The Costs of Cosmopolitanism: On Daniel Brook's "A History of Future Cities"

February 24, 2013   •   By Casey Walker

A History of Future Cities

Daniel Brook

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 hands, abuse and exploitation of the laboring classes, and all kinds of new repressive strategies of authoritarian urban planning. The shelves of American bookstores are stocked with penetrating descriptions of these sprawling, dirty, appalling, exciting instant Asian metropolises — Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones or Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow for Beijing and Shanghai; Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City or Katherine Boo’s much-praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers for Mumbai — where tolerance is scarce, rights are thin, and working-class life is short. These are places that reflect not their inhabitants’ collective, democratic desires but the peregrinations of global capital.

The shrewd and pleasing tack that Brook takes to situate himself in this crowded field is to concentrate less on the political and economic present than the architectural past, and what it can tell us about the future. His book centers on just four cities — St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai — and he patiently traces the 300-year history of each of these places. Some may argue with his choices: Is St. Petersburg really a more important city of the future than Shenzen? And, sure, Dubai gets all the press, but what’s happening in Chongqing? But A History of Future Cities succeeds not by claiming a false comprehensiveness but by plunging into the chaos and productive confusions of the past.

In many ways, Brook is offering an architectural history of these places, and what he wants to show us is the ideas latent in the bricks and stones. In St. Petersburg, Tsar Alexander II is heading home to the Winter Palace in March 1881 when an assassin throws a bomb at his carriage. Shaken but unhurt, the Tsar paces the Catherine Canal, even scolding the assailant his bodyguards have apprehended. A second assassin, lurking nearby, throws another bomb, killing Alexander. The architectural legacy of this regicide, Brook writes, is the Church of the Resurrection, also called the Cathedral of Our Savior on Spilt Blood, commissioned by Alexander III:

Rising up along the Catherine Canal and reflected in its waters, the redbrick cathedral […] stands out against the city’s pastel-painted stucco, its onion domes clashing with the city’s neoclassical triangular pediments. […] While the rational order of St. Petersburg had always mandated that buildings line up to meet the streets and canals in a row (the so-called red line), the Church of the Resurrection steps out into the canal […] The cathedral tears the fabric of the city and its Renaissance perspectives and offers a rebuke: the egalitarian humanist values of the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment lead here — to regicide.

Brook, ever sensitive to architecture’s symbolic significance, returns many times to the following premise: what gets built in a city always reflects an ethos. A piece of architecture, in other words, is always an argument, an endorsement of some idea or resistance to another, a hope or a fear. What better way to express the colonial dominance of Shanghai during China’s “century of humiliation” than to notice that, in 1893, “the Bund’s only Chinese-style building” was replaced “with a collegiate Tudor office complete with a clock tower whose chimes matched Big Ben’s in London.”

Brook is especially attentive to the significance of public spaces. The Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg “concentrated the whole city, even the whole world, on a single promenade,” anticipating both Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman’s grand boulevards in Paris and “the contemporary megamall.” It was hardly an apotheosis of equality, of course: Western luxury goods like clocks and carriages would have been affordable only to a small Russian elite. Still, Brook notes, the promenade was at least formally “open to all”: “[o]n Nevsky, the whole social panorama of nineteenth-century St. Petersburg came together.” Shanghai’s Bund, on the other hand, the panoramic waterfront in the center of the city that has long housed the city’s most luxurious parks, hotels, and businesses, was a space of both exclusion and privilege. The “armies of ill-paid coolies” were not allowed inside the majestic skyscrapers and hotels they built, but to walk along the Bund in the 1920s or 1930s was also to see “the skyline of Shanghai […] transform[ing] from a copy of a Western city to a new kind of global metropolis. The buildings of the Jazz Age Bund herald the dawning of a new, global, multivalent world order.” Victoria Terminus in Mumbai (then known as Bombay) was another public space that reflected the interests of foreign elites, but it also figured crucially in native discontent:

British hopes to convert Bombayites to the religion of progress worked, if only too well. The modern city forged modern people who rode its trains and read the latest English books. But if the city was on par with London, Bombayites began to wonder, why were they still ruled like children? 

All of these sites, Brook suggests, are spaces where powers both local and foreign have come to stake their claim about who the city belongs to, and by whom it should be seen.

