urbanism

On Escape

I promised I'd blog more about our project for the Uneven Growth show, but it took longer than I expected to get around to it. In the meantime, I've refreshed the Web site a little, cleaning up a few links here and there and I discovered a great new event at the Van Alen, recently redesigned by Collective-LOK (which includes my good friend Michael Kubo).

"Ultimate Exit: the Architecture and Urbanism of Tech-Secessionism" is taking place next Thursday December 11. See more here. This promises to be a truly fascinating event with the brilliant architect and theorist who I am priviliged is one of my closest friends, Ed Keller, accelerationist theorist Nick Land, Bitnation CEO Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, Geoff Manaugh of Bldgblog, artist Andrea Crespo, and artist Martti Kalliala whose works, together with Daniel Keller's will be a backdrop for the discussion. I wish I was going, but instead I will be making my own escape, lecturing that evening on the tensile structures of Aleksandra Kasuba at the National Art Gallery of Lithuania. 

The organizers have put up the following text:

Can the titans of tech engineer an escape from government oversight? Initiatives like Seasteading and talk of Silicon Valley’s “ultimate exit” are part of a growing tech-secessionist movement in which a variety of actors from venture capitalists and companies like Google to cloud-based communities of individuals are imagining city-state-like sites escaping state jurisdiction.

What might these enclaves look like? How do the architecture, urbanism, politics and psychology of exit intermingle?

After Manfredo Tafuri and Karl Popper, responsible historians aren't supposed to predict the future, but I'm a bad historian, or at least an irresponsible one, so I do that all too often. The event that I'm going to miss brings to mind another section of our Uneven Growth proposal, our scenario entitled Hong Kong, 2047

Where our collaborators set out with a deligtfully poetic interpretation of the city's future, the Netlab has based our research on demographic and economic projections and we grounded our reading in a scenario based on three key drivers: peak population in Hong Kong and China (and the decline from that peak), the consequent collapse of a strong nationalist center on the mainland, and—most pertinent to the event at the Val Alen—the emergence of powerful city states on the Chinese coasts, led by the model of Hong Kong. 

Nor will this stop in Hong Kong. On the contrary, what we call global cities today will form an archipelago of cities across the world that will increasingly take steps to formalize their status. This will be easy in places like the European Union, where countries are ceding power upwards to the EU or downwards to the region. In places like the PRC or the US, it will be a little trickier, and may require the disappearance of the nation states into broader regional governments or alliances in order to assuage nationalist feelings (after all, the logic goes, if the country expands, maybe some devolution to the rising city-states would be ok…).   

This is only one aspect of escape. Another crucial aspect of escape—which we don't cover in the HK 2047 scenario—is escape from cities themselves, the construction of enclaves outside of cities for various purposes. I've written about enclave urbanism before at some length here, but for now, suffice it to say that that threats of terrorism, contagion, and economic collapse are all prompting the wealthy—and even not so wealthy—to ensure that they have holdouts in the countryside. But even more than that, enclaves of exclusivity are emerging, and are often defined by the difficulties of reaching them. More at that link above.

This is not, I now understand, opposed to city-state urbanism, but rather a constituent part of it. Even as finance pulls out of Manhattan for safer, more nimble and virtual venues, the city-state remains, a massive capital sink or spatial fix and a site of luxurious indulgence for archipelago urbanists.   

Infrastructural Fields

One of my favorite journals, Quaderns has posted an essay that I wrote for them a year ago, entitled "Infrastructural Fields." There, I make the argument that architects need to embrace the new, invisible world of Hertzian space as they design. What are the tools by which we will do this? How will we create an architecture that, as Toyo Ito once stated, can float between the physical and the virtual world? If Ito set out to do this in the Sendai Mediatheque, why have architects been so reluctant to go further? 

Driving in the Smart City

I recently had the opportunity to speak in a session on "Driving in the Smart City" at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona. Below is a recording of an expanded version of the talk that I gave.

As I said in the video, I don't have any specific expertise in the issue of driving in the smart city, but what I have to say in the talk is absolutely crucial to the issues covered in the session, the conference as a whole, and all forms of design.

