Thanks every­one for com­ing. Thanks to Waterstones for putting it on. Thanks so much to Gary and Kit for their patience, their hard work, their sup­port. It’s been fan­tas­tic, and it’s been a kind of tur­bu­lent time and every­thing, but we got there in the end, which they did a fan­tas­tic job. And thanks to Chris for a won­der­ful cov­er. It looks absolute­ly bril­liant. And thanks to Christiana and Caspian for an amaz­ing amount of sup­port and patience and just putting up with me for the past two years.

I was going to do just a read­ing from the book, and I thought because the images are so pop­u­lar and peo­ple tend to like that, and for all the dif­fer­ent read­ings and events we’re doing we’re just going to do dif­fer­ent talks about images in rela­tion to Imaginary Cities, this one I thought we would do a talk on London, because London’s been the city that’s real­ly embraced the project, and the pub­lish­er’s based here, and every­one seems to really—it seems to have chimed with some­thing in London

What I’d like to to look at is alter­na­tive ver­sions of London, unbuilt build­ings, dif­fer­ent struc­tures from fan­tas­ti­cal lit­er­a­ture (sci­ence fic­tion, that sort of thing), and just see how that reframes the city that we inhab­it every day. How it makes us see it with per­haps new eyes.

This is from a com­ic. Brian Bolland did the art­work for it, and it shows the…well, as we all know, London was destroyed by Martian invaders. There’s a per­sis­tent thread through a lot of pulp nov­els and sci­ence fic­tion nov­els and com­ic books, of London being destroyed. It’s quite an inter­est­ing theme.


It actu­al­ly goes around the world. This is from Pabel Utopia, which was a German sci­ence fic­tion mag­a­zine. One of the things I’ve been quite keen to show on the Twitter feed is we have a few of retro­fu­tur­ism and this idea that the future sort of hap­pened in the 1950s and we all have images of the Jetsons and this kind of American view of the future as this sleek, shiny, space age kind of thing, and one of the things I’ve been real­ly con­scious of doing on the Twitter feed is show­ing that quite a lot of dif­fer­ent coun­tries had the same approach. So you get Japanese vari­ants of it, German vari­ants of it. It’s the world over, real­ly. Where there were com­ic books, there were peo­ple try­ing to imag­ine the future, and now those futures are kind of embalmed in the past, and how they sort of mark a time of pos­si­bil­i­ties that per­haps we have let slip away or were tak­en from us, really.


When I was a boy I used to read a lot of com­ic books, and what real­ly inter­est­ed me was­n’t the kind of tales of super­heroes or alien plan­ets or any­thing like that. It was this idea of tak­ing iden­ti­fi­able spaces, cities that I rec­og­nized and had been in, and see­ing how they could be trans­formed. One of the comics that I res­onat­ed most with grow­ing up was Dan Dare, who was the pilot of the future from Eagle com­ic. The rea­son that he res­onat­ed was he took an iden­ti­fi­able London and put it through the prism of the opti­mism of that gen­er­a­tion of the late 50s/60s, even just pri­or to the 1950s. The kind of futur­ism that you see in Dan Dare

This tow­er I think was com­mis­sioned by Tony Benn when he was Minister of Technology. That real­ly embod­ies that kind of futur­ism that real­ly exist­ed in London at the time, this idea that they were build­ing a future that was going to be pow­ered by tech­nol­o­gy and it was going to be for every­one, and this was reflect­ed in the comics. So in a strange way, you have comics antic­i­pat­ing soci­etal change, but you also have soci­etal change being echoed back in comics. So kids were grow­ing up in this stuff, and one of the things that has puz­zled me is where has that kind of opti­mism gone?


This is an exam­ple of future London from Judge Dredd: the Megazine. It’s a form of London that has been absorbed. In Judge Dredd, London is known as Brit-Cit and it con­sti­tutes the entire south of England. But the thing that real­ly struck me read­ing this as a boy was they retained—in a lot of futur­is­tic com­ic books and sci­ence fic­tion nov­els, they have a ten­den­cy to just com­plete­ly flat­ten what exists now and build from scratch so you get these crazy tow­ers and space ports and all sorts of things. But the way cities work is that they’re almost always a col­lage, and there’s frag­ments of past eras and past archi­tec­tur­al styles in with the futur­ist style, so you get this kind of col­lage of dif­fer­ent eras. Lost eras, cur­rent eras, and Judge Dredd was real­ly clever in that it wield­ed a real satir­i­cal swipe at Thatcherite Britain and Reaganite America. But it also rec­og­nized that the future already kind of exists. There are things now that will still be here. This build­ing will be here in a hun­dred years’ time, two hun­dred years’ time, and it may be sur­round­ed by the equiv­a­lent of what­ev­er the Shard is in a hun­dred years’ time. But it’s that idea of the city is col­lage and pre­vi­ous eras sur­viv­ing while oth­ers get sub­merged in them. Quite inter­est­ed in Imaginary Cities of look­ing at why cer­tain ones fall away and why cer­tain ones are retained. What is it about them that makes us hang on to that par­tic­u­lar era?

What I’d like to look at, aside from com­ic books and sci­ence fic­tion nov­els, you can always find these fan­tas­ti­cal exam­ples and talk about them all day. One of the things that real­ly real­ly inter­ests me is archi­tects who’ve built actu­al build­ings, the archi­tects who have designed the city that we’re in, almost every one of them has port­fo­lios filled with unbuilt build­ings and utopi­an plans and schemes. When we search through these arcades and we look at them, we’re real­ly see­ing forms of London that could’ve been and just nev­er came to pass. So I’d like to just look at a few.


This one is Seddon & Lamb’s unbuilt Imperial Monumental Halls and Tower, from 1904. Westminster was begin­ning to become a bit clut­tered. Too many stat­ues, too many tombs, and they decid­ed that it would be a real­ly good idea to build this gigan­tic Gothic struc­ture that was going to loom over Westminster. They were going to put all the excess tombs, shift Shakespeare, who­ev­er; just put them in there and for­get because they’d run out of room, essen­tial­ly. I don’t know why it got can­celled, because it was pret­ty much a hare-brained scheme from the begin­ning, but I’m not sure how they man­age to fit every­one in if there was no room a hun­dred years ago. I think they just got more dis­cern­ing of who they put in there. The exact quote is that it was a wor­thy cen­ter to the metrop­o­lis of the Empire, upon which the sun nev­er sets.” But, of course, the sun always sets.

