The City Beyond Maps

The City Beyond Maps: from Bonaventure to One Wilshire

Originally published in Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica, September, 2003

If you imagine Los Angeles as a movie screen laid flat upon the ground, then the film projected on it is the story of capitalism. Watching the changes flicker across the surface, critics see a desert upon which houses magically appear, a homogeneous city without qualities, virtually devoid of the public realm, a territory thoroughly privatized and regulated by shadowy extra-governmental forces, a site where millions live that nevertheless refuses to be anything but a terrain vague, its only distinguishing feature spatial segregation between the classes. Los Angeles has been repeatedly understood as the direct urban manifestation of capitalism, reduced to the base result of speculative real estate development by its critics. As Ed Soja writes in Postmodern Geographies: "What better place can there be to illustrate and synthesize the dynamics of capitalist spatializations?"[1] In what is often considered the classic essay on capitalism and architecture in the contemporary era, "Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism,"[2] first published in 1983, Fredric Jameson describes Los Angeles as an index of capital. Jameson does this through a seemingly perverse reversal, describing the city as it is embodied in a structure, John Portman's Bonaventure Hotel, built in 1977 and located in Los Angeles's downtown. Jameson describes the city through negation, as a reflection in the mirrored curtain wall of the hotel's towers. For Jameson, Los Angeles becomes nothing more than the end-product of multinational capital, void of any political capacity, utopian aspiration or reality, viewable only as a distorted glimmer on the surface of one-way mirror glass.

bonaventure

Unlike Mies van der Rohe's Friedrichstrasse skyscraper or Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, both of which shatter the order of the city in promise of a Utopian transformation, Portman's Bonaventure lacks aspirations to a better world, reflecting the city, as given, back upon itself. Jameson writes, "The Bonaventure is content to 'let the fallen city fabric continue to be in its being' (to parody Heidegger); no further effects, no larger protopolitical Utopian transformation, is either expected or desired."[3] Disjunct from its surroundings, its street-level pedestrian entrance invisible, the building hooks up to the networks of multinational capital through ramps to neighboring skyscrapers and via adjacent boulevards and freeways. A world onto itself, the hotel is inwardly focused, a stand-in for the city. Inside, the Bonaventure is a postmodern hyperspace. Giving no sense of the city beyond its walls, the Bonaventure's notoriously confusing layout defies the visitor's capacity to map it. The Bonaventure, Jameson writes, "stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions." It is nothing less than an analogue for our inability to understand our position in the multinational, decentered network of finance and communications that comprise late capitalism. [4] The Bonaventure, for Jameson, represents culture under late capitalism. In this phase of economic development, capital has colonized all spheres of human activity including those, such as culture, that had remained autonomous from, and resistant to, its hegemonizing forces.[5] Unable to find a place outside the capitalist system, the postmodern subject loses any possibility of drawing a map that could claim to mirror reality, be it a text written by Marx or the master plans kept by Haussmann for his incisions into the body of Paris. In response, Jameson proposes "an aesthetic of cognitive mapping." A term Jameson borrows from urban theorist Kevin Lynch, cognitive mapping seeks "to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system." Rather than calling for complete understanding, cognitive mapping is incomplete, beginning from a position of inadequacy to acknowledge any map's built-in futility. Thus, we might understand early postmodern Los Angeles through filmic allegories such as the incestuous, all-pervasive networks of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, the doomed journey of D-Fens in Falling Down, or the allegorical total vision of the city in Ridley Scott'sBlade Runner.[6] Jameson's reading of the Bonaventure itself acts as a cognitive map,par excellence, suggesting that through this one structure the entire state of the city outside and indeed, of contemporary capital, can be discerned. As with the best theorists such as Deleuze or Derrida, Jameson's essay itself is not merely an ordinary text but attains literary qualities. Never does he promise total knowledge. On the contrary, Jameson leads the reader in circles around the concept of the postmodern, replicating for us the experience of meandering through the hyperspace of the Bonaventure. But the Bonaventure is over 25 years old now and the damaged body of Los Angeles proved capable of a remarkable turnaround during the late 1990s. The City of Quartz has been replaced by a Los Angeles that more or less works. The city core, in which the Bonaventure was just one of countless failed attempts to resurrect the neighborhood, has finally recovered, at least in part. Although the Bonaventure still stands downtown, it is dwarfed by the towers Japanese capital built in the 1980s during the last significant burst of skyscraper construction on the continent. And while we may still live under late capitalism, surely much has changed, or at least that condition has become ever more greatly exacerbated. Technology now defines us like never before. Much of the population works and lives in front of a computer screen, connected to an unfathomably large network. While an analysis that followed Jameson's 1983 essay to the letter might suggest that this is the ever-more-thorough realization of late capitalism's multinational reach, capital itself seems to have become by information. Being rich today seems less important than being connected and the global network of capital may be only part, albeit a key part, of a larger infrastructure of data. For what is money anymore besides bits, zeroes and ones being shuffled around the planet at ever-increasing velocity?

