Legend has it that in 1703, during the early stages of the Great Northern War, when Russian troops captured the Swedish fortress of Nyen along the River Neva, Peter the Great leaped from his horse, slashed the muddy ground with his saber, and exclaimed, “Here will be a city!” Peter, Russia’s Westernizing czar, was eager to establish an urban seaport that would give his vast country access to European trade routes. Situated at the southeastern corner of the Gulf of Finland, the marshy delta where Nyen stood provided an easy approach not only to Finland and the other Baltic states but also to Poland, England, Germany, and Denmark. Soon after the territorial acquisition, Peter tore down Nyen and erected a new, superior stronghold, which he called Peter and Paul Fortress. And whether or not the tale of his saber-wielding edict is fabricated, he did issue a decree on May 27, 1703, that a city be built on that spot. He named it Saint Petersburg. Within nine years, he would declare it the new capital of the Russian Empire.

Though a fine location for seafaring to points west, the nascent city was not suitable for urban development. Consisting of some 42 islands as well as a stretch of mainland floodplain, the area was basically a subarctic morass: excessively cold, dark, and inhospitable in the winter, unbearably hot and mosquito-infested in the summer, and subject to massive floods every autumn. These issues did not deter Peter the Great (“Russia’s sinister Prometheus,” as the scholar Michael Holquist called him). A proponent of Enlightenment principles, and something of a utopian, Peter believed that rationality, science, and, especially, Western engineering could tame the harshness and unpredictability of nature. To accomplish his aims speedily, he commanded every Russian landowner with more than 500 serfs to build a two-story edifice on the new site. He hired European architects and engineers and commissioned a rectilinear city plan that Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in Crime and Punishment, would liken to a grid on the marsh—a facade of perfect form and control superimposed upon an ungovernable, shifting, waterlogged pseudo-terrain.

In several other works, Dostoyevsky highlights Saint Petersburg’s harsh environment and generally unstable infrastructure. In his second novel, The Double, the city becomes almost eerily hostile to human consciousness. “It was a terrible November night—wet, foggy, rainy, snowy, fraught with fluxes, colds, agues, anginas, fevers of all possible sorts and kinds, in short, with all the gifts of a Petersburg November. The wind howled in the deserted streets, heaving the black water of the Fotanka higher than the mooring rings and perkily brushing up against the skinny streetlamps of the embankment, which in their turn seconded its howling with a thin, shrill creaking, which made up an endless, squeaking, rattling concert, quite familiar to every inhabitant of Petersburg.” The man-made objects here, designed according to the European specifications, fail to subdue the environment—and somehow resonate with its violent pulsations.

According to historians, some half a million serfs and Swedish prisoners of war were impressed into the construction of Petersburg. Confronting disease, those infamous mosquito swarms, exhaustion, hypothermia, frostbite, starvation, and ravenous wolves, the indentured workers expired with astonishing speed, and were often left where they had fallen. Thousands received anonymous burials beneath the rapidly laid cobblestones and buildings. Hence Petersburg’s nickname, “the city built on bones.” Rough estimates put the number of deaths resulting directly from the city’s construction anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000, an inauspicious beginning to a site that would host three major revolutions and incur a second occasional nickname for that reason: “the cradle of revolutions.” As the literary critic Philip Rahv wrote,

Petersburg was erected on the Finnish marshland with cruel haste and at the cost of many lives by the edict of Peter the Great, who undertook, with the savage rationality typical of belated and alien converts to progress, to transform his backward domain all at once into an efficient state militarized along modern lines. The self-will and precipitate style of this operation brought into being a city without roots in the past or in the vast rural hinterland, the center of alienation and of everything novel and foreign violating the national traditions. . . . It was in Petersburg that, in a fashion peculiar to it, the imperial bureaucracy exerted itself to Westernize the country from above.

Rahv, here, is noting another problem with Petersburg, unrelated to the brutality of its construction and the city’s unwelcoming geological and meteorological features: the fact that, unlike most cities, which emerge organically over hundreds and often thousands of years, Petersburg was conceived and erected without regard for any preexisting human settlement, and with brutal precision.

Early in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, the so-called underground man, maligner of all Enlightenment hopes and values, accuses Petersburg of being “the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe.” Adding that cities “can be intentional or unintentional,” the underground man considers it a great misfortune to be the inhabitant of an intentional city. In part, his antirational narrative develops as a lament over all the freedom, subjectivity, social integration, and human connection that such a city chokes out of its inhabitants. He may be the first literary figure to highlight the dangers of excessively calculated urban design. Nowadays, we have caught on to his point, and what the underground man calls “intentional,” we would call “top-down.”

