Tue, Apr 23, 2013 - Page 12 News List

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

Then there’s the built environment; for someone prepared to spend 400 pages telling us how great cities are, Hollis seems remarkably untouched by the aesthetics of buildings. Say what you will about Le Corbusier, he did know how to design a beautiful building; and modernism was a genuine response to the technological zeitgeist, and often an attempt to remake the city as a haptic phenomenon. (Think of the wood grain impressed into the brutalist concrete beams of the Hayward Gallery.) I tend to think of cities first and foremost in this sensual way, and to register my response to them by my transit of the urban scape; whereas for Hollis the flaneur is, presumably, a rather recondite — if not irrelevant — figure, although he professes to be a great urban walker himself.

In place of this shifting, evanescent and endlessly creative perspective of the city, we are offered a lot of wittering about Twitter. During Hollis’s extended paean to the delights of Call-me-Dave’s “silicon roundabout” in London’s hipper-than-thou Shoreditch, I kept being reminded of that YouTube sensation The Dickhead Song, which mercilessly satirizes the “creatives” of east London, and in particular of its rousing chorus: “I love my life as a dickhead / All my friends are dickheads too …” Because all sorts of dickheads meet with Hollis’s approval — including the mayor of London — while he’s never happier than when extolling the virtues of the latest killer app.

In truth, the real killer app in the city where Hollis and I are both domiciled is the light fiscal touch — insignificant local tax-raising powers — and the sham it makes of a true local democracy. It’s a killer app that’s murdered the municipal socialism that once made London a livable city for people of all classes, and has left the way open for the city to increasingly resemble Mayor Bloomberg’s zero-tolerance-for-the-poor Manhattan. I don’t imagine these developments — taking place in cities all over Britain — will be good for you, no matter the gloss this handsomely produced book puts on them.

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