Thursday
Sep162004

The Book Of Cities

Philip Dodd and Ben Donald

Every city has its own unique character, despite the prevalence of global brands and chains. There are cities of every size, shape and mood. Cities of dreaming spires. Cities that never sleep. Cities of angels and street-urchins. Cities that are brash and vital, or where the memories of erstwhile glories lie buried beneath ruined façades. The Book Of Cities is an inspirational gazetteer of 250 cities of the world, a celebration of diversity, energies and culture.

This round-the-world journey sets out from the Greenwich Meridian in London and heads west, visiting classic metropolitan destinations like New York, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Rome, but also the lesser known: Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, locked in a time capsule of 1950s Italy, and Irkutsk, a hidden jewel in the heart of Siberia.

Each city is portrayed by thought-provoking photographs, lively commentaries and wise, witty and pithy quotes from the good, the great and the extremely well-travelled.

Pavilion Books
Hardback, 512 pages
Published 16 September 2004
ISBN 1 86205 710 9
Buy now

German edition
National Geographic
The Book Of Cities:
Die 250 aufregendsten Städte der Welt
978 3 937 60612 5

Spanish edition
El Libro De Las Ciudades
Blume
978 8 480 76516 9

Reviews

This is more like it. True, it’s easier to convey in a tight space a sense of a city than of a country, but the whole approach here is fresher. Over 512 pages, the authors take us on a tour of 250 cities, presented in longitudinal order. Each is given a spread, but here the pictures (drawn from a wide range of libraries) and text usually combine to give a strong sense of place and mood. Arresting display quotes, drawn from sources as disparate as the Bible and the rapper Eminem, make you want to start reading rather than flick over. Here’s Paul Theroux on the first city featured: “The man who is tired of London is tired of looking for a parking space.”

Michael Kerr, Daily Telegraph, 25 September 2004

The definite article trumpeted by The Book Of Cities takes boldness to the point of hubris. There are so many cities, and so many varieties of city: the historic, the new, the over-familiar household names and the unknown, or even unpronounceable. Some cities are on the rise, others on the downswing. But just the one book for them all?

Philip Dodd and Ben Donald have selected 250 of the world’s urban centres. Each receives 200-300 words, a large and lavishly printed photo or two, a quotation and a stripped-down gazetteer of vital statistics: population, position, famous residents and natives. “We liked cities located at the far corners of continents,” they write, and also “those that have fallen on hard times in recent years.”

Few will argue with their selection. The top 200, as they admit, virtually choose themselves. It is, and was for the authors, the bottom 50 where the arguments start. The epithets bland, non-descript and dull might, for this reviewer, have been coined to describe Grenoble, Aswan and Montreal. But others may say the same of reticent gems like Aarhus (Denmark’s second city) or Tallinn (Estonia’s capital). Our urban pantheons differ. When it comes to cities we all want to deride or discover somewhere.

Perhaps this is the appetite that The Book Of Cities exists to satisfy. Dodd and Donald offer us Nuuk in Greenland, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, a former penal colony-turned-town and the nominal capital of Antarctica. Their derision is tempered by the fact of having included each city in the first place but they can at least quote other, more forthright souls. Charleston in South Carolina is “Death on the Atlantic” according to one unnamed source, Dallas is half-heartedly defended from the charge of being a “self-centred, oil-rich ignoramus” and Casablanca is more subtly skewered; neither text nor image reveals anything of interest, one realises, because there is nothing of interest to be revealed. Casablanca, the real Casablanca reminds us, was shot in the United States.

The itinerary of The Book Of Cities advances longitudinally. Dodd and Donald zig-zag north and south to inch westwards around the globe, replacing the usual equatorial round trip with a mad, jagged cardiogram stretching (by my rough calculation) to just under a million miles.

This is not a journey that any sane traveller would, or could, undertake, but that is not its purpose. The longitudinal schema throws up startling juxtapositions and contrasts: Tangier next door to Belfast, Moscow cheek-by-jowl with Nairobi. That the monotony of North America’s more generic urban offerings is broken up by the likes of Cuzco and Medellín is a welcome bonus.

The quality of the descriptions and photographs rises and falls no less precipitously. At zero degrees on the Greenwich meridian, London leads the parade. In the wavy panes of a leaded window, a dozen distorted reflections show a RouteMaster bus crawling between the grey Portland stone monoliths of central London’s 19th-century civic architecture, disappearing and re-appearing in apt analogy with the fate of this metropolitan icon. An inset photo expands the point: the glass pods of the London Eye hang in space before a freshly-scrubbed Big Ben behind which Westminster Abbey rises, then a hodge-podge of office blocks, churches, gas containers and cranes. A churning cityscape barely anchored by its historic fixtures and fittings, London is a process, these images argue.

Then the text. The city is a “jaded aristocrat”; it “simply oozes history”. But this is an eccentric history in which London’s Victorian superiority “spawned a hundred world sports”. Its black taxis “seemingly modelled on Rolls-Royces” chug through streets which are not named “after artists or revolutionaries” for there “is no Churchill Boulevard or Shakespeare Avenue”.

There are, in fact, three Shakespeare Avenues in London and, while no boulevard (or rue, or strasse) commemorates that hitherto unsuspected revolutionary, Winston Churchill, there do exist Churchill Roads, Gardens and Courts (four of each), two Places, one Avenue, a Terrace, a Walk and a Way. The particular Rolls-Royce concealed within the boxy lines of the London cab is presumably the Phantom, but as for the “hundred world sports”... Are there 100 world sports?

Happily, the further the authors stray from the better-trodden global paths, the more they relax, liberated from the need to find an original take on cities we all think we already know too well. By Accra, the taxis have become merely “flamboyant” and painted with “biblical slogans”. In Oxford the rear window of one serves to reflect a pair of dreaming spires without further comment. Ouagadougou seems to have dispensed with them altogether, having shaken off “the African curse of wheezing two-stroke ghost-cars”, but one returns in Oporto (a battered Mercedes) and no fewer than five illustrate Mexico City, where they are green and white painted VW Beetles and contribute to the “terracotta-brown smog”, which is also shown, hanging over a vast, tessellated blur.

That blur is the city, and it exemplifies an intrinsic technical problem. Cities are simply too big to photograph and too diverse to describe in a few hundred words, so icons, potted history and cliché fill the void. The authors, clearly mindful of this, have laboured mightily to avoid the obvious; they promise in their introduction never to apply the word “bustling” to an open-air market. By and large, they keep that promise, and the larger one it implies. Above a photograph of New York’s gaudy lights glaring off wet asphalt, an electrical haemorrhage of yellows and pinks, the authors write: “Nothing seems strange.” They are right, and therein lies the wider problem. No book of this kind can scrape much deeper than the surface and, at that level, we’ve seen it all before.

Lawrence Norfolk, The Guardian, 1 January 2005

Book of the Week

In this attractive coffee table book, Dodd and Donald take readers on a fascinating journey, in longitudinal order, from London to Cambridge via some of the world’s most evocative destinations.

Many of the entries demand inclusion – New York, Rio, Paris, Rome, Cairo – but some are obscure. Nuuk, for example, the capital of Greenland, with a population of 13,700 who have a propensity for eating seabirds.

This 512-pager is not a guide book. It offers an insight into a city’s character, rather than its physical attributes as a tourist destination: a book to fire the imagination of even the most committed armchair traveller.

Steve Jones, The Observer, 24 October 2004

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