Cloud Cuckooland, Aristophanes called it. Frank Lloyd
Wright said the modern city was a place for banking,
prostitution and very little else. He made prairie houses
with Spartan walls and interior flows — low, shingle roofs
hovering on flat lawns. Axes, crossing, pushing outward,
riveted in stone hearths. Cookie-cuttered in ranchers and
split-levels of suburbia.
Erasmus said the city was a huge monastery. A city
consists in men and not in walls nor in ships (Nicias).
Towered cities please us then,/And the busy hum of men
(Milton). The Germans thought the city a social agency —
a mastermind of colonies, armies, broods and bunches;
a masterpiece of pods, flocks and litters. The city is an
immense tumultuous shipyard, said Futurists. A rigging
of rented pretenses shuffling the dreamed-of.
The city is an Ellesmere Island beaver pond 5 million
years old, damming streams with freshly chewed sticks.
The city is a million cave swiftlets talking clicks, eating
two tons a day of insects. The city is the bowerbirds’
avenues, galleries, maypoles. They build boudoirs. They
decorate them with green moss, red berries, silver shells
and blue plastic. They steal their neighbours’ porches
and gingerbread and even the living rooms till they
settle their pecking order. How does the bowerbird know
how he stands, the scientist asks. How do humans know
how the bowerbirds know?
The city is anthill, fish hatchery, mould patch. Taking
shape from form, the legible forgets what it’s never seen.
Universities build millennial time machines — invisible
walls capturing light and air under concrete roofs. But
knowledge will no longer be this solidly built thing that
sets out a ship for all time. In that other university, that
other time machine, the hatchling homo eaglet raises a
woolly head from guano and sticks, totters around, then
disappears again into its lair.