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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .Ian Buruma's thoughts on anti-urban thinking

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In view of Ian Buruma's extensive experience and knowledge of the Far East, it was disappointing that his lecture on anti-urbanism did not offer more detail and insight into the remarkable urban growth phenomenon of that part of the world. In fact, his disquisition on 'the city' offered only a very general overview of anti-urban sentiment through the ages, triggered by Buruma's personal reading of the world-wide response to the events of 11 September.

Buruma suggests that, for America's critics, the destruction of the towers represents an act of divine punishment equivalent to that meted out to Babylon. The concept of the 'big city', as a crucible of moral decay, has become identifiable with the icon of America. And globalisation threatens to turn the world into just another American city.

The lecture served simply to outline the historical background to this kind of anti-urban thinking, counterpointed by Buruma's own evident enthusiasm for the city as a place of freedom, vitality and potential. His first reference was to Raymond Williams' classic text, The Countryside and the City. He implied that its interpretation of both the colonies and the countryside as territories historically open to exploitation by the metropolis, and used as a playground by the metropolitan elite, embodied an attack on the idea of the city itself.

Some would say this was a simplified reading of Williams' discussion. By way of contrast, he noted Roger Scruton's attack on the National Trust as an agent of 'museumisation' of the countryside and an idealised way of rural life that has never existed except for very few - something that Williams would surely have agreed with.

Among supporters of the city, he drew attention to Voltaire, whose enthusiasm for London, as an embodiment of a particular freedom not to be found in France, challenged the disapproving response to the primacy of the marketplace voiced by other foreigners to the city. For Voltaire, the Royal Exchange itself - 'where the only infidel is the bankrupt' - was the embodiment of this freedom, providing an arena where people from vastly different backgrounds could interact on equal terms, the terms of the market.

For women, Buruma suggests (citing Elizabeth Wilson), the city has held particular significance in terms of providing a level of sexual and personal liberty denied by smaller communities. Indeed, this prompts a broad definition of the city as a place of fantasy, where anyone might reinvent themselves. As a result, dictators are, by their nature, anti-urbanists - crackdowns on trade, women, music and dancing, and anyone perceived to be 'out of control' being the classic bolstering measures of authoritarian regimes.

Buruma's equation of prostitution and sex tourism with liberty and urban vitality might irritate some but, he concludes, the associated 'sad and tawdry' side of urban life is acceptable, since it is inherent to the human condition.

Ian Buruma's lecture, 'Anti-Urbanism: Enemies of the City', was at the Architectural Association

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