Urville: The Booming Metropolis Inside an Autistic Artist's Mind

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

Spending a decade (or two) on a project isn't uncommon amongst urban planners. Gilles Trehin is one of them. Except in Trehin's case, the project is entirely fictional, and the scale is monumental.

Trehin has devoted the past twenty years to designing Urville, a city of twelve million on an imaginary European island. He started drawing when he was five and began working on Urville when he was fifteen. Since then, he's produced hundreds of architectural drawings of the city, many of which are collected in a book of the same name; we've included a handful below to give you a sense of the scale of the undertaking. Remarkably, Trehin has also imagined the city's cultural and economic history, which begins almost three thousand years ago:

Urville was founded under the name 'Qart-Sous-Yam' in the twelfth century BC by the Phoenicians. It became Urbis (Urville) under the Romans in the first century BC [...] In 1789, at the time of the French Revolution, Urville had 2.8 million inhabitants, but the housing was too limited to cope with the sharp increase in population resulting from the Industrial revolution. Faced with this problem, the Prefect of Urville called on the architect and town planner Oscar Laballiere (1803-1883) to undertake extensive work which continues to shape Urville to this day.

Trehin's story is similar to that of Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic British artist who can draw incredibly accurate cityscapes based on memory alone. In a foreword to Trehin's Urville book, the autism specialist Uta Frith wonders at Trehin's talents, writing:

What is similar about Gilles' talent to that of other autistic artists? It is an obsession with the physical world... It seems as if the spotlight of attention sweeps indiscriminately and equally intensely over the important as well as the unimportant, the interesting as well as the tedious.

The unique talents of autistic artists lend themselves to incredible scale and scope. In a matter of decades, Trehin's created one of the most interesting, complex cities in the world—and it exists entirely on paper. [Urville via Brainpickings]