In the history of urban poetics, from Baudelaire and Balzac to Dickens and Dreiser, Dostoyevsky stands out as the writer most concerned with the ill effects of top-down planning on the city-dweller’s psychic reality. This is fitting, partly because, at least as far as Europe is concerned, Petersburg is indeed the singular “intentional” city, the only one founded upon authoritative planning and totalizing organization. Though several of Dostoyevsky’s more famous novels, including The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Demons, have little to do with the urban milieu or the specific problems imposed upon Petersburg residents, the former Russian capital does take on characterological proportions not only in The Double, Notes from Underground, and Crime and Punishment, but also in several classic short stories and novellas such as “White Nights” and The Eternal Husband. As Richard Pevear writes in the introduction to his translation of Crime and Punishment, “Petersburg is not a backdrop for the events Dostoyevsky narrates, but a constant participant in them. . . . The enigma of the city and the enigma of the hero are one.”

If Dostoyevsky likened Petersburg to a grid on the marsh, so, too, does he associate the vicious rationality of Crime and Punishment’s murderous hero, Raskolnikov—his excessive faith in utilitarian, statistical thinking—with a superficial grid on the marsh of his own subconscious. Raskolnikov’s learning and his abuse of reasoning overwhelm his potential for companionship, artistry, spontaneity, empathy, and love. His morality is abstract, not particular or concrete. Even his crime is intentional, overdetermined by logical brainwork, not passionate or inspired. Like Peter the Great before him, but on a smaller scale, Raskolnikov believes that he can overwhelm (human) nature with intellectual willpower and, in so doing, achieve utopian results. In the novel, Petersburg’s similarity with a swamp-prison conditions Raskolnikov’s mentality as a solitary human who can achieve freedom only negatively—through rebellion against the established moral order. Urban life intensifies the alienation of the city’s inhabitants in Crime and Punishment. Proximity begets anonymity, intellectualism inhibits social integrity, and architecture exposes, rather than protects, the populace. Improvisational interactions, communal gatherings, and all the other joys of human engagement are tainted by dark, superficially rational egoisms.

As far back as the 1860s, Dostoyevsky was describing issues that have grown only more relevant to today’s sociologists, psychologists, archaeologists, city planners, and network theorists. For, like Peter the Great and his mercenary architects and engineers, Raskolnikov tries to constrain the unpredictability and chaos of social interaction; yet these very attempts, unsurprisingly, lead to an intensification of the messiness he seeks to overcome. Just as the czar’s vision of a Russian utopia bordering the West resulted in a hell for those tasked with its construction and early inhabitancy, so does Raskolnikov’s vision of a world without guilt, shame, poverty, accountability, or suffering lead to his murderousness, madness, and self-destruction. From the start, Petersburg “was a totally rationalized city,” as Holquist explained—one that, unlike Europe’s other cities, “did not develop so much out of its national history, as did London or Paris, but against that history.” One can say something similar about Raskolnikov as an individual working against the promise of his own interpersonal continuity.

Dostoyevsky’s fiction explored the dark effects of top-down planning on the psychic lives of city dwellers. (Photo: ©Fine Art Images/Bridgeman Images)

Consider the rough outline of Crime and Punishment. Rodion Raskolnikov, a young man with a sizable intellect, commits a gruesome double ax-murder in order to substantiate a cluster of hyperrational ideals; while experiencing the inward effects of his own guilt and horror over the deed, he attempts to suppress any outward conduct that would betray his crime, yet leaves clues as if he wants to be caught; he is pursued by a canny detective; after a series of episodes, he confesses, gets sent to penal servitude, and apparently finds redemption through his companion, the saintly prostitute Sonya. Reflecting on this arc, one could fruitfully explore the role that Petersburg plays in the novel’s events. Yet another, lesser-known element of the novel is also at work: Dostoyevsky’s attention to liminal urban spaces—his emphasis on thresholds, border territories, points of physical transition, boundaries, and marginal places.

