meditation on metal cladding

Reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (translated by William Weaver), the fictional city ‘Dorothea,’ with its “aluminum towers,” is a specific image that came into my mind as bearing resemblance or association with a particular style of house, called the Vancouver Special. This design was popular from the 1960’s to 1980’s in Vancouver, especially through the city’s east side. Really nothing much in the Vancouver Special’s design called for aluminum, other than garage doors, balcony railings and window frames. So, it’s interesting how the mind can leap in this way. Interesting to see where nonlinear, dream-logic leads.

Calvino, in his book, creates a sense of what I label ‘futurist whimsy,’ by making the subtle or not-so-subtle choice to clad Dorothea’s towers in aluminum, a soft and light-weight metal commonly used in the construction of aircraft. And in making this connection to flight (via aluminum), there seems to be some sort of science fiction/fantasy genre hybridity occurring. Though, generally, Invisible Cities is a book that defies categorization in this way (or any way, for that matter). 

The juxtaposition of this ‘futuristic’ material, that did not exist in construction up until the twentieth century, not known to the real-world builders of Marco Polo’s day (Polo narrator throughout the text), holds the linking power. The future I connected with is present-day Vancouver. The idea was sparked as I recalled that Alex Leslie, author of the collection of prose poems, Vancouver for Beginners (Book*hug Press, 2019) mentioned, on a podcast, that Calvino’s book had a significant influence on her writing. I see this particularly in her poem, ‘Morph:’

“A worker from the city circulates quietly, stacking small flat stones in front of each FOR SALE sign on the block. A timelaspe photograph shows the block you grew up on morphed into Vancouver Specials, creatures shedding their skins and emerging …”

Alex Leslie, “Morph” from Vancouver for Beginners (Book*hug, 2019)

Interestingly, photographer Kevin Lanthier had an exhibition, in 2017, called “The Special.” On his website you can find a digital gallery of his images to click through. Viewing the images in quick succession functions a lot like the “timelapse” in the scene set by Leslie in ‘Morph.’ I recommend trying this.

In thinking about past real estate development surges in Vancouver, a city, according to a recent study, that is now the least affordable in North America (or the most expensive depending on your perspective and bank account balance and/or pride in this fact). Is there a kind of utopian/anti-utopian dynamic or dialectic at play in all of this? (Hegel, a little help, please). 

Below, a bit of discussion that relate to my own observations on Calvino’s work:

“He was interested in the imaginative dimensions of the city—in the urban center as a place of memory and desire. Pointing to Calvino’s reading of Northrop Frye, Charles Fourier, and Frankfurt School thinker Herbert Marcuse, Modena argues that Calvino’s interest in utopian literature led him to think of the literary task as essential for imagining alternatives to that era’s reigning technocratic narratives. 

Lightness, for Calvino, was not just an aesthetic value. Of course, there was lightness to be found in architectural structures that used translucent materials and vertically flowing lines. Yet lightness as a way of thinking pointed a way towards creativity and imagination, a way of questioning assumptions and creating the mental disposition essential to innovation.”

(excerpts from a brief article discussing Letizia Modena’s, Italo Calvino’s Architecture of Lightness)

To draw this (fragmented) meditation to a close, I’ll point out that there’s so much to explore between these two books. Leslie and Calvino and their respective, imagined worlds, together and separately, offer plenty of opportunity for readers to make their own discoveries and connections. If keying into the small details, like aluminum cladding, can open the mind, just think of how much more there is to catalyze the formation of important questions, questions relating to the world we actually live in. And really, among the many functions of literature, what else is literature for, if not for this?

If you’re looking for some reading this summer (or any time), I recommend both Invisible Cities and Vancouver for Beginners.


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