[urban interfaces] research group at Utrecht University

[urban interfaces] Blogs

guest blogpost: Jason Clark – The Magic Lens: How We Can See Invisible Cities

For our [urban interfaces] seminar series on the theme The Magic City (2021-2022), we invited participants to write blogposts. The best and most interesting ones we publish on our website.

Below is the blogpost for week 1, written by Jason Clark.

Jason Clark is a rMA student in Cultural Analysis, which is a part of ASCA and NICA. Currently writing his thesis on his research interests of embodiment and positionality within museum and art space contexts through sound and noise theory.

The Magic Lens: How We Can See Invisible Cities

by Jason Clark

This blogpost is written as part of the seminar on Urban Interfaces: The Magic City and reflects on the notion of magic, the potential it holds and aspects that need to be carefully considered if we are to engage with as a concept.

A city is a place of chaos, a place which we cannot understand fully, but to live within it instils a sense of curiosity; of wanting to understand it. A city seems to exist in so many contradictions, a place which is liberating but also oppressive, between the needs of the people and the growth and development of the urban landscape. How can we imagine the future possibilities of the city? And on what are these decisions based? It seems the list of concepts needed to approach and understanding of the city would be endless.

From a personal experience of the city, these are the ideas and questions that seem to move around in my head. It is overwhelming and confusing, which is why the stimulation of considering magic as a potential source for understanding and re-interpreting urban interfaces is something which I found fascinating, albeit slightly difficult too. Moving over the enthusiasm of such an idea, I was confused by this lack of clarity concerning magic. In itself magic is a very large all-encompassing term, and of course to suddenly claim this as a potential solution for urban complications would also be putting this on an unattainable high pedestal.

In the book Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality, Federico Campagna engages in a deep exploration of the ‘reality’ that we are living in; we take for granted that only certain kinds of things exists, where they exist absolutes. Technic, the name given to this reality, brings us into a state of paralysis. Campagna sees magic as a way of disturbing our sense of reality and restoring it into a new form, one which puts the concept of the ineffable at the centre. It hints at magic allowing us to regain an experience and sense of being which has been lost. Using the concept of the ineffable, it opens up the possibility of a way we must engage to change our perception and ideas of reality.

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities is a book written by Italo Calvino in 1972, the book is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which Polo recollects 55 fictional cities he has encountered on his travels. The cities are told in the form of short poetic prose.

In his recollections and storytelling, Polo’s cities seem to slowly descend into fiction. As he is not afraid to use otherworldly beings and situations to emphasise the feeling and emotion that the city brings. Some cities are understandable whilst others seem more ethereal, contradictions run throughout some while others are logical. Through the writing of these cities, Calvino embraces certain abstractions, in which he rejects fundamentals of architecture, time, or any semblance of reality, and where utopian and fairy tale cities are a reality. Through the reading of them, I found myself often re-reading the short city descriptions, due to their poetic nature they can ungraspable or even very much open to interpretation.

“Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city, expect the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread our horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows.”

Invisible Cities, Thin Cities · 3, page 42

Calvino uses the city as a point of familiarity: for us to imagine this Armilla, we intentionally have to dismantle and fade the familiar structure of a city we imagine, or even one that surrounds us as we read. To do so acts as an exercise of recognising a reality we are aware of, but do not consider within our reality of the city. The city suddenly becomes a reality, a place which is possible and can exist.


“Armilla cannot be called deserted. […] the streams of water channelled in the Pipes of Armilla have remained in the possession of nymphs and naiads”

Invisible Cities, Thin Cities · 3, page 42

Magic as the lens for understanding the invisible

For me this book seems to encapsulate exactly how I consider the concept of magic to function within the context of the city. The cities atmosphere is ephemeral, the things that seem to exist in between all the cracks also make up the entire foundation of the city. It seems vital to recognise how the city exists as a living entity. A city is designed in a certain way, but it is also one that is continuously changing and growing. It is unpredictable and complicated, difficult to understand. It has many layers, each which can be conceptualised as a city within itself. Which is the way it is approached within Invisible Cities, in a great moment where Marco Polo reveals that every time a city is described, it is also saying something about his hometown, Venice. By using magic as a writing tool, a lens through which we can look to see these unseeable, invisible aspects of the city, and by visualising it beginning allowing a space in which we understand this better, to realise the ineffable.

“To recognise the prevalence, importance, and vitality of the supernatural as an intrinsic element of urban cultures in the modern world, intimately and endlessly interwoven into the fabric and experiences of everyday urban existence.”

Supernatural Cities. Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality, Introduction, page 2

The Potential of Magic

Still, I don’t want to claim that this is the solution to the problem of the urban, or our reality. The complexity of this city requires a complex understanding. And what I have found and offered here is simply a possible introduction to grasping magic as a concept. I think it’s very easy to see magic as an all-encompassing term, a scapegoat under which many different interpretations and concepts can exist, which could render it all more meaningless. There is also very much the possibility of there being academic appropriation of the word, moving into a context which is difficult to understand. Without then having a very definitive form, does it even make it possible to then consider magic as an alternative mode of thought?

Yet, the hope that comes from the consideration of magic feels vital: a necessary intervention within a city in which the planners and power seem hyper fixated on designing and building everything around capitalist growth, where a loss of culture and life exists simultaneously. It is indeed this approach to the other than can help us reframe the city. To reject more static notions of existing within a city and to recognise that city planning does not have the outcomes it may expect. To find ways of restructuring the hierarchical list of intentions by which planning is done. It is a way of considering things that exist beyond within reality.



Calvino, Italo, and William Weaver. Invisible Cities. Vintage Digital, 2010.

Campagna, Federico. Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

Bell, Karl. Supernatural Cities. Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2019.

Puente, Karina. “Maurilia”. Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, Illustrated (Again) Archdaily, 16 Feb. 2017, https://www.archdaily.com/805442/italo-calvinos-invisible-cities-illustrated-again.