Where, then, might we find today's equivalent to the Bonaventure so that we can make our own cognitive map of the city? The first impulse might be to turn to look to Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, now rising a block away. This structure certainly speaks of the delight that architecture once again seems to bring to the urban realm. Certainly it demonstrates need of the contemporary city to appear, to demonstrate its existence in unprecedented formal gestures, to embody the placeless, hyperkinetic international flows of late capital, to affirm that the joyous equation of culture, high technology, and capital produces an irresistible destination point. But the Disney Concert Hall is a red herring, its imperative to visibility misguided. The visible city as a prime determinant of the urban is an artifact of the past. Instead, it is what Lewis Mumford called the "invisible city," the world of cables, wires, connections, codes, agreements, and capital that increasingly dominates our networked society.[7] We stand at the dawn of the regime of the invisible, its role in determining urban structure vast. The visible becomes an irruption of other forces, a graphic user interface for a more powerful command line below.[8]

 

To seek out a more appropriate successor to the Bonaventure, we must turn elsewhere, to a nondescript 39 story modernist skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles completed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill in 1966 and now known as One Wilshire. For it is this structure, not so much devoid of the qualities that make the Disney Concert Hall as its inverse - retrofitted rather than new, anonymous rather than distinctive - that supplants the Bonaventure by acting as product, index, and generator of contemporary urbanism and the networked economy. Like the Bonaventure, One Wilshire is a hotel, but it is a teleco or data hotel, functioning as communications hub for the Western US and leasing space to over 260 telecom related companies. One Wilshire embodies the invisible physical spatiality supporting the virtual space of telecommunications and networking. This physical spatiality begins with the former monopoly held by AT&T, the corporation that formerly had what amounted to a de facto monopoly on telecommunications in the United States.

In the nineteenth century telephone service was a local product. A central office, inevitably located in the downtown business district, would handle interconnections between calls. In Los Angeles, the central office is the Pacbell switching station at 400 S. Grand, roughly between the Bonaventure and One Wilshire. When long distance was introduced, it terminated at the central office. Long distance calls would be beamed to the microwave tower and distributed to local exchanges. With deregulation in the 1980s, carriers were allowed to make connections to this crucial local interface. Pacbell, however, refused to let carriers either mount antennas on top of their building or install more than the minimum equipment required by law in the central office. This was strategic: Pacbell hoped that one day it would be allowed to compete in the long distance market in exchange for letting other carriers use its wiring from the central office to the handset. This has recently come to pass. To circumvent this restriction, MCI mounted microwave antennas on One Wilshire in 1980s. One Wilshire had the advantage of being one of the tallest buildings in downtown Los Angeles while also being in close proximity to the Pacbell switching station. Seeing a competitor-friendly environment close to the central switching station, long-distance carriers, internet service providers, and other networking companies began to lay fiber to One Wilshire. As fiber technology has improved, the microwave towers on top have dwindled in importance – they are now used by Verizon for connection to its cell phone network. With more and more companies based in One Wilshire, the building managers set up a Meet-Me Room on the fourth floor in which free interconnections could be made between the carriers. Now if a Guatemalan phone card company needs to connect to Sprint, they can simply run a fiber optic interconnect between their routers. Likewise, data networks use the Meet-Me-Room to make peer-to-peer interconnections without costly fees. One Wilshire's function as a major hub in the global network makes it the most expensive real estate in the country, renting out at $250 per square foot.

