Architecture is first and foremost an expression of art. And like any other art form, it is linked to others, intertwined, inseparable. Like the dance that needs music to be alive and thriving, architecture needs expressions through various mediums to transcend its rigidity, and into the minds of the people. Paintings, works of literature were the means that propagated architecture through and to the people far and wide in the bygone times. In that sense, Italo Calvino’s invisible cities are the collection of excerpts about 50 cities, named and perceived like 50 women. The language takes the liberty of being a fictional work and adds magic to its phrases, making the reader follow every stroll and imitate every pause. The Venetian traveler Marco Polo describing each of these cities to the emperor Kublai khan forms the narrative of the book.
Travelers and storytellers from corners of the world recited their experiences to the great khan but Marco Polo was his favorite for the reason that while all others talked about wars and famines and priceless mines, polo took him through a whole extensive journey of these cities, while they both sat at the doorsteps of the palace, enjoying the evening breeze. The cities- tempting, seductive, joyous, deceptive…Polo made them sound like different women indeed, and he segregated them into types.
In cities and memory– memories stick to them like paint to its walls. And these could be pleasant or sad and suffocating. Like the city of Zaira, where the tangible parts of the city are not what resonates in you while you leave it; it’s rather the incidents that have taken place in the city or the agony of the people that seem to haunt the city like a thin fog. Or the city of Zora, which is easy to memorize, point to point, because of how well-arranged each of its elements is. But in this desire to be easily remembered, Zora has lost herself to the ordinary.
In cities and desire- the desire is associated with fertile land, nourishing moats and canals, clear skies, and rare gems and goods the traveler seeks here. Or it is associated with the deceptiveness of a city that fools her guests into believing that she offers just what they long for. Despina- a coastal city, which while perceived by a traveler upon a camel approaching her from the desert, looks similar to a vessel at the shore, and the traveler imagines all the foreign and exotic goods that he would see. But to a visitor from the sea, Despina looks like a camel’s withers and he fantasizes about the luscious oasis, wine, and exotic women.
Cities and signs talk about cities that communicate to you, but in codes that are left to be decoded, and that is the beauty of them. Often in these signs, however, the city becomes redundant, repeating them for the sake of its own existence.
While thin cities are ones with limitations hidden in them- these are cities of a thin fabric, no structures marvelous enough, or architecture profound enough to give it depth.
And monotonous functional cities with bazaars for trading goods- the trading cities, but the travelers keep returning to these cities, not because of the trade of goods, but because of the exchange of memories and stories; of valor of battles, of lovers, of beasts unheard of. The city thrives because it caters to the raw curiosity of man.
As the book propagates, the reader finds Marco Polo’s cities becoming more and more unbelievable, drowning into utopian fantasies, or fairytale cities that contradict the basic sciences. This is where you start seeing an intoxicated traveler, where his imagination seems to seep into his memories.
And then he goes on to talk about cities of eyes and cities of names. These are both deceptive cities, the imagery they have created for themselves often surpasses the value of what is real. And in a quest to hold on to the image, the city itself often falls mundane. These cities live by the names they have created- like Baucis, the city on stilts with its inhabitants seldom climbing down its legs, more so now because of the tradition that has been followed and attached to the name of the city.
Polo indulges into the unknown realm of the afterlife in cities and the dead, the cities with a prevailing confusion and sadness -where you witness dead people you knew or like Eusapia, where there is a whole underground city for the dead.
But cities and the sky talk about the contradiction- cities with a fabricated sense of happiness, and the dwellers trying to keep their cities synonymous to heaven.
Continuous cities keep changing, growing, defying their borders, and confusing their visitors until they become cities found everywhere.
Hidden cities, however, are cities within the city that don’t meet the eye easily. Like Raissa, where the people aren’t happy and in a sweeping glance, it seems like the unhappiest of the cities. But among the artists, the lovers, the women on the terraces, the people buying groceries from the windows facing the streets, thrives a happy city, unacknowledged even by its people.
Invisible cities essentially lay down the different invisible layers that a visitor maps the cities with. Calvino has weaved the flair of magical realism deeply into his narrative. But rather than masking the cities, it has in fact brought out the beauty of each of it in a sense that the designer of the city probably never thinks of. When we design anything to be used by strangers, in prolonged use it often grows out of its actual sense. Functionalities grow like wild vines and it conjures a larger meaning. Cities are the same, with several of the pathways and layers and functions within it not being foreseen by the creator. It evolves into a living breathing entity on its own.