American journalist and writer Daniel Brook’s new volume is an essential addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in how cities like Mumbai both aspire and attempt to fulfil ambitions of becoming global and modern metropolises. An adventurous narrative of St Petersburg/Leningrad, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai and Dubai, embracing more than three hundred years of modern history, A History of Future Cities is a refreshing account of global cities outside of their nation-states.
Brook romps through the cities’ take-off periods: St Petersburg in the 1700-1800s, Shanghai and Mumbai in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Dubai in the late 20th century, comparing the growth of these custom-built “gateway cities”. These “windows to the world” were purposely created to expose and reform their backward peasant and colonial populations to modernity and globalisation. In contrast to their inland bureaucratic capitals (Moscow, Delhi, and Beijing) these novelties contrived by reforming emperors, merchants, and imperialists, created new settlements and lifestyles by importing and imitating the latest “Western” forms of architecture, industry and public life.
Dubai makes a late appearance in A History of... as the contemporary template for the port cities which rulers in Russia, China and India built to upgrade and modernise their backward subjects. This late-twentieth-century “instant city” made possible by oil wealth, air-conditioning, airline travel, and global migration, provides Brook bookends for his longer histories of port cities, which turned inward – towards their national hinterlands – in the late 20th century, precisely when Dubai embraced free-wheeling global capitalism and urban cosmopolitanism.
A History of... remains a delicious read, though Brook’s history is riddled with contradictions which may discomfit more serious scholars. While bemoaning the decadence of the foreign elite who kept native Chinese at an arm’s length in interwar Shanghai, he hails the “pithhelmeted army” of Britishers in the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) who ruthlessly rebuilt Mumbai’s inner city, demolishing homes of thousands more than could be re-housed in its chawls (with a lasting legacy for today’s “slumdogs”).
Brook’s reliance on secondhand studies account for the many gaps in his history, especially for Mumbai, where he rehashes the sepiatinted nostalgia of heritage conservationists, and simply skims academic histories of labour and urbanisation. His introduction, on how “Westernisation” drove the aspirations of the book over more than 300 years, quickly spreads thin in nearly 400 pages. Though lacking in scholarly rigour or fresh research, A History of... is delightful thanks to Brook’s keen eye for detail – especially of urban design and built forms – and his talent for comparing and connecting far-flung places that anchor a common world history. Indeed, it is only towards the end of the book that the chapters on the four cities are woven together to challenge the East-West dichotomy with which he introduces the book. Russian petro-capitalists seek to mimic Dubai in refashioning the skyline of St Petersburg, just as Indian politicians obsessively try to remake Mumbai in the image of Shanghai, without reference to Europe or America. The “West” – wherever that is – is less an ambition to mimic foreigners, than an imagination of how to be modern and contemporary in a fast-changing world.
A History of Future Cities, W.W. Norton & Company, R1489
By Shekhar Krishnan on April 15 2013