My thinking about complexity and the dangers it poses for us has been evolving fast lately and I am convinced that this is some of the most important work I've ever done. The message is simple, but the implications are profound. To say "hope you enjoy" would not accurately describe my feelings. Let's try "hope you are moved to action, dialogue, or further reflection" instead.  

 

A Manifesto for Looseness from Kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

On August Disasters

When the collective wisdom is unquestioned, it is a good sign that it is wrong. Take the collapse of the housing crisis, for example, which caught a generation of architects, businesspeople, politicians and economists unawares even though to anyone who bothered to look at the situation, the inevitability of the outcome was plain as day. Unfortunately, its a facet of modern society that people learn little from such mistakes.   

This month's events have me thinking again about some of the gaps in our collective wisdom. We started off with another market crisis triggered by political stalemate, mounting global debts, and reports that economies have run out of steam. None of these are new and should have come as no surprise. Rather this is the sort of stationary state that Gopal Balakrishnan diagnosed as the new status quo back in 2009 in this article. In this condition, the market winds up exploited by profiteers who have little interest in actual investment but rather only in profiting off the swings as this Wall Street Journal piece reports. Capitalism itself is being fundamentally altered under such conditions. Even if, quite obviously, capitalism remains based on investment, when the origin of that investment is increasingly relegated to individually funded pensions (in other words to a class that a scant generation ago was not directly associated with large investment) while the capitalist elite is playing an entirely different game, we have to ask ourselves if network culture isn't breeding an economic mutation that we can scarce appreciate yet.     

But my concern today isn't economics, its the uncritical urban ideology that now dominates thinking in architecture, politics, and urbanism. With the development of network cities in the 1990s and the apparent recovery of cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London, it's easy to be confident that we live in the urban millennium, the age of "the endless city," powered by the net, jet travel, finance, and conspicious consumption of architecture, clothing, and technology. Of course we have reminders like Detroit and New Orleans, but these are supposed to be indicators of the sort of rigid thought that we've left behind long ago. Network culture is supposed to be totally different, right? 

August is traditionally the month that most people in the Northern hemisphere who have the luxury of taking time off depart on vacation. But as Russians know, it is also the month of "the August Curse," the month when people go away to the dacha only to find that the country has collapsed or unthinkable acts of terrorism have taken place. So this year we have another crisis in the market, but we also have Hurricane Irene barrelling toward the East Coast, due to land almost six years to the day after Katrina hit. 

If we're lucky, Irene will turn out to be a non-event, it's greatest harm being making a populace that is convinced nothing will happen to them since they are armed with iPhones feel invincible. But if we're unlucky, it will hit hard. When the city suffered a direct strike in 1893, Manhattan south of Canal Street was flooded and waters rose thirteen feet in an hour where Battery Park City now stands. There's nothing the city has done since then to mitigate this in any serious way so if a storm hits, expect lower Manthattan to look worse than Katrina. Water, of course, seeks the lowes point so a storm surge into the subway system will follow, rapidly overwhelming the system's pumps and—apart from extending service disruptions (at this stage, the MTA expects to shut down in advance of the storm Saturday an noon and not reopen until Monday) will damage and corrode the aged equipment, leading to repairs that might takes months or even years to finish. Commuter rail lines will do little better and perhaps, given the state of Amtrak's lines into Penn Station, even worse, thus crippling commuting into the city for some time to come. One analyst suggests that the hurricane may cause up to $20 billion in direct damages, but the indirect costs of such an event could be much higher, leading to a final death blow for the city's struggling financial industry, already in trouble as the second dip of this decade-long recession gets underway.  

The complexity that we have built into our urban systems is profoundly dangerous. Urban systems are extremely interdependent today and we are less able to operate outside of them than ever. But this applies to our personal lives too. Those who have gotten rid of land lines for cell phones got a little reminder during this week's earthquake of how rapidly such systems are overwhelmed during times of crisis. But even land lines aren't the same anymore, with voltage-carrying copper replaced by cable and fiber and phones that plug into the wall replaced by cordless phones. We are more and more dependent on electricity and on such systems continuing to run. How many of us even have battery-powered radios anymore? Or maps and compasses to evacuate if data communications are down?  

As we saw earlier this year in Japan, modern life can come to a halt rapidly and take a long time to recover. A direct hit by a Category 3 storm on New York or a disaster of similar scale on a major metropolis like Tokyo or London would have major repercussions on the model of high density living that we accept without question today. In that case, this may yet be a century known for urban collapse and reruralization in the developed world. 