This one is Charles Glover’s Central Airport from 1931. This was to be built on top of King’s Cross. It was going to be made out of rein­forced con­crete. It was going to have lifts that pas­sen­gers could enter the build­ings, go up the lift direct­ly onto the radius, and there were eight run­ways that it could just take off from. They did­n’t real­ly fac­tor in the fact that what hap­pens if a plane over­shoots the run­way. It’d be absolute­ly hor­ren­dous, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It actu­al­ly got to pro­to­type stage.

This was a gen­uine idea by a work­ing archi­tect. These ideas, one of the things I’m real­ly keen to stress on the Twitter feed is the ideas that archi­tects come up with are infi­nite­ly more insane than sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers or fan­ta­sy writ­ers. If you search through even the great­est architects—Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius—they all have these things hid­den away, and I’m just absolute­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by it because it’s visions of cities that might actu­al­ly have some­how sneaked through. This con­ceiv­ably could’ve hap­pened it had just come in front of the right (or wrong) com­mit­tee, and it would’ve got rub­ber stamped and we would’ve been liv­ing with it ever since.

That is Lindy and Lewis’ air­port. That was going to go over Liverpool Street. It kind of makes the pre­vi­ous one look com­par­a­tive­ly sane. 

The third one was due to go over the Thames. You can see it there, it’s just like a table next to Westminster. peo­ple are going to go up the legs. There’s going to be lifts in the legs, and planes were just going to land there. It would’ve made a great pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ty for tourists, see­ing the planes come in along the Thames, but obvi­ous­ly it would’ve been an absolute disaster.


There’s a lot of con­tro­ver­sy at the moment about the Garden Bridge, and it’s basi­cal­ly an ongo­ing thing that’s hap­pened in London over cen­turies. There’s been con­tro­ver­sy every time a bridge—unless it’s com­plete­ly mundane—there’s always con­tro­ver­sy. Especially the Garden Bridge in par­tic­u­lar. I don’t think the design’s spec­tac­u­lar or that con­tro­ver­sial, but it’s the fact that it’s under­writ­ten by pub­lic mon­ey and it’s going to be pri­vate space. Those are all argu­ments in them­selves, but the con­tro­ver­sy about build­ing bridges, if they’re in any way imag­i­na­tive, it’s just been incred­i­bly con­tro­ver­sial. So this one is Horace Jones’ alter­na­tive design for Tower Bridge, obvi­ous­ly. It can’t be lift­ed up to let ships under, thus defeat­ing the pur­pose completely. 

This is one of my favorite images of every­thing I’ve ever put online. It’s Holden’s ver­sion of Tower Bridge. This was designed in 1943. London had been absolute­ly pul­ver­ized by the Blitz. He decid­ed, and he’s been crit­i­cized for it, a lot of peo­ple say at the time of the Blitz is it a good idea to design a pure glass Art Deco Tower Bridge? It’s not real­ly ide­al. It can be spot­ted from the sky in an instant. Really what he was doing, it’s quite an old idea as well, [was] hav­ing utopi­an aspi­ra­tions in the mid­dle of ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances. So dur­ing the first World War, Bruno Taut the German Expressionist archi­tect, designed these glass palaces, and he intend­ed to take over the Alps and instead of hav­ing the moun­tain­tops he was going to cre­ate these glass palaces, and they were going to be an exam­ple of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and a shin­ing exam­ple that we’re all humans and there’s a sense of uni­ver­sal broth­er­hood and sis­ter­hood. So in the depths of war you tend to get these utopi­an ideas com­ing through, which Holden embod­ies. I just think it’s real­ly cool look­ing. It’s a great exam­ple and obvi­ous­ly there was no chance of it ever hap­pen­ing, sad­ly. But it may have been a kind of nice sym­me­try if it were built upstream from the exist­ing Tower Bridge. There might’ve been a nice kind of bal­ance between old and new.


The idea of the Garden Bridge is actu­al­ly an old idea as well. This was the Crystal Span. Glass Age Development Committee in 1963 designed this. It was going to have shops, apart­ments, work­shops and things, but it was going to have ter­raced gar­dens along the top. Again, it was a pret­ty utopi­an sort of ide­al; it was going to an idea for every­one. And what we’ve seen in recent years is that a lot of vision­ary archi­tec­ture in the past, the Bauhaus, the German Expressionists, Archigram, the Metabolists, they all had this idea of being extreme­ly cre­ative an imag­i­na­tive to the point of appear­ing almost ludi­crous, but they always had it wed­ded with an egal­i­tar­i­an sense of This is for every­one. This is Utopia.” And what we’ve seen in the last twen­ty years has been a sev­er­ing of that rela­tion­ship. You tend to get the vision­ary archi­tec­ture. There’s amaz­ing archi­tects: Gehry, Hadid, doing fan­tas­tic things. But they’re doing it for very few. They’re doing it for an elite, and the nor­mal peo­ple of the city are basi­cal­ly being kept out, and that is some­thing that needs to be addressed I think, as inhab­i­tants of cities. This is a very old idea as well. The idea of hav­ing an inhab­it­ed bridge, even if it’s shops. You can see it in Venice. Various bridges in Venice have lit­tle shops and things. This was due to replace Vauxhall Bridge, so they were just going to get rid of that and replace it with this. It’s an inter­est­ing idea; it would’ve aged ter­ri­bly. It’s real­ly styl­ized to the time.


This is FAT’s Princess Diana-themed Millennium Bridge. Thankfully it was­n’t built. If you notice there, the lyrics of Candle in the Wind” are carved along, and it would bring a tear to a glass eye. It’s just absolute­ly beau­ti­ful. When I first saw this I thought it was some kind of post­mod­ern Jeff Koons-type satire, but it was an actu­al attempt.

These are the more ludi­crous ones. 

