8 December 2010

Review: Soft City

“In those dazed moments at stop lights , its possible to be a stranger to yourself, to be so doubtful as to who you are that you have to check on things like the placards round the news-vendors’ kiosks or the uniforms of the traffic policemen. You’re a balloonist adrift, and you need anchors to tether you down. At moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity.”

Part novel, party social commentary, Jonathan Raban’s 'Soft City', first published in 1974, has become a classic literary account of city life and experience that still resonates 37 years later. Raban describes how, despite living in bustling environments filled with life, people feel alone and disorientated. To Raban the 'Soft City' represents something malleable, an urban landscape that each person shapes into their own personal environment and can then reshape, reform and reinvent as many times as they see fit.

One of the most important observations he makes is about the is a fear of strangers in the urban landscape, not because of factors such as crime rates but the fact that you don’t know who could attack you – in contrast to rural communities were most victims know their assailants. Whilst a city is large enough that you can shrink away on occasions, he argues that the modern day reappropriation of older architectural forms forces us to come into contact with people. For example, in London Georgian townhouses are carved up into flats arranged around stairwells. These stairwells were originally a building’s “lungs” and brought light down in the building, whereas now they “bring strangers into eerie juxtaposition with each other” and “transmit unasked-for intimacies, private sights, private sounds, which fuel suspicion and embarrassment and resentment.” In these situations our mind takes hold and invents stories, putting sounds to faces, and creating fictitious characters based on what little fragmented evidence is available to us.

Despite being written over 30 years ago Soft City still resonates today, perhaps even more so, as over half of the world’s population is now living in cities. The only way that (the majority of) people can survive in this environment is to form connections, no matter how small, and to work with the “unique plasticity, privacy and freedom” that the city affords he argues. A rural environment may transmit an air of safety and intimacy in knowing everyone but it does not afford the mind the luxuries of reinventing ourselves, dropping out of social groups and reappearing as a new person. It is individuality that is offered in cities above all, or at least a perceived ability to rise above the crowd and be something different, but “we need to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.”


Raban, J. (1974), Soft City, 1st Edition, London: Picador Publishers