Fragmented dwellings: ontology and architecture in The City and the City (2009) and Learning the World (2005)

By Alexei Warshawski.

In this academic article, Alexei Warshawski explores themes of architecture, fragmentation, and ontology (in the sense of existence or Being as such) in two speculative fiction novels, China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World (2005). MacLeod’s and Miéville’s engagement with postmodernism, read alongside Heidegger, reveal that no matter how fragmented our architecture, and whether we do or don’t truly dwell, our ontology is greatly contingent on the architecture which surrounds us, and our ability to exist within and alongside architectural constructs is an undeniably and increasingly precarious one.

The relationship between architecture and its inhabitants is a powerful one which can be liberating or repressive, inclusive or exclusive, reflective or reductive. These relations are neither cohesive with one another, nor mutually exclusive, so they problematise our relationship with architecture in spatial, temporal and ontological terms. Examples may be found in China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World (2005). Miéville’s The City and the City follows Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a foreign student whose body is found in Besźel, a city which is topographically twinned with another city called Ul Qoma. These two cities are on the same physical site and their residents are expected to ignore the city which they don’t live in, ‘unseeing’ any elements that they accidentally notice. Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World follows a future human race’s attempts to find a new planet to colonise as they travel on their planet-sized generation ship, and grapples with the problems they face in understanding a temporary architectural construct as a seemingly permanent and homely environment. Both novels engage with one of postmodernism’s key architectural concerns – the question of fragmentation, which this paper will argue is a necessity in sustaining the architecture of the worlds of both texts. While The City and the City explores fragmentary architecture through its twinned cities, Learning the World presents architecture as an inherently fragmentary construct, both in spatial and temporal terms. This paper will suggest that the ‘necessary fragmentation’ of the architecture in these texts proves the untenability of postmodern, neoliberal architecture as something permanent or fixed, in both spatial and temporal terms. Furthermore, this paper will argue that the idea of necessary fragmentation in this context give credence to Martin Heidegger’s understanding of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’, a distinction he outlines in ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) which suggests that ‘dwelling’ as an ontological condition is not a guaranteed effect of building or settling within architectural constructs, and that the ability to ‘build’ in an ontologically authentic manner requires one to possess the capacity to ‘dwell’ in the first place. This paper will outline how these paired concepts of building and dwelling can affect the formation and occupation of architecture, as well as architecture’s relationship to nature. Drawing together the fragmentary elements of architecture and their relationship to Heidegger’s thinking in both texts, this paper will conclude with an analysis of the reflective properties of architecture – in both literal and metaphoric senses – to demonstrate the extent to which architecture can affect not just our social and domestic lives, but our ontology itself.

David Harvey argues that “in the field of architecture and urban design, […] postmodernism cultivates […] a conception of the urban fabric as necessarily fragmented” (66), a claim which is more obviously visible in The City and the City but also applies to Learning the World, albeit removed from its original urban context. The two cities in Miéville’s novel are what I term ‘intra-fragmented’,1 insofar that they exist collectively on the same geographic site, but there are multiple topographic layers of place in the same space. In The City and the City, one space can literally be two – a citizen of Besźel can be at the same geographic point as a citizen of Ul Qoma, but they would not be able to interact or to ascertain what that point in the other city was like. Borlú describes how “in Besźel it was a quiet area, but the streets were crowded with those elsewhere” (31), showing that the residents of one city can abstractly understand its dual inhabitancies, if not with any specific grasp of what the other city contains. Borlú’s description is indicative of Harvey’s assertion that the postmodern city is necessarily comprised of fragmented spaces – in the novel, different people occupying the same spaces leads to a fragmented worldview in order to sustain the divide between the two cities. The resistance to architectural synchronicity by Besźel and Ul Qoma fosters a conscious emptying and fragmenting of space by the cities’ inhabitants, as they must consciously focus on who and what populates the architectural space which surrounds them, and consciously ignore the architecture which ‘belongs’ to the other city. As Rob O’Connor describes, “to not comply is known as ‘breaching’ and is punishable (45-46). The result is an indoctrinated method of ‘unseeing’ architecture and people from the other city which is policed by a secret force” (77). Borlú’s experiences are therefore not unique to him as an inhabitant of this topographically subversive city – rather, they are the everyday experiences of the residents of both cities. He describes how “I focused on the stones really around me – cathedrals, bars, the brick flourishes of what had been a school – that I had grown up with. I ignored the rest or tried” (44). His description of the stones as ‘really’ around him suggests that, despite the fact that there are certain elements of his surrounding architecture which are blatantly corporeal, he is forced to sustain the belief that they are not a part of the topographic site he occupies. 