One Wilshire has also re-shaped its surroundings. As corporations eager to take advantage of high data bandwidth move into or near the tower, over a dozen nearby buildings have been converted to teleco hotels, reviving the real estate market in southwest downtown. But the fiber leading out of One Wilshire remains invisible, its existence demonstrated only by underground service alert notices spray-painted on the street in front of the building. This centralization of information defies predictions that the Internet and new technologies will undo cities. On the contrary, the reliance of contemporary communications on fiber creates a new centrality, a concentration of strategic resources in giant metropolitan areas, or Megacities, acting as command points in the organization of the world economy. The internal telecommunications structure of Megacities itself mirrors that of country-wide territories. Megacities bypass large areas of disconnected local populations. In telecom terms, a fiber-bereft digital desert can easily lie just a mile from One Wilshire. Uneven development will be the rule as the invisible city determines the economy above.[9] The influence of the invisible is most easily understood in the re-development of Wilshire Center, a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown, west of downtown, where perhaps the biggest turnaround in Los Angeles real estate has taken place over the last ten years. During the 1970s and 1980s, offices became vacant as tenants drifted westward to newer, more attractive spaces in west Los Angeles. Poverty increased, the area became less well maintained and crime rose. With offices empty and streets deserted, recovery seemed so improbable Mike Davis aptly called it "the modern high-rise ghost town." [10] Improbably, the area has revived dramatically in the last few years, in large part due to the presence of the existing telecommunications infrastructure. [11]In the late 1980s, expecting that the offices in the area would continue to be viable, Pacific Bell laid down a fiber optic trunk line in the area, creating a three-mile loop from Norton Avenue to Coronado Street and equipping some thirty buildings with fiber optic links. Following the mass exodus of the offices, the fiber lay virtually unused. The inexpensive rents combined with the low cost, high bandwidth pipes lured in telecommunications and new media companies. Office vacancy rates plummeted and rents rose.[12] If late capitalism has been obsessed with the visual and if, after Fred Jameson's essay on postmodernism and the logic of late capitalism, we associate that with the Bonaventure's mirrored exterior, we need to keep in mind that Jameson's real focus was the unmappable hyperspace of the Bonaventure's interior. But even if phenomenologically incomprehensible, Jameson pointed out that the Bonaventure had a clear floor plan. Networks, on the other hand, exceed our ability to map them. As the invisible city grows, its possession by private forces makes it impossible to map. Even if the postmodern hyperspace of the Bonaventure is unmappable by the body, there a legible floor plan can still be found. No such plan exists for networked capital. Diagrams of the Internet and of fiber optic lines are hard impossible to find, if not impossible to find: the data is proprietary, a matter too important for corporations to allow free access to. Moreover, the complexity emerging along with the massive proliferation of connections increasingly makes it hard for even those corporations to understand the dimensions of their world. A floor plan of One Wilshire tells you little about what happens there. The space of global technological flows does not desire to become visual or apparent: perhaps only some spray-paint or a flag in the ground marks the presence of fiber below, sometimes even that is elusive. Information is capital and data on networks is proprietary, a matter too important for corporations to allow free access to. Moreover, the complexity emerging with the massive proliferation of connections increasingly makes it hard even for corporations to understand the dimensions of their world. The management of One Wilshire thinks there are some 1,600 conduits in this stairwell, but they can't be sure. Even for the corporate hive mind, the map has now been exceeded by the hypercomplexity of reality. But what does this suggest? Jameson introduced a series of terms to describe the cultural logic of the late capitalism of his day - the postmodern hyperspace, a lack of affect or depth, a fascination with surface, and cognitive mapping to name a few. I would like to suggest a new set of terms that would not so much supplant Jameson's list as supplement it. The first of these is networked capital: late capitalism has entered a new phase. Data and capital are now inextricably intertwined, creating a new spatiality. Location in telecommunicational space is as important as real space. Second is the importance of the invisible city and the eclipse of form. The shimmering, ghostly computer-generated shapes of recent architecture only detract us from the less visible, but more real, work of programming and organizational processes. One Wilshire's form doesn't matter: what matters is how it's been re-programmed. Ultimately this can be said of the Guggenheim-Bilbao as well: what matters there is not the architecture but the union of governmental, institutional, and capitalist forces producing it. Finally, we have the clouding of capital's lens: it is not only the forlorn subject that is lost in the hyperspace of postmodernity, it is now the corporation as well. What was allegorical in the Bonaventure has now become real at One Wilshire. Screenplay and reality are increasingly the same. Perhaps now, in this era, in which reality TV is relentlessly popular, the task of cognitive mapping lies in a ground in which media and cites, network and economy, substructure and superstructure become inextricable. Architects need to remember that the real operating system lies beneath a slick graphic user interface. Only by engaging the code below can we remain relevant to future cities.

[1] Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London, Verso, 1991), 191.

[2] Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (July/August 1984): 53-92.

[3] Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," 81.

[4] Jameson, 80-83.

[5] See Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, rev ed. (London: NLB Atlantic Highlands Humanities Press, 1975).

[6] Jameson, 89-92.

[7] Lewis Mumford, The City in History, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961), 563-567.

[8] For more on the regime of the invisible, see my article "Breve Historia de la Horizontalidad: 1968/9-2001/2," Pasajes de Arquitectura y CrItica, Marzo 2003, 38-41.

[9] On the role of telecommunications in the rise of the Megacity, two basic texts are Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, (London: Blackwell, 2000), second edition, Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Telecommunications and the City (London: Routledge, 1996), and Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

[10] Mike Davis, Ecology Of Fear: Los Angeles And The Imagination Of Disaster, (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 375-377.

[11] On the adaptation and reuse of existing infrastructures for new purposes and on the role of city centers in development of telematics-rich areas, see Graham and Marvin, 290, 323-324.

[12] Nola L. Sarkisian, "Mid-Wilshire Making a Comeback; Fiber-Optic Cable Line Lures Internet Companies to Area," Los Angeles Business Journal, vol. 21, no. 39, September 1999, 1.