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Calvino’s 56th invisible city: Copenhagen

in Ark Review/Musings by

Isidora is the city that appears when you desire a city the most. Isidora is the city of dreams, in which you experience how your desires already have become memories. The young man in the story arrives at the city in old age and witnesses himself as a young man having his desires met – the city facilitates this, as it is built solely on the desires and dreams of those stopping by.

In Zaira, the way the streets rise and the arcades curve is not important. Zaira is the city of the past, which expands on memories. The physical appearance of the bastions, roofs, windows and lampposts is irrelevant and only the relations between each object and the events of their past creates the city as it appears.

“The city of Leonia refashions itself everyday: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio.” In Leonia, all that belongs to yesterday is thrown away to give space to the newest models making Leonia the city of the ever new and the always different.

What, then, is Copenhagen? Copenhagen can be all kinds, Copenhagen the city belonging to the mind of each inhabitant – in other words, you decide. And right now, I decide:

As I enter the city and succumb to its structure, the ground is trembling below me. The odour of worn-down wheels from overused bicycles dominates. It is cold, I feel it cannot be colder – it is the darkest hour before dawn, the coldest days before Spring. The air is crisp with expectations. I pass by a man with trousers too short, a sleeveless waistcoat, round thick glasses for the very near-sighted and an uneven moustache – he reminds me of Mr. Krapp in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Is the city like him? Like the man who stopped living life a long time ago, perhaps never started, who instead, with minute observations, reports his mental state to a tape recorder? Who now only listens to his old tapes while occasionally reports something new – to the last tape he has left? This Mr. Krapp stopped growing, perhaps he never started. He stopped expanding his mind, stopped letting himself be inspired, stopped succumbing himself to outer stimulants. And this is his status quo.

And no, the city is not like him. Standing close to the Central Square, there is no doubt: Copenhagen is a vibrant city, seemingly capable of maintaining its pace with no need for human interference, without the people living in the city and without the creating powers of each inhabitant’s mind. But no, that is not the case, the city could not exist without the creating minds of each person passing through – what does limit the mind, and consequently perhaps the city, is the still increasing amount of buildings being built for urban renewal. I see the bronze-coloured statuesque building, which has been granted the space between Tivoli and the old Circus-building. It is intensely dominating and goes well with Tivoli’s futuresque rides. It all looks like something from a science fiction-film, but these new structures very much steal the more classic thunder the Circus-building used to possess. And that is a great shame and this area’s loss.

Discover the empty spaces in the city – before they are history … Finish your work and then leave, giving the space up for someone else to create a city of their own.

A few metres away I find the spot that is subject to the most recent, but not yet approved, urban plan. It is the area by the Palads Theatre and the embankment by Vesterport Station. As this area is now, it is paradise to the urban imagination.

Traffic lights force me to stop with the Vesterport embankment, the hot spot, on my right and Jarmers Plads on my left. I only have to glance to the right to understand the limitations of a growing city; modern urban plannings wishes to hide away the railways. Here, pedestrians, cyclists, bus- and motorists are presented with a luxurious grand view of industrialisation at its most purest: A long untouched view of the railways, with red-brick buildings on each side and the Palads Theatre adding an odd splash of colour to the horizon. It might not be pretty, this sight, there might be an imprudently great amount of useless space, but that’s exactly what’s rare and luxurious about it. For that lack of use, that amount of open space, is what makes it possible for city dwellers to create their very own Invisible City.

To me, the concrete fence forcing pedestrians to stay on the right side could be made of ice. It could be the start of thousands of stairways all leading up to the same invisible spot somewhere in the sky. Underneath, the railway would still be there, but it would be surrounded by an ice rink. Trains and ice skaters would use the same space in great harmony. In this particular spot, the crisp cool weather, and expectation of a Spring yet to come, would always be in the air. It would be a Winter Wonderland.

Letting flaneûrs on the go create their own imaginary place protects the spot as it is: If you stand by the railway looking down and think about all the other ideas and personal interactions this space has facilitated, it gives you so much power – and in turn, gives that space power as well. It is like an army is protecting it, an army of other human encounters. And this vigorous army, this sum of individual pieces and wonders, would be destroyed by too much urban renewal – as practical and as rational as it might be. Because the army risen from this particular spot is created from each person comfortably knowing that whatever you might do to the city in your mind, do to this particular area, others do simultaneously and have done before you. It is an infinite project, a joint effort and perhaps even a common way of city life. But if all imaginative thinking is done for you, at some point you stop doing it yourself.

The 55 cities in Calvino’s Invisible Cities are presented by the traveller Marco Polo to the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan. And what you may learn from Polo and from Kublai Khan’s undivided attention is that the truth is not always important. What you actually see is not what you should always pay attention to. It’s what could be which excites your mind, what makes both your mind and the city grow, and urges you to continue. This can make a city like Copenhagen an eternal winter wonderland.

Request to readers: Discover the empty spaces in the city – before they are history. Examine it from different angles before you let your mind create its own buildings, its own streets and its own relation between the physical surroundings and the people inhabiting it. Finish your work and then leave, giving the space up for someone else to create a city of their own.

Suggested, quoted and highly recommended reads: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

An English scholar flaneuring the streets (and searching the store) to find out what to do with life. While asking herself such grand questions, Henriette writes harsh(ish) book reviews and tries to run the bookstore behind the scenes, where she keeps a stern eye on each volunteer and their workload to keep her love of systems and control in check. Perhaps she should rather be curled up in the store’s leather armchair with Virginia Woolf… With ‘Street Haunting’ as her favourite read, Woolf will be this ark reviewers main inspiration for future contributions and walking will be her preferred means to reach each end result.

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