I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the
arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know that this would
be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between
the measurements of space and the events of its past.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974
In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities fluid assemblages of signs and images litter a subterranean landscape which mark the destinations to which Marco Polo has travelled. Polo recounts these destinations to his Emperor Kublai Khan without recourse to a map or a wayfaring guide; we are given little by way of their geography, or any sense of the spatial connections between each recalled location. Instead there are only fragments, the improbable exceptions of remembrance and experience. Calvino’s invisible cities are all given names, women’s names like Irene, Chloe, Raissa, Adelma: Irene, for example, “is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on” (1974: 112). There are many cities, but always the one: Venice. This is the Venice collapsed or hidden behind its contemporary, over-exposed tourist façade, whose ‘invisibility’ is cultivated as the imaginative potentiality of everyday encounters with a familiar space. Of this Venice there are no general claims made, instead, from the singularity of this one city, are teased provisional cities that capture a mood, a memory, a fleeting gesture, the tracery of a half-glimpsed pattern…
What might Calvino’s peculiar treatments of urban spatiality offer to today’s practitioners of urban computing? M. Christine Boyer (1996: 142) has noted the way Invisible Cities represents a network “much like the matrix of a hypertext, in which the reader can select multiple routes and draw a variety of conclusions”. During the 1960s Calvino was interested in what the combinatory complexities of cybernetics meant as a way of perceiving the world, one that could divide it into a series of discrete, divisible parts, rather than continuous in form, a shift he considered radical in the way it altered the theoretical image of our mental processes. Invisible Cities sees this recombinatory logic of cybernetics in action, allowing for an imaginary projection of urban space via a set of algorithmic relationships that enable places to exchange their form, order, and distances, as qualities assorted “like the letters in a name” (Calvino 1974: 164).
In Invisible Cities this recombinatory logic incorporates not only discrete spatial entities, but also “the measurements of space and the events of its past”. An imaginative projection of the city’s spatiality is thus evoked as intimately temporal – but again, this temporality is not continuous, as in the steady passage of time, but is rather experienced as discontinuous and elliptical. Just as there is no clear linear passage through the spatial environment of the city of Venice, so too there is no clear passage through its shifting temporalities, or the discrete stages of Marco Polo’s journey: “all the future Berenices”, for example, “are already present in this instant” (1974: 146). For this is a temporality that figures like the experience of memory, in which recollections emerge without warning, as discrete, embodied moments, which might flash up at any given time – such as, perhaps, when you lean out of a window in the early evening.
In this way Calvino animated invisible cities as topologies of moments, whose recombinations and recollections continue to haunt imagistic projections and abstract modes of knowledge. Released two years after the publication of Invisible Cities, Jonothan Raban’s Soft City (1974) offered a similar treatment of the urban terrain as intimately personal, and therefore malleable and indeterminate: “Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you” (Raban 1974: 1). The fractured identity of the modern condition was mirrored in the malleability of urban space, as Raban’s narrative itinerary teased out the many from the singular, navigating agitated spaces of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare. The dynamic of cities was presented as “plastic by nature”, criss-crossing both the real and the imagined, the voice of commentary mixing it up with the musings of a wondering, wandering traveler. Dense with labyrinthine alleyways of possibility and happenstance, Soft City presented urban spaces “in our images; they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them” (Raban 1974: 1-2).
Both writers offered their accounts of the city not as scholars of urbanism but instead as conjurors of stories. Jeannette Winterson (2001) has written that “[r]eading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts. Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps.” At one point in his account of invisible cities, Calvino describes the way Kublai Khan had focused so narrowly on a chessboard of black and white squares that the game’s meaning had eluded him, as it had simply become an abstract piece of wood (Boyer 1996: 143). But when Marco Polo reminded him that this chessboard was “inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple” Khan’s imagination took flight. As Boyer has suggested, in this way Calvino teaches us a lesson: we might reduce events to abstract patterns that facilitate the procedures of logical operations, or we can work to engender or revive imaginary projections – in this case, making words reveal the very tangible qualities of a given object – which in turn might allow for the continued presence of the unfathomable, the invisible (ibid).
