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. 

 

Continue reading “Aerotropolis, The Way Most of Us Won’t Live”

New City Reader US Sales Launch

US residents can now purchase the New City Reader for $35 on this Web site. Go to http://varnelis.net/shop/new_city_reader for your copy. 

We haven't forgotten about overseas readers, but we need to figure out a few things (customs forms, specific shipping rates) before international sales are ready for prime time. You can guess who is putting the Web sale interface together (me) and as I'm out of town from Wednesday to Saturday, it'll likely be next week before the New City Reader is ready for international sales and an official launch. 

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Only Appearances

After a lengthy hiatus, I have updated my "appearances" page. I hope to be a little better about keeping up with myself in the future and maybe I can even up my pace of blogging a bit. Communicating with my online readership over the last eleven years has always been one of the great delights of my career.

When I don't do it, it's generally because I'm too battered by all my other committments, a state I'd really rather not be in, at least not most of the time.    

I've managed five posts in a week now and I'll try to keep them coming. 

Continue reading “Only Appearances”

Almost Anything

I had the great pleasure of participating in "Thinking Big: Diagrams, Mediascapes and Megastructures," a symposium on the work of Kevin Roche this past week. Sometimes people seem to be surprised that I'm interested in late modernism, or "corporate" architecture from the 1970s. Now, to be sure there's some degree of nostalgia there for me, but I think my talk makes some links between then and now that should explain some of those interests. I'm publishing it on my site in hopes that you'll enjoy and give me comments. 

 

Almost Anything

Kevin Roche and Late Modernism

In this talk I want to situate Kevin Roche’s work of the 1970s and 1980s within a theoretical context of late modernism.

The commonly accepted narrative for the history of postwar American architecture goes roughly as follows. During the 1960s, modern architecture—having identified too closely with big business and big government—ran aground. Only the experimentation of the New York Five, together with the development of postmodernism, got the discipline back on track. Obviously, such heroic narratives should always be regarded with suspicion.

In that history, late modernism barely warrants a mention except as a sort of zombie that continued after its time was up. It’s easy to convince yourself of this, take a look at the pages of Oppositions, the key critical journal of the day. It’s nowhere to be found. In one of the few works on the topic, Charles Jencks describes the Late Modernists as having “taken the theories and style of their precursors to an extreme and in so doing produced an elaborated or mannered Modernism.”[1] In contrast to the postmodernists who produced buildings employing more conventional, historical allusions to form, Jencks argued, the late moderns limited their efforts to exaggerating the structure or technological image of a building.[2]

But I think we can come to a more theoretically sound definition of Late Modernism than Jencks’s stylistic classification. If late modern comes after the exhaustion of the modern theoretical position, the cause is different than Jencks suggests. In the Architecture of Good Intentions, Colin Rowe points out that although modern architecture claimed to be based on reason, its adherents adopted a messianic conviction in the “good news” of its coming.[3] Conveniently, Kevin Roche confirms this:

I grew up against a very Catholic background, in which one lived constantly in the fear of sin, sin which would destroy one. … What Mies did was to translate this feeling into architectural terms. He really created the idea of mortal sin in architecture and that there was a right way to do something and there was a wrong way. The wrong way was a loss of life. The right way was beautiful, divine. A world of absolute black and absolute white.[4]

Now the generally accepted narrative suggests modernism failed, that the People’s Temple of modernism, too caught up in messianic fervor, annihilated itself.

But what if the break with modernism isn’t because it failed but because it succeeded?

I find it useful to employ T. J. Clark’s suggestion that modernism prophesized, even demanded the modernization of the world.[5] Once modernism had won, sometime around the year 1960, something changed. Proclaiming the “good news” simply became passé. It might be possible, then, to associate this condition with the problem of the “end of ideology,” as pronounced by Daniel Bell for political history, also around that date.[6] All this is of course also rather similar to the postwar economic condition that Ernest Mandel calls “late capitalism.” In Mandel’s reading, a postwar economy based on a third technological wave of information electronics but also, crucially on the thorough penetration of the world by capital.

In other words, Mandel’s late capitalism fits quite well with Clark’s observation that about the thorough modernization of the world. If in Fredric Jameson’s reading, capitalism’s thorough colonization of the world produces the cultural logic of postmodernism, what I want to argue here is that postmodernism is not the only logic of late capitalism, that late modernism is also a cultural logic of late capitalism and should be understood as such.

Read in the light of historical necessity, then, the critiques leveled against the conformist, rationalist structures of Fordist business and the functional structures of modernism can be understood not merely as reactions to an oppressive moment but also as internal critiques that allowed capitalism to make the transition to Post-Fordist organizational (and architectural) structures able to thrive in the more difficult environment of late capitalism.[7]

So where does Roche fit into this? If he inherits a high modernist firm, as he hits his stride in the1970s, in the series of projects following the Ford Foundation, he makes a fundamental break with high modernism. Now by that point, Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities was already over a decade old and Philip Johnson’s break with Mies and functionalism was past history. Even Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction could be commonly found, if not on top of student desks, hidden underneath them. So what is Roche’s break and how is it different?

