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by Frank Vitale

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 2011
Publisher: Longtail Distribution Network

A great city is a tiny organism writ large, according to Vitale’s debut multimedia e-book.

Vitale is taken with the idea that the form and function of a metropolis look uncannily similar, from a distance, to those of biological entities. He elaborates the analogy in a series of remarkable photos and embedded video sequences that compare aerial and satellite views of cities with studies of microscopic life-forms. The juxtapositions are striking: a Slovakian town sprawling over the landscape is pictorially paired with an amoeba; twisty, suburban cul-de-sacs are set against a cellular endoplasmic reticulum; the flow of street traffic becomes a “corpuscular circulation system” for the automobiles (blood cells) coursing through it; a video montage of satellite pictures shows Las Vegas swelling through the decades like a burgeoning culture in a desert petri dish. The text also insists that the notion of a city as an organism is literal truth rather than metaphor. Humans, Vitale contends, should give up their anthropocentric belief that they are creators of the urban realm. Instead, humans should adopt the objective viewpoint of a “Scientific Observer” looking down from on high, for whom people would appear as just one of many “unremarkable organelle[s]” servicing the urban superorganism. Visually, Vitale’s CD-ROM e-book is a triumph chock-full of stunning images, on scales both intimate and grand: pretty suburban streetscapes; the awesome high-rise fortress of Kowloon, China’s Walled City; and the wispy Norwegian town of Baerum Akershus, “lacy and fragile, cling[ing] to the earth like a delicate slime net.” Raptly evocative prose crackling with ideas makes a stimulating accompaniment to the visual content. Philosophically, his treatise can be a bit muddled and overstated: Readers know for a scientific certainty that cities are intentionally planned and built by humans; cities aren’t autonomous life-forms that have simply “germinated,” as Vitale would have it. Still, his conceit is a fruitful, fascinating one that yields rich insights into the urban ecology.

A superb pictorial and video meditation on the life of cities.