This was a tow­er that was due to be built on top of Selfridges in 1918. Just tak­ing an exist­ing build­ing and putting a mas­sive Venetian-Greco-Roman mon­stroc­i­ty… It’s post­mod­ernism before there was even Modernism. It did­n’t know it was post­mod­ernism, but it was. I think that got sur­pris­ing­ly far before some­one put it out of its misery.

This one was Joseph Paxton’s Great Victorian Way, which was 1854. This was a fas­ci­nat­ing project. Again, it got pret­ty close to actu­al­ly becom­ing real­i­ty. It was designed to loop ten miles around cen­tral London. It was going to be a mas­sive glass arcade filled with… The age of great arcades as what Walter Benjamin wrote about. But this was going to be so big that you could take hors­es and cart through it. It was going to have all the shops. To me this is the kind of futur­ism of the time, because this was absolute­ly at the cut­ting edge of not only con­struct­ing build­ings (because glass had just recent­ly become pos­si­ble to man­u­fac­ture in this scale quite cheap­ly) but in terms of the shops it was going to have. It was going to have the lat­est of every­thing. So this is not just the equiv­a­lent of and impres­sive shop­ping mall. This would’ve been Dubai or Singapore-level. It got stopped I think at the last minute, which is rather a shame. It would’ve been inter­est­ing to see how London would’ve dealt with being essen­tial­ly besieged by a giant ten-mile glass struc­ture, and how we would’ve dri­ven bus­es through it, but I’m sure they would’ve worked it out.

This is a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing one. It always reminds me of Giger. It’s like some­thing from Alien. This was designed to be on the South Bank, for the Universal International Exhibition, 1951. Incredibly far ahead of its time. Actually, I don’t know if it’s actu­al­ly incred­i­bly far ahead of its time or incred­i­bly in the past. There’s some­thing like a made Byzantine futur­ism to it. Misha Black and Hilton Wright designed this one, and it was pret­ty much going to con­sume most of South Bank. It was going to have a giant spi­ral ramp which forms a frame­work on which build­ings rise in ter­races to a sky plat­form 1,500 feet above London. They knew that peo­ple were going to be skep­ti­cal, so they said, If it does­n’t work on the South Bank we’re will­ing to move it to Hyde Park or Regent’s Park. We could just plunk it in the mid­dle some­where.” It’s fine, no one’ll mind. 

But it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing exer­cise. I’m very glad in a way it it did­n’t get built, but it’s real­ly inter­est­ing how peo­ple envis­aged space. The idea of hav­ing ter­races ris­ing up to a sky plat­form, and even the lan­guage sky plat­form” is stuff that we hear all the time now when we hear about smart cities and these kind of megac­i­ties, we hear there’s a sky plat­form or a sky lob­by and you can go there and have nice drinks and get charged an extor­tion­ate amount of mon­ey. They were think­ing this in the 1950s. So they were pos­si­bly so far behind that they were way way ahead.

This one’s real­ly inter­est­ing because this is where we’re cur­rent­ly sit­ting. This is Piccadilly in the year 2500, accord­ing to Greys Cigarettes. You used to get these lit­tle cig­a­rette cards and they would put inter­est­ing things on them, and Greys decid­ed that they would com­mis­sion peo­ple to come up with visions of future London. I don’t know if you can see but there’s a mas­sive glass dome, sev­er­al glass domes, and it’s got mono­rails. I think this was made in 1935. So again this was pret­ty far ahead of its time. Those sort of images became cliché in the mid-1950s. There’s a lot inac­cu­ra­cies. It’s not very clear from the res­o­lu­tion of this one, but one of the lit­tle bus/train/moped things has got Greys Cigarettes on the side, so they envis­aged that Greys would still be a house­hold name. They did­n’t fore­see lung can­cer. What they did fore­see, and this is in their words, was mov­ing path­ways, rub­ber road­ways, motors dri­ven by atom­ic ener­gy,” so all of these vehi­cles have some kind of atom­ic gen­er­a­tor inside them, which would be wor­ry­ing when they break down. Phonetic spelling,” which I think is the best thing that they envis­aged of the future. All these amaz­ing con­structs, but also we’ll spell pho­net­i­cal­ly; that’s the impor­tant thing. Wireless tele­vi­sion,” it’s lit by cap­tured solar rays, and there are excur­sions to Mars. So this would’ve been in Piccadilly; this would’ve been here. And it isn’t, which is a shame.

This is Richard Rogers, again highly-respected archi­tec­tur­al prac­tice. He came up with this design called London As It Could Be” in 1986, tak­ing a lot of influ­ence from Japanese Metabolists and also Space Age Googie archi­tec­ture and the futur­ism of the 1950s. This was actu­al­ly quite accu­rate and it obvi­ous­ly looks very lit­tle like what has become of London. But there’s a lot of pre­dic­tions that he made in this project, like the pedes­tri­an­iza­tion of a lot of city spaces that did actu­al­ly come true that Richard Rogers was actu­al­ly involved in as well. 

In the midst of com­ing up with schemes that are very easy to laugh at, they do exert pres­sure and they do exert a cer­tain influ­ence that can sort of rever­ber­ate and reap­pear in unex­pect­ed places. Also, as hap­pened with Archigram, who did a lot of their work in London, you can look at these ideas of walk­ing cities and fly­ing cities and it’s very easy to just point and laugh at them, but real­ly they’re clear­ing a lot of the­o­ret­i­cal space and ask­ing a lot of ques­tions of what archi­tec­ture actu­al­ly is. And these can have unseen rever­ber­a­tions many many years lat­er. I think that the main­stream archi­tec­ture that we see today with Hadid and Gehry and peo­ple like that is only real­ly accept­ed as main­stream because of peo­ple like Archigram real­ly putting their necks on the line in the 60s and get­ting laughed at. They cleared the space for what we now just com­plete­ly accept. They took the flak, essen­tial­ly, and in my view orga­ni­za­tions like theirs were real­ly almost hero­ic in the sense of push­ing things forward.


Not all ideas are good ideas. This is Charles Bressey’s improve­ments to London, 1937. You can prob­a­bly tell where that is. Not the idea place to put a multi-story car park. It would make sense to park cars there, but it’s an absolute­ly cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly bad use of space.