The Return of Galt's Gulch, or Enclave Urbanism

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about exurban communities for the ultra-rich that have thrived even as the rest of the real estate market has collapsed. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Keates, who writes on luxury real estate for the paper, looks at the Aspen and other exurban areas inhabited by the super-wealthy. 

If Aspen is the most expensive town in America, it isn't alone; a friend who is an architect in the Hamptons reports that construction for the ultra-rich has barely slowed due to the crash. Budgets? For these the ultra-rich cost doesn't matter. Instead, they set out to build structures that are modelled less on vacation homes and more on resorts. Forget Dubai, everyone knew that was a bubble: the real money goes to places that don't need to advertise. 

For some time now, I've been warning that uncritically worshipping city life (or rather, the increasingly bland Starbucks blend that passes for life in global cities like New York, Los Angeles, or London) blinds us to the real changes and problems such communities face. Although some of these—like the lack of economic diversity and growing homogeneity—appear to hardly be of interest to urban boosters, the development of exurban enclaves should be.

Radical change doesn't just happen in booms, it also happens in crises and recessions. During the protracted crisis that will define this decade, we should watch the continued streamlining of upper-middle class jobs, particularly jobs in finance. The working class has long since lost the living wages they used to earn from factories. Now it's time for people like lawyers and accountants to find themselves automated out of jobs, as the New York Times reports. In Liquidated, Karen Ho points out that financial industries—the same financial industries that urban boosters rely upon for their vision of the creative city—see employees as costs to be cut. Times columnist, economist, and Princeton professor Paul Krugman is alarmed by this trend and wonders aloud if university educations are really worth it anymore in both this piece and this one.

The future won't be kind to global cities when this key group of inhabitants find themselves out of jobs. Certainly the kind of urban unrest that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s is likely, not from unemployed lawyers (though perhaps from their children who will face a bleak future) but from the massive underclass of service workers who will find themselves out of work. Many cities will also age, as baby boomers who have invested in real estate (apartment prices in New York can only go up!) will find themselves unable to sell their apartments at acceptable rates. 

The exodus of financial industries to places like Greenwich (note that it's mentioned in Keates's article) will continue and perhaps even accelerate (I have reason to believe that the construction of the NYSE facility in Mahwah is a step toward bringing financial capital industries to New Jersey) with offices in cities reduced to centers for wealth managers to meet with clients. But note also that Keates points to the growth of financial industries in Aspen. Few cities can boast financial services firms managing $775 million, but Aspen can. The sort of face-to-face deals that used to take place in the boardrooms and restaurants in the city may now take place away from prying eyes in Aspen or Sagaponack. Note the inversion from the usual logic of the global city in both of these cases: rather than being located near airports, they are located far from them. As Keates points out, it keeps the tourists away. Similarly, one of the main selling points of the Hamptons is the private airport at East Hampton. While tourists are stuck in traffic for hours, the ultra-rich fly overhead, their identities unknown.   

In the January cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, Chrystia Freeland looks at the growth of the ultra-rich and their increasing distance from us. Freeland reminds us of Galt's Gulch, a Rocky Mountain that Ayn Rand—that author so beloved by architects—had envisioned for the super-rich in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Freeland concludes that, historically speaking at least, Galt's Gulch is unsustainable and the super-rich will have to either violently suppress the rest of society or give up some of their wealth. This remains to be seen. The uprisings in Egypt and Libya may only be the beginning of a global protest by the disenfranchised middle class against the growing inequality in society.

Remember, it's not just Communists and Socialists who argue against such positions. For most of capitalism's history, excess concentration of wealth and the growth of monopolies were seen as obstacles to growth by capitalists themselves. 

But Galt's Gulch is seeming awfully real these days and is showing little signs of going away any time soon. Watch this space for developments.

Aerotropolis, The Way Most of Us Won't Live

Time to bring aerotropolis down to earth. The publication of a new book, Aerotropolis by journalist Greg Lindsay and academic John Karsada has prompted a flurry of chatter this weekend. Go read an excerpt at the Financial Times if you want.

