Imaginary London: An Interview With Darran Anderson

Kyra Hanson
By Kyra Hanson Last edited 10 months ago
Imaginary London: An Interview With Darran Anderson

Join author Darran Anderson on a journey through London as imagined by authors, architects, tour guides and property developers, in which we encounter everything from suburban witches to Jack the Ripper and Judge Dredd — as well as all the fantastical structures which never got to shape the city skyline.

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1960s monorail in Regent's Street
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Misha Black's alternative plans for the South Bank
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"The 68 mutations of the Eiffel Tower submitted for Watkin’s Tower should’ve been built scattered around the city in every direction"
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The Eiffel Tower in England's green and pleasant land
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Charles Holden's Art Deco bridge
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The model for an aerodrome at King's Cross
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The gothic Imperial Monument Tower that might have dwarfed the Houses of Parliament
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A classical, oversized monument plonked on top of Selfridges

Which plans would have altered London for the better but never made it past the drawing board?

Quite a few of them, though that’s not necessarily a good thing (I’m inclined to creative vandalism). I’d have let Archigram loose on the capital. Having a monorail in Regent Street as the GLC proposed in the 60s is tempting and, as much as I love the South Bank, I’d be curious to have seen how Misha Black’s mountainous Giger-esque structure there (the Project for the Universal International Exhibition of 1951) would’ve turned out.

I recently suggested facetiously that the 68 mutations of the Eiffel Tower submitted for Watkin’s Tower should’ve been built scattered around the city in every direction but I genuinely wish that Holden’s glass Art Deco Tower Bridge had been built as a twin to the existing one.

The Liverpool Street and King’s Cross airports on stilts would’ve been curious monstrosities. The gothic Imperial Monument Tower looming over Westminster would’ve impressed. The ridiculous classical tower emerging from the roof of Selfridges would’ve been unintentionally postmodern before there was modernism.

I genuinely wish Skylon still existed and 100 buildings with that level of imagination and civic spirit. And I wish there were towers to culture, science and philosophy to match the towers to Mammon that are increasingly dominating.

What is it about London that fuels the imagination – not just for architects but writers and film makers?

In a superficial sense, it’s the mixture of the very old and very new juxtaposed, which is especially attractive to people from countries with shorter histories. All cities are collages and London is no exception.

I think its status as one of the colonial capitals at the time of the industrial and communications revolutions still plays a huge part, for good and ill. It sucked in immigrants from every corner of the earth and immigrants bring fresh ideas and stories. They get hated for it of course but they’re essential to avoid stagnation.

There are countless cities I’ve been to that are pristine husks; embalmed from earlier ages and fit only as Potemkin villages for tourists. London, by contrast, is alive and it’s alive because it is a multiplicity.

Speaking of tourists, why are the same stories regurgitated by a city? The recent unveiling of the Jack the Ripper Museum (originally supposed to celebrate the women of the East End) is a case in point. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination?

Ghost stories are a way of defusing the past. The reality, the unsolved reality I should say, of Jack the Ripper is a terrifying affront, so they made him a well-dressed fallen-gentleman phantom. You pass by the guided tours and there’s this disgraceful sense that he was some kind of anti-hero, something out of Dickens or Conan Doyle. At the time, some actually painted him as a Malthusian vigilante, cleaning up the streets.

The reality of course is that he was a squalid pathetic murderer of the most vulnerable, failed and despised members of society. Everything about it indicts the society of the time, and our view of it perhaps indicts our own. To avoid confronting that, it’s been absorbed, turned into a phantasm and the stuff of tours and dress-up. It works too because sex-workers are still judged by many people. Imagine having a Manson Family tour through LA or an Aum Shinrikyo tour through the Tokyo underground.

Psychogeography can be benevolent, helping us see our surroundings with a renewed sense of depth or from different perspectives, but it’s not intrinsically so. Stories can deceive and distract. We often tell ourselves stories as comforting fabrications. It’s, sadly, a sign of the times. Horror becomes heritage and heritage becomes sellable.

Why is it important that we ‘read’ London’s architecture?

It’s important because it makes us something more than passive spectators or consumers. It makes the place just a little more ours. I think we all do it instinctively, even if we don’t realise it. We’re all incensed or enthralled by certain buildings. We all tie personal experiences to places. Our identities seep into these settings and these settings seep into our identities; train stations, cemeteries, pubs.