When interviewed about the novel, Miéville claimed that his intention was “to derive something hyperbolic and fictional through an exaggeration of the logic of borders […] I combined that with a politicised social filtering, and extrapolated out and exaggerated further on a sociologically plausible basis” ( We see here the innate relationship between architecture and politics, and Miéville’s belief in the connection between borders and “social filtering”. Miéville’s extrapolation could be extended to a host of invisible borders in urban environments – across lines of ethnicity, of class, and of home ownership and homelessness.  Borlú can only experience his city as necessarily fragmented – he is unable to understand Besźel as a unified place but ironically, he must fragment the topography surrounding him as a way of trying to understand Besźel as a unitary place. Miéville explored his original idea for the novel in the aforementioned interview, which he describes as “to do with different groups of people who live side-by-side but, because they are very different species, relate to the physical environment very, very differently, having different kinds of homes and so on” ( The idea of different species does not constitute a part of the novel, but it could be said that this perhaps leads to a more honest representation of the postmodern, neoliberal urban space – a city which is internally divided, comprised of multiple realities occupying the same territory, with residents having to forcibly block out parts of their surroundings to sustain the illusion of their city as a unitary and unified space. Relatedly, Rob O’Connor observes that “Borlú’s indoctrinated ‘unseeing’ of Ul Qoma mirrors the elements of the modern city that we do not witness or choose to ignore. The signs of social and economic disparity become lost amongst the barrage of capitalist signifiers in the postmodern city, just as Borlú becomes aware of the Ul Qoman rough sleepers who, until then, had been invisible due to his indoctrinated perception” (80). The difficulties O’Connor observes which I argue are caused by fragmented unification can be understood more explicitly through postmodernism, and how the contradictory modes of understanding one’s topography are a necessity of postmodern architecture.  

Postmodern architecture’s use of fragmentation is indelibly linked to its relationship with its modernist foundations. Fredric Jameson, in his timeless essay Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984), suggests that “high modernism is […] credited with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city and its older neighbourhood culture” (54), while Niall Martin claims that “modernity in its absence continues to hold the imagination in thrall as the sign of a possible future which is now irrevocably lost” (711). This suggests that, after modernity, modes of futurity stem from some kind of unrealised ideal which can either manifest itself as the active absence of modernity, or as the presence of postmodernism (which is perhaps itself an absence of modernity rather than a presence of something new). In Besźel the absence of modernity is its architectural remnants, whereas in Ul Qoma modernity seems to have been vanquished by the rise of postmodernism. Borlú describes the buildings in Besźel as “a handful of decades old, often broken-glassed, at half capacity if open. Boarded facades. Grocery shops fronted with wire. Older fronts in tumbledown of classical Besź style. Some houses colonised and made chapels and drug houses: some burnt out and left as crude carbon renditions of themselves” (20). The final sentence suggests that these “burnt out” buildings, derelict and no longer used for their original purposes, have become representations of their former architectural selves. They are therefore no longer themselves, in that the original purposes behind their structures no longer apply, and so they do not function in the same capacities as they previously would have. The classical Besź styles still physically exist, but they exist as appropriated versions of themselves, rather than in their original forms – the absence of modernity manifests itself as a “burnt out” rendition of modernity. In Besźel, the architecture suggests that the future is in fact only able to be a representation of the past. The re-appropriation of houses into chapels and drug houses imbues the buildings with new meanings, futures which they were not designed for – these new futures eradicate the potential future which the architecture had been originally designed for. This is another kind of fragmented unification, which becomes temporal as well as physical – Borlú is only able to understand the buildings through their former architectural purposes, and yet his doing so is to make clear their complete separation from the architecture which they used to be. The fragmentation caused by postmodernism here is more to do with the failings of modernist architecture, and is literally post-modern. Buildings become palimpsestic as they are reduced to representing their purposes rather than fulfilling them, fragmenting the relationship between physical purpose and actual use. 

