She is coming from Moscow with the expectation that I will show her the sights. There is nothing here, I told her over the phone. Except parks and gardens. That is not nothing, she said. I like green. Why is it nothing? I tried to explain that this sort of thing bores me. It is just there. It exists, and that is all. It’s beautiful! Maniac! She sounded angry. I’ll kill you: put put put. I knew that, if I could see her, her fingers would be making the shape of gun, and that it would be firing straight at me. Perhaps I deserved it. You like always grey, she said. Always grey, aways concrete and broken windows. Which is true. I do like those things. I like the way, for example, that the grim Park Hill housing estate hangs ominously over the city like a spider. The story goes that the council wanted to tear it down, only to find that it is a protected building. If they’d had their way it would now be flower beds and water features, no doubt. The city in which I live is losing its identity. What once was wild and spirited is now twee. I feel this gentrification as a threat; I see it as a kind of creature or spirit that is invading, transforming, taking over. Soon, this place will be Sheffield in nothing but name; and that other place – the real Sheffield – will exist only in the imagination.
“Right now, the network continues to grow outside this city, this house, this room, where it began. It weaves its links between distant stars.”
Fever in Urbicand is the second instalment of the Les Cités obscures series of graphic novels [or comics, if you prefer] by the artist François Schuiten and the writer Benoit Peeters. Its plot centres around a cube that has been unearthed at a construction site and handed to the urbatect Eugen Robik. In the beginning, much is made of how innocuous the object is. It is, Robik notes, ‘merely an empty cubic structure with sides approximately 15cm long.’ There is ‘nothing extraordinary about it’ and, moreover, it ‘appears to be totally useless.’ Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the cube is growing, and that it shows no sign of stopping, such that eventually it takes over Urbicand, forming a new landscape, a new city. When one considers the drama and damage caused by the cube as it expands one realises how clever a choice the shape was. It’s power and destructive ability seem all the more terrible and awesome as a consequence of its familiar, ordinary appearance.
Eugen Robik could not be described as the hero, but he is certainly the most prominent character. Prominent, yet largely passive in the face of what many of us would call ‘life.’ He is not interested in furthering himself, is adverse to adventure or risk-taking, and only briefly flirts with the idea of starting a liaison with a woman before allowing her to slip through his fingers. He is a man consumed by his work and projects, so much so that initially he is all but disinterested in the cube, even when it begins to grow. His primary concern is the vote to deny permission to build a new bridge in Urbicand. Having designed the city, this denial, he feels, compromises his vision. Without it, he says, his project becomes ‘unbalanced’; the space where it should be he describes as a ‘void.’ I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. It is unusual for an architect, or urbatect, to be so central to a story, to be given such responsibility. It struck me that Schuiten and Peeters wanted to highlight the importance of this profession. Indeed, I have long thought that architects are something like Gods. They create our world. We live within their imagination.
One might say that one of the themes of Fever in Urbicand is the arbitrary nature of boundaries. A bridge is, of course, something that connects two things, it brings them together. It is, in fact, something so significant that the great Serbian writer Ivo Andric devoted an entire novel to one in The Bridge on the Drina. As noted, Robik’s planned bridge is rejected, because, one politician states, ‘travel between the north and south bank will become too easy.’ It is never revealed why bringing the two banks together is undesirable, but one gets the impression that it is not with the good of the people in mind. The art and architecture in the book is stark and imposing and characters are frequently seen to be dwarfed by Robik’s buildings. There is an atmosphere of suppression and oppression, with, for example, those who cross the border being threatened with execution. Fever in Urbicand is, therefore, a kind of totalitarian dystopia. One cannot read it without thinking of two walls, one that was once built in Berlin and one that thankfully still only exists in the mind of Donald Trump.
However, what is most interesting about all this is that, in a seemingly random manner, as the cube expands it connects the two banks, making passage between them possible. The cube – which is also, significantly, called the network – doesn’t require planning permission; it doesn’t care about ‘hidden implications’, power and politicking; and it is, moreover, stronger than any man or manmade material. Indeed, in order to protect its interests, the government of Urbicand attempts to stop it by firing at it, but the cube is unaffected. What this ultimately means is that it is a structure, a kind of architecture, not a man, that is the hero of the story; it is the cube that changes and improves lives; it is the cube that frees the people.