Urban dwelling: evolution of a city

PD Smith’s upcoming book City: A Guidebook For The Urban Age seeks to ignite in readers an appreciation for architectural achievements from across the ages. Here the author explains to Ben East his fascination with the modern city

Nobody forgets the first time they see the Burj Khalifa. Soaring above the Dubai skyline, the tallest building in the world is a staggering monument to human endeavour and the focal point – even the emblem – of the city. But over time, even the most extraordinary structures can become commonplace, just another backdrop to the hustle and bustle of city life.

Which is where PD Smith’s City: A Guidebook For The Urban Age comes in. Smith, as happy talking about street art as the vibrant community spirit of the slum, takes the reader through thousands of years of city living. Skyscrapers are discussed, cemeteries are explained, all with the intention of reawakening in people the same sense of wonder they may have felt the first time they saw modern buildings such as the Burj Khalifa.

Urban living

For the first time in history, more than half the world’s population live in cities. Two hundred years ago, just three per cent were city dwellers, but by 2050, 75 per cent will be urbanites.

“The idea, right from the outset, was to open people’s eyes to the amazing human achievement that a living, functioning city is,” he says. “Just look at what it takes to make them work. Most people live in cities now, yet they take them for granted.

“Buildings – particularly tall buildings – are an expression of urban identity. They can define a city. But a character of a city comes from its people. And that’s why the best cities are multicultural and cosmopolitan: there’s a unique atmosphere when people are constantly negotiating the differences between cultures and languages. I hope what this book shows is how positive that is, and how urbanism isn’t a new thing. It’s our natural mode of living.”

Smith’s book considers the evolution of cities all over the world, but Dubai’s rapid pace of change over the last four decades makes it particularly relevant. “The thing that intrigues me about Dubai is that it’s both a new kind of city and yet a completely archetypal one,” he explains.

“On one level its story is quite traditional – a merchant city which grew rich on trade. That’s the oldest form of city that there is, going right back to the Phoenicians of the ancient world, through the trading centre of Venice and right through to London. And yet now Dubai is a global, consumer city populated by this mix of Emiratis, transient workers and tourists.”

Model city

Smith likes the fact that Dubai doesn’t seem limited by history. “It might be the first truly globalised city, where workers come from all over the world and don’t necessarily lay down lasting roots. It’ll be fascinating to see how that will work as a model for a city.”

It is interesting that Smith isn’t the only writer to hone in on what Dubai has to say about the way cities are developing in the 21st century. Kate Ascher’s recent book Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper necessarily travels to the Emirates because of its boom in tall buildings. Once again, it’s not a dry, academic tome but a compelling look at the way we might live our lives.

“Look at the Burj Khalifa,” she says. “It’s enormous and exciting and complex, but what’s most fascinating is that it has so many different functions. These tall buildings are no longer being used as office blocks, but places to live, work and play.”

Just like Smith, Ascher is keen to make people more aware of the way cities – and more specifically in her case, tall buildings – operate. “Not just so we can appreciate them, but so we properly understand them,” she says. “Do that, and both buildings and cities will be better.”

City: A Guidebook For The Urban Age by PD Smith (Bloomsbury) is released on 24 May
Heights: The Anatomy Of A Skyscraper by Kate Ascher (Penguin USA) is available now