Book of the Week: A History of Future Cities

Shanghai

Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” The British poet laureate was not averse to an exaggeration here or there if it resulted in a good rhyming couplet. But as an Englishman born in 19th-century India, Kipling undoubtedly saw the commingling of East and West on a daily basis. Perhaps nowhere was the rich mixture of European and Asian cultures more obvious than in a bustling Indian city such as Bombay, which was rapidly modernizing in the increasingly globalized economic climate of the late 1800s.

 

If the rise of a cosmopolitan urban center against the backdrop of globalization sounds A History of Future Cities familiar, it should. In his new book, “A History of Future Cities,” author Daniel Brook calls Bombay, now known as Mumbai, and other “precociously modern” Asian cities a “dress rehearsal for the 21st century.” Brook also profiles St. Petersburg, Shanghai and Dubai in a fascinating and erudite look at where westernization ends and modernization begins.

 

Even at a time when the world’s tallest skyscraper rises above Dubai and some of the most successful practitioners of contemporary capitalism are based in Shanghai, disentangling modernity from its western roots can prove problematic – probably because “being modern” has traditionally entailed copying the West. Brook begins his story with Peter the Great’s journey through Europe. The trip inspired the Russian czar to model his new capital of Saint Petersburg on Amsterdam, which in the late 17th century was the wealthiest – and in Peter’s mind, the most “western” – city in the world. The conspicuously European architecture and layout of the emperor’s eponymous capital was meant to signal that Russia intended to abandon its Asian roots and join the company of truly modern nations.

 

Brook argues that Saint Petersburg’s self-conscious adoption of Western style echoes throughout the other cities he examines. In the 1920s, Shanghai enjoyed the hottest jazz scene outside Harlem. In Dubai, glassy skyscrapers and über-luxurious hotels built with immigrant labor shimmer in the heat, taking a model set by mid-to-late 20th-century Los Angeles and Houston to its logical conclusion.

 

But if, as Brook claims, the 21st century will be the Asian century, then how does one account for the continuing desire among elites from Dubai to Shanghai to live in cities that are, at least outwardly, Western? His answer is both profound and profoundly hopeful. He points out that, without realizing it, Westerners are also taking new ideas about urban space from Asia and making them their own.

 

“In America’s burgeoning Chinatowns, high-rise buildings that stack offices atop karaoke parlors atop restaurants atop shopping malls bring the distinctive urbanism of 21st-century China to the United States, just as Americans brought their architecture to their Shanghai concession 150 years earlier,” he writes. Many Americans may not see the new architecture as distinctively Chinese, however, meaning that modernism is slowly becoming divorced from a sense of culture or place.

 

Could this admittedly modest architectural development foretell a truly global modernity? The idea is certainly intriguing, but only time will tell if the coming century severs for good the ties between modernization and westernization. If so, East and West will not only meet more regularly – it might become increasingly difficult to tell them apart.

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