A Strange Sojourn

In the history of cities, ancient Ur holds an important place. It was a center of Sumerian culture as well as the birthplace of Abraham, “a stranger and a sojourner” who sired three of the world’s most important religions. Now another stranger and sojourner—a young French-man with autism—has created an ur-city of his own. Starting with Legos more than 20 years ago, 34-year-old Gilles Tréhin has created a vast imaginary metropolis he calls Urville, which he has documented over the years with astonishing sweep and single-mindedness in some 200 drawings accompanied by extensive historical notes. His extraordinarily detailed urban agglomeration is presented in the new book Urville from Jessica Kingsley Publishers, which specializes in titles about autism. “Since 2003,” Tréhin writes on his Web site, “I have dedicated all my time to my Urville plan.”

Urville (pop. 17,223,373 as of 2004) was named for a French research station in Antarctica and, in Tréhin’s conception, sits on an island off the Côte d’Azur, where it was founded by the Phoenicians in the twelfth century BC. Its history is outlined in a chronology that lays out the city’s role in the various upheavals and transformations that have swept across Europe in the millennia since its founding, culminating in Urville’s modern role as the economic capital of France.

Unlike the work of A. G. Rizzoli, another outsider artist who is obsessed with urban forms, Tréhin’s focus is not architectural detail but urban totality. Many of his individual structures are scantily drawn, and rooftops—in cases when they are visible—are little more than tabulae rasae. What sets Tréhin apart is his unbelievable attention to the wholeness of his creation—to the history, geography, and layout of each arrondissement. He doesn’t just imagine the place visually; he goes much further to create school and court systems, theaters (including noteworthy productions), businesses, and even an organization to look after the welfare of injured sailors. And each discrete building fits into the vast aerial views of Urville that he has drawn.

To Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, the completeness of Tréhin’s vision is characteristic of his disorder, which often produces savants. “I would imagine Gilles Tréhin’s urban-design talent is his particular form of hypersystemizing,” Baron-Cohen says. “His imaginary city is totally under his control, which is what people on the autistic spectrum prefer.”

As cities go, Urville is a transatlantic hybrid. Tréhin has lived on both sides of the ocean but says via e-mail, “My main influence has been Manhattan, where I used to go very often from 1978 to 1981. I was fascinated by all these skyscrapers and by the perspectives of the avenues.” Urville’s American touches include a pair of Twin Towers that look as if they’ve mated with the Sears Tower, and here and there an exotic futurism that brings to mind Mormon temple architecture.

But the strict order, grand vistas, and ramrod boulevards that slice through Urville imply that this is a planner’s city more like Washington, D.C., or Paris—possibly someplace L’Enfant, Haussmann, or Olmsted laid out in some alternate urban universe. Yet Urville seems a more organic—and therefore more humane—place than any an urban dictator like Le Corbusier might have concocted, which implies that perhaps when it comes to city planning, autism is less a problem than autocracy.

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