Musings on cities personified

Walter Benjamin said that cities are the baton of human imagination. They are probably humans’ ultimate works of art. Cities are also the sites where other forms of art take place and persevere. For instance, the most important museums and galleries are located in cities. Seen from the outside, in a panoramic view, the layout of cities adopts different shapes. As with clouds and mountains, in these shapes one might identify unexpected figures, such as humans, animals or monsters.

Recently, the English artist Adam Dant mapped the personality of a selection of great cities or metropolis, such as Sydney, Amsterdam, New York, Beijing or Rome. Inspired by the maps of 28 cities, Dant created a specific personality for each city and published them on the book Living Maps: An Atlas of Cities Personified.  He calls this work “a naked, fleshy atlas.”

In the Introduction of the book, Dant explains that his ‘living maps’ were created by imagining each city as a living organism:

Our cities are personified every day in the talk of their citizens, so why not in their imagery? Central Park might very well be the lungs of Manhattan, the Grote Markt the heart of Antwerp, and the London Underground a place in London’s bowels. But where are the toes, the ribs, and the brains of our cities?

This idea is not new though, the analogy between a city and a body is inspired by the architects of Italian Reinassance, who based their designs in the form of the human body. By recovering this tradition, Dant creates intriguing depictions of maps that we normally view as geometric figures. For example, Paris is the Lady Liberty, Venice is the lion of St Mark, Zurich is a monster that devours gold, Los Angeles is a phantom, and Rome is a woman of three arms, with one holding a snake by its neck.

Dant states that his atlas is defined by “the particulars of geography, history, population, or, in the case of many places, good or bad reputation.” For a brief overview of the book’s personified cities, it is worth checking this selection of maps with a description by the English artist.

The personified cities of Adam Ant reminded me of a passage of “City of Glass”, a story by Paul Auster that comprises the first part of his New York Trilogy. “City of Glass” is a philosophical tale about a detective who gets involved in a case where he never quite understands what mystery he is supposed to solve.

Among different tasks, the detective is hired to follow in Manhattan the daily movements of a strange old man. Every day, the old man takes a long walk in the streets of Manhattan city. He seems to walk randomly for hours, just for the sake of it, fooling around while the day ends.

However, after a few days, the detective suddenly realizes that the old man walks following a specific pattern. By looking closely, he finds out that the walking pattern represents a letter. Each day, the old man’s wandering through the streets of Manhattan forms a letter, such as L, A, F, etc. After a week or so, the detective understands that the old man is sending him a message. Then, the story takes another turn and the detective gets more confused.

Anyway, forming letters through walking routes might be another way to imagine cities.

What others are there?

Author: Jaime Olvera Garcia, UQ PhD graduate, j.olveragarcia@uq.edu.au


One thought on “Musings on cities personified

  1. Le Corbusier too envisioned Chandigarh’s map as a person (capitol as head, central square as heart, roads as arteries, industrial zones as arms, parks as lungs, commercial zone as stomach)

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