Review of: King, Anthony D. Writing the Global City: Globalisation, Postcolonialism and the Urban. Routledge, 2016. 206 pages. ISBN: 9781138949584.

The spatial turn in scholarly studies over the course of a few decades has brought to centre stage the conceptions of space and its interconnectedness to some of the core concerns of society such as gender, sexuality, race, and class. As such space and its concomitant modification, representation, appropriation, and consumption has been recognized as the site of rich material data for understanding society. Within this context, Anthony D. King’s book attempts a comprehensive definition of global cities through a nuanced examination of the contested notions of modernity, globalization, and postcolonialism. Underlying the focus on cities is the belief that the unit of the nation-state is inadequate and unattuned to account for the cross-boundary interactions that transcend national lines.

Janus-Faced Academic Style

King’s book is a compilation of a lifetime of essays from the years 1989 to 2015 arranged almost chronologically. Despite the broad span of time across which these essays were originally formulated, there is a surprising continuity of thought and clarity of theoretical stance from beginning to end. With very little or almost no revision made to the collected essays, it is fascinating to see how King’s work was aware of the academic groundwork laid by previous scholars while at the same time constantly looking forward. The essays do not read as dated nor is the language archaic. What the book achieves is therefore not just a critical treatise on the formation of the global city. Rather, it presents a blueprint for a form of scholarly research that is aware of the need for a Janus-faced approach that incorporates legacy but only in order to look light years ahead.

This dual perspective of grounding in previous research and progressivity is achieved through King’s close attention to language. The nexus of power and domination that underlies concepts such as globalization and postcolonialism is scrutinized in a self-reflexive academic style that goes back again and again to reformulate key terms. By having a critical approach to the double-edged connotations of monolithic grand narratives, King’s methodology and its relevance in current literature lies in this flair for not taking any definition for granted. Using the example of London, the idea of the global city is shown to share historical links with colonial exploits. What is understood as a symbol of progress, the supposedly modern city, was built on and fed through a structure of unequal power relations with other cities. King therefore pays homage to the Foucauldian sense of the discursive formulation of concepts.

Any study of space is interdisciplinary by default. It will inadvertently bring in research from sociology, architecture, anthropology, history, politics, literature, and cultural theory, to name a few. King’s study draws from these fields and has relevance and benefits for students and scholars in all of these disciplines. From the outset, King notes that the interdisciplinarity of his research will require a communicable mode of linguistic representation in order to allow any form of exchange of ideas and thoughts across these disciplinary boundaries. In a span of just about two hundred pages, King achieves a vocabulary that will be appreciated because of the careful nature of interrogations of alternative meanings and positionality involved in any representation.

Navigating the Text

In the first section, Chapter 1, “Architecture, Capital and the Globalisation of Culture,” King defines the interconnected roles of globalization, built environment, and production of knowledge. In explaining globalization, ideas from key thinkers Immanuel Wallerstein, Roland Robertson, and Stuart Hall are drawn on. Furthermore, built environment is taken as a central locus for understanding culture in society since cultural processes do not take place in a vacuum; they are enacted in space. Moreover, in an interrogation of knowledge production, King notes the gaps in research where the built environment and the majority of the world have been previously missing from discussion.

Taking the 1980s as the key turning point in the focus on cities and their relation to world economy, Chapter 2, “Colonialism, Urbanism and the Capitalist World Economy,” elaborates on the history of the colonial city from the 1950s to the 1980s. Chapter 3, “Writing Colonial Space: A Review Article,” brings in critical viewpoints from postcolonial theory and presents how they may be applied to the study of cities. The first few pages of this chapter are relevant for those searching for a methodology of practical application of postcolonial theory. However, this chapter is mainly a review of texts relating to the study of cities, modernity, and coloniality.  Chapter 4, “Re-presenting World-Cities: Cultural Theory/Social Practice,” begins by interrogating the politics of representation involved in the discourse on cities. It goes on to give an extended description of globalization by Anthony McGrew and navigates the idea of displacement and migration of people and places. Chapter 5, “Postcolonialism, Representation and the City,” focuses on the role of the discourse on cities as cut by postcolonial theory and its need to realign academic stance from a Western centric focus to a more inclusive and polyphonic approach. Chapter 6, “Cities: Contradictory Utopias,” draws on the centrality of material conditions in the discourse on globalization. Building on Thomas More’s Utopia, the chapter goes on to elaborate a utopian future of the world. The rhetorical strategy employed by King allows him to speculate and critique at the same time.

In the second section on methodologies, Chapter 7, “Actually Existing Postcolonialisms: Colonial Urbanism and Architecture after the Postcolonial Turn,” studies the ever-present effects of colonialism. Colonial hierarchies via class- and race-based discrimination are shown to be recur in the Indian postcolonial cities of Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai. The chapter also gives an insightful account of the postcolonial bungalow and its origins and current form. Following that, the concepts of Internationalism and Vernacular Modernism as architectural movements that had implications globally are defined in Chapter 8, “Internationalism, Imperialism, Postcolonialism, Globalisation: Framing Vernacular Architecture.” In Chapter 9, “Postcolonial Cities, Postcolonial Critiques,” a necessary differentiation between colonial and postcolonial cities is provided while Chapter 10, “Notes towards a Global Historical Sociology of Building Types,” underscores the need to understand the built environment through both its form and function. While architecture and design are considered cultural activities, buildings conversely come to contain cultural connotations. Therefore, the interrelation of architecture and culture is presented as circular and inevitable.

The following two chapters focus on imperialism. Chapter 11, “Imperialism and World Cities,” elaborates on the concept of imperialism as it relates to the forces of capitalism. Chapter 12, “Imperialism and the Grand Hotel: Case Studies of Colonial Modernities,” traces the European origins of the Grand Hotel, its manifestations in colonies and former colonies as a symbol of modernity, and its role in perpetuating race and class-based segregation. Chapter 13, “Globalisation and Homogenisation: The State of Play,” is an investigation into the opposing forces of homogenization and heterogenization that are part of globalization where time and space dynamics have been shrinking, to deploy the oft-used spatial metaphor. The final section and its two chapters on “Imperial Cities” and “Global Cities” elaborates on the definitions, origins, and issues related to the concepts while showing the close connection between the two.

A Two-Semester Graduate Course?

The book can be read in no particular order—having been published or presented independently, each chapter is a self-contained unit. As such, it is not really meant to be read through from end to end, nor is that advisable. A lot of the theorizations on concepts such as globalization and postcolonialism are repeated in almost every chapter, albeit in a slightly differentiated and nuanced manner.

Nonetheless, this book reads as a valuable reference text because of its synthesis. The scholarly material referenced in the book ranges across disciplines and is a succinct starting point for individuals in search of an overview of the global city, postcolonial approaches, and modernity. There are constant references by King to the possibility of forming a two-semester graduate course on the vast material compiled by him on the themes of architecture, postcolonialism, and urbanity. This aside points towards the nature of this text as a compilation in a literal sense, not just a collection of essays but also a list of concepts, definitions, scholars, and sources. However, on a concluding note, the significant take-home concept is King’s academic stance: it is pluralistic and critical at the same time, which is arguably difficult to achieve.

Fiana Kawane
University of Toronto

King, Anthony D. Writing the Global City: Globalisation, Postcolonialism and the Urban. Routledge, 2016. 206 pages. ISBN: 9781138949584.