In Ul Qoma, however, this necessary fragmentation relates to how the construction of new, postmodern buildings in the city causes topographic and spatial divides. Borlú describes how “the once-collapsing Ul Qoma rookeries, crenellated and lumpen-baroque […] were renovated, the sites of galleries and .uq startups” (54). Whilst architecture in Besźel cannot realise its intended purpose and is appropriated for other uses, the decaying elements of Ul Qoma are destroyed in favour of entirely new structures with apparently new and original meanings. Describing postmodern architecture, David Kolb comments that “in general it connotes the end of the modern ideal of pure form, and the removal of the modernist barriers to historical reference” (89) – his second point is highly relevant to the collapsing modernity of Besźel and the postmodernism of Ul Qoma. Whereas in Besźel the houses are colonised and the buildings are left to decay of their own accord, the degradation of the Ul Qoma rookeries has been subverted by their human-led renovation. As they become “galleries and .uq startups” they lose their status as historical referents, becoming postmodern in Kolb’s understanding of the term. Conversely, the Besźel buildings are stuck in a double bind of not being able to erase their historical signifiers, but also not being able to be purposefully used in accordance with such signifiers. Borlú describes how “the Besźel ghetto was only architecture now, not formal political boundary, tumbledown old houses with newly gentrified chic, clustered between very different foreign alter spaces” (26). His observations suggest that the political failures of Besźel have left its architecture unable to realise its purpose, meaning it is devoid of a clear meaning – this architecture is trapped in liminality, unable to develop new structures and meanings, but equally unable to return to its original meanings. It is “only architecture” in the sense that it is without a specific purpose, or at least unable to fulfil the specific purpose it was originally endowed with. Thus, the physical fragmentation of Besźel architecture is paralleled by a necessary temporal fragmentation too, as these buildings are simultaneously unable to fulfil their original purposes (from the past) and unable to take on new purposes (for the future). 

In terms of spatiality this necessary fragmentation transcends urban architecture, as seen during the explanations of the colonisation process in Learning the World. The colonists’ generation ship is designed to fragment upon arrival on a new planet to become the architectural foundations of the new colony. From the ship, “the cones would disengage from the great spinning cylinder, which would become an autonomous habitat and, in all probability, the hub of the system’s culture and commerce”, until the next founder generation travel onwards “to repeat the whole process another few centuries hence” (152). Here, the very architecture of the generation ship is designed to function within the parameters of Harvey’s idea of necessary fragmentation. As a space which is simultaneously permanent and transient the ship’s existence needs to be independent – in that elements of it need to be able to exist independently of the whole – with the potential for being integrated with another environment too. Therefore, topographical disconnect is a part of its design – it is meant to break apart, to be fragmented into a collection of parts. One such part – the cylinder – becomes the centrepiece of a new zone of colonisation. In the novel, Limit Lamont explains to Horrocks Mathematical that “the ship is like a seed-pod about to burst” (154); while they are specifically referring to the ship generation’s desire to begin colonising, the observation also reveals an in-built feature of the ship’s architecture. The ship, as a gigantic architectural construct itself, must reach a point in its ‘life-cycle’ when it is designed to fragment – this is not just a possibility of the architecture, but a necessity built into its very fabric. This fabric may not be urban, as Harvey calls it, but it is undoubtedly necessarily fragmented – this fragmentation is necessary for the ship to be able to fulfil its purposes of sustaining life for hundreds of years, and of colonising.