The next one is his as well. This was a gen­uine thing that was put to the gov­ern­ment at the time, was pon­dered over. There is a cer­tain kind of dia­bol­i­cal beau­ty to it. It’s a hor­ri­ble des­e­cra­tion of London, obvi­ous­ly, but there’s also a lot of pre­dic­tions. There’s a cer­tain sort of pre­dic­tion of Brutalism there, for 1937. There’s a lot of lin­ear cities putting motor­ways over the tops of build­ings that was very pop­u­lar at the time, like Corbusier was going to redesign Algiers, turn­ing it into a motor­way with hous­es under­neath, and it was stopped, thank­ful­ly. But what inter­ests me about visions like this.

This is anoth­er one of Bressey’s. It’s the idea that things can be impres­sive, intrigu­ing, and hor­ren­dous all at the same time, that we have a ten­den­cy to think that just because some­thing is hor­ri­ble we just casu­al­ly dis­miss it. But just because some­thing’s hor­ri­ble does­n’t mean it isn’t inter­est­ing. It does­n’t mean it won’t have cer­tain rever­ber­a­tions. So I think that by dis­miss­ing things that we dis­agree with (for exam­ple the Shard), if we dis­agree with what the Shard rep­re­sents or its use of pub­lic space or how it appears in the sky­line and its effects on the dynam­ics of London, that does­n’t mean it isn’t an inter­est­ing build­ing and that we don’t crit­i­cal­ly exam­ine it and prop­er­ly inter­ro­gate it.

This was going to be for Trafalgar Square, 1815. Colonel Trench decid­ed that it would be an ide­al place to put a pyra­mid. Just the way you have out­sider art, this is out­sider archi­tec­ture. It’s a ludi­crous idea, of course, but it’s an inter­est­ing one and it’s quite inter­est­ing to see where it’s come from in terms of Western soci­ety’s out­look towards the Orient at the time and Arabia. This actu­al­ly says a lot about our view at the time of the rest of the world, on the Orientalism there. You can see it in lots of major cities. You can see it with Cleopatra’s Needle, how colo­nial­iza­tion was just tak­ing bits and pieces for them­selves, and then try­ing to do pas­tich­es of it. So you find pyra­mids and strange struc­tures appear­ing all through major cities; Brussels, Paris, London. And some of them still remain, so it’s not quite as half-witted as it seems.

Another pyra­mid. This is Thomas Willson’s Metropolitan Sepulchre. This was intend­ed for five mil­lion corpses, so it was going to be a gigan­tic tomb. There was obvi­ous­ly of where are we going to put all the dead peo­ple. Let’s house them all in a giant pyra­mid. There must have pre­sum­ably been stair­cas­es. This was designed by the Pyramid General Cemetery Company (fan­tas­tic name) and it actu­al­ly got as far as Parliament before it was shot down. So it was seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered. It would’ve been this gigan­tic memen­to mori con­stant­ly remind­ing every­one in London that they were going to die. Five mil­lion corpses star­ing at them as they made their way to work. It was actu­al­ly going to take over where Primrose Hill is. Primrose Hill was going to go and this was going to be in its place. And it got as far as Parliament.

There is actu­al­ly a pur­pose to look­ing at these aside from just laugh­ing at things. It’s the idea that the city could’ve been vast­ly dif­fer­ent, and came very very close to being dif­fer­ent. This is Joseph Gandy’s Western Gateway for London, 1826. It was going to be a giant arch­way. I don’t think he envis­aged that London would expand so much it would be impos­si­ble to have one entrance, but this is the entrance that he envis­aged, so he’s see­ing peo­ple com­ing through this. Again it says a lot about London’s role in soci­ety at the time. It was the great city of the time. It was pret­ty much the Roman Empire, and this is a great exam­ple of how London saw itself. It was the new Rome, and they tried to sig­ni­fy this by doing pas­tich­es of Greco-Roman archi­tec­ture to say all roads lead to London, essentially.

This was Kohn Pedersen Fox’s pro­pos­al for Canary Wharf. This was in 1990. Canary Wharf being one of those places that has been imag­ined pret­ty much from what it was, even with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry, but this is one of the alter­na­tives that it could’ve been, and again came sur­pris­ing­ly close to being. There’s cer­tain inter­est­ing aspects to it. In one sense, it embod­ies the futur­ism of the time, what they were going with the Lloyd’s build­ing; things like that. It also looks like a kind of chem­i­cal fac­to­ry that Batman would chase the Joker into and he’d fall into a vat.

The visions are still con­tin­u­ing, so you get all sorts of archi­tec­tur­al stu­dios and design­ers that are con­stant­ly com­ing up with new visions of where London’s going to go. The vast major­i­ty of them won’t actu­al­ly come to pass, but that’s not to say that they should be exclud­ed, because they do have echoes and they do have unlike­ly influ­ences. And often the stuff that’s very eas­i­ly dis­missed, it’s just a ques­tion of time. So you have the exam­ple of the French vision­ary archi­tects around the time of the French Revolution. They were just treat­ed as eccen­tric for at least a cou­ple of cen­turies, LeDoux and Boullée. They had these kind of weird globes and ceno­taphs to Newton, and they were just treat­ed as kind of fol­lies until mod­ernism real­ized look­ing back in ret­ro­spect these peo­ple were actu­al­ly prophets. So for two hun­dred years they were laughed at, until soci­ety caught up with them, and then their time came to pass. They end­ed up inform­ing Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. So just because some­thing looks crazy now does­n’t mean in a hun­dred years’ time it won’t actu­al­ly pro­found­ly influ­ence the way a city is.

This is Laurie Chetwood’s Inhabited London Bridge.

This one is real­ly inter­est­ing; it’s 1967. Desmond Plummer and the GLC’s aban­doned plan (sad­ly; it got pret­ty far) for a mono­rail on Regent Street. We walked around Regent Street today; it was going to be a mono­rail, like some­thing out of the Simpsons. It was just going to go over­head. Again, it looks kind of very styl­ized to that era, but it says a lot that space was prime real estate. They want­ed to hang on to as much pave­ment space as pos­si­ble. They did­n’t want to extend the roads. They want­ed to build there, so they thought let’s just cram in as much as we can. Let’s have a mono­rail, let’s take things above.