This Chapter considers some of the ways in which we might continue to encounter the elliptical invisibilities of contemporary ‘real-time ‘ cities. Today, the ability to graphically enhance our imaging of cities as multi-scalar, networked environments offers profound potentials, introducing an array of new urban management and design techniques using more detailed, real-time urban data. Just as a shapeless dust cloud invaded the continents of Invisible Cities, today’s real-time cities are underpinned by an information architecture of sensors and applications, whose databases express the mutating, multi-scalar complexities of the material world. The ability to visualize these interactions in real-time radically disrupts our conception of the city, by representing urban spaces according to their everyday uses as much as by their physical, built structures. Real-time usage patterns can, for example, be applied to predict the impact of new developments, replacing of out of date census data with predictive models more closely attuned to the complex interactions and spatial flows of the city. Embedded sensor networks reveal that which might otherwise be invisible to the naked eye; like coins rubbed over waxpaper, they make visible a myriad of fluid, complex exchanges between material, social and informational universes.
For many, this computational intensification of the material world retrieves hidden, hitherto banished possibilities, and can be put to disruptive uses (Foth 2008: 19). To Foth, practitioners of urban informatics can act as ‘urban anatomists’, dissecting urban environments and infrastructure by “trying to microscopically uncover the connections and interrelations of city elements”, seeking to “picture the invisible and to zoom into a fine-grained resolution of urban environments”. Peter Hall and Janet Abrams have suggested “[m]apping has emerged in the information age as a means to make the complex accessible, the hidden visible, the unmappable mappable” (2006: 12). The application of hyper-local, multi-scalar and real time mapping techniques, it is argued, present opportunities to expose ‘hidden’ or hitherto invisible relationships, including the relationships between centre and periphery, power and influence (see Sassen 2008; Boyer 2006).
For Dan Hill, there is the potential to avoid grand infrastructural interventions which become “hardwired into the urban fabric” for subsequent generations, and to instead develop a more “iterative, responsive field of ‘urban acupunctures”. Location-aware computing has in such ways been seen to greatly expand the range of possibilities for artists, architects and designers to “re-enchant the world”, offering “a way of making visible all these hidden stories of place” (Crang and Graham 2007: 815). The embedding of microprocessors via sensor web networks in physical environments also enables the informational life-worlds of millions of ‘users’, human or otherwise, to be made visible, such that needs not only of humans but also natural environments can be revealed as diffuse, complex systems of interaction.
But as practitioners of urban computing seek to actively to disrupt established views of the city, visualizing that which has hitherto remained hidden from view, a return to Invisible Cities also prompts us to reconsider the enduring presence of that which still remains out of view in today’s real-time cities. In a sense, many of the potentials associated with real-time mobile networks are predicated on making visible that which might otherwise remain unseen. But the twentieth century has already witnessed many costly lessons associated with relying too heavily on technologies of visual abstraction and representation as a means to progress urban reform. So when we today assess the potentials associated with enhanced, contextually-aware spatial representations of the real-time city, Calvino’s writing reminds us of the need to be remain mindful not only of what this capacity for spatial measurement reveals, but to consider also how we might continue to enfold the ‘the events of its past’ within these emergent, distributed networked configurations.
READ MORE: Chapter in Digital Cities publication From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen. By by Marcus Foth (Editor) , Laura Forlano (Editor) , Christine Satchell (Editor) , Martin Gibbs (Editor) , Judith Donath (Afterword).
The title for the chapter was inspired by reading Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, in which she takes her readers on a walk through London one winter’s eve in search of a pencil. Happily, it’s available online now, and can be read below.
Another inspiration for the piece are the Lost Laneways of Sydney – one of the images from this fine collection is below. It captures a man walking down Exeter Place in Sydney, 1906. Exeter Place was obliterated as part of the Wexworth St Resumption.