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Book review: Cities are good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis

Leo Hollis’ book, a comprehensive overview of the state of the city and contemporary thinking about urbanism, is a partisan, clap-happy study that fails to reflect reality

By Will Self  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Cities are good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis, by Leo Hollis.

Don’t allow that seductive 99p (NT$45) deceive you — with Leo Hollis’s Cities Are Good for You you’re definitely getting seventeen pounds’ worth of book because this is a hefty tome, not quite lavishly tooled enough for the coffee table, but nor entirely a comfortable proposition when lying abed. Which rather raises the question, who exactly is it aimed at? People who see the city as a backdrop of fashion plates against which they can strike physical and intellectual attitudes, or those for whom urbanism is just another wanky trend? Two years ago the world reached a tipping point, with more urban than rural inhabitants, and this is being reflected in the cultural superstructure: there are increasing numbers of books, films and TV and radio programs about the city.

Hollis’s is a reasonably efficient addition to the genre — a comprehensive overview of the state of the city and contemporary thinking in urbanism. He begins and ends his tale — which takes the form of an extended multi-city-break — with musings occasioned by Manhattan’s High Line park, the curiously luminal green space established on the derelict elevated railway line that runs down the Lower West Side. In between, Hollis travels through time, giving a highly partisan and select history of urban theory and town planning; and through space, hopping from the US to Bangalore and Mumbai, to Shanghai, to Songdo in South Korea, Santiago in Chile and Bogota in Colombia, then back home to his own Metroland on the outskirts of London for a little rest and reflection.

At its best Cities Are Good for You resembles a collection of readable feature articles on contemporary cities. Hollis is informative about public transport in South America and the economics of Mumbai’s infamous Dharavi — a slum that, once penetrated, is exposed as not just a colorful backdrop for fictional slumdog millionaires, but a complex and curiously efficient human anthill. He also covers Chinese urbanization well, carefully describing the punitive Hukou system of residential registration that allows for the ever-accelerating migration from rural areas, while simultaneously ensuring that these former peasants can be maintained in a state of perpetual peonage. Hollis is at pains to retain a global perspective, writing more about the cities of the emergent BRICK economies than he does about the boring old bricks-and-mortar town I live in. He rightly sees the future of the city as being shaped by developments to the east and the south, where the megalopolises of the 21st century will — or so late capitalism’s flag-wavers believe — arise, replete with gleaming towers worthy of Oz.

Cities are good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis

By Leo Hollis

416 pages

Bloomsbury

Hardback: UK


But at its worst Cities Are Good for You is a pretty vulgar garment; an applique of Panglossian optimism and theoretical banality stitched together by stylistic cliche. Does it matter that in a book about cities the author uses such expressions — quite without irony — as “vibrant art scene?” Well, yes, I think it does, just as writing the sentence: “For centuries the city has been the perfect place to develop the killer app” should’ve at least given Hollis’s editor cause for thoughts of the form: what was I put on earth for, if not to excise anachronistic drivel like this? But then this is a writer who will never use the expression “low tax” when he can reach for that providential euphemism “light touch fiscal policy.” To seriously tackle his infelicities and solecisms would’ve placed someone in the unenviable position of a barber shaving a dog: where do you stop?

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