So far, this paper has focused on both spatial and temporal fragmentations as factors which affect the possibility of assigning purpose and meaning to architecture. The architecture of the generation ship, however, introduces the issue of unification into the search to find purpose and meaning in architecture – significantly, the ship is at the same time a world of its own and an architectural construct. Kolb, in asking whether a postmodern world is possible, claims that “one way to unify the whole is to demand that it express some unified spirit of the age. Buildings gather up our world, and if we feel our world is distinctive we may want a new distinctive style” (172). As a ship of colonists, those on-board the generation ship are clearly trying to discover a new habitat, but the creation and habitation of the generation ship itself may have already realised this. When Kolb refers to a distinctive new style, he is speaking of the buildings which populate a world – in Learning the World, this new style is the world itself, as a piece of monumental construction. When Atomic Discourse Gale is exploring the generation ship, she observes that “the floor was smooth, and extended far ahead of us, and curved up on either hand like a smaller version of the curve of the world” (8). The architecture here is reflective of the world because the world is just as architectural as the buildings populating it. Douglas Spencer opens The Architecture of Neoliberalism by stating “the architecture is fluid. Its forms materialise out of thin air or extrude themselves into existence. The pleats, grilles and apertures patterning their surfaces seemingly subject to the same unseen forces. There are no signs of labour” (1). These qualities of neoliberal architecture appear to uncannily describe the relationship between the generation ship in Learning the World as a whole, and individual architectural occurrences within it. The smooth, uninterrupted surface of the floor eradicates any signs of labour, as if to suggest that it was a natural occurrence which fully ‘belonged’, rather than a manmade construction. When Gale refers to ‘the world’, she confirms that the floor has not managed to trick her in such a way, but that its smoothness has encouraged her to regard the generation ship as a world in its own right. By having the floor, as a smaller architectural construct, mirror the curves of the ship, which is also an architectural construct, it appears to have a designated place within the ship and therefore makes the ship appear more like a world populated by architecture, rather than a large architectural feat populated by smaller constructs. Much like with the ship’s cone, the floor is another fragment which reflects a part of the larger, whole architectural construct which it is both a feature of and separated from. The floor exemplifies how the ship is a composite of fragments rather than a unified construct – the floor is thus both an extension of the architecture of the ship, and a piece of that architecture itself.

As previously mentioned, Harvey’s idea of necessary fragmentation has a temporal effect in both texts as well as a spatial one. In Learning the World, Gale narrates that “four hundred years is a long time to live in one place, even if the place is changing all the time as cities get demolished and landscapes get torn up and thrown into the drive, and new cities and landscapes built, and these in turn…”, and how there are some “who’ve known only the final form of the world and who’ve lived less than a couple of decades in it” (67). Her observations connect temporality with settlement and spatiality – after four hundred years of travelling, the generation ship has reached its destination, but during that time it has become a destination itself. When passing through a valley between two trash mountains, Gale notes that “the trash isn’t just raw junk and clinker: you can see ruins in it, pipework, walls and spires, the rubble of cities built when there was less room in the world” (35). The world of the ship has evidently expanded as a habitat, a place of dwelling, since its creation centuries earlier, but the current architecture is somewhat haunted by its predecessors. By its nature, a ship is designed to be a transitory place, but the generation ship’s longevity and size have transformed it into a place which feels permanently habitable. In a less enclosed location, architectural developments could involve the total disposal and replacement of old structures, but the all-encompassing nature of the ship as an architectural feat in itself makes impossible the total obliteration of the past. Moreover, the journey of colonisation which the generation ship is on, and the impending and intended process of colonisation, means that the processes of the ship are firmly bounded in both past decisions (the attempts to colonise) and future intentions (the colonisation process). The generation ship must be equipped to meet both of these objectives and thus its architecture can never be rid of the past, despite its intentions for futurity too. Thus a temporal fragmentation occurs, where the architecture which defines the present is front and centre of the ship, but the architecture which defined the past remains present as rubble, preserved in the wider architectural structure of the generation ship itself.