Cities of the future, so the argument goes, will be based around airports. We live in a society dominated by instant gratification and since airports connect us up to the places we want to go to and the goods we want. It's a neat idea, really, appealing to the technophile in us and building on the idea of the global city that has dominated urban life in the last couple of decades.

But as Rowan Moore suggests in his review for the Guardian, "The really interesting question is why the true aerotropolis, despite compelling reasons for its existence, is taking so long to get off the ground."

The answer is that the Aerotropolis is already here and it's really not all that exciting. I went on two international flights in the last two weeks. Newark International Airport is about a half hour drive from the apartment I rent while La Guardia is about a half hour cab ride from Columbia. Do I really need to be closer? Could I really be closer, like the inhabitants of Kowloon Walled City who had jets pass by a hundred meters overhead? 

No. I am far enough away that I don't hear the noise from the planes too often, don't viscerally experience the pollution, and don't feel something is going to crash on my head. Instant gratification? Instant gratification is sitting here with my stereo on and writing for you, dear reader, on my laptop. Like many people my age who've achieved some degree of success, I travel way too often and I have little desire to get on a plane and go somewhere twenty minutes from now. When I travel, it's generally for business purposes. Moreover, even if I wanted to go somewhere twenty minutes from now, the pricing structure of airline tickets and airline schedules prevents me from taking the next flight to Casablanca. 

And don't forget the very real health cost. Even though I got upgraded to business class on my last flight out, I wound up having the worst pain of my life on the descent in my upper right jaw. Maybe it was my sinuses reacting to the decompression? Either way, it shook me badly. On the flight back, I spoke to my seatmate who is a nurse and she talked about patients who had died from deep vein thrombosis from plane flights. Other friends wound up quarantined in China during the Bird Flu epidemic. Modern plane flight is really a wonder, isn't it?  

As far as packages, they already wing their way to me rather effortlessly. If I something is sent to my via Fedex, it's here tomorrow. Heck, if I lived almost anywhere in the country, I could get UPS and Fedex to deliver overnight. A block away, a Fedex box lets me ship something worldwide as late as 7:30 in the evening. 

But then there's the brutal fact of peak oil. We are going to run out of low cost energy in this century. Let's do a little math. Let's say an SUV gets an average of 16 miles per gallon. There are some worse ones out there and there are some better ones out there, for example the new breed of hybrids that get 32 miles per gallon. But 16 seems like a reasonable compromise. A reasonable single-aisle airplane, like an Airbus A320 gets 77 miles per gallon (see here). An average SUV probably drives 13,000 miles a year. That's roughly 812 gallons a year or 62,000 miles by air, ten trips from New York to London and not enough to get Platinum Elite status on Continental. Yes, you've travelled many more miles on that gas, but you've also traveled many more miles: you're not going to drive your SUV 62,000 miles a year to work and back. Moreover, when oil goes over $150 a barrel, our gas guzzling exurbanite can always sell her SUV, buy a Prius and move closer to work. Her aerotropolis-bound colleague has no alternative. 

Now many of my colleagues are subscribers to the new urban ideology, cheerfully proclaiming how they don't have cars yet they jet off to Shanghai, Los Angeles (in which case, just what do they do? have friends drive them?), and London every other week. Make no mistake, they are just as vulnerable to peak oil as the exurbanites. But somehow we are told that exurban communities are doomed and aerotropolises are the wave of the future? It just doesn't add up.

Both are the products of peak oil and both are doomed in the long run unless we come up with alternative fuel technologies. Let's face it, there's been little progress there so far, although surely anything is possible. We are likely to see a few new aerotropolises built by technophilic politicians and continued growth around specific airports. It's a catchy idea that's easily summed up. Add a few Zaha Hadid designed windmills and you can probably get newspaper critics excited too. But for the most part, the aerotropolis is already here and most of us live in it.

I, for one, am thrilled that I'm not getting back on a plane for another month and will have a chance to give you an idea of what might really happen in cities during this century in the intervening time. 

 

Blueprints for a Better 'Burb

The collaborative entry between the Network Architecture Lab and Park for the Build a Better Burb competition is featured in the New York Times today in an article by Alison Arieff titled "Blueprints for a Better 'Burb."

During the first four (!) years of work at the Netlab, I wanted to focus on analysis. This summer, I felt that we were finally ready to undertake design work.

