Invisible Cities

By Kaycee Park

A friend who understood my fondness for beautiful and strange descriptions once recommended this book to me. It is popular with many artists and designers, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has not read it. Invisible Cities, by Italian writer Italo Calvino, was written in 1972, but it reads in a timeless manner.

The story depicts a fictitious dialogue between the Italian explorer Marco Polo and the Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan through a collection of brief chapters, each describing a city that Marco Polo has traveled through. Marco Polo’s descriptions of these cities provide imagery that causes one to dwell on the thought that whenever we create, build, or design, it is important to consider all the interactions that occur within the details.

The book itself is a rather quick read, with short chapters of only 165 pages total. Each chapter is dense with descriptions and ideas. It helps to pause between each chapter to digest and think through each city’s constructs and complexes. 

Artists have illustrated their visions of the cities within the book, and it is quite interesting to compare the text with their illustrations.

The city of Olinda illustrated by Maria Monsonet

The city of Olinda described in the book:
“In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no bigger than the head of a pin which, if you look at it slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the antennas, the skylights, the gardens, the pools, the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not remain there: a year later you will find it the size of half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses its way toward the outside”.

 The city of Olinda illustrated by Shu Okada

“Olinda is certainly not the only city that grows in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring”.

The city of Zenobia illustrated by Shu Okada

“Now I shall tell of the city of Zenobia, which is wonderful in this fashion: though set on dry terrain it stands in 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”.

The city of Zenobia illustrated by Maria Monsonet

“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”.

The city of Zenobia illustrated by Karina Puente

“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”.