Showing these images, there’s a sense that the city could’ve been dif­fer­ent, and it came very close in some instances to being dif­fer­ent. What I’d like to look at with these next images is the fact that it was dif­fer­ent. That London was a dif­fer­ent place, and a lot of the assump­tions that we have are very recent ones.

Many of you will know this one. This is the Crystal Palace, and it was built for the Great Exhibition of 1861. It was known as the Great Shalimar. It was a mas­sive engi­neer­ing feat of its day. It was the biggest con­struct in glass of the time. It was one of the man-made won­ders of the world from an engi­neer­ing point of view. It was one of the most vis­it­ed struc­tures; six mil­lion peo­ple vis­it­ed that exhi­bi­tion. Most of them went through the Crystal Palace, and it was vis­it­ed by Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll. It was a mas­sive engi­neer­ing feat. It designed to show the British Empire as the fore­most super­pow­er of the time, and it did it very well. And it could well still exist. Unfortunately it was moved from its orig­i­nal site to a less-distinguished site and it burned down in a fire. It was rel­a­tive­ly neglect­ed for a long time. It was one of the most pop­u­lar build­ings in the world. We should tech­ni­cal­ly still have it. It was a freak fire, and because it was lined with wood it just went up in flames.

Less well-known is Skylon, which some peo­ple with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry will still remem­ber. This was built in the South Bank for the Festival of Britain. As unusu­al as it looks, it was a real­ly beloved struc­ture. It was seen as embody­ing the dynamism and the futur­ism of the time. This was an age of opti­mism. We were going to con­quer space, we were going to solve pover­ty, we were going to do all these amaz­ing things, and we were all going to do it col­lec­tive­ly. It was built to show off British prowess in terms of engi­neer­ing. From far away you could­n’t see how it was held up, so it was seen as a kind mod­ern and vague­ly mirac­u­lous. It was scrapped by Churchill and the Tories because it was deemed too Socialist, and they thought that it was as sym­bol of a future Socialist, Constructivist Britain that they did­n’t want. And it’s kind of rem­i­nis­cent of Russian Constructivist struc­tures, so they weren’t actu­al­ly far wrong there. But it did embody the opti­mism of Britain at the time. Churchill had it scrapped. 

There was a lot of con­tro­ver­sy about what actu­al­ly hap­pened to it, because it just van­ished. For a long time, there was an urban myth that it was just dumped in the Thames. It’s the sort of thing you might notice just float­ing down the Thames, this kind of mas­sive Martian struc­ture. But it was melt­ed down for scrap and some of it was turned into lit­tle sou­venirs, so peo­ple got keep­sakes of it and they’re hid­den away in places. But yeah, that was the future that was unfor­tu­nate­ly can­celled. Not for the first time.

This was the attempt known as Watkin’s Tower. It was an attempt to build a London Eiffel Tower. They went to Gustave Eiffel, who built the Eiffel Tower, and tried to get him to come to London. The Eiffel Tower was so suc­cess­ful, despite an incred­i­ble amount of oppo­si­tion to it at the time. It was built for one of the Expositions. It was put up; there was a mas­sive amount of con­tro­ver­sy that it was (aside from Montmarte) despoil­ing Paris’ beau­ti­ful flat land­scape. There was this mas­sive, extreme­ly rad­i­cal Modernist struc­ture that went up, and the writ­ers and even the archi­tects at the time most­ly hat­ed it. There were peti­tions against it. Maupassant hat­ed the Eiffel Tower so much that he did­n’t want to see it, so he used to go and have lunch in the Eiffel Tower, because it was the only place he was guar­an­teed he would­n’t see it.

So it was absolute­ly hat­ed, but quick­ly Parisians fell in love with it, because it became sym­bol­ic of their city as a whole. It came very close to being knocked down, which peo­ple don’t gen­er­al­ly real­ize. They were going to get rid of it after the expo­si­tion was over, and the only rea­son it stayed, sup­pos­ed­ly, is because they ran a lot of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions through it, and it was a great place to send out sig­nals. So it stayed. So there is a par­al­lel uni­verse where the Eiffel Tower was com­plete­ly scrapped.

This was going to be London’s ver­sion, so they tried to get Gustave Eiffel to come over, but he was too nation­al­is­tic and—I love the French, but typ­i­cal Frenchman he said it’s an insult to even ask a Frenchman to repli­cate the Eiffel tow­er for London. So they decid­ed to go ahead any­way and just steal his idea, build and almost iden­ti­cal repli­ca of it. They were going to put it in Wembley Park. They opened the com­pe­ti­tion up and these are some of the sub­mis­sions. It just went out to the pub­lic, so you get all sorts of archi­tec­tur­al prac­tices send­ing designs. You actu­al­ly just get peo­ple in their draw­ing rooms com­ing up with these insane struc­tures, most of them based around the Eiffel Tower, the mid­dle one [#6 here?] based on the Tower of Babel. It has­n’t been pop­u­lar for a while. Various pyra­mid struc­tures. These are fas­ci­nat­ing; there’s 68 of them, that were col­lect­ed in a book at the time. I think they should’ve built them all, just around London. There should’ve been 68 mutat­ed ver­sions of the Eiffel Tower. Just an entire city of them.

They began build­ing the pre­vi­ous one, the one in Wembley Park, and they got up to the first lev­el. So if you’ve been to the Eiffel Tower, the lev­el that you can go up on. They had the legs built and the first shelf, and it start­ed to sub­side. They real­ized it’s not a good idea to con­tin­ue but what can we do? We’ll try and get ways around it, and they even­tu­al­ly ran out of mon­ey try­ing to work out how to fix it. So they just blew it up with dyna­mite, and it became known as Watkin’s Folly.

Somewhat dimin­ished by hav­ing it in a field to begin with. The beau­ti­ful thing about the Eiffel Tower is you can stand in that prom­e­nade and look down at it. Just hav­ing it in the mid­dle of a field would kind of ruin the attrac­tion. Where Watkin’s Folly was orig­i­nal­ly locat­ed is actu­al­ly Wembley Stadium now. So again, that may have been dif­fer­ent; it came excep­tion­al­ly close to being different.

