A History of Future Cities, by Daniel Brook

In this fascinating and readable book, Daniel Brook explores four cities—St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai—that were purposely built as gateways to the world. They do not seem to belong where they are located, but instead ignore native culture and become cities that could be located anywhere. Brook’s focus on their architecture brings this element to the fore: a room copied from the Vatican in St. Petersburg’s royal palace, Art Deco hotels in Shanghai that look like Manhattan, a university in Mumbai cribbed from Oxford, Dubai’s double Chrysler buildings. But what they really have in common is their purpose: to embody the future.

The four cities he chooses to discuss play a similar role in each of their countries: they were created to import and embody modernity. Architects and scientists from more modern—that is, Western—nations were brought in to create a city that would carry no hint of local traditions, but instead resemble and compete with the major cities of the Western world. The intent was not to create a slavish imitation, but to provide a window to the outside world and begin the task of dragging an isolated culture still set in ancient ways into the modern age.

Indeed, each of the four cities becomes an incubator for change, though not always the change originally intended. Rulers hoped to import scientific, artistic, and business knowledge without importing modern ideas about freedom and democracy.

Entranced by Amsterdam’s technical advancements and domination of world trade at the end of the 17th century, Peter the Great created St. Petersburg from scratch on a marsh far from Moscow. He expected that the architects and scientists and artists whom he brought in would inspire his people to learn new ways and prepare to compete in the modern world. That happened in St. Petersburg itself, but did not spread to the rest of the country, creating friction and unrest. Once the home of the new, the city was quickly pushed out of favor after Peter’s death. We follow St. Petersburg through its turbulent history (and name changes), the city’s story helping us to see Russia’s familiar evolution from serfdom to revolution to the Putin era in a new light.

Similarly, Shanghai was China’s window to the world in the mid-19th century. After losing the Opium War, China found itself forced to allow the Western powers do whatever they wanted. And what they did was create a modern city with abundant appurtenances, but these were only available to Westerners. Again we come to a new understanding of China’s changes through the story of Shanghai’s evolution.

Mumbai (then Bombay) also was built up and run by the British. Yet by attracting and training natives to the point where they felt adequate to take over, the Raj helped to create its own demise. Now a city of “slumdogs and millionaires”, Mumbai hovers on the brink of change. The 2011 census shocked Mumbai by showing that its population is in decline. Yet its tremendous wealth could be used to achieve the greatness of its promise.

The most recent city to be examined is Dubai. Centrally located for trade it languished until the 1970s when a forward-looking Sheikh Rashid armed with oil money and air conditioning set out to create a modern city. The story of how he and his son Sheikh Mohammed succeeded is a fascinating one.

Used to the idea of cities growing slowly over the centuries, I had not realised before that these four cities were conceived and created so quickly. Nor that they were envisioned to be a threshold between a country isolated in the past and the modern world. The plan to confine within a city’s limits such modern ideas as free speech and general suffrage seem in hindsight obviously doomed. Authoritarian governments may think that they can contain change, but may find that a little change can lead to a revolution no one expected.

This thoughtful book recognises the great cost of creating these cities. The peasants who actually built the first three perished in scores, being considered expendable in pursuit of the ruler's dream, while Dubai's imported labor doesn't fare much better.

I highly recommend this fascinating view of history through the fates of these four cities. As Brook says, “They 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.” Seeing how utopian dreams play out fascinates me, but here those dreams affected whole countries and empires.

Have you ever been to a city that did not seem to belong in the country where it was located?

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