If you’ve ever played the SimCity video game series, you’ve probably tried to stuff as many buildings into a small grid of streets as you can. The reason for this isn’t just aesthetic — although it certainly does look cool. It’s because delivering goods and services to a small radius is always more economical than coping with sprawl. The logic of concentration underpins city planning and helps explain why urban landscapes strike the eye the funny way they do. Maybe you love to see buildings, roads, parks and civic edifices crammed together, humming in rough harmony, promising adventure and productive chaos. Maybe the sight of a crowded skyline makes you gasp for fresh air.
And maybe you’ve had both reactions at once. If so, “The Infinite City,” on view at the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft through Feb. 12, ought to prompt a nod of recognition and, perhaps, the sense of a dangerous rush of traffic.
Ambivalence about the city suffuses the mesmerizing wooden and linotype prints stamped on paper by Michael Dal Cerro. His mazes of train tracks and bus conduits, rows of tower windows and tube-like shafts, overpasses and underpasses, pylons and pointy facades, plunge the viewer headfirst into a city expanding on its own momentum, reaching for the sky and sometimes choking it. “The Infinite City” evokes architect’s models, blueprints, the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, Metropolis, Parker Brothers and Dr. Seuss in equal measure. It demonstrates a deep familiarity with the built environment and an even better sense of the way cities make us feel: excited, invigorated, impinged upon, hassled, cajoled and pushed around, simultaneously worthy and unworthy of the immense vital energies unleashed by the metropolis.
Dal Cerro’s gentle colors are soothing, and his sense of play is ingratiating. Nevertheless, his critique is sharp and hard to miss.
Construction crams these prints from corner to corner. The implication of pieces like “Central Plaza” is that the concrete continues to pour beyond the frame, spilling outward in every direction. Lines are merciless and razor-straight, and the angles are sharp; “Interlocking and Merged Segments” is the city as block-puzzle, full of cubes and octagons and serrated edges. It’s a marvel to observe, but nowhere you’d want to slip.
The few human beings visible are silhouettes ensconced in the glass atria of the “Observation Deck,” but it is never clear what, or who, is doing the observing or being observed. Trees, when they appear, are squished into planters, held captive in greenhouses, or squeezed into the shadows of the towers. (The exception is the wonderfully tripped-out “Neo-Babylonia, where fronds explode from the rectangular windows and spill over the balconies of teetering, top-heavy skyscrapers.) Tracks and roadways poke holes in high stories of buildings but never seem to arrive at a terminus.
In the gorgeous but savage “Central Station,” a trio of friendly, modest-sized houses are practically crushed under the weight of the brutalist structures that have sprung up around them. Faces are nowhere to be found. The architecture has soaked up all the personality, and maybe all the oxygen, too.
As impersonal as Dal Cerro’s infinite cities are, they also are strangely optimistic. They’re the realization of an urbanist dream. There are few cars on the roads; there are few roads at all. Instead, clean public transit stitches the city together.
In “Rail City” — a print done, pointedly, in green — electric trains streak across the frame and leave the air unmolested as they do. Massive platforms like the one that yawns in the middle of “City Ensemble” imply ridership at levels that would make any environmentalist or city planner coo with delight.
The plants in Dal Cerro’s images may be boxed in cement, but they’re all flourishing. “Rooftop Gardens” is a vision, again suffused in green, of a town where the verdure has taken the elevator to the penthouse: Every skyscraper and office building has a pocket forest tucked away under glass, and an overpass held aloft by steel I-beams has been claimed by the turf.
The managers of the city, ambitious though they are, have come to a mutually beneficial agreement with the greenery. There is no wasted space in these urban landscapes, and no vacant lots. Every square foot has been put to practical use and is part of a thrumming unity.
And while Dal Cerro’s towers don’t have the quaint, tidy quality associated with the classic (though outmoded) two-story city living, they’ve got their own peculiar beauty. They are overgrown, but they aren’t monstrosities. Instead, they bear marks of creative intelligence: honeycomb fenestrations, space-age decorations, a certain muscular grandeur. They contain urban multitudes.
The infinite city is a place of a thousand apertures — there are ways in and out — and its aesthetic foregrounds its capacity. As the human family continues to grow, and demand resources, we will have to figure out ways to get everybody to live harmoniously. We’ll need to make nice — with each other and with the biosphere. The city is bound to adapt to the desperate needs of the species. Dal Cerro’s marvelous work pauses to allow us to dwell in nostalgia for what we’ve lost, and registers some reasonable complaints about congestion, overbuilding and depersonalization. Then it rockets off to an uncertain urban future and challenges us, excitedly, to come along.
Michael Dal Cerro’s “The Infinite City” will be at the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft through Feb. 12. Visit monmouthmuseum.org.
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