This actu­al­ly exist­ed. It was known as Wyld’s Great Globe. It exist­ed from 1851 to 1862, in Leicester Square. This was a real struc­ture in a mas­sive globe that you could go in. You can see the peo­ple for scale. You’d go inside and you went through a sort of Orientalist, kind of Arabian tun­nel and you emerged in this mas­sive almost like a cav­ern inside. What it had on the walls was a giant repli­ca­tion of the world, only inside out. You went up the stairs and you could see the world all around you. So it was a sort of globe, but from the wrong way round. It exist­ed for over a decade in Leicester Square, until it was blown up. They had a fond­ness for blow­ing things up at the time. 

It was kind of seen as a Ponzi scheme. The Wyld who ran it was a noto­ri­ous fraud­ster. He was a mem­ber of Parliament; the two are not unre­lat­ed. He bought lots of votes and became a mem­ber of Parliament. He made some of his mon­ey cre­at­ing guides to London, and he would invent des­ti­na­tions that did­n’t exist. He’d just invent train sta­tions that did­n’t exist. It was seen as a mas­sive fol­ly, but it was incred­i­bly pop­u­lar and it was vis­it­ed by hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, if not millions.

Previous to that, Leicester Square had been a wilder­ness and was a real­ly run-down, Dickensian area that was avoid­ed by peo­ple. The kind place that stab­bings hap­pened; an incred­i­bly deprived area. And that could con­ceiv­ably still be there in Leicester Square.

This is a paint­ing of Old London Bridge. Going back to the Crystal Span bridge ear­li­er, the idea of the inhab­it­ed bridge became very pop­u­lar in Modernist times, from the 30s to the 50s. There was always this idea in American archi­tec­ture about build­ing lux­u­ry apart­ments in bridges, and you see a lot of designs around the Hugh Ferriss time that space was so restrict­ed in Manhattan and places, that they were going to just stick loads of build­ings on the tops of bridges. It’s a very old idea, and it actu­al­ly exist­ed in London. Old London Bridge used to have those build­ings on it. People’s hous­es, busi­ness­es, if you strolled through there were mar­kets, and again part of the idea of Imaginary Cities is look­ing at what we think we know and see and that it’s actu­al­ly much more unusu­al when you look into the his­to­ry. London is a fas­ci­nat­ing place. It used to have frost fairs in the Thames, where the Thames froze over and they would have fairs in the mid­dle of the Thames and ice skat­ing, and they used to have busi­ness­es right in the mid­dle of the Thames. 

So alter­na­tive Londons not have exist­ed in peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tions, they’ve exist­ed phys­i­cal­ly as well.

London’s been destroyed pre­vi­ous­ly. During Roman times it was burned to the ground, and the Great Rebellion, the Iceni rebel­lion, they burned London to the ground. There’s still a lay­er of soil in cer­tain parts of London that’s sort of car­bonized, and you can find it. Beneath all the stra­ta, you go down and there’s a burnt lev­el of soil from when London was com­plete­ly burnt to the ground and was rebuilt. It’s been rebuilt many times, after the Great Fire, after the Blitz. So the idea of London as this inevitable, nat­ur­al, God-given thing that’s just always exist­ed… It’s a com­plete­ly ever-changing, amor­phous, plur­al thing. All cities are real­ly like that. All cities are mul­ti­plic­i­ties, essentially.

Perception is kind of the key to rec­og­niz­ing that mul­ti­plic­i­ty, so even in a very sim­ple sense, we all share the city phys­i­cal­ly. We all live in London, or we all trav­el around London, but we all view it in infi­nite­ly dif­fer­ent ways, and we have our own rou­tines and our own places that have spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance to us, and sym­bols and res­o­nances that are par­tic­u­lar to us. So while there’s one London City, there’s actu­al­ly a mil­lion Londons.

This is Cyril Power’s ver­sion of the London Underground. It’s a kind of strange, Expressionist vision. We’re in the Underground every day. We see it cer­tain ways, but every­one real­ly sees it dif­fer­ent­ly, and when we look at a poster like this we’re remind­ed that it is actu­al­ly quite a strange thing, hav­ing a mas­sive net­work of tun­nels that we just seem to go underneath—T.S. Elliot said there’s some­thing mag­i­cal involved in going under­neath and reap­pear­ing as if by mag­ic some­where com­plete­ly different.


This is a map of the Tube, the kind of Lovecraftian hor­ror it, when you look at it. It’s just this many-tentacled beast. But we all have these per­son­al mytholo­gies and res­o­nances, and they enable us to see how strange the city actu­al­ly is. It’s very easy to for­get. It’s like what Blake said, you can see Heaven or Hell in a grain of sand. It comes down to con­text and rel­a­tiv­i­ty and your own per­cep­tion of things.

A prime exam­ple of it is John Martin, the painter. This is his ver­sion of Pandemonium from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a city in Hell that Satan inhab­its, and it’s obvi­ous­ly based on Westminster. Make of that what­ev­er you will, but it’s a great cri­tique. He hap­pened to sneak it in and I think Milton would’ve—I don’t know if he would’ve approved or not, but it’s got that cer­tain icon­o­clas­tic attitude.

An older man with a placard haging from his neck reading "Utopia could be the answer to some of your problems. Let me explain." surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.

My friend point­ed out ear­li­er, it could be the answer to some of your prob­lems, not all of them. But this is Hyde Park. This was tak­en in the 60s or 70s, going by the dress sense. 

What I was going to say is, alter­na­tive London’s are all very well. We can look at them and see how amus­ing they are, or inter­est­ing they are, or just ludi­crous. But it kind of reminds us that the city has been imag­ined into being and there could’ve been dif­fer­ent ways, it was dif­fer­ent ways. It’s been imag­ined, and if a city has been imag­ined into being, it can be reimag­ined as well. When we look out at the sky­line of London, you look at any of these streets, we’re not look­ing at some­thing that’s just fall­en from Heaven or it’s just come pack­aged that way. It’s not nat­ur­al or inevitable. 