A similar kind of temporal fragmentation occurs in The City and the City, seen in Borlú’s account of the founding of Besźel, and possibly in Ul Qoma too. Borlú describes how “there are still remains from those times” prior to Besźel’s founding, and that those “ruins are surrounded now or in some places incorporated, antique foundations, into the substance of the city” (51). Again, contemporary architecture is haunted by its predecessor. Like the rubble on the generation ship, the ruins upon which Besźel was built have been integrated into the fabric of the city. Harvey argues that postmodernism makes the fabric of a city “a ‘palimpsest’ of past forms superimposed upon each other, and a ‘collage’ of current uses” (66). The collage of current uses can be applied to the re-appropriation of Besźel buildings, but that is only to do with a change of uses within the lifetime of Besźel – the superimposing of past forms temporally extends to before the construction of Besźel, and outside of the immediate, knowable world of the novel. Miéville says that in writing the novel, he considered “that question of where one border begins and another ends, and these porous interstices” (58); it seems that this is a question he poses temporally as well as spatially. Although Besźel is a city in a larger world, whereas the generation ship is a world in itself and thus isolated from anything beyond it, the city is nonetheless unable to entirely dispose of the architecture which formerly occupied its topographical site. Its solution to this topographical interruption is topological – that is, it is concerned with the interrelation of different constituent parts and how they unify into an overall topography. The topological ‘fix’ for the issues created by preceding architecture in Besźel and on the generation ship appears to be the subsuming of the past into contemporary topography – that is to say, architecture of the past is not re-purposed and given new meaning in the present but is absorbed into contemporary architecture and re-purposed accordingly. Architectural pasts – and perhaps the past at large – cannot be wholly erased in either text and can only be understood through an integration with the present, retaining their status as rubble or as something passed, or ‘past’, but nonetheless existing as a part of the contemporary topographical make-up of the site.2

Related to both the temporality and spatiality of the architecture in Learning the World is Heidegger’s idea of ‘dwelling’ from his essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking. For Heidegger, dwelling is an essential part of one’s ‘Being-in-the-world’ – that is, the authenticity of one’s existence and mode of comportment throughout life. Heidegger’s main claim in his essay is that there is a fundamental difference between ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’, in terms of the space one occupies. “We attain to dwelling”, he claims, “only by means of building. The latter, building, has the former, dwelling, as its goal” (347). Yet at the same time, Heidegger claims, if we simply think of building as the means and dwelling as the goal, we will obscure the real relationship between building and dwelling. Furthermore, Heidegger proposes that buildings are not by necessity places of dwelling. He argues that “the essence of building is letting dwell. Building accomplishes its essential process in the raising of locales by the joining of their spaces. Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build” (361). If, as Heidegger argues, dwelling “is the basic character of Being” (362), then architecture can only be effective as a dwelling if the dwellers already dwell, or possess the capability to dwell. He claims that the inability to dwell does not come from the absence of a space in which to dwell, but instead from a failure in understanding how to dwell (363). For Heidegger, understanding how to dwell is never merely a matter of instrumentally mastering one’s environment. Seeing the universe as merely a set of resources, whose significance is reducible to their human usefulness, is what stops us from dwelling.  Nevertheless, if an architectural construct is to be able to be dwelled in, it must be designed and built with the purpose of dwelling in mind, requiring not only an understanding of how to dwell from the builders and inhabitants, but also the intention to dwell. Dwelling is not something that can be guaranteed by a certain style or method of building. Instead, dwelling is closer to a mindset or a practice, and buildings are simply a kind of place in which one can dwell.  For Heidegger, buildings can be places which are inhabited without automatically becoming dwellings if their inhabitants do not build to dwell, either because they do not intend to or because they do not know how to dwell. In this sense, his concern is spatial. But this concern is a temporal one, too, because of the complexity of attaining the ability to dwell despite already inhabiting in a building (or another architectural construct) which is a place of residence but not of dwelling. 

