Julie Rafalski

Unfinished Drawings of Cities

The other night I had a dream about attending a drawing class where all the participants drew cities they had once visited, from memory. I remember flipping through my sketchbook. Each page contained an unfinished drawing of a city. The drawings were mostly of a detailed fragment of a street or a building; most of the pen lines faded before they started describing too much. I could recognise a waterway in Venice, a lantern in Krakow and some apartment blocks of Warsaw.

The dream reminded me of Calvino's Invisible Cities, where on roughly each page a different city is described by Marco Polo. Polo travels through Kublai Khan's empire and then returns to the Khan to tell him stories about the various cities he visited. By the end of the book, we realise that the cities Polo describes all refer to Venice and his stories paint a complex portrait of the city.

Perhaps the images in my sketchbook also referred to one city.

Depending on the weather, time of day, sometimes other cities come to haunt me. Sometimes while looking out at the HSBC office block from Poplar station, I think of a white building with a diamond-shaped top in Chicago. The low ceilings and columns at Mile End tube station reflect the columns at Berlin's Alexanderplatz metro station. Regent's Park has a hill that is hidden in overgrowth that has a parallel in Warsaw's Lazienki park. The Old Street roundabout rhymes with the underground passages that link the Central Station in Warsaw to Marszalkowska Street. The smell of a freshly painted fence in Ealing on a summer's day has it's counterpart in the smell of sun-baked wood on the hill that overlooks Bergen in the evening of a sunny day.


The lights at night in high rise buildings by Bethnal Green are sisters to the lights in an apartment block on the outskirts of Krakow. The man who sells roasted chestnuts along the Thames, has a double who sells them at the corner of 54th and 6th Avenue in New York.

Warsaw Central Station

Calvino writes, "Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had…" As I wander through London, small inconsequential fragments of other cities that I didn't think I would ever remember suddenly appear; pieces of Bergen and Warsaw lie strewn, as if pages torn out from a sketchbook.