We have the best team yet at the Netlab—Leigha Dennis, Kyle Hovenkotter, Momo Araki, and Alexis Burson were the members who worked on this—and Will Prince, principal of Park, was a great partner. 

Get ready for more. Soon. In the meantime, take a look at revised version of our proposal, either in PDF form here or in the video below. And please vote for us on the site (here).

 

  


 

On Fetishism and the City

After years of hearing that Marxism has nothing to say about the economy,  even that bastion of new economy neoliberalism, Fast Company, is turning to Marxism to make some sense of the mess. In "David Harvey's Urban Manifesto: Down With Suburbia; Down With Bloomberg's New York," Fast Company's Greg Lindsay recounts some of Harvey's recent thinking on the economy and the suburbanization of the city.

My only quibble is that Harvey doesn't give us enough credit when he says (in the admittedly out-of-context quote): "We're all suburbanites now, without knowing it," he said. "We're all neoliberals now, without knowing it."*

I think we know full well. As Octave Mannoni, French Lacanian psychoanalyst, said of fetishism, "I know very well but nevertheless…" And what else is the urban hipster, that contemporary flâneur, but a fetishist? 

*One more quibble: once again, the term suburbanite is not really serving us well anymore. But I'll admit that it is a convenient shorthand. 

The Dangers of Diffusion

 

I've previously written about the dangers facing cities in the upcoming economic collapse. Even as some "urbanists" are naïvely predicting that city cores will only strengthen during the coming decade as suburbs decline, cities face many hurdles. One is that second cities, both in the US and abroad are subject to a network effect, being left behind by a few more powerful brethren that get all the press. Been to Buffalo, Detroit, Utica, Syracuse, Albany, Newark or Paterson lately? Cities are a basket case.

But let's give equal opportunity to suburbs. Poverty has been dramatically increasing in suburbs during the last two decades. Take this piece on 18 Cities Whose Suburbs Are Rapidly Turning into Slums. Why is this happening? Certainly, in some cases, like New York, the poor are being priced out of cities. Instead of putting on our party hats and kazoos, as many urbanists seem to want, we should ask if this new form of out-of-sight/out-of-mind segregation isn't  evil. But that's not the only reason. 

Certainly part of it is the collapse of the US economy since the late 1960s, but there's more. Take a look at this article by Hanna Rosen from 2008 in the Atlantic Monthly in which she links the diffusion of poverty to government programs to get rid of the projects. As areas of concentrated poverty in cities are undone, poverty diffuses into a broader territory both within suburbs and within second cities (as in the case of Memphis, which is her focus).  

Network City is a complex place, a palimpsest of failed neoliberalist and Fordist policies. Unfortunately it is also not a very happy place, either, once you get past the shiny bits. 

 

On Hipster Urbanism

Over at Fantastic Journal, Charles Holland writes about hipster urbanism, comparing the High Line, which turns infrastructure into tourism with the reopening of a train line in east London as…get this: a train line.

Hipster urbanism is hardly rare anymore. A short while back, I enjoyed a stroll on the Walkway Over the Hudson, a former railroad bridge in upstate New York. Near where I live in New Jersey a project is underway for a train line that leads into Hoboken. The idea of building a bike path to the city is laudable. After all, I could get a Brompton and ride to the PATH train and head to Studio-X. But note that not only do trains still use the line, the train company that owns it expects that use will expand in the next few years. So is riding my bike to the city really the best use of the line? Maybe industry is old hat? 

[Walkway over the Hudson]

In the countries once known as the developed world, we've replaced productivity with tourism. This is a prime difference between modernism and its successors, postmodernism and network culture. Few modernists could have understood relinquishing production. Think of Tony Garnier's fabulous Une Cité Industrielle, for example. Today, however, industry plays little role in (formerly) developed economies like the United States or the United Kingdom. In the case of the former, where finance generated roughly 12% of the GDP in 1980 and industry generated around twice that, today the figures are reversed… and this has only been exacerbated by the economic crisis. 

Remember the Roger Rabbit conspiracy theories that General Motors paid to destroy the train system to favor the automobile? It's hardly so simple, but surely as we are heading into a new century, we wouldn't want to exacerbate those mistakes, would we?  

 

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