A Babble of Allusions

Sarah Edwards & Jonathan Charley (eds.), Writing the Modern City: Literature, Architecture, Modernity

Routledge, 240pp, £29.99, ISBN 978-0-415-59151-5

reviewed by Rosa Ainley

Watching Steve McQueen’s Shame recently I was struck by the role Manhattan played in the film: far more than a set for the action, the spaces of the city are shot in such a way to make possible the narrative of extreme disassociation. Emerging from the clinical anonymity of his apartment where human contact comes via webcam porn subscriptions, the protagonist watches a couple having sex in a glass-sided skyscraper, the woman flattened against the window/wall, facing outwards to the vertiginous view. In this collection of essays the point is often and variously made that certain narratives could only be created once spaces for them existed too. It’s a symbiotic process, one where narratives and space are mutually defining and influencing character, histories and movements within the urban.

The intention of the editors is to explore new forms of narrative that represented 20th century cultural modernity, a modernity characterised by developments in communications and speed and in new technologies and disciplines that made new forms possible and imaginable. In his introduction to the collection Jonathan Charley sets out how both architects and novelists (not to mention writers of short stories, creative non-fictions, among others) are ‘jugglers of space, time and narrative’. By contrast with the architect, the writer is, he says, ‘unencumbered by the practical’. If only that were true. But while a writer’s work might outlive a building, the writer – although freed from the constraint of having to make a structure that will literally stand up – has to create work that will withstand scrutiny. I’m in agreement with Charley that the disjuncture between how writer and architect choose to represent the modern city is one of the most interesting features of the debate on architecture, literature and modernity. The similarities are no less absorbing. Both writing and architecture start by imagining the unimaginable, giving it form, pinning it down – or a version of it – at least long enough to draw it or write it.

Lefebvre’s notion of the impossibility of reconciling the dichotomy of the imagined and the everyday, cited by Sarah Edwards in her introductory essay for the third section of the collection, is fertile territory for both writer and architect (and to this we might add that of public and private. Further, Lefebvre’s concept of the inseparability of space and social relations makes clear the pull of the urban as subject and form for writer and architect. Here is the underpinning for this book, and the role that architecture and spatial narratives have in the construction of social, political and personal histories, how narratives shape the meanings of buildings and how these overlap and re-inform each other. In 2008, the year of the Architexture Conference that ‘led to the commencement of this book’, the embedding of creative writing as an academic discipline was well underway; by 2012, this proliferation within and beyond the academy has led inexorably to the process of specialisation, one indication of which is a number of such courses focusing on space, place and environment. This is an ideal foundation text, and one that operates too as a springboard in its breadth as well as its finely detailed analyses.

It is Inga Bryden who invokes the idea of ‘babble’ in her piece, in relation to the ‘fragmented polyvalent nature of the city’ in the work of Maria Crossan, Ian Sinclair and Jon McGregor, which I have (mis)appropriated here for the title. Its sense of a joyful, messy multiplicity disallowing sequential, linear narrative, suggesting the audible and atmospheric, suggests a more fitting description for the collection than the more often invoked and, to my mind, sombre tone of the palimpsest, its layers awaiting excavation. The hectic babble of conference may be tamed here but the book, like its antecedent, delivered not only references to seek out, readings to ponder, a new word (ipseity) but also a new phrase. Patrick Wright’s wonderful ‘machines for harvesting subsidies’ deserves to be as widely quoted as Corbusier’s ‘machines for living’, which it appropriates – referring to the financial bait behind the massive housing blocks erected in many British cities in the 1950s and 60s. Another phrase resonates particularly for me from Bryden’s piece, which examines the links between the roles of writer and architect in realisation of narrative and form: how writers ‘make their streets tell’. She brings a welcome focus on the architectonics of writing: the structures, the processes and the materials becoming part of the subject.

Inevitably in a collection of this scope some areas suffer. The debate on third-wave and post-feminist stances on sex and porn need more space than allowed here, as do the admittedly well trodden but over-compressed considerations of Situationism and psychogeography. Psychoanalysis and postmodernism are conspicuously absent, as is the overdue recognition for interdisciplinary work. One small production note: the image reproduction is quite grey and flat, undermining the vibrancy of the images and their excellent captioning, which almost gives the feel of an autonomous, interconnected piece.

Each of the three parts of the anthology is titled by three words: memory nation identity; movement culture genre; narrative form space. I found it worked better – more instructive, less directive – to read the section introductions after the essays. Again these groupings are buzzing with allusion and some are more productive than others. There is an eloquence in the adjacency of Mark Mukherjee Campbell’s and Victoria Rosner’s essays on the impact of design on colonial identity politics in, respectively, India and Rhodesia, as was, through the work of Tagore and Lessing. Here again the point is stark that works about new spaces can only be made when forms of urbanisation exist for them be located in, or imagined in contrast. Just as progressive urbanists and writers have disrupted the simplistically easy fit of public housing with crime scenario, so idealised forms of urban space to plan out disorder, social and individual are exposed. Interestingly this is represented here by both science fiction (well represented by David Fortin’s piece on Philip K Dick) and, more unusually, a non-literary text on town planning, the latter in Brian Ward’s fascinating essay ‘Poets, tramps and a town planning’, which introduces planner Raymond Unwin’s text alongside the writings of Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter.

Last year’s clearance of Dale Farm in Basildon was reminiscent of the razing of the traveller encampment in David Peace’s quartet to allow redevelopment of the site, books heaving with ‘the “architectural crimes” of corrupt and inequitable urban development schemes’, where urban spaces are not backdrops for crime narratives but objects of crime. Peter Clandfield quotes a developer trailing a future of ‘[m]assive cultural initiatives making the arts accessible for all’, writing on Martyn Waite’s The White Room, likely to be another example of potential social benefit deformed by more urgent agendas of ‘chronotopic capitalism’ as Charley might put it. And thoughts turn to a new strand of regeneration fiction, along with theorising of these new typologies of space, featuring as sites and characters the Baltic, Turner Contemporary and the Olympic Village.