This understanding of dwelling is significant to the illusory aspects of the architecture on the generation ship because of how the ship is simultaneously a place of transience and permanence. Gale appears to be aware of how her Being – the authenticity of her existence in relation to her dwelling – is affected by permanent residence on the ship; as they approach a planet, she exclaims that “the main event – events, rather – is mining and extracting, synthesising and building. We’re building habitats! Real habitats we’re actually living in, and that one day – soon, I hope – may orbit freely around the Destiny Star on their own” (281). Gale’s excitement at this habitat-building does not reveal her desire to build, however – it exposes her desire to dwell, which she has been unable to do thus far, due to growing up as part of the ship generation. To be able to build a habitat which is a dwelling as well as a building, one must already be able to dwell.  But because the ship generation has never inhabited a place designed for dwelling, we may infer that they are hindered from dwelling. From a Heideggerian perspective, the generation ship is not a home or somewhere to be dwelt in, despite the fact that it is the only ‘world’ known by the ship generation, because it was designed with the purpose of transporting its passengers to find a place that they can colonise and thus attempt to attain to dwelling. Growing up on the generation ship, building and dwelling have become conflated, as seen when Gale’s mother tells her to climb to the engine of the ship, because she “will find the date of the final assembly there. And from that you can work out the age of the world” (2). Heidegger warns against this conflation, because it is to the detriment of learning to dwell to suggest that dwellings can be built without consideration of the need to dwell – it removes the ontological element of dwelling. He claims that “we do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell, that is, because we are dwellers” (350). Gale is neither a builder nor a dweller – she is the product of an entirely constructed world, never given the opportunity to dwell or build. Thus, the excitement for real habitats which Gale will be ‘actually living’ in is because she is excited to live, or Be, in an environment which she may perhaps learn to dwell in, as the collapse of building and dwelling by generations preceding hers has not allowed her to access this ontological possibility. The reality of Gale’s constructed world means that she cannot help but see the universe as a set of resources which either are or aren’t useful to her desire to build – this attitude renders her, for now, incapable of dwelling. Heidegger’s suggestion that “the proper dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell” (363) is befittingly descriptive of Gale’s quest. Fragmentation in this instance becomes psychological – Gale and others in the ship generation must, according to Heidegger, fragment their understandings of building and dwelling if they are to understand the generation ship as a place to reside and their future home to (potentially) become a place to dwell. 

Gale’s attitude towards the ship in the novel appears to suggest that she fails to live by this necessary psychological fragmentation. Her search is not just for a place to live, nor for a place to dwell – her desire to learn the world is a search for the very essence of dwelling, a desire which she appears to believe can be achieved through colonial means. Such coloniality speaks to the unignorable relationship between Heidegger’s philosophical thought and his Nazism. As Samantha Clarke writes:

“Heidegger’s approach to ‘dwelling’ comes in for heavy criticism from Morton and others, who find in it an objectionable taint of narrowness and nationalism. Plumwood also criticises this notion of ‘dwelling’ in one special, rather cosy place as supporting the concept of the home property, in a way that presupposes access to some kind of ‘home’, or homeland, which is in reality a privilege of the powerful (2008).” (103)

Heidegger’s work on dwelling is of course also partly rooted in his Nazism, and in the concept of a homeland or Fatherland. Seeing Heidegger’s concept of dwelling in this light reveals its hypocrisy. It claims to reject instrumental mastery of the universe, in favour of relationships of harmony and authenticity. However, this concept is indelibly connected to Heidegger’s relationship with a geopolitical project of brutal expansion and extermination. The intentions of Gale and her contemporaries are, of course, not comparable to Nazism; nonetheless, their search for a new planet is also necessarily a kind of conquest which, as Plumwood puts it, presupposes access to a home or homeland, regardless of the colonial means through which this will likely be achieved. 

The issues caused by the ontological failures of the generation ship’s architecture explains in part the pseudo-organic style of certain buildings on the ship, as though the architecture is attempting to rectify the ship’s failures as both a building and a dwelling. The result is an attempt to use architecture as representational of nature, as if to use the imagery of creation to make the transient ship a place which can be dwelt in. The architecture of the generation ship is therefore supposed to make it simultaneously a building and a dwelling – but as Heidegger notes, buildings must be preceded by the ability to dwell, or by a dwelling. The fact that those on board the generation ship don’t possess the capacity to dwell due to only ever having inhabited a place which is not a dwelling has thus led to the conflation of building and dwelling in the ship’s architecture. When Grant takes Gale to his town, she describes the buildings as “grey and very smooth […] some were angular, others all sweeping curves and elliptical windows and cup-shaped balconies, many of the shapes priapic or vulval or arboreal, a stone dream of the organic” (78). The “organic” Gale describes is imagery that is specifically phallic, vulval and arborescent – two instruments of procreation, and a symbol of nature.3 Relating the buildings to phallic and vulval shapes gives way to the idea of a self-creating architecture, as if the architecture was itself its own means of production, rather than the product of someone else’s construction. While this cannot be literally true – Grant goes on to tell Gale that he is studying structural engineering – it gives credence to Miéville’s idea that architecture can become “its own end” (2). The generation ship is a planet-sized piece of architecture and is designed to function more similarly to a planet than a building. The architecture impossibly tries to be both dwelling and building by feigning naturalness, and this feigned naturalness allows for a development of the ability to dwell somewhat ‘outside’ of the all-encompassing building which the generation ship is. The phallic and vulval structures, therefore, exist because they represent organic and natural instruments which are able to create life – this life can then acquire the ability to dwell. In this case, however, these structures which connote creation are the environment of the life surrounding it, rather than its creator, despite its architectural feigning. “Only if we are capable of dwelling are we able to build” (361) claims Heidegger – yet those who built the generation ship did not build it as a place to be dwelt in, but rather as a place to be occupied as they looked for a new dwelling. The attempts to build before being able to dwell on the generation ship leads to the creation of organic-looking architecture to attempt to cultivate the ability to dwell in a period when the ability should have already been realised. In relation to Heidegger, architecture on the generation ship attempts to precede itself by being sculpted in the image of that which created its creators, temporally fragmenting the ship’s chronology. 