Crime and Punishment is constantly fulfilling what the scholar M. M. Bakhtin identified as Dostoyevsky’s potential for representing “life on the threshold,” “for in fact Dostoyevsky always represents a person on the threshold of a final decision, at a moment of crisis, at an unfinalizable—and unpredeterminable—turning point for his soul.” Bakhtin adds that Dostoyevsky constructs his novels so that crucial moments usually occur in physically liminal spaces: landings, staircases, doorways, corridors, cemeteries, taverns, bathhouses, brothels, and so on. “Raskolnikov lives, in essence, on a threshold,” Bakhtin writes, “his narrow room, a ‘coffin’ . . . opens directly onto the landing of the staircase, and he never locks his door, even when he goes out (that is, his room is unenclosed interior space). . . . The threshold, the foyer, the corridors, the landing, the stairway, its steps, doors opening onto the stairway, gates to front and back yards, and beyond these: the city, squares, streets, facades, taverns, dens, bridges, gutters. This is the space of the novel. And in fact nothing here ever loses touch with the threshold.”

Such boundaries fall beyond what we might call rationally constructed spaces, such as offices, kitchens, and bedrooms, where quotidian life and business, and the elements of domestic comfort and thriving, are expected to occur. Raskolnikov himself reveals an awareness of the issue, even if he cannot usefully integrate his own observations in the avoidance of disaster:

Passing the Yusupov Garden, he even became much absorbed in the notion of setting up tall fountains, and of how they would freshen the air in all the public squares. Gradually, he arrived at the conviction that if the Summer Garden were expanded across the entire Field of Mars and even joined with the garden of the Mikhailovsky Palace, it would be a wonderful and most useful thing for the city. At which point he suddenly became interested in precisely why the people of all big cities are especially inclined, not really out of necessity alone, to live and settle in precisely those parts of the city where there are neither gardens nor fountains, where there is filth and stench and all sorts of squalor.

The most striking scene of liminal experience in Crime and Punishment—and the most liminal passage in nineteenth-century literature—occurs early in the novel, on the eve of Raskolnikov’s crime. Our hero walks the Petersburg streets as though impelled by an unaccountable force. He seems restless, unable to return home. After drinking some vodka to calm his nerves, he crosses a series of bridges and ends up on Petrovsky Island, where he feverishly collapses in the bushes and enters a hybrid mental state. Hovering between dream and memory, he relives an incident from long ago, when he and his father looked on as a group of drunkards beat an innocent mare to death for sadistic pleasure. Horrified, he comes to and repudiates his murderous idea, only to embrace it again after a stroll through the haymarket.

Note the in-betweenness of each element. Half-asleep in a suburban hedgerow, on an island in a marsh, stuck both physically and mentally between Europe and Russia, feverish yet chilled, half-dreaming and half-remembering, neither sober nor drunk, feeling compassion for a dead beast on the eve of the bloodiest human act imaginable, tortured by love for his family while possessed by self-interest, and torn between misanthropy and philanthropy, Raskolnikov inhabits virtually every conceivable human boundary. Bakhtin’s argument that Raskolnikov never loses touch with the threshold seems right.

Cut to contemporary Tokyo, a metropolis that has emerged over two millennia with intermittent eras of stasis and growth. In that time, it has become the most populous city in human history, with nearly 40 million residents in its metro area. Archaeological evidence suggests that rice-paddy farmers—the so-called Yayoi people, named after the Tokyo neighborhood where their artifacts were discovered—lived in the region as far back as 200 BC. By the twelfth century, it had become a fishing village called Edo, a word that means something like “doorway to the cove.” Situated on the spot where the Sumida River opens into the Bay of Tokyo, Edo’s population and infrastructure grew slowly during the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336–1573), a period of feudal factionalism and infighting.

Around the beginning of the Edo period, when the shogun Tokugawa became the effective (military) leader of Japan and established his seat in Edo, his new policy of isolationism led to rapid growth and urbanization near the city’s natural ports. By 1868, Edo was Japan’s commercial and political hub. When Emperor Meiji brought the shogunate to an end and restored practical imperial rule, he seized Edo, moved the imperial seat to Edo Castle, and renamed the city Tokyo, or “Eastern Capital.” This marked the onset of the Meiji Restoration, a time of industrialism, Western influence, and the return of global interaction and commerce. Between its humble beginnings and now, Tokyo has survived firebombings, earthquakes and megaquakes, tsunamis, a host of great fires, the eruption of Mount Fuji, riots, a subway sarin attack, and economic collapse, as well as the assassination of a prime minister and the nearby Fukushima nuclear disaster. It’s one of the most robust cities on record.