When we’re disconnected from place, we’re disconnected from something of ourselves, and both will be eventually lost to us (one of George Orwell’s least-read books, but best in my opinion, Coming Up for Air is great on this). When fragments of earlier attempts at utopia (public parks, libraries, playgrounds) are replaced by the liminal, exclusionary or glibly commercial, we may come to realise what we’ve lost and how quietly radical they were.

Senate House - The inspiration behind George Orwell's Ministry of Truth. Photo: Scott Sim Photography

A fictional London emerges throughout the book by way of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (based on Senate House) and A Clock Work Orange (filmed in Thamesmead South.) What is special about the relationship between architects and authors, fiction and reality?

The most extravagant science fiction or fantasy cities are constructed from fragments of the existing world. Nothing comes from nothing. I’m not necessarily interested in imaginary cities for their own sake but rather how they emerge from and back into real cities. I think that anchors the book.

It’s not the Martians that interest me in The War of the Worlds so much as it’s Martians stalking around Woking, incinerating Greater Londoners. Wells himself acknowledged that in a letter, "I'm doing the dearest little serial, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking — killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways." It was as much about his view of acquaintances and his surroundings as it was extraterrestrials.

What is attractive about the imaginary or the unbuilt as opposed to the already-constructed world?

They both feed off each other I think. We tend to forget that the cities we live in are the result of the ideas and decisions of individuals; they were once imaginary. And perhaps, in a sense, they still are. When you walk around Paris, Vienna, Phnom Penh or London (cities I worked on in the book), so much of the way you perceive the city around you is informed by books you’ve read, films you’ve seen and so on.

Is there a "democratic deficit" in the way London is being imagined and constructed currently?

All the exciting cultural developments come through disparate influences and backgrounds clashing and creating hybrids, and London has been a focal point for that over and over again. The danger these days is that accessibility may well be coming to an end politically and economically.

There’s a worrying tendency of those in power to look enviously upon other glorious, shiny and largely vacuous metropolises. And London is already a haven for floods of dirty money. With the poor being increasingly, deliberately ostracised, there is a real danger of London slipping into a Potemkin city-state, which might well embalm what is a vital city. You can see it happening already with the theft of public space into private hands right down to culture being monopolised by the idiotic offspring of the rich.

I have faith that that will be, and is being, resisted but there’s a lot that can be lost and already has been. We need to find spaces where resistance can be mounted. And these do still exist. You have to remember that when the filmmakers and writers came and reimagined London it was very often a place of dystopia. More accurately, it was a place of struggle against creeping dystopia. That can’t be left just in fiction.

London feels like it's rapidly being reimagined in the eyes of property developers and foreign investors. William Blake recognised that the “the city was its people” so what happens when “form follows profit” not people?

Well, that’s the experiment now and if I were a sociopath I’d say it’s an interesting one. There’s a cliché that every utopia is a dystopia but it works the other way around too; every dystopia is a utopia for a select few.

My main problem with ‘form follows profit’ (as Richard Rogers originally put it) is societal as well as architectural; it’s a monumental waste that we cannot afford. I’ve seen brilliant men and women, who in a more enlightened age would be pushing us into uncharted territory with their ideas, working at a subsistence level, and eminent mediocrities crowding out every avenue to advancement, because of who their parents were and where they went to school. It’s an obscenity and one entirely unsuited to the modern age yet it is allowed to persist.

Skylon, Festival of Britain 1951

What is the defining structure of our times?

There was an interesting prophecy architecturally in the form of the Skylon; an amazing space-age structure placed on the South Bank for the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was iconic, hugely popular and managed to combine poetic mystery with a palpable sense of futurist optimism. And the Conservative government of the time scrapped it, melted it down and sold off the pieces. If ever there was a symbol of the past 30 years, it’s that.

In such times, optimism seems almost revolutionary. We need to regain our nerve and show that other ways are possible, indeed essential. The internet is key. Literature used to be one of the only mediums that said 'life doesn’t have to be this way' but now every day we see it online. We have the most incredible 21st century technologies available at the click of a button and yet we’re saddled with a 18th century establishment. It’s ludicrous and it’s holding us back.

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H. Albrecht illustration for 'Utopia'
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Camelot 3000 - art by Brian Bolland
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Dan Dare - art by Keith Watson
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Judge Dredd series The Satanist (2000AD) - by Charlie Adlard and Chris Blythe

How did comics like Judge Dredd and Dan Dare anticipate social change?