Throughout the ship, architecture’s conflicted meanings stem from its reflectiveness – some of its structures, such as the floor, reflect the architecture of the ship as a whole, and in their reflected states these structures appear to be deprived of any innate meaning. In Ul Qoma, reflectiveness becomes an issue of meaning too, but rather than structural reflection of the world or a wider body of architecture as on the generation ship, the surfaces of buildings are physically reflective and repel both meaning and nature, in line with Spencer’s analysis of neoliberal architecture. Borlú notes that “I had minutes to look into the dirty river as we edged toward the western bank, the smoke and the grimy dockyard ships in the reflected light of mirrored buildings on a foreign waterfront – an enviable finance zone” (31). This “finance zone” relates to the neoliberal transformations of cities which came about in the late 20th century, which Spencer describes as “the friction-free space supposed to liberate the subject from the strictures of both modernism and modernity, to reunite it with nature […] to re-enchant its sensory experience of the world” (1). Spencer’s scepticism is well-placed and highly relevant to Borlú’s world – the building described shows how postmodernism has done Ul Qoma no better than the failed modernism of Besźel, and how neoliberal architecture has negatively impacted the relationship between citizens and nature, rather than reuniting the two. Miéville continues his account of postmodernism’s failings through the juxtaposition of Besźel’s derelict architecture and Ul Qoma’s shiny, new waterfront buildings – Besźel’s failings are, quite literally, seen ‘in light’ of Ul Qoma as a postmodern city. The dockyard ships are grimy, devoid of reflective qualities, only able to be viewed as mediated images in the screen of the mirrored buildings. These waterfront buildings are just that – only buildings, with no intention of being designed as or becoming places of dwelling. Heidegger was writing before the rise of neoliberal, postmodern architecture (as diagnosed respectively by Spencer and Harvey) and it appears that this unprecedented style of architecture inadvertently strengthens his distinctions between building and dwelling. The reflectiveness of the buildings means that their basic character, from the outside, is a refracted image of its surroundings rather than something which is defined in and of itself. These are buildings which are designed not to be penetrated, only able to subvert the image of what surrounds it rather than reveal its own interior; their structures remain unified, but they project fragments of the world beyond their reflective surfaces. 

The reflectiveness of these buildings also relates to its relationship with nature, as Spencer notes in the above quote – the architecture is not only able to reflect rather than present, but also forces that which is ‘natural’ in its surroundings to be mediated and reflected, rather than directly experienced. Borlú’s description makes clear that it is the mirrored buildings, not the river, which possesses reflective qualities – the river is thus only able to be viewed by observing the reflective architecture which surrounds it and has clearly had its natural, reflective abilities tainted by pollution. Spencer explains how “patched into the skin of the architectural envelope, the ubiquitous green patterning reassures that nature is consonant and fully compatible with development” (159). His observations about fake greenery here can apply to the river surrounding the finance capital of Ul Qoma, too; both represent an attempted, but ultimately artificial, integration of nature with architecture. Whereas in Spencer’s example it is the grass, the nature itself, which is fake, in The City and the City it is the integration of architecture with nature which is untenable. Diane Morgan, in describing the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles, says “this building with its opaque reflecting surfaces is seen to be repelling the fractured city outside, refusing any communication with it” (85-6) which aptly describes the way that architecture relates to nature as well as how Ul Qoma relates to Besźel. The reflectiveness of Ul Qoma’s finance capital has left it impenetrable by Besźel and by the river next to it. Perhaps, then, Besźel and Ul Qoma are not necessarily divided by their topographical overlap, but instead Ul Qoma’s postmodern architecture repels the stagnant modernity of Besźel. Even if the two cities existed on separate topographical sites, they may still necessitate a kind of unseeing, due to the repellent and repelling natures of their opposing architectures. 