Tokyo has had its share of top-down policies and interventions, as Jorge Almazán observes in his recent Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City. But many of its most durable, efficient, and aesthetically salient features have resulted from bottom-up initiatives, “where small-scale actors collectively produce a vibrant patchwork of city life through their web of interactions.” The sheer size of Tokyo’s population, as well as the necessarily speedy reconstruction efforts following the city’s devastation from the 1923 earthquake and again from World War II bombing campaigns, likely has something to do with this. But Japanese culture’s long tradition of decision-making by council probably plays a role, too. For even Izanagi and Izanami, the creator gods whose story is contained in the mythical Kojiki, consult committees when the most important decisions are at hand. It may be this combination of factors that has, to paraphrase Almazán, fostered an evolving sense of community and reciprocal responsibility.

Almazán’s genre-bending nonfiction book—researched and composed in collaboration with Studiolab, his Tokyo-based architecture and research laboratory—is a work of an entirely different nature from Dostoyevsky’s novels. Even so, Dostoyevsky and Almazán share a major thematic similarity: a rejection of “intentionality” as urban policy. Dostoyevsky conveys his rejection through observations on the effects of historical intervention on his idiosyncratic characters—particularly men who exist at the limits of society, both disdaining and seeking integration with it. Almazán conveys his rejection by celebrating—in prose, photography, graphics, and maps—Tokyo’s liminal spaces, which emerge organically and through the “economies of agglomeration, [where] no single actor predominates.” If Dostoyevsky reveals the ill effects of top-down planning through the pathologies that it enables, Almazán expresses the benefits of emergent urban spaces through their positive aesthetic, economic, social, and moral results.

Tokyo’s bustling streets and alleys emerged organically, a manifestation of the unplanned life force of cities. (World Discovery/Alamy Stock Photo)

Almazán’s work is both descriptive and normative, or as normative as one can be while advocating against excessive top-down design, whether led by corporations or governments. For, as he suggests, the aim of his book is to discuss “a diverse toolkit of strategic interventions designed to nurture a city’s emergent capacity for complexity and spontaneity. In these interventions, the designer’s role is not to dictate exactly what the end result of complex interactions should look like, but rather to design into being the necessary conditions for emergence to occur.” It is precisely the lack of such ingenuity-fostering conditions that drives Dostoyevsky’s characters to the brink of insanity. If you build a Crystal Palace and provide all the trappings of domiciliary comfort, a Dostoyevskian character will prefer the chicken coop; if you point out that at least the chicken coop will protect him from the rain, he will refuse its shelter during a sleet storm. Anything dictated or advised will be rejected, especially if the rejection entails worsening one’s own situation. And while Almazán’s book lacks characters in the literary sense, the public whose aggregated policies he describes and often extols has developed “an ecosystem of shared interests.” Unlike the sick Dostoyevskian figure, who rebelliously seeks out the thresholds and gutters where stench, filth, and squalor are to be found, the public in Almazán’s book has developed a positive “liminal urban identity.”

For Almazán, it is in the communally developed liminal space more than in any other place that freedom, responsible individuality, human connection, and adaptation occur. Last year, in a Santa Fe Institute–hosted panel discussion titled “How Will Space Limit Human Performance?,” Almazán observed: “We can start looking at the mistakes we [make] here on Earth. . . . One of them is functionalism. Basically, it means thinking rationally and assigning to each problem a functional solution. We forget that human beings are not always rational. And cities, in fact, solve that issue through liminal spaces. This is one of the patterns we see in all cultures, except those that were made after functionalism. Human beings need certain states or certain situations in which they can evaporate. . . . You can keep that irrational side of the human being but still make it work [socially and culturally].”

Almazán’s comment echoes, in a more measured and affirmative way, something the underground man says near the beginning of Notes from Underground. “You see: reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life—that is, the whole of human life. . . . And though our life in this manifestation often turns out to be a bit of trash, still it is life and not just the extraction of a square root. I, for example, quite naturally want to live so as to satisfy my whole capacity for living.” The underground man would make no distinction between functionalism and intentionalism. He prefers trash cellars to crystal palaces because his environment provides no “evaporating” alternative to strict functionality.

Whereas governments and corporations—one seeking revenue for growth, the other seeking growth for revenue—wish to impose self-interested functionality upon every physical and mental space, forward-looking planners should aim, according to Almazán, to design the conditions for emergence. These conditions are what Santa Fe Institute president David Krakauer deems “minimal mechanisms” of “emergent engineering.” Only under such light conditions are the agents inhabiting the space free to generate the innovations for healthy, self-directed, culturally sound engagement. Without this collective independence, governments and corporations hold the key to the consciousnesses of their constituents and clientele, just as Peter the Great appears to have done with generations of Petersburg inhabitants.

