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Invisible cities

Book review by Zwaan Hoeksma

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a must-read for any spatial designer. It's a slim book with a clear structure and concise chapters, making it easy to digest. The book is divided into sections, each beginning and ending with a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. These dialogues form the backbone of the story, while the middle section of each part consists of several short stories, each describing an imaginary city. Each city is a concept with its own name and distinct form. I've tried to capture some of the most notable impossible cities with drawings.

You can always open this book for a new insight, a comic anecdote, or a time travel to a non-existent place. Although the book was written half a century ago, its message is timeless.

The Historical Background

The story is set in the thirteenth century and is partly based on reality. It is about Emperor Kublai Khan, who ruled over the Mongol Empire, part of the Yuan Dynasty, which today consists largely of China. Marco Polo was a diplomat for Kublai Khan and traveled the Silk Road at the time. Polo was an Italian traveler who published an account of his journeys in a collection dating back to the thirteenth century.

Polo was fascinated by Khan's paradise gardens. The Chinese word for landscape is composed of the terms "mountain" and "water." These elements were used in these historical gardens to stimulate the minds of visitors. For example, Marco described in one of his diaries that the trees on the rocks in Kublai's garden were so large that only elephants could have lifted them. These so-called paradise gardens with fruit trees and flowing water were designed to invite contemplation and meditation.

The Fictional Story

In this fictional story, Khan has sent Polo on a journey because he wants to create the perfect city. To gather more information, he instructs Polo to research the existing cities in his empire. The search for the "ideal city" has been a popular theme in various cultures throughout history. What makes this book so enjoyable is that it describes the ideal city through imaginative stories.

The language barrier between the Eastern emperor and the Italian traveler plays an important role in their communication. Polo is forced to use imagery because Khan often simply does not understand him. The surrealist style of storytelling invites the reader to use their imagination and discover how bizarre the stories are. But not only bizarre, because the core of each concept is recognizable and universal.


A passage from the book encapsulates the essence of this story for me. At one point, somewhere in the middle of the story, Khan says something like: ‘...but what you are telling me is nonsense. I know that my empire is rotting from within. That I have focused too much on expansion and that my empire is creaking and groaning in the meantime. And besides, the cities you describe cannot possibly exist.’ To which Polo says: ‘It doesn't matter how much of what I tell you is reality.’

I think Calvino is here endorsing the value of the Genius Loci, or spirit of the place. That Polo's descriptions go deeper than the skin of the spatial environment. Deeper than the physical laws of space and time. The writer uses suggestive concepts to get to the heart of his analysis on emotion, sentiment, and experience.

Towards the end of the story, Khan accuses Polo again, that the traveler probably never left his garden. Something Polo does not deny. In the end, it becomes clear that all these described places are about one and the same city: Venice. The further Polo travels, or rather, the longer Polo contemplates, the better he can place his hometown.

We, designers and creators of public space, can make good use of this outside-the-box approach. We can learn that perceived value develops outside the framework of physical reality; that we are free to create with feeling; that our feeling encompasses the spirit of the place.

Title of the translated version: The Invisible Cities

ISBN: 9789020417494

Publisher: Atlas Contact

First edition of the new translation (anniversary edition): 2023

Translators: Elio Baldi, Linda Pennings

Cover design: Marinka Reuten

Number of pages: 91

Stars: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐



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