.sajjad@gmail.com, halabashirmalik@gmail.com and editors@tanqeed.org.

Fizzah Sajjad is a city planner based in Lahore, and a recent graduate from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT.

Hala Bashir Malik is an architect based in Lahore, and a recent graduate of the Aga Khan Program of Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) at MIT.

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40 Responses to Calvino’s Tales And The City | Invisible Cities

  1. Rabia Ezdi on Aug 2014 at 4:06 AM

    Hi Fizza, interesting piece. I need to know- you guys have mentioned that Charar pind was in Lahore’s maps since the 1850s- wow. Can you share the source of this info, and this map if you have it-? Would be a great help!

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