IN THE WANING YEARS of the 17th century, a young apprentice from Moscow begins work at the Dutch East India Company’s shipyards in Amsterdam. In between shifts as a shipwright building the frigate Peter and Paul, he explores the tree-lined streets of the canal-riven city, awed by both the red brick beauty and the functionality of one of the most tolerant, sophisticated enclaves in the world. His employer is a government-chartered global powerhouse, its immense wealth built on the technological sophistication of its ships. Amsterdam’s major canals are filled with off-loading vessels carrying goods from the Company colonies and trading posts that dot the known world, linking Europe to Far East Asia.
You have to pause to consider the immensity of the new vistas available to this shipwright’s apprentice. There he is, a man in his mid-20s, arrived from a distant land of feudal serfdom, throwing off his Russian habits for the dress of his carpenter’s trade, wide knee breeches and a cone-shaped felt hat. When he leaves the shipyards, he walks Amsterdam’s canals and squares in a state of wonder. He journeys to Delft to see Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s marvel, the microscope. He attends an anatomy lecture where a Dutch physician performs the dissection of a human body, a scene straight out of Rembrandt. Perhaps the shipwright’s apprentice feels that suddenly, in Amsterdam, he is in a world ceding from mist to clarity: a world of impossibly sophisticated ships and movable type printing presses, of microscopic sights and macroscopic interconnectedness.
This particular Russian apprentice, for those who already know the story of the so-called “Great Embassy,” is something more than a skillful carpenter. He also happens to be the Tsar of Russia: Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov, better known as Peter the Great, traveling anonymously and living humbly. His retainers are sworn to secrecy about his identity, upon pain of death. When he returned to his native land after 18 months abroad, Peter’s head was filled with the dream of a new capital: Russia’s answer to Amsterdam. One hundred thousand perished laborers later, he had his city: St. Petersburg.
Daniel Brook retells this story in his excellent new book, A History of Future Cities, as way of introducing Peter’s eponymous city, a place Brook sees as crucial to our discussion of the contemporary metropolis. All of the questions St. Petersburg raises are still with us: Which way should a city face: outward to the globe, or inward to the nation? What is global and what is local? Is cosmopolitanism a threat to native ways and self-sufficiency or a necessary condition of progress? What does modernity look like, separate from its Western conception? We ask these questions today of places like Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai — and each of those cities in turn offer provisional, and often dispiriting, answers.
There are plenty of books on the market already that aim to titillate or terrify with their accounts of the coming urban century. Their common premise, generally supported by demographic trends and economic growth, is that the center of metropolitan gravity is shifting away from cities like London and New York and towards the likes of Mumbai and Shanghai. This future, depending on which book you’re reading, is either bright and sexy — all that unrealized business potential! — or dystopian and depressing, involving concentration of wealth in private hand...read more