a writing and architecture workshop
“The Metropolis is a complete CYCLOPEDIA, where every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make himself happy and comfortable.”
Pierce Egan, Life in London, 1821
The quotation above begins the fifth chapter of Jonathan Raban’s Soft City, so called because the book discusses the ‘soft’ aspects of urban life. Here architecture and planning is largely ignored (in the conventional sense) in favour of the psychological, cultural and autobiographical. In this chapter, entitled The Moroccan Birdcage , Raban elaborates on the analogy of city as encyclopedia. Few literary/architectural comparisons seem appropriate yet the following extract is revealing. It is a good example of how language can help redefine and shift one’s thinking in ways a drawing isn’t capable of.
“The idea of the city as encyclopedia or emporium is a useful one, and it might have helped the planners, philanthropists and journalists who, during the course of the nineteenth century, resorted to more and more totalitarian metaphors to describe the impossible unnatural entity of metropolitan life. The image of the encyclopedia suggests the special randomness of the city’s diversity; it hints that, compared with other books or communities, the logic of the city is not of the kind which lends itself to straightforward narration or to continuous page-by-page reading. At the same time, it does imply that the city is a repository of knowledge, although no single reader or citizen can command the whole of that knowledge. His reading, his living, are necessarily selective and exclusive: its is in the uniquely personal combination of entries with which he alone is familiar that his expertise, his grasp of the larger impersonal wisdom of the encyclopedia or city is vested. One man’s city is the sum of all the routes he takes through it, a spoor as unique as a finger-print.”