The city is more than a collection of houses and people, and stretches far beyond the streets or skyscrapers. Those lights glistening from streets, offices and building blur together to dazzle and bewitch us, and make the city more than the sum of its parts. A complex entity, the city is the subject of an exhibition of photography from the nineteen photographers of Berlin’s Ostkreuz Agency. “The City, Becoming & Decaying” is on display at the Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in New Zealand, in partnership with the Goethe-Institut.

More people are now living in cities than countryside (2008 was the tipping point), but their experiences vary wildly. In these global cities we hold up as ideals, with them the very depths of humanity can be found: there is Detroit decaying at its core, Dubai which can barely keep up with its own growth, Gaza being leveled to the ground, Las Vegas living from appearance, and Lagos in Nigeria expanding uncontrollably in tangled growth. There are as many city experiences and city types as there are cities, and this diversity of experience, its juxtapositions and contradictions are what makes the city such a fascinating place and concept, as this collection shows.

What is apparent from this exhibition is the universality of city experiences. Photographs by Jorg Bruggemmann of Ushuaia, a cliff resting city on the southernmost tip of Argentina described as being at the end of the world show teenagers on skateboards, a young punk couple sharing a milkshake, a nonchalant girl playing songs on Youtube. Ute & Werner Mahler recorded images of young girls in Liverpool, Minsk, Reykavik, Florence, Berlin. Using the same procedure, subject matter, and framing, they found a common reality – the young girl and suburb both on their way to becoming something else, and the suburb always a place that everyone wants to leave.

Marcus Jaueur, curator of the exhibition, states that what brings people to a city is “their desire for wealth, security, and freedom…They sought community because they thought that these aspirations could be best met by living together.” But those dreams are not always realized. Espen Eichofer has captured images of men in Manila who leave their ancestral surroundings in the countryside with a dream of better life, but now have no job and drink all day. She calls it ‘The City as Promise” – but the city seems to have failed people. And so they come to the city without being part of it, remaining in their village groups – something seen by migrant communities in cities across the world. A sense of collective isolation is evident, a juxtaposition in terms as that is.

We have always believed that we can manufacture the perfect city, and India’s Auroville is one such manifestation. A sort of “experiment for humanity” it is built on an idea; the idea of a universal city, a city with all nationalities, all religions, a city that belongs to all of humanity but no one in particular. But within this is the hope that the city itself will enable people to live transcendent lives, raised above their limitations, physically manifested in the Matrimandir, the golden dome building where come to meditate. But of course here, as in Ordos, where workers gather trying to make a new city 800 km north west of Beijing, as part of an ambitious programme by the government to build cities in sparsely populated underdeveloped Chinese areas, people are the same, and mere urban planning does not radically alter the dynamic between people.

There are poignant photos, some a result of historic events. Andrej Krementschouk takes images of Pripyat, 4 km from Chenonobyl where an amusement park was scheduled to open in May 1986 to be a “palace of culture.” Some are more abstract, and involve the search for identity. The symbolic is often more profound and influential than the reality. Atlantis, a city that exists only in an imagination, and is always linked to an imminent downfall, still exists as a symbol for the eternal search for happiness, as shown by Annette Hauschild’s portraits of a New York City secondhand store, a Hispanic gay club in Queens, a hostel in Krakow, and a futuristic Belgian Apartment Store – all bearing the name Atlantis.

In our globalised world, we can be connected with people we have never physically met – and we can share, a less concrete commonality of experience. Take the images of transport hubs, by Frank Schinski. His images go beyond just the logistics of a station, demonstrating how these intersections of people “are meeting places of stories, life stories… individuals is driven in one direction or another by a purpose.” Within what seems like one thronging mass is lots of different situations, which are all over very quickly, but are still important stories – plays, dramas, comedies. So we see a man leaning thoughtfully on pile of suitcases, bus driver getting ready to start his route, gentleman looking at ferry in distance and clenching fist, a commuter touching statue in passing. As Schinski notes, life is a constant search for your role and place. And “when a large number of people come together, the search is concentrated into something quite symbolic.”

Is this not why we move to a city? To anywhere? As part of our lifelong quest for meaning, a role, a place.

The city is a concrete representative of that universal goal. A physical manifestation of our symbolic need to move towards something we deem to be better. A gold paved dream that turns out to be a gritty nightmare. Riches and poverty, isolation and conglomeration, united and diverse, the future and the past. A contradiction. Or according to Jauer, “The city is everything and its opposite, all at once, in the same place. The future of the world lies in the city. It is where the fate of humanity will be decided. What happens to the city also happens to us.” The future of the world, and something we are all better off observing.

The City: Becoming and Decaying has been touring internationally since 2010 and is presented in partnership with the Goethe-Institut.