Soft City by Jonathan Raban
Soft cities is like a city reader, a book about how cities work on our inner selves and how we live in them and Iain Sinclairs’ introduction hits all the right notes locating Rabans’ book within the London of the 70’s, and the literary traditions from which it springs.
The book holds a special place for me in my ‘book life’. I first read it as an Architect student and it really opened me up to the chance of there being different perspectives on the city and on urbanism in general, that were not purely physical in nature.
In the many years that followed a couple of things happened that made me excited to reread this book again now it has been republished to the kindle also.
First is the majority of the book is set in and about London. A few years after I had already lost my copy of the book (loaned out and never returned) I moved to London so I really wanted to compare notes with the book. Secondly the world has changed a lot more in the last twenty years than in the twenty years preceding that. The rise of the internet, mobile phones and large changes in society are things absent from that time but that pertain to any reading of the city now, how relevant is the book in this light?
My second reading of the book was a little bit of a mixed bag I found it difficult to get into in patches while other chapters I loved, the course of time has I think been kinder to some chapters than others. In other places the book feels almost contemporary.
One man’s city is the sum of all the routes he takes through it, a spoor as unique as a fingerprint.– Jonathan Raban
London was brought back to life for me, I really had a good time recalling my time in London as I read the book. The whole idea of a soft city also resonates maybe more strongly now that people really obviously live on their network almost full time now in the age of the smartphone.
Why it might also still be a relevant book now is that Raban does have a proposal for a way to see the city, something that may be irreducible but might help us to value and elevate urban life.
It’s an important insight going forward as the city is for most people on the planet the place where they live and the environment in which they are born, live and die.
Raban makes a strong case that our outer lives are malleable in the city and self constructed within a society there. The city doesn’t remember, care or follow you and so you can present yourself anew there and within its borders make your own life and connections. Even the physical city itself is bent by this self remaking. Your city is constructed from a map of your workplace, home, friends and interests, not limited particularly by geography while within the cities limits.
If there is a criticism of this insight then that it is a nebulous concept that by it’s nature almost can’t be tested or really altered, and that’s a thin platform from which to bring about positive urban changes. Maybe this isn’t a book of potential explanations or answers more an insight into the inner lives of city citizens and how the city bends to them. That in itself is probably strong enough to recommend this book.
For at moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form round you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map fixed by triangulation.
Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them.
The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.
The city has always been an embodiment of hope and a source of festering guilt: a dream pursued, and found vain, wanting, and destructive. Our current mood of revulsion against cities is not new; we have grown used to looking for Utopia only to discover that we have created Hell.
The sheer imaginative cumbersomeness of the city makes us frequently incapable of distinguishing its parts from its whole; and moral synecdoche, the utopia/dystopia syndrome, is part of our essential habit of mind when we think about it.