Like any city worth its salt, Metropolis is crammed with local colour; and what gives the historical schema its real flavour is the deviations it allows. Rome gives an excuse to talk about bathing throughout history; Baghdad, an occasion for mouth-watering lists of foods that tickled the palates city dwellers across the world and across the ages. It makes you understand why we opted for cities in the first place, and why, despite the doom and gloom, I doubt we will be quitting them any time soon.
In construction, Wilson’s book is more rambling east London than centrally planned Haussmann Paris. His progress is roughly chronological and the only reliable theme is that with each chapter the cities get bigger. By the final chapter we’ve reached megacities that are so enormous they are changing the course of nature. The London Underground mosquito is “an entirely new species that has evolved to thrive in subterranean areas rich in human blood” and the mosquitos on the Piccadilly line “are genetically different from those on the Bakerloo”.
This is a history of the world told through its most buccaneering units. And a city is defined by more than just its buildings. It is about people and the lives they are able to lead away from the monotony of rural life. Wilson begins with a description of the essential characteristics of cities as diverse as ancient Rome, modern Paris and Abbasid Baghdad. Diverse populations hold specialised jobs like artisans, accountants and administrators, while public spaces like baths, theatres and coffeehouses create a sense of belonging. The raw power of cities as competitive units is then made clear.