Lessons for Architects in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities
In a posthumously published interview in The Paris Review (1992), Calvino discusses the architecture that underpins all of his books and Invisible Cities in particular.
INTERVIEWER: Turgenev said, ‘I would rather have too little architecture than too much because that might interfere with the truth of what I say.’ Could you comment on this with reference to your writing?
CALVINO: It is true that in the past, say over the past ten years, the architecture of my books has had a very important place, perhaps too important. But only when I feel I have achieved a rigorous structure do I believe I have something that stands on its own two feet, a complete work. For example, when I began writing Invisible Cities I had only a vague idea of what the frame, the architecture of the book would be. But then, little by little, the design became so important that it carried the entire book; it became the plot of a book that had no plot.
For Calvino, the book’s “architecture” is its “structure” or “frame.” And, indeed, Invisible Cities has an incredibly intricate structure with a double spine or helix: one based on theme and sequencing that informs the placement of all 55 cities/prose poems, the other 11 commentaries (between the merchant Marco Polo and the emperor Kublai Khan) on the cities’ possible significance and larger patterning. But Calvino and the interviewer’s exchange also indirectly calls attention to the actual treatment of architecture within the book.
In many ways, the architecture within the cities is the main, protean protagonist. The whole collection can be read as a kaleidoscope of all cities that exist or could possibly exist, with the various forms, the architecture, reflected in jewel-like shards and startling combinations. Though Calvino does offer lessons in creating highly visual and iconic architecture, there are other, deeper lessons on human perception, control, and time. The architecture in Invisible Cities goes beyond mere backdrop for Marco Polo’s recollections to partake in the essential, multifaceted nature of these cities.
The architecture in every city has an epigrammatic quality. In the description of the very first city, Diomira, we are introduced to “a city with sixty silver domes.” This is a very different description than “a city with silver domes.” The sixty immediately conjures a word picture, a vivid visual image—whether of sixty concentrated or scattered domes on a skyline—in the reader’s mind, while also remaining strangely elusive—why sixty? Of course, there is a linguistic and poetic answer: the iambs and sibilance of “with sixty silver domes” is pleasing to the tongue and ear. But the phrase is far more arresting than mere sound and wordplay.
Calvino’s description recalls the idea that the more precise you are, the more mysterious. Precision is a mnemonic device that stores an image in long-term memory (rather than the usual short-term bin). Calvino gives many of the cities epithets—Isaura, city of the thousand wells; Octavia, the spider-web city—that evoke Homer. These epithets allow Marco Polo, our transfigured Odysseus, to categorize these cities and the distinct architecture that gives them their identity.
One way to try and explain away the mystery of such precise descriptions is that Marco Polo is a merchant who has implicitly taken an inventory of each city. It is essential to his profession to pay attention to materials and quantities. But early in the collection, by the third city, our narrator dispels this one-dimensional reading:
In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet….
Marco Polo refuses to measure and quantify Zaira. What becomes more important in this and other cities is the web of human relationships that subtly transform the architecture:
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.
These human relationships and dramas leave only traces within the city. Though their “writing” is ultimately an illegible hieroglyph, composed of “scratches” and “indentations” that you might find on an ancient “scroll,” these human traces are essential to a true understanding of the actual, however ghostly, uses of the city. This human patina is testament to not only the past but also the living city, the city continuing to exist.
Architecture is not static in Calvino’s cities. The one city with fixed architecture, Zora, is a city that disappears. Marco Polo presents Zora as a memory palace with “an armature, a honeycomb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember.” The ancient Greeks and Romans who perfected this mnemonic technique would have fit right in, for the “world’s most learned men are those who have memorized Zora.” But this wisdom comes at a price: “forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, Zora has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.” The city, lost in rigid mental space, loses its connection to the tangible, regenerative earth.
Other ideal cities fare no better. The actual Fedora, “that gray stone metropolis,” contrasts sharply with the ideal Fedoras:
In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.
The city changes too fast; the ideal city cannot keep pace with the real city and thus, upon construction, is obsolete. But Fedora does not destroy these “toy” cities. Instead, these glass globes are placed within a museum at the center or heart of Fedora and “every inhabitant visits it, chooses the city that corresponds to his desires, contemplates it, imagining his reflection in its medusa pond….” Desire, contemplation, and imagination—all fluid human traits—transform these toys into mental fantasies that can be reinhabited and enjoyed.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as the ideal city; there is a multiplicity of refracted ideal cities. The inhabitants choose someone else’s ideal city and see their own reflections there. This gesture recalls Diomira, the first city of the collection, with its strange déjà vu: “But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening…is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.” In this description, the man feels envy for others’ storied déjà vu. This distortion creates a sense of infinite variation that permeates the book.