In her analysis of Heidegger, and particularly on the criticism his ideas around dwelling have received, Samantha Clarke quotes the following passage from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’:

“‘Mortals must ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell. What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight? Yet, as long as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer. Rightly considered and kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling. (1971, 161)’” (104)

In Clarke’s reading, “Heidegger argues that precariousness is our authentic dwelling-place. A proper relationship to dwelling, therefore, is […] a continual questioning, opening, radical acceptance of ungroundedness and mortality” (104). The architectural and ontological precarity existent in the worlds of both novels would in some ways conform to this understanding of dwelling, and more broadly to Heidegger’s claims around what constitutes authentic and meaningful existence. And yet, even if this is true, the characters of both novels are not content with such precarity and fragmentation. In her reading of The City and the City, Elana Gomel claims that the novel’s society “predicates the city’s survival on a radical modification of the subject, trying to envision a modality of perception that could accommodate the impossible space of simultaneity” (181). Her observation is a specific one and only concerned with the doubled cities of the text, but aptly describes the overarching concern of both texts in relation to architecture – the way that it affects human existence. MacLeod’s and Miéville’s engagement with postmodernism, read alongside Heidegger, reveal that no matter how fragmented our architecture, and whether we do or don’t truly dwell, our ontology is greatly contingent on the architecture which surrounds us, and our ability to exist within and alongside architectural constructs is an undeniably and increasingly precarious one.

End notes

(1)  If ‘extra-fragmented’ is taken to mean fragmentations which occur between things existing on different parts of the same topographic site, rather than on exactly the same part in the way that the two cities in the novel do.

(2) The Oxford English Dictionary defines topology as “the way in which constituent parts are interrelated or arranged” ( – its use in this sense is mathematical but is applied here geographically.

(3)  For example, the idea of the ‘Tree of Life’ which comes from Celtic thought and remains a part of the artistic canon today.

Works Cited 

Clarke, Samantha. “Strange strangers and uncanny hammers: Morton’s The Ecological Thought and the phenomenological tradition.” Green Letters, 17:12, 2013, pp. 98-108.

Gomel, Elana. Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature. Routledge, 2014.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell Publishers, 1990.

Heidegger, Martin. “Building, Dwelling, Thinking.” Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, Harper Collins, 2008, pp. 343-364.

Jameson, Fredric. ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. New Left Review, 146, pp. 53-92. 

Kolb, David. Postmodern Sophistications: Philosophy, Architecture, and Tradition. University of Chicago Press, 1990.

MacLeod, Ken. Learning the World. Orbit, 2005.

Manaugh, Geoff. “Unsolving the City: An Interview with China Miéville”. BLDGBLOG,

Miéville, China. The City and the City. Pan Macmillan, 2009. 

Miéville, China. “The Conspiracy of Architecture: Notes on a Modern Anxiety.” Historical Materialism, 1:2, 1998, pp. 1-32.

Morgan, Diane. “Postmodernism and Architecture.” The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought, edited by Stuart Sim, Icon Books Ltd, 1998, pp. 78-88.

Naimon, David. “A Conversation with China Miéville.” The Missouri Review, 34:4, 2011, pp. 52-66.

O’Connor, Rob. “‘A Tourist Guide to Besźel and Ul Qoma’: Unseeing, the Brutality of Borders and the Re-interpretation of Psychogeography in China Miéville’s The City and the City.”  The Luminary, 7, 2016, pp. 75-87. 

Spencer, Douglas. The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture became an Instrument of Control and Compliance. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Alexei Warshawski is an English Teacher and postgraduate student at Birkbeck, with a particular interest in ontology, temporality and neoliberalism. 

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