by Maximilian Steverding

The City is a place of the multitude and so are its narratives. Each day, hour,  minute passing by new stories are told and yet forgotten filling up pages in the great book of the city. Whether it being residence or visitor, all contributing to the identity of the city that is yet formed by everyone but grasped by no one. Some of them, pretending to know, claim to have sovereignty about what the city is. Other just embrace their joyful unsuspectingness. 


»What is the city today, for us? 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.” 


Italo Calvino states after writing his unprecedented piece of literature called Invisible Cities in 1972. Was it not certainly the last love letter to a city, its 55 descriptions of imaginative cities and its inhabitants dwells on the noticeable fact, that the city as a whole becomes more and more difficult to experience. What makes up the character of a city gets either lost in its own vagueness or abbreviated by too short of a story. Pursuing to compete in the international competition for the greatest tale embodied within the nucleus of a city, writers and storytellers of all sort ambiguously publish their narratives through staged media materializing either within the city of in the digital realm.


In search of the true character of a city, one might find him- or herself wandering in the imaginative collection of cities, once experienced but long forgotten, only to find the same story told in numerous ways. All its flavors and fragrances, rhythms and tones amalgamated into singular visions. Once a vibrant plurality of a moment yet unveiling what then was the essence of that certain place and time. Just as Marco Polo reports to Khan the appearance of the variety of cities existing in his empire of cheer endlessness, our mind reconstructs the endless experiences, encounters, moods and atmospheres happening around us once we leave the comfortness of our home or just letting the city merge with it by opening a window or two.


To embark on a wander not through the invisible but the imagined city, constructed in our minds, might lead to far more concrete characters and narratives of the city than could ever be experienced or told about outside of our minds. Using the filter of the forgetting, the vague picture, the abstract thought in the distance, we might be able to get a feeling for what the city feels like, what it tastes like, what it sounds like rather than what it is like.

Let us stroll around concrete tales and pictures of the city to see, what the city is not and yet what constructs it. Extending Italo Calvino’s approach of uncovering a true feeling by narrating the constructed imagination, to distill the mechanisms of experiencing the city. 


The City of Sign

Experiencing a city is an act of doing. Not merely flourishing in once hectic everyday life, experiencing happens either in those rare moments of a pause between the acts of the play of life or in those luxurious moments where experience is the main purpose of doing. 


Valuing the preciousness of such moments, our mind is setting of the City of Sign. The city lays in the everywhere and is yet a very special place. The name of the city becomes an idiom, a metaphor for a variety of feelings and moments. It is the City of Love, the City of Stars or the City of Angels, it can be picturesque, gigantesque, grotesque, arabesque. Just as it can be, images appear everywhere around us once arriving in the city. We know what to expect, know what to look for, know where to find it. Kissing couples rig up the scene. Hectic People walking past us like actors or a movie set, just as promised by the city of sign.


We go for a stroll, just to find ourselves being mesmerized by the self-fulfilling prophecies promised to us by the city of sign long ago, before we even arrived in the city. We will repeat these mantras long after our visit in stories just as they were told to us before our arrival in the city of sign. Maybe experiencing also includes finding the expected. 


The City of Signage

Voyaging to the City of Signage starts long before actually being there. One pictures walking through its alleys within the moments of pause from the hectic. Not sure whether being a distraction of the everyday or a conviction of the need for the special, the city becomes a collection of images reappearing in different forms of media all around us. Everybody seems to go there, everybody seems to have been there. Adventurer inviting us on an imaginary trip to the city just for a second or two, one swipe and the image fades away only to be branded in our memory. 


Setting out for the city of signage, a good worked out plan is ones best companion. Expanding in the cheer fastness of the planet, the city of signage is a planet of its own. Yet all the images reappearing are woven into a dense blanket, covering all our endeavors with the warmth of the predictable. We arrive in the city with the trust in our plan but also with the pressure of seeing all those places and experiencing all those scenes.


