The History of Future Cities, by Daniel Brook. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2013. $27.95, hardcover, 480 pages.
Within the small suburban city of Wenzhou, China, there are knockoff Louis Vuitton bags, iPhone-ish devices sold in Apple-esque stores, and an imitation Chrysler building. And beyond mere simulacra, China replicates cities. It is common to see an imitation Paris, complete with Eiffel Towers and Arc de Triomphes, or a Venice complete with gondolas and bad pizza. There are multiple White Houses. People live in them.
This mimicry and repurposing is nothing new, as Daniel Brook details in The History of Future Cities. Brook traces the engineering of Shanghai, St. Petersburg, Mumbai and Dubai in episodes, detailing the way that each city shaped its space in order to usher in modernization. And because modernization was embodied by Western Europe, these cities replicated--Brooks uses the term "impersonated"--the architecture and infrastructure of London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Both Mumbai and Shanghai had their own equivalent of Big Ben; Shanghai's French Concession was lousy with polo clubs, and St. Petersburg's Church, borrowing from "the temples of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews through the masterpiece cathedrals of Europe," was intended as "the culmination of Western Europe" (33). The purpose was not only to design and plan the image for a new culture, but to actually create a new urbane, more European, culture.
It would seem that any attempt to construct a prescribed identity for an entire population would fail spectacularly. Steven Johnson in his Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities (New York, NY: Scribner, 2002) describes culture and its evolution as the identity that a group of people build up collectively and slowly, piece-by-piece. This model holds that culture builds cities, not the other way around.
Yet, provided with the architecture and infrastructure that had enabled Europe's progress, Shanghai citizens took to the polo clubs; Peter the Great's "barbaric" Russians began dressing and talking like those in Amsterdam; and Mumbai citizens read English newspapers. The populations of these impromptu metropolises developed quickly, not only becoming more European, but actively resisting the monarchs and colonists who had envisioned and shaped them. St. Petersburg, as the conduit of ideas between Russia and Western Europe, eventually became the location of the Bolshevik revolution; similarly, it was Mumbai residents, riding...