All writing about the future is essentially about the present; it affords us a certain distance and perspective to examine and criticise what’s happening now. So you had a lot of themes that were relevant to Britain and Europe as much as the US; tribalism (Block Mania), othering (muties), moronic fashion and overindulgence (uglies and fatties), the Cold War, mass unemployment and so on. The series even got banned for mocking commercialisation during the Cursed Earth saga; they had McDonalds and Burger King wage war on each other in a nuclear wasteland.

One of my favourite of Dredd’s adversaries, though far from a villain, was Marlon ‘Chopper’ Shakespeare. His resistance to the police state and crass listless existence was articulated in terms of architecture. He asserted a kind of personal sovereignty in the midst of dehumanising space (the city-blocks of Mega-City One are a cross between Blobism, Brutalism and Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse plan) through illegal graffiti and then sky-surfing. In doing so, they anticipated trends like parkour and urban exploration.

Dan Dare embodies a sense of technocratic post-war optimism. It was essentially ‘Biggles in space’ but it chimed with an age of hopeful innovative socialism; Harold Wilson heralding the white heat of a technological revolution and Tony Benn, as Minister of Technology, opening the BT Tower, spearheading International Computers and Concorde. Sadly, what has happened since makes thinking about the future in such a way the stuff of nostalgia.

Readers will be familiar with the first idea of suburbia as described in Imaginary Cities: “The cliché goes that God made the country, man made the city and the devil made the suburbs. The suburbs promised much and delivered merely blissful mediocrity” Can you elaborate on the suburbia of wizards and fortune tellers?

Suburbia’s a much more interesting place than is often thought, though I say that as someone who doesn’t live there. The whole ‘darkness beneath suburbia’ is a fairly clichéd theme but it at least points to the fact that all is not what is seems. In previous eras and places, it’s where the unwanted were pushed; be it occupations like tanners or the red belt and immigrant estates around Paris.

The idea of creating the suburbs originally was pretty radical; from Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities to early Soviet planning. I don’t think it’s entirely lost any of these aspects; they’re buried somewhere, like dead once hung at Tyburn. Areas where the city disintegrates into the countryside are very revealing places to walk (my publisher Influx Press have published some great work in this area).

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MI6 Building - Headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service, London. Photo: Nino Vrana (2013)
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The Shard. Photo: Doug (2013)
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The Strata apartment building in Elephant and Castle. Photo: Aurélien Le Roch (2009)
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ArcelorMittal Orbit in Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford. Photo: Downtime_1882 (2012)
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No. 1 Poultry at the junction between Poultry and Queen Victoria Street. Photo: Stuart-Lee (2008)
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Neasden Hindu Temple in Brent, Northwest London. Photo: Andrea Pucci (2013)

Finally, which London landmarks should have remained in the imagination?

There are lots but the question of taste doesn’t interest me that much; very often the most hated buildings are also the most loved. And just because a building is wretched or despicable doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting; quite the contrary. They reveal things to us, not just about ourselves (why do we hate certain buildings?) but about power and society.

The MI6 Building, for example, is so blatantly Orwellian that it almost seems like a double bluff. The Shard, for all its irritating intangibility, belongs to an unlikely lineage that includes Bruno Taut’s glass utopianism. The Strata Tower and the ArcelorMittal Orbit are messes but not without intrigue. The Temple at Neasden is amazingly grotesque. There are buildings which should never have replaced other buildings, No 1 Poultry for one.

Aesthetically, for me, mediocrity is the only sin (though there are extravagant as well as conservative versions of that now). Ethically is a whole different question. It’s painful that every tower seems to be destined for finance or apartments for oligarchs. It shows a fundamental failure of imagination and courage. It needn’t be this way and it conceivably won’t always be the case. Nothing about London, or any city, is natural or inevitable. The skyline is the result of ideas and decisions of individuals. The city has been imagined into being and it can be reimagined.

Imaginary Cities is published by Influx Press and is available to purchase from all good bookshops.  Follow the twitter feed @Oniropolis for Imaginary Cities updates, debate and musings.

If you enjoyed this interview you might enjoy our series Unbuilt London in which we explore London transport, bridges, skyscrapers and the story of those Eiffel Towers.

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson out now from Influx Press

Thanks also to the following photographers for use of their photos via the Londonist Flickr pool: Nino Vrana, Doug, Aurélien Le Roch, Downtime_1882, Stuart-Lee, Andrea Pucci.

Last Updated 02 November 2016

Greg Tingey

"Imaginary Cities"?
And no mention of Ankh-Morpork?
Really!