Emergent Tokyo puts continued emphasis on what social theorist Ray Oldenburg calls “third places”—niches where urbanites can interact, engage, and improvise beyond the reach of the more obligatory “first” and “second” places of home and work. These third places include barbershops, pubs, cafés, libraries, museums, stoops, and promenades. Dostoyevsky’s fictitious characters undeniably inhabit third places, but theirs are makeshift, defiled zones sought out from a spirit of rebelliousness. Lacking a coherent urban fabric, his characters transform gutters and landings and hedgerows into their own sordid and unmindful third places. Seldom do they enjoy themselves. Instead, they insult one another, instigate duels, drink, rape, assault, destroy, and murder. Almazán’s public, on the other hand, is depicted as creating and utilizing liminal spaces from a sense of freedom and cooperation.

The bulk of Emergent Tokyo is devoted to five case studies of “Tokyo’s most striking patterns,” each an example of adaptive spaces where residents and visitors can gather, shop, socialize, dine, and blend in. While Almazán acknowledges that Tokyo is far from perfect, these patterns are intended to nudge future designers into thinking deeply about what makes each space effective according to its evolving purpose. They offer alternative paradigms for diverging urban contexts and “combine light planning from above and self-organizing emergence from below.” Each shapes, and is shaped by, the interactions among its users and the space itself.

Take Yokochō Alleyways, “warrens of lively, micro-scale bars centered on tiny alleys and backstreets.” Following World War II, when the Japanese black market was thriving, liquor vendors would construct impromptu stalls and structures along hidden side streets where foot traffic was nevertheless likely to be high. It is estimated that at the height of this activity, the number of illegal stalls exceeded 60,000. In 1949, U.S. military forces, still occupying Tokyo, began enforcing the prohibition against such practices; but instead of eradicating the stalls and cutting off the immense economic exchange they generated, officials let the black-marketeers relocate, enabling them to legalize and cluster their stalls together in order to become legitimate commercial enterprises. Contemporary Japan hosts dozens of Yokochō Alleyways—winding side streets clustered with sometimes hundreds of micro-bars and restaurants. The densest bar district in the world is the Golden Gai District, a Yokochō Alleyway with more than 250 drinking establishments within an area equivalent to half a soccer field. The footprint of each bar is roughly 13 square meters. Since each has its own proprietor, each is idiosyncratic and specialized according to different aesthetic sensibilities, gastronomic preferences, and cultural interests. The bars seat anywhere from two to six customers, providing both intimacy and eclecticism.

The Yokochō Alleyway, Almazán observes, is “an urban morphology of hiddenness, smallness, compactness, and low-profile spaces. It is an identity that has emerged naturally through the years, and although it was not established by a top-down process, it has been nurtured and defended through difficult periods by the collective conscientiousness of its owners.” On top of this, because ownership of alleyway land is often communal, the proprietors can control their own tiny buildings and possessions, while also sharing local burdens and decision-making processes, in what Almazán dubs “fragmented egalitarianism.” One can only wonder what Dostoyevsky would have made of the Yokochō Alleyway, a “third place full of third places,” where identities are drawn and dissolved.

In his early writings on aesthetics, Søren Kierkegaard emphasized that border territories always fall under the criterion of the interesting (rather than, say, the beautiful or the sublime). He insisted that these interesting boundaries were where aesthetics and ethics met—where, that is, every individual had the choice between remaining pleasurably self-engaged or becoming continuous within a community.

As we have seen, Bakhtin, an admirer of Kierkegaard, was the first Russian critic to notice this element of Dostoyevskian anthropology. Dostoyevsky, meanwhile, depicts a universe in which true ethical positions are rejected in favor of self-interest and grimy aesthetics. Almazán demonstrates a practical awareness that such spaces are indeed where aesthetics and ethics meet and where, perhaps, both can thrive simultaneously. His new book provides a framework for fostering, without superintending, the development of nonutopian, yet aesthetically and ethically promising spaces, in a world that seems increasingly divided between the chaotic and the controlled, the self-effacing and the selfish. Certainly, Dostoyevsky and Almazán would agree that thresholds, liminal zones, and so-called third places are where interesting things happen. It’s in those thresholds, those noisy border territories, that individual and communal grace are possible and sacred memories can develop. Emergence-minded engineers, policymakers, architects, and designers should look to liminal space if they hope to condition, without tyranny, new possibilities for flourishing urban life.

Top Photo: Some half-million serfs and Swedish prisoners of war were impressed into the construction of Saint Petersburg; many perished in the process. (Photo © Photo Josse/Bridgeman Images)


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