Ah, Invisible Cities. For many of us, Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel reserves a dear place in our libraries, architectural or otherwise, for its vivid recollections of cities and their curiosities, courtesy of a certain Marco Polo as he narrates to Kublai Khan. And while the book doesn’t specifically fit the bill in terms of conventional architectural writing, it resists an overall categorisation at all, instead superseding the distillation of the cities it contains into distinct boundaries and purposes.
For though there is a certain kind of sensory appeal that is captured in the details of places, the real beauty of Invisible Cities lies in the masking of underlying notions of time, identity and language within these details – a feat that is skillfully accomplished by both Marco and Calvino. With this in mind, here are three of many such principles, as revealed by the layered narrative of Invisible Cities.
Visual Specificity As A Cultural Language
Much of Invisible Cities’ charm can be attributed to the specificity of its writing, and as a result, its narration. Throughout the narrative, 55 versions of city life are described with enthralling character, the first of which is Diomira, “a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theatre, a golden cock that crows each morning on the tower.” Details such as these constitute the overall visual communication between Marco Polo and us, as we assume the role of Kublai Khan, contributing to the successful creation of fictional cities through typologies and artifacts. This demonstrates our inherent reliance on specific imagery to create understanding; a facet that is an integral part of architecture.
Now his accounts were the most precise and detailed that the Great Khan could wish and there was no question or curiosity which they did not satisfy. And yet each piece of information about a place recalled to the emperor’s mind that first gesture or object which Marco has designated the place.
Yet, the impact of this highly visual culture seems to go unnoticed at times. Polo describes the city of Tamara, laden with signs of all sorts, where “the eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.” This is telling of our current over reliance on distinct symbolic communication, and a reduction of the image to encompass certain connotations. Though architecture is fundamentally a visual field and medium, it is important to allow for an unintentional evolution of meaning and understanding through one’s own sensory experiences, as a result of a slightly passive hand of the architect. Marco himself resorts to a more abstract identification of cities, providing genuine translation not possible through the specificity of visual wordplay.
So, for each city, after the fundamental information given in precise words, he followed up with a mute commentary, holding up his hands, palms out, or backs, or sideways, in straight or oblique movements, spasmodic or slow.
Architecture’s Reliance On Nature’s Omnipotence
Nature plays a key role in many of the cities that Marco describes, at times dictating with a certain omnipotence the very functioning of architecture and the behavior of its inhabitants. One example is that of Isaura, a “city of the thousand wells” built over a deep lake, where “the inhabitants dig long vertical holes in the ground and succeed in drawing up water, as far as the city extends.” Water, as a vitality of life, is a major driving force behind the formation of a necessary architectural typology (in this case, the dam) as well as the relationship between the city and its people. The importance of water is further embodied in the people’s shared cultural understanding; its importance both as a substance and in formulating a kind of landscape architecture, hold elements of the divine.
The city’s gods, according to some people, live in the depths, in the black lake that feeds the underground streams. According to others, the gods live in the buckets that rise, suspended from a cable, as they appear over the edge of the wells…
Now in the age of the Anthropocene, our definition of what constitutes as natural is more varied than before, given our drastic alteration of the natural world in which architecture itself is complicit. As a result, global environmental change will dictate architecture’s role more than ever, in order to mediate this and assume a coexistence with its landscape. This notion is apparent in the city of Thekla, which is constantly under construction “so that its destruction cannot begin”. When one asks if stopping the construction will cause the city to fall to pieces, the reply is: “not only the city.” Soon, it is made apparent that this constant work is being ordained by the cosmic order of the stars, and though this does not directly compare to the threats of global warming, both are natural conditions that call for an architecture to abide by them, to prevent Thekla’s demise.
What is the aim of the city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint? We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over… they answer. Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. There is the blueprint, they say.
The Timelessness Of The City
In Laudomia, the city is composed of three identically named sides: that of the living, the dead, and the unborn. As the living city increases in population, so does the periphery of the tombs of the dead and the realm of the unborn, both of which serve the living as they “visit the dead and decipher their own names on their stone slabs” and “frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them” on their own lives, not the ones yet to come. Such is the nature of the existence of cities and architecture in general; there is a form of the present that precedes its arrival and likewise, a future state that will take its place. A city’s identity is molded by both past and present, constantly creating multiple potential futures that simultaneously become possible pasts; the result is a sort of timelessness that a city can identify with.
The living Laudomia has to seek in the Laudomia of the dead the explanation of itself, even at the risk of finding more there or less: explanations for more than one Laudomia, for different cities that could have been and were not.
In another sense, Calvino ultimately argues that all cities stem from one. In the case of Marco Polo, that city is his native Venice, but the overall idea is that all variations are multiple faces of the singular city – a product of timeless constructs “made of desires or fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful.” When Kublai begins to describe his own constructed city, Marco replies: “This is precisely the city I was telling you about when you interrupted me,” thus alluding to the notion of interconnected identities that are shared by all cities and stem from our collective knowledge.
Each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.
These three principles as expressed by Invisible Cities are interrelated themselves, as is the case in the book. The identity of a city is ultimately expressed and translated most frequently through our culture of visual specificity, and it is determined by the constraints of landscape and nature that envelope it. The landscape, in our current era, is now also determined by architecture’s imposition on it, which in turn is influenced by typological and visual precedents for form and function. Yet, the true value of Calvino is that he offers us a means of exploring architecture past what it presents at face value, inviting us to indulge in potentials of future histories and timeless past in the face of the inferno of modern civilization. Invisible Cities deems it acceptable to look past the blunt technicalities for a moment, and wait for darkness to fall, so we too can see our blueprint in the stars.
Illustrations created by Karina Puente Frantzen
Lima-based architect Karina Puente has a personal project: to illustrate each and every "invisible" city from Italo Calvino's 1972 novel. Her initial collection, which ArchDaily published in 2016, traced Cities and Memories. This latest series of mixed media collages, drawn mainly using ink on paper, brings together another sequence of imagined places - each referencing a city imagined in the book.
Lima-based architect Karina Puente has a personal project: to illustrate each and every "invisible" city from Italo Calvino's 1972 novel. The book, which imagines imaginary conversations between the (real-life) Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the aged Mongol ruler Kublai Khan has been instrumental in framing approaches to urban discourse and the form of the city.