20 February 2017

The Invisible City of Zenobia

Last week, the Peruvian architect Karina Puente sent me her brand-new drawing of the "Invisible city of Zenobia", one of the fifty-five Invisible Cities that Italo Calvino created in his novel (more a prose poem, really) of the same name.  

As she says, "I Dare! I dare because it is an experiment."
The cities in Italo Calvino’s novel are metaphors for cities. And for our experiences, alone and together, within the walls we construct around ourselves, walls being metaphors themselves. And are metaphors for other metaphors. And for much else our walls cannot contain, what escapes our most rigorous designs, what exists within, beneath, and above the surface of our intentions. 
In Calvino's Invisible Cities,* the traveller Marco Polo tells tales of impossible cities -- for example, a cobweb-city suspended over the abyss, or a microscopic city which gradually spreads out until we realize that it is made up of concentric cities which are all expanding.

If you choose to believe me, good.

For each city, after a precise description in words, Marco followed with a mute commentary, holding up his hands, palms out, or backs, or sideways, in straight or oblique movements, spasmodic or slow.  A new kind of dialogue is established. The cities he thus evokes are assigned to different themes such as Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Trading Cities, Continuous Cities, Thin Cities. Thin Cities are those rather abstract and airy creations like the city of Zenobia.**

Invisible City of Zenobia by Architect Karina Puente

Now I shall tell of the city of Zenobia, which is wonderful in this fashion: though set on dry terrain it stands on high pilings, and the houses are of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, surmounted by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, and fish poles, and cranes.

Zenobia by Colleen Corradi Brannigan
And, here, in fact, we are.

In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo -- Tartar emperor and Venetian explorer. The mood is sunset. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire, of his cities, of himself. 

Marco Polo diverts the emperor with tales of cities that he has seen within the empire and Kublai Khan listens, searching for a pattern in Marco Polo's cities.  Here are all the cities ever dreamed of, strange magical invisible cities that nobody else ever saw. All are named after women (as they must be, since cities are feminine in Italian) -- Raissa, Irene, Phyillis, Olinda, Armilla, Chloe, Valdrada ... and, of course, Zenobia.

No one remembers what need or command or desire drove Zenobia’s founders to give their city this form, and so there is no telling whether it was satisfied by the city as we see it today, which has perhaps grown through successive superimpositions from the first, now undecipherable plan. But what is certain is that if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.

Zenobia by Sakerinox
The emperor soon determines that each of these fantastic places is really the same place. 

Marco Polo agrees: "Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased...." 

This said, it is pointless trying to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

Kublai muses, "Perhaps, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind's phantasms." 

And Marco replies, "Cities, like dreams are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else."

You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.

For Calvino, one question was: What is the city today, for us?

Zenobia by Cargo Collective
"...I believe that I have written something like a last love poem addressed to the city, at a time  when it is becoming increasingly difficult to live there. It looks, indeed, as if we are approaching a period of crisis in urban life; and Invisible Cities is like a dream born out of the heart of the unlivable cities we know...." 

Perhaps all that is left of the world is a wasteland covered with rubbish heaps, and the hanging garden of the Great Khan's palace. It is our eyelids that separate them, but we cannot know which is inside and which outside.

"The desire of my Marco Polo," continued Calvino, "is to find the hidden reasons which bring men to live in cities: reasons which remain valid over and  above any crisis. A city is a combination of many things: memory,  desires, signs of a language; it is a place of exchange ... Only, these exchanges are  not just trade in goods, they also involve words, desires, and memories. My book opens and closes with images of happy cities which constantly take shape and then fade away, in the midst of unhappy cities."

Zenobia by David Fleck
All these cities may have been invisible to the sedentary emperor, but as the tireless Marco Polo made him see the most remote places, so Calvino recreates them for us, and --- no matter how distant -- they are eminently, unforgettably visible.***

The Great Khan owns an atlas where all the cities of the empire and the neighbouring realms are drawn, building by building and street by street, with walls, rivers, bridges, harbours, cliffs.

And, in fact, isn't that what we yearn for?  A drawing, or map, or sketch, to make the invisible cities visible?  Artists, architects and urbanists have been tempted, teasing out the hidden mathematics behind the construction and design of the cities; one might almost say, a playful invisible mathematics of surprises and few rules. And, of all the cities, Zenobia is one of the most suggestive and surreal of images.

Zenobia by Pedro Cano, "miradores cubiertos de techos cónicos"
Sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.

RIP City of Zenobia, Palmyra 2017

* Almost seven years ago (8 August 2010), this blog first succumbed to the fascination of Calvino's Invisible Cities, taking in hand a real-life impossible project to build the city of Zenobia: Building An Invisible City.

** Text of Zenobia from Le Città Invisibili by Italo Calvino (1972); translation William Weaver (1974).

*** William Weaver on Calvino and His Cities.  Also 'Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities', a lecture given to the students of the Graduate Writing Division at Columbia University on March 29, 1983.

The Artists of the Invisible city of Zenobia:

Karina Puente - Calvino's Invisible Cities Made Visible: The Drawings of Karina Puente; I Dare! I dare because it is an experiment. My especial thanks to her for sending me her very recent 'Zenobia'.

Colleen Corradi Brannigan - The Invisible Cities Become Visible; The Invisible Cities; But Does it Float.  I am most grateful for her permission to reproduce her watercolour of 'Zenobia'.

Sakerinox - The world is a parody of itself and I want to draw

Cargo Collective - Faculty of Architecture/Istanbul Bilgi University

David Fleck - Zenobia

Pedro Cano - En las ciudades invisibles X

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