Monday, April 08, 2013

Book Review: Hidden Cities

Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World's Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration by Moses Gates
Tarcher/Penguin, 2013
Paperback, 352 pages

The photographs that bookend the color insert in the middle of Moses Gates's "memoir of urban exploration" depict two views of a subway tunnel tagged respectively with "None of this matters..." and "...But it's very necessary!" These quotes, and in particular the first one, take on added resonance as Gates explores in the pages of this book what his venturing into restricted areas—in subway tunnels and sewers, atop bridges and tall buildings, into just about any urban space with a "Do Not Enter" sign—accomplishes. Does it really matter? There is no easy answer to such a broad question but the book is one such response, for it gives readers some insight into Gates's actions and thinking as he describes his adventures in New York and other "hidden cities" around the globe.

Reading about going places we're supposed to stay out of naturally spurs memories of similar undertakings. It reminds me of a trip to Rome during college when some friends and I climbed along a wall that led us into parts of the Palatine Hill that were—initially unbeknownst to us—off limits to the public; after all, the angled top to the wall looked so inviting. The fairly unexceptional rooms became that much more spectacular upon our realization that we were somewhere we shouldn't be. The hour or so spent away from crowds within the Roman ruins has stayed with me, perhaps stronger in my memory than the planned excursions that made up the majority of my travels in Rome and the rest of that trip to Italy. So in a tiny way I can understand the thrill that Gates describes in his book, one that took him much farther than his first few steps into a subway tunnel.

Compared to Gates's escapades (and occasional sexcapades) in New York City, Moscow, Paris, Buenos Aires, and even Rome, my single urban impropriety is laughable or even wimpy. So it is that at times this book is a joy to read, while at other times it can be riddled with anxiety. Obviously he lives to tell the story, but does he make it to the top of the Great Pyramid? Will he get arrested when the cops find him in that industrial building? These and other parts of the book create tangible emotional sensations that are parallel (if much, much smaller) to Gates's physical reactions to crossing the borders into restricted places. Perhaps readers should do as he does, and have a couple beers before diving in.

Since the book is a memoir it is full of experiences, many that readers will never have. But Gates also strives to find meaning in his actions and in the places where he is venturing, ergo the quotes in the subway. I'm wont to do the same with Hidden Cities because I appreciate the story Gates tells, and the way he tells it, but I also find the popularity of "urban exploration" (for lack of a better term) a bit off-putting—it's "ruin porn" (one strain of urban exploration but a good example here) is the urban equivalent of architecture's "shelter porn." Primarily I can't help but wonder if the actions of Gates and his compatriots (Steve Duncan is the one with the greatest presence in the book) are a form of architectural criticism. Is voyaging underground and atop buildings and other structures a necessary experience for some because the sanctioned spaces created by architects, planners, and cities are just plain boring? Do cities lack the ability to elicit emotionally tangible experiences? Should architecture strive for some civil disobedience?

Subways, sewers, bridges, rooftops, and other off-limits spaces are the (seemingly) necessary safety valves of cities like New York. But in some cities trams safely run at grade; solid waste can be treated on site; even a walkway atop of the Brooklyn Bridge was open to the public during its construction (mentioned in the book); and people can spend a few euros and walk to the top of the Duomo in Florence. In other words, there is more than one way to create cities; they can offer delights and thrills for people without the need for (so many) places of restriction. In this regard it's interesting to note a couple places where Moses does not tread: power stations and construction sites. These are places where danger is necessary and unpredictable. Venturing into those places would not have made me think that Gates is one of the most unlikely of architecture critics around, a "very necessary" thing indeed.