But these cultural blenders, these laboratories of high-density living, are difficult to comprehend. So Jeremy Black’s latest cartographic feast, packed with 217 exquisite maps and views, turns up with delicious punctuality. The aim is to explore through time the visualisation of cities, so we start with a terracotta plan of the Mesopotamian holy city of Nippur, in what is now Iraq, then travel through Renaissance cities, New World cities, Imperial cities and mega cities.
A constant theme is the quest to recognise form, or some kind of rational structure, in these gigantic human agglomerations. Some are turned into symmetrical patterns; others mask their urban discordancies through uniform symbols or shading.
The final, futuristic chapter allows the author to loosen his historical manacles and explore the ‘quest for an exemplary built environment’. Here are the fantastical urban visions: Ebenezer Howard’s plan for a ‘Group of Slumless Smokeless Cities’ sitting across the page from a dream of New York by Moses King (1908) in which triplanes drift like dragonflies above high-rises threaded 40 floors above street level by train lines. It’s a reminder that all maps are subjective instruments of the cartographer’s imagination, city maps particularly so. Cities are artificial constructs on a vast scale, and it takes a strong-willed mapmaker not to respond. Metropolis is a graphic advert for nucleation. If you’ve ever wondered why cities work, you’ll find the answer in this beautiful book.
METROPOLIS: Mapping the City by Jeremy Black; Bloomsbury; £30 (hardback)
This review was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.