Everything you really need, and no more
The good hotel room is, in fact, the city’s paradigm: it provides everything you really need, and no more. The rest is out there; your dining room the city’s restaurants, your garden the city’s parks, your transport a bus or taxi or hire-car. It achieves in a positive way what so many societies try to do negatively, through commune or kibbutz: it removes the need for useless possessions. Positive, because it offers you a secret private life as well – for the possessions which really matter. How much do you really – really – need to own, continuously? Love, a sense of humour and the understanding which makes conversation into a genuine meeting instead of a pair of blind projections – they take no room at all. A crucifix, pet teddy-bear, half a dozen books take very little. The rest the city can provide, when you want them. That’s it’s job.
I found this passage in a photograph of Ian Nairn’s foreword to the book Civilia: the end of sub urban man. I cannot find the whole foreword, let alone the book it introduces. However, from the Nairn I have read I think this could be one of his most heartfelt, poetic, romantic even, pieces of writing.
Here is what the city could be – and really should be. It is not for everyone. I’m not sure it is for me anymore. But I can’t deny the thrill I feel at the idea of a city functioning this way.
Right now our spaces are very different, of course. But there is an opportunity for change. Things may never be the same, but that makes it even more important that there is some real thought and empathy towards making things better.
Earlier in the foreword Nairn mentions how “technology is creating the possibility that only those who like cities need ever work in them” – quite the foresight for 1971, but something we are still reaching for nearly 50 years later.
Our cities should be striving towards Nairn’s vision. All our public realm should be. How can we reverse the insularity, the contraction of what a city can be, of what any place might be? The opportunities are there. But is the imagination, the vision, to provide us with “everything we really need, and no more”?