Within all of the cities, there are more cities. Cities with remembered or forgotten pasts. Cities with undetermined, possible futures. Light and heavy cities. Spacious and crowded cities. Cities infused with human traits and values: happy and unhappy cities, just and unjust cities. The combinations within one city are endless.
In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino’s undelivered lectures to students at Harvard (he died before he could deliver them), he devotes an entire lecture to the concept of multiplicity. As he examines different authors, he defines multiplicity in various ways: “a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world”; “the world as a knot, a tangled skein of yarn”; “a web radiating out from every object”; and “structures [that]…unite density of invention and expression with a sense of infinite possibilities.” He likens multiplicity to a continuous encyclopedia:
What tends to emerge from the great novels of the twentieth century is the idea of an open encyclopedia, an adjective that certainly contradicts the noun encyclopedia, which etymologically implies an attempt to exhaust knowledge of the world by enclosing it in a circle. But today we can no longer think in terms of a totality that is not potential, conjectural, and manifold.
Calvino’s definitions of multiplicity help us read Invisible Cities. Its overall structure and repeating themes create a “network” and “web” that highlights the “manifold” and “infinite possibilities” of cities. In many ways, the collection presents an “open encyclopedia” of cities, where one entry throws the reader into others. There is the see also of the explicit series: Cities and Memory, Cities and the Dead, Thin Cities, etc. And, more subtly, there is the see also of overlapping similarities and contrasts between cities; for example, comparisons between ideal cities, cities with similar climates, elevated cities, reflected cities, etc.
In many descriptions, the architecture reflects this multiplicity and infinity. In Isidora, “buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells.” The spirals of the seashells are fractals of the staircases. This description vividly evokes Calvino’s passage on the open encyclopedia: a spiral literally opens up a circle. Another example of multiplicity comes in the form of the list. Marco Polo’s many lists of the places within a city often contain incongruities: in Tamara, “if a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel.” This diverse list contains multitudes: the upper class with the lower class; the political, social, and economic with the mathematical and scientific; the mind with the body.
Such proliferation within cities has a dark side. It leads to many of the problems that plague cities (and the built environment): overpopulation (Procopia), sprawl (Penthesilea), non-biodegradable waste (Leonia), and the destruction of the environment (Cecilia) and other species (Theodora). Tucked into these infernos, there is one city that acts cautiously toward nature. In Andria, the “city and the sky correspond so perfectly” that any change within the city affects the sky. Marco Polo explains, “Convinced that every innovation in the city influences the sky’s pattern, before taking any decision they calculate the risks and advantages for themselves and for the city and for all worlds.” Such “prudence” is rare among most inhabitants of cities.
Despite the infinite possibilities of cities, they do come and go. Kublai Khan’s fear of “formless ruin” and the “termites’ gnawing” in the opening section haunts the entire collection.
Though Calvino worries about the problems of modern cities, this is not the main focus of Invisible Cities. In a lecture delivered at Columbia University, Calvino explains his intentions:
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. It looks, indeed, as if we are approaching a period of crisis in urban life; and Invisible Cities is like a dream born out of the heart of the unlivable cities we know…. The desire of my Marco Polo is to find the hidden reasons which bring men to live in cities: reasons which remain valid over and above any crisis.
Calvino aptly characterizes Invisible Cites as “a last love poem,” for each city is the name of a woman and there are many (half-heard and half-seen) seductive women within the cities. Even the titles of the series help to support the enormity of this romance: memory, desire, signs, eyes, the hidden, etc. This love becomes an invisible thread, however tenuous, at the heart of the city. It becomes one of “the hidden reasons which bring men to live in cities.”
Calvino’s dreams of cities are vivid and idiosyncratic. Their architecture often verges on the impossible: Zenobia, a city built on “stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks….” Their architecture can reveal the often invisible: Armilla, a city with “no walls, no ceilings, no floors,” with only plumbing, “a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows.” It is a delight to dream along with Calvino and imagine these inventive cities, even as he weaves in darker and more complex ideas and themes.
In fact, these complexities help to balance the imaginative flights of fancy, to invest them with meaning. In his lecture on lightness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino defines lightness as more than escape:
Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future.
A large part of the lasting power of this imaginative work is in its conversations with reality. The best fiction, including science fiction, allows us to see our reality with new eyes, new understandings. In architecture, imagination pushes the boundaries of the possible. Many architects and artists, as a brief internet search or a poll of those you know will tell you, have felt the impulse to sketch Calvino’s imaginative cities.
Though this impulse to sketch speaks to the cities’ visual and tactile power, the more important lesson for architects is more cognitive. The invisible and visible should always be in dialogue, for within the invisible, there is the imaginative, creative, and possible. And perhaps even more important is an awareness that invisible perspectives—influenced by memories, desires, relationships, and other human traits—transform architecture. Our role as architects is to give our architecture, in all its complex and distinct forms, the space to change over time, to keep pace with the unpredictable and dynamic.