Every one of these build­ings, the entire sky­line you see is the result of deci­sions by peo­ple in the past. It’s the dreams of archi­tects and city plan­ners. Every sin­gle thing you see, some­one has decid­ed to have it that way. And if that’s hap­pened, we tend to think that noth­ing can change, we’re locked into these struc­tures, we can’t do any­thing about it. But begin­ning to real­ize how the city evolves, we can actu­al­ly have an input into it, and we can sug­gest alter­na­tives and push for alter­na­tives. At the minute, I think a lot of deci­sions are being tak­en out of our hands. There’s a real demo­c­ra­t­ic deficit in terms of who says what’s built in the city, in terms of the way the city looks, and it’s some­thing that real­ly needs address­ing because it’s a city that we’ve helped imag­ine into being, and it’s a city that we can reimag­ine into being again. 

Every tow­er does­n’t have to be lux­u­ry apart­ments for oli­garchs. Every tow­er does­n’t have to be for finance. There’s a mil­lion designs that show tow­ers to cul­ture, to sci­ence, to music, to phi­los­o­phy. There’s no rea­son what­so­ev­er that these things are impos­si­ble. There’s a mil­lion blue­prints and count­less archi­tects that’ve designed them. We’ve just lost the sense of imag­i­na­tion and dar­ing, but also the egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. Why are we being exclud­ed from these places? This is our city as much as any­one’s, and it’s impor­tant to begin to real­ize that London is that mul­ti­plic­i­ty and that it can be changed, and it will be changed. And if it’s not changed by us, it’ll be changed to our detri­ment, and we may well be exclud­ed. You’ve seen it every day in the news every time anoth­er tow­er goes up, we’re lucky if they let us in. We have to pay, there’s all sorts of zones of exclu­sion now that are com­ing in. It’s real­ly some­thing that we can fight, and it involves going back and look­ing at the likes of Archigram and the ear­ly Bauhaus and the Expressionists and the Constructivists, and reimag­in­ing what we can actu­al­ly do and hav­ing it for every­one. So a city that can be imag­ined, as London has, can be reimag­ined. Thanks.

Audience 1: I want to ask one ques­tion first, that being do you think London is one of the most imag­ined cities in the world? Are there oth­ers that you can draw on that you think are of equal reimag­in­ing? And is it the amount of flux that London’s gone through in ancient times?

Darran I think it ties in with colo­nial­ism a lot. So you see London is def­i­nite­ly one of the most imag­ined, and I think that’s because for a long time, the size of it—it was one of the great metrop­o­lis­es. So any city of that size will have mas­sive amounts of build­ings and mas­sive amounts of archi­tects and move­ments and var­i­ous things hap­pen­ing with­in it. Every city, though, has unbuilt designs, absolute­ly every one. I’m from Derry; it’s a small town in Ireland. I went down and found these insane designs that were going to take over all the river­front. Floating build­ings in the 1960s and stuff. So you can find them absolute­ly every­where, but the main cities are the great metrop­o­lis­es, because that was where the mon­ey is, it’s where tal­ent tend­ed to go to find work. 

You find it in Tokyo. Tokyo has been imag­ined so many times by the Metabolists, among oth­ers. You find it in Berlin. New York, obvi­ous­ly. Those intrigue me a lot because it’s good to see com­pet­ing, and how they clash a lot of the times, how the var­i­ous move­ments bounce off one anoth­er. But they’re every­where. The idea for the book came when I was liv­ing in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh’s been actu­al­ly reimag­ined in the 1960s. It start­ed off as a Khmai cap­i­tal that’d had been moved. They had Angkor Wat as this mas­sive jun­gle cap­i­tal and there’s some debate about why it went wrong, but the cap­i­tal shift­ed to Phnom Penh. So it was native Khmais. The French went in, they built French plan­ta­tion archi­tec­ture you still see rem­nants of around. Then it got inde­pen­dence and it became… There was a Prince Sihanouk, he had this strange 1950s and 60s sort of psy­che­del­ic rock bands groups and girl groups. It was an amaz­ing, hap­pen­ing place. It was known as the Pearl of Asia. It was a fan­tas­tic place. 

The Vietnam war came along. It com­plete­ly desta­bi­lized the coun­try, and the Khmer Rouge took over. The Khmer Rouge with mali­cious utopi­anism emp­tied the city of three mil­lion peo­ple. That city became a ghost town for three or four years, and since then it’s been tak­en over. It’s got a vir­tu­al dic­ta­tor now who’s sud­den­ly bring­ing in a lot of Chinese mon­ey and Russian mon­ey and Western mon­ey, and they’re start­ing to build sky­scrap­ers and stuff. 

So there’s one name for Phnom Penh, but there’s so many incar­na­tions of it, and that’s pret­ty much every city. That’s an extrav­a­gant exam­ple, and a pret­ty trag­ic exam­ple, but every major city, pos­si­bly every town, has vari­a­tions of this. So you can go every­where. They also all have the same prob­lems as well, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, the theft of pub­lic space into pri­vate hands, the spread of [?]. It’s all there, the same ques­tions. But it’s hap­pen­ing pri­mar­i­ly in London. London’s a focus point, just the way New York is or Tokyo is or Berlin. They become focal points for some­thing that’s pret­ty much a human dra­ma that’s unfold­ing in every city. But London has count­less examples.

Audience 2: Do you [inaudi­ble] par­al­lel universe?

Darran Yeah.

Audience 2: What is there in London now that some­body is laugh­ing at from a par­al­lel uni­verse? I imag­ine there’s one with a run­way at Westminster.

Darran Yeah, they’re laugh­ing at us. If you’ve ever been to Stansted, that is infi­nite­ly worse than any air­port on stilts. To be hon­est, there’s count­less exam­ples. But then it comes down to aes­thet­ics. I could give a list of build­ings I hate in London. I could give a list of build­ings I love. It’s not real­ly the issue. I think almost the build­ings I hate are the ones that inter­est me the most. So I look at the Shard and I think there’s some­thing about it I real­ly can’t stand, what it rep­re­sents and how much of an impo­si­tion it is. But it’s actu­al­ly a very very unusu­al build­ing. There is a lin­eage that not many peo­ple talk about that comes from German Expressionist Utopian archi­tec­ture. Amazing designs from the 1920s, and those go right through to the Shard. So the Shard is a pret­ty weird build­ing. It’s an inter­est­ing build­ing. It might be a hor­ren­dous build­ing, but that would just be a kind of aes­thet­ic judge­ment, or an eth­i­cal judge­ment. I think what’s impor­tant to me is that it’s an inter­est­ing one. 

