The Language of Cities, Deyan Sudjic, Allen Lane, July 2017, pp. 240, £9.99 (Paperback)
One of several running jokes in the popular 1980s sitcom Only Fools & Horses involved the postal address of the two main characters, Derek and Rodney Trotter. They lived in a block of council flats called Nelson Mandela House, and every time its name was mentioned it got a big canned laugh. This was a playful dig at the now-defunct Greater London Council which, along with much of the rest of the capital’s municipal government, was believed to be infested with communists. Mandela was at this time regarded by mainstream opinion as a terrorist, and his lionisation among left-wingers as a manifestation of the latter’s obnoxious contrariness. These days there is scarcely any need for such barbs: the political spectrum has shifted well to the right after three decades of Thatcherite consensus, and today’s progressive activism is for the most part a rearguard action to protect social democracy against the ravages of fiscal austerity and the rise of the far right. There were echoes of that 1980s sectarianism during the recent general election, when the BBC adorned a segment on security policy with a graphic unaccountably juxtaposing an image of Osama Bin Laden with that of Jeremy Corbyn; by and large, though, the political climate is altogether less polarised than it once was.
Urban planning nonetheless remains an implicitly political issue, if only because London’s chronic housing problem shines an unflattering light on its increasingly inegalitarian socio-economic landscape. The recent Grenfell Tower disaster has greatly intensified that scrutiny, notwithstanding the incumbent Tory government’s insistence that it should not be ‘politicised’, whatever that means. Looking back over the terms of the capital’s previous two Mayors, Deyan Sudjic notes a contradiction: the very forces that drive London’s prosperity are also those that make it unaffordable and almost unliveable; and, what’s worse, however perverse it might sound, the populace has a direct stake in the maintenance of this status quo. Sudjic points out that ‘[n]obody [who voted for Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson] voted to have a housing stock that was priced grotesquely beyond the means of the majority of its citizens, although it is clear that most of its homeowners would not have been happy about any politician trying to do anything that, as they would see it, might cause the value of their properties to fall.’ Sudjic, who is a director of the Design Museum in London and has published widely on architecture, paints a picture of a city shaped by the haphazard interplay of market forces, ‘a mixture of ruthless opportunism, unintended consequences and political turmoil.’
That sense of randomness is epitomised in the story of how Malcolm McLean’s 40-foot steel shipping containers transformed the physical character of great swathes of East London by bringing about the closure of every enclosed dock from Tower Bridge to North Woolwich. A small technological tweak effectively wiped out a whole way of life, paving the way for the redevelopment of Canary Wharf in its current iteration. In a relatively short space of time, London re-styled itself along the lines of a Dubai or Shanghai, a vista of competing skyscrapers whose symbolic function Sudjic explains by invoking the cult Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams: ‘“Pay attention” is the message of all those towers. Build them and the bankers will come.’ Somewhere along the way, this apolitical pragmatism seems to have given way to outright cynicism, and the housing situation is a cipher for the overall structural malaise. The Conservative Party’s policy of denying housing benefit to families living in areas deemed too expensive is essentially, Sudjic suggests, a kind of social cleansing. He likens it to Walt Disney’s nostalgic-utopian ‘themed land’, Main Street USA, where Disney had notoriously proposed dealing with the issue of poverty by simply evicting people who lose their jobs.‘[T]he utter failure to build adequate affordable housing,’ he writes, ‘has threatened the whole nature of what has made London attract the ambitious, the gifted and the young from around the world.’
These flickers of passion aside, The Language of Cities does not have a great deal to say. For the most part the book is conspicuously directionless, an agglomeration of observations and tidbits presented in a coolly equivocal timbre redolent of cookbooks and Lonely Planet guides. That is not to say that it is entirely devoid of insight, of course. Sudjic is a perspicacious observer, and his meditations sometimes offer food for thought. He encourages us to look beyond preconceived definitions, to examine the actual state of things. He believes, for example, that we ought to reimagine the territorial limits of the city to incorporate the commuter belts into our map of the metropolis: ‘Those villages in Suffolk that are close enough to a railway station to deliver commuters to Liverpool Street in under 90 minutes are effectively as much a part of London as Croydon or Ealing, and they have house prices to prove it.’ Elsewhere, he describes the corporate tech behemoths that inhabit Silicon Valley as ‘city states, with no democratic pretensions.’ Its eery atmosphere is the product of ‘cross-fertilization between utopian speculation, physics and mathematics, and between self-reliant autonomy and wealth creation,’ culminating in ‘a mix of the utopian and the brutally unsentimental.’ For all its eery magnificence, he fears the current technological bubble might yet go the way of the Kodak empire, which vanished almost overnight when the digital revolution happened. A sense of ephemerality is immanent in its vastness, and Sudjic notes that spending time in Silicon Valley leaves him with ‘a hunger for a more permanent form of city-building, one the leaves the traces of lived live in it, and time passing.’
Alas, he is not always so thought-provoking. The line between a commentary and a mere musing is a fine one indeed, and Sudjic coasts through it with nonchalant complacency on a regular basis. He laments the reduction of Venice to ‘a glum pedestrian circuit’, and worries that other cities might go the same way; he observe that the mania for digital photography has collapsed the visible distinction between tourists and locals in the environs of major attractions, as both tourists and locals alike are engrossed in their iPhones; and observes that the number of people passing through airports is growing day by day. One can’t help wondering if this is the kind of book that only gets published if the author’s reputation is already well established, and can be relied upon to shift copies on its own; an emerging writer probably wouldn’t get away with such banal meandering. The Language of Cities is replete with platitudinous nuggets of received wisdom, delivered in a timbre of aphoristic didacticism. We are told, for example, that ‘A successful city is one that makes room for surprises.’ There should not be ‘too much’ gentrification, but ‘too much rigid, state-owned social housing’ is also bad; we need ‘the spark that is essential to making a city that works.’ ‘A successful city,’ moreover, ‘is an entity that is continually reconfiguring itself, changing its social structure and meaning…’ It is hard to quibble with these tautologically valid assertions; but it is hard to get terribly excited about them either.
Houman Barekat is a book critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, Literary Review, the Irish Times and elsewhere. He is co- editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, forthcoming from O/R Books.