Perhaps nowhere are residents’ claims to the city they occupy more precarious than in contemporary Dubai, a place that operates like “a corporation, rather than a country.” Dubai-watchers will have heard of the second-class status of foreign laborers there, of the preferential treatment for Emiratis, and of the city’s near-implosion during the financial crisis of 2009, only staved off by a $10 billion cash infusion from Abu Dhabi. One might still be surprised to read, though, that 40 percent of Dubai’s prisoners are in jail on debt charges. Corporate Dubai — the city that financial consultants built — is also a city of construction workers, “a ragged army of brown-skinned men in blue suits who, numbering close to half a million, constitute roughly a quarter of the city’s population.” These workers live constricted lives in company towns, where “all the lifestyle freedoms that Dubai markets to tourists and professionals are nowhere to be found.” Brook describes the aesthetic of Dubai at one point as “patchwork urbanism,” but it’s the city’s concept of citizenship that’s in tatters.

It would be unfair, of course, to single out Dubai for its impoverished idea of the public good. In contemporary Mumbai, Brook writes, comprehensive city planning “has become a dirty word” and municipal responsibilities like sidewalks and sewers have become private goods for those who can afford them. Developers are seemingly unable to imagine the city as anything “more than a series of privately held parcels.” Mumbai’s corroded or nonexistent public works look particularly awful alongside China’s massive recent investments in public infrastructure — at least until Brook begins to recount the human cost of those investments, in the form of evictions and the bullying of the poor. Between the worst of Mumbai and the worst of Shanghai, you’re presented with two opposite yet equally unappealing options: democratic selfishness and ineptitude, or authoritarian efficiency.

Fascinating as the details may be, the overarching thesis of A History of Future Cities can sometimes be hard to discern. Brook goes heavy on historical particulars, but he has a light hand with grand theories (usually to his credit). Early on, he writes that these cities “are places to be reckoned with because they are ideas as much as cities, metaphors in stone and steel for the explicit goal of Westernization.” In many ways, this is true, but Brook’s own history offers us enough curlicues and hard swerves away from Westernization that it might be just as fair to imagine these places as stages for a nearly constant identity crisis: never enough in their countries, never enough out of them. By the end of the book, Brook puts pressure on the East–West divide itself, which he rightly calls an “arbitrary” division created for “a world dominated by Europe — a world that is no longer with us.” What his history of these exemplary “Eastern” cities shows us, unmistakably, is that cities are often in closer conversation with one another — Amsterdam with St. Petersburg, for example, or New York with Shanghai — than they are with the national populations that surround them.

It has to be a good thing that we are a long way from the foreign concessions and bullying that allowed Western powers to build Shanghai in their own image. It’s distressing, however, that Shanghai today is run along lines that so powerfully diverge from the freedom of assembly, speech, and information that citizens of New York City are guaranteed. More to the point, none of Brook’s cities offers a particularly enticing vision of our collective urban future: not Dubai’s tax-free corporate paradise and de facto caste system; not Mumbai’s slums and wealth disparities; not St. Petersburg’s Putin-era decrepitude; not even Shanghai’s new megalithic corporate skyline in Pudong, the construction of which cost more than a million families their homes. 

So what are we left with? Late in the book, Brook mentions the enormously expensive Shanghai World Expo 2010, which, like the Beijing Olympics two years prior, was billed as something of a coming out party for the New China. I attended that Expo, which was ostensibly a showcase of cutting edge ideas for the “sustainable city”: buildings of cork and bamboo, rooftop greenery, solar heating, and water-skin walls. The Expo was intended to be a place where the world could come together to pitch a series of technical solutions to the sort of basic city problems — pollution, housing, sanitation — with which these booming cities of the future are already in daily contention.

And yet it was hard to leave the Expo with an optimistic sense of what promise the city of the future might hold. A hard-nosed, top-down approach to urban construction has characterized Shanghai’s recent boom, with little regard for architectural preservation and a pervasive willingness to uproot residents and raze buildings, and this was also true of the Expo’s construction. Recall, too, that Shanghai is a place where residents can be jailed without charges or committed involuntarily to mental hospitals for protesting the eviction degrees of development-minded city officials.

Lift your head from Shanghai, and you’ll find that cityscape everywhere in booming China grimly gnaws on landscape. Shanghai has sprawled and dumped its way over its waterways and surrounding lands, and this goes equally for Beijing and Shenzen, Chengdu, and Chongqing. There are more than a hundred cities in China with populations of over one million people, which means a hundred cities with porous boundaries, or none at all, advancing on farms, villages, and karst hills. What will become of these cities in the coming decades? The answer might be already latent in contemporary Shanghai. When you walk the Bund and look across the Huangpu River to the sky-sucking buildings of global capitalism, what you find is perhaps the single best exemplar of the new urbanity: authoritarian, cheaply built, dangerously polluted, a city where 20 million people are daily rehearsing our renegade corporate future.