I’m very inter­est­ed in con­text in terms of cities, so I’m very inter­est­ed what would hap­pen if you lift­ed the Shard, or a bet­ter exam­ple, if you took the hotel in Pyongyang that looks like Skeletor’s base or some­thing. It looks like hor­ren­dous­ly dystopi­an oppres­sive archi­tec­ture. It’s this mas­sive pyra­mid, all black glass, and it’s real­ly totalitarian-looking. I’m real­ly inter­est­ed if you lift­ed that and you just put it down in Dubai or put it in Singapore or put it in London, how cer­tain peo­ple’s opin­ions would change. We like to think that we have these pure opin­ions about things, but it’s com­plete­ly con­tex­tu­al. You can take some­thing that’s mas­sive­ly oppres­sive, put it in the right con­text… If the Shard was in a Walter Gropius notebook—he did­n’t draw actu­al­ly, so it’s a bad exam­ple. But Frank Lloyd Wright was going to design a mile-high tow­er and we look at these designs, or Tatlin’s Tower in Russia, we look at them and we think, Wow, fan­tas­tic, this mind-blowing tow­er.” If the Shard was in his note­book as well, we’d prob­a­bly think the same. We’d prob­a­bly think, wow that’s amazing.

And it works the oppo­site way. If Tatlin’s Tower had been built, we’d prob­a­bly hate it. It was a tow­er that was going to have rotat­ing cylin­ders that you’d be inside, and one would rotate once a year and the oth­er one would rotate once a day.

Audience 3: Do you think that’s more of an imme­di­ate reac­tion to some­thing as it’s being built. People hate the Shard now; it might be some­thing that peo­ple embrace in five years’ time or—

Darran I think that’s pre­cise­ly the case. It’s total­ly right to hate the Shard for what it stands for if you want to. That’s fine. I do resent that the great ambi­tious tow­ers are going up to finance and com­merce. It’s a mas­sive waste of imag­i­na­tion. But you’re right. It’s when it appears in the sky­line and it’s block­ing things out that it real­ly gets to peo­ple. Paris is a pret­ty extreme exam­ple because London has always had these struc­tures. It’s got hills, it’s got things that are always in the way. Paris is almost com­plete­ly flat, so that was a real, real act of hero­ic van­dal­ism, if you like. It was just putting it there, and like it or lump it it’s going to be there. So peo­ple have this resis­tance ini­tial­ly, but opin­ions change. A lot of the stuff that we hate, we end up lov­ing. Within recent mem­o­ry, the Millennium Dome—I’m not say­ing it’s a good struc­ture, by any means, but that was absolute­ly reviled at the time. It was seen as a mas­sive waste of mon­ey. I’m not sure it still isn’t reviled, but peo­ple see it as a functioning—

[Audience; inaudi­ble]

Darran I’ve seen Nine Inch Nails there, it was fan­tas­tic. Because the con­text of it has changed and there’s been a bit of time, I don’t know if peo­ple have warmed to it, but they’re warming.

Audience 4: Do you think there is a dif­fer­ence in the way dif­fer­ent cul­tures imag­ine the future of their cities. You men­tioned that London’s been destroyed sev­er­al times and that idea of get­ting rebuilt with­in the city’s DNA, as opposed to some­where like New York which has had pret­ty icon­ic struc­tures and has nev­er had that kind of com­plete [inaudi­ble] like Berlin or Tokyo [] Do you think there’s a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between the way that dif­fer­ent cul­tures imag­ine their futures?

Darran Most def­i­nite­ly. A lot of it comes down to com­pul­sion, real­ly. A lot of the ciites that’ve changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly like Berlin were sim­ply blown to pieces dur­ing the wars, so they had to be recon­struct­ed. And they were recon­struct­ed in var­i­ous ways. There’s an incred­i­ble amount of impres­sive build­ings around Berlin. There’s also inter­est­ing total­i­tar­i­an aspects. One of the rea­sons Friedrichstrasse, Camargue[?] strasse, or Rosa Luxembourg Strasse, wher­ev­er it is, they’re built so that Soviet tanks can fit down them if Berliners decid­ed to get uppi­ty and tried to do anoth­er Prague Spring.

So that has a mas­sive effect, but dif­fer­ent cul­tures def­i­nite­ly have dif­fer­ent atti­tudes. There’s a Japanese idea, I can’t remem­ber the term, but it’s a semi-religious idea that every­thing’s tran­si­to­ry. So there’s these tem­ples in Japan that get burned down every thir­ty years and rebuilt. And they some­times get rebuilt exact­ly the same way, but it’s all about remind­ing our­selves that life is a cycle and it’s transitory. 

So from cul­ture to cul­ture there are dif­fer­ences. I think what hap­pened with New York is that they just got the for­mu­la per­fect ear­ly on and it stayed that way. But it’s changed a lot, too. You think of Penn Station, this mon­u­men­tal, amaz­ing struc­ture des­e­crat­ed because of progress. And there’s been express­ways built, not through Manhattan, but through parts of New York. A lot of peo­ple like Jan Jacobs railed against this ten­den­cy in the 1960s and 70s to knock down a lot of neigh­bor­hoods and build express­ways through them. Also, New York was once New Amsterdam, and before that it was Manhatta. The Native American’s had it. It and Paris are the clos­est places we have to places that were nev­er bombed and have stayed rel­a­tive­ly consistent. 

But even they’ve changed, and atti­tudes have changed. How we envis­age the future I think often comes down to fash­ion, and I think cer­tain things take hold, but any cul­ture who does­n’t rec­og­nize that cities are going to be col­lages is going to run into prob­lems very quick­ly because every attempt to build… You see semi-successful ver­sions of it like Brasília and places that have built from scratch, one over­ar­ch­ing per­son should not be dic­tat­ing what a city is, because that’s not real­ly a city any­more. I don’t know what that is, but it’s some­thing else. A city is inher­ent­ly a collage.

Further Reference

Companion site to the book.

A short video with excerpts of the launch event at Waterstones London.