Well-trodden paths guide us the way to another lonely insider place within the fastness of the city of signage. Divided into two spheres our paths lay above the city itself. Looking down we only grasp a glimpse on the mother pushing the buggy through the busy streets, children playing on the lots between the big highways of trodden routs just to arrive on another scene adjusting our vision to the previewed pictures. We find ourselves in the city of signage for one klick of the camera only to be lost again on the sheer endless miles through the unknown.  One finds to have been in a totally different city than the city of signage and yet been everywhere one expected to be. 


The City of Actors

There are several ways of getting to the city of actors just as there are several ways of being in it. One can voyage on a giant cruise liner after several days out on the ocean. Breathing the lagoons surrounding the city, imagination creates the Caribbean dream of a lonesome island only inhabited by some indigenous people. The city itself extends itself way over its natural boarders right into the water as we drove past the city in our giant cruise ship anchoring on a remote arm of it. Early in the morning we rush in the narrow empty alleyways shielding us from the heat. Numerous of Theaters line those streets, all in different size, different couleur yet staging the same play with the same props. Having our ticket at hand we indulge in the play only to board the save harbor of our cabins afterwards in the early afternoon, cooling ourselves in the pool on the roof of the ship, setting off for another city, on another shore, quite similar.


If we approach the city from land we wander through the vastness of a desert. Planes passing us in the sky, transporting the fortunate. On the horizon a mirage of moving light and sound promises to us the near arrival in the oasis that is the city of actors. Arriving on the cool and clear canals of the city we dip our toes into the water, surrounded by a hectic stream of people pushing themselves through the narrow alleys only to arrive where they started. 


Although you see actors from all over the world, people from the city you see none. They hide deep within the alleys letting the city itself hatching the disease.


The City of Merchants

A short recommendation; if one needs something, do not look for it in the city of merchants. The city does not serve the needed but fulfills the desired. Behind every window there is a store selling you the filthy unnecessities of live, all selling the same with a different taste to it. The sky is packed with advertisement, one whispering, one screaming their lustful promises to us. Both the stones of the street and the walls of the houses are polished. Getting lost in the illusive endlessness of the city that is a mirror is easy. Seeing yourself in the far distance, blurred by the overlapping lights brining us in a dizzy delirium of consumerism.


The citizens indeed are starving. Having to travel long distances to the next market where they can buy there needed, far outside of the city, one barely sees them in the city of merchants. The few roaming about the polished pavements, blinded by the lights or deaf from the sounds are in an irresistible intoxication. Once noticed by the merchants they are silently thrown out of the city. Everything seems possible in the city of merchants with its promises yet only to the goodwill of the merchants.  


The City of History

The last and oldest city on your journey through the minds of our remembrance is the city of history. We are only allowed to wander around the streets with a guide both explaining the marvelous tales that once took places on the square or in its neighboring streets as well as surveilling us to not look around the invisible corner revealing the façade that is the history of the city. Peeking around the corner one might find the new side of the city of history, might find, that it is all façade, but your guide carefully protecting us from such unveiling experiences.


Only people walking by, dressed like you and I hint on the different stories that happen behind the facades of history, of false narration. But what is authenticity if not a question of belief.


Mesmerized from the illusiveness of the City of History we slowly wake from our daydream, from the adventure in the cities of imagination, not sure what is real and what virtual, is the city of imagination just a diluted delusion or the distilled essence of what the story of the city is? Coming back into the physicality of our everyday, we realize that the narration of the city is more an imagined tale than a materialized fact. Remembering all the protagonists in the cities as well as their citizens one might wonder how the story of the city and the story of its inhabitants became so different, yet a cities narration is told by the guide who gains hold of it.


Nevertheless to experience what the city is, one has to leave the everyday and embark on a journey both through the real and the imagined to unveil their personal illusion of what the city narrates to oneself.



Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974, Giulio Einaudi

Anna Klingmann, Brandscapes, 2007, MIT Press

Gerhard Schulze, Die Erlebnisgesellschaft – Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart, 1993, Campus Verlag

John Urry, Jonas Larsen, The Tourist Gaze 3.0, 2011, SAGE Publications Ltd.

Architourism: Authentic, Escapist, Exotic, Spectacular, Hrsg. Solomon Frausto, 2005, Prestel Verlag