Let’s look at a few Roche buildings. Take the College Life Insurance Company Headquarters, the United Nations Plaza, the projects for downtown Houston and Denver designed for Gerald D. Hines, or the John Deere educational center.

Don't spend much time looking at these. Look fast. 

college lifeun plaza

projects for houston and denverJohn Deere

In passing, you will have observed two things: simple, geometric forms and structures that might seem to be informed by postmodernism. But Roche is up to something else entirely. In the interview with Francesco dal Co in the 1985 monograph of his work, Roche reflects on the skyscraper, explaining “There is no indigenous form to the high-rise building. It has no essential form. It literally can be almost anything. The technology is such that without the expenditure of additional money it can be almost anything.”[8] We can confirm this isn’t off the cuff by observing that Roche employs nearly identical phrasing in “Statements for History,” a 1984 tape made for Monica Pidgeon, suggesting that “…one of the characteristics of a high rise building is that there is almost no preordained form for it. It can be almost anything you wish it to be because the engineering is such that it is as easy to build it one way as another.”[9]

In other words, advances in building technology allow Roche to let form and function to go their separate ways. Still for an architect educated in modernism, this might appear to be a vertiginous condition. If the primary dictum of modernism no longer held, then on what basis would it be possible to design?

Roche responds that the architect needs to turn to identity, to produce a distinctive building that can provide an identity for a corporation. But matters are complicated by the late modern condition. For one, the growing automobility in American culture determines the ways in which buildings are perceived. Roche explains of College Life Insurance,

 “we have about 3 seconds to identify some kind of an image for the building group so this is a rather strong formalist image of a glass building with rather solid concrete walls. It is of course entirely functional but it is arranged in such a way as to be an arresting combination of forms…”[10]

 

Of General Foods, he explains,

“the few seconds that you have to see this building, it’s on axis of a major highway in new york state and as you barrel down the highway you suddenly round the corner and there’s this building and you say to yourself well what is this and it clearly isn’t a warehouse it clearly isn’t a church it is something else and that something else we then try to identify with the company and with the headquarters function very much in the sense that the castle or the chateau in France is an administrative center for the community the modern corporation is a kind of administrative center for a different community, it is a place where you have an organized structure, it has a presence on the landscape which is very similar.”[11]

Contrast this with Jencks and Robert Venturi, even Peter Eisenman, who argue for a sustained reading of a building to fully understand it. Instead of complexity and multivalency or contradiction and double-coding, Roche argues for rapid legibility.

But not every Roche project is meant for high-speed viewing. How do we explain United Nations Plaza or the Federal Reserve Bank?

We can shed light on Roche’s strategies and their difference from both modernism and postmodernism by turning to the theories of Marshall McLuhan. For McLuhan, of course, the saturation of post-1960s society suggests a shift from Hot to Cool, that is from media that demand high levels of attention to media that demand lower levels of attention, from media of high definition to media of low definition.

If this seems like reaching, let’s turn to Roche again.

… we are competing in world in which it is very difficult to penetrate the mist of images, and the perception of people is fogged substantially by the multiple images that they have to deal with. Because of this it is necessary at times, as it always is in art, to overstate the case in order to penetrate the fog.

… One frequently feels the need to overstate, in order to make a point at all, because if you make a point which is understated, it is very difficult for it to reach its audience; the noise level may be a little too low. That is a problem with all architecture today. Sometimes I choose to overstate, particularly when dealing with the highway and the automobile and the passing moment.”[12]

In the oversaturated city, images come at you fast. This is architecture comes at you fast, but is overstated, thus leaving an afterimpression.

Now if at this point also Roche produces forms we would commonly identify as historicist, they are subject to the same seamless treatment that the works we would identify as sculptural are. So whereas the postmodernists reanimate historical forms, Roche unloads them, not to exalt them but to reduce them. Thus, in discussing the UN Plaza and the Morgan Bank, he states

They are both buildings which have usable floors that go to a certain number of stories in height. They have mechanical equipment. They have all the right dimensions. So, what is the appropriate expression? In one case, it was derived from minimal sculpture, in the other it was derived from a more historic, more refined kind of architectural geometry—the geometry of the column, which has a base, a shaft and a top. They are both the same building, you could exchange the interiors.[13]

 

The column, which Roche first explores in depth at the Central Park Zoo, emerges, he states,

from the simple idea of chamfering a piece of stone to create a base and top between a brick shaft, and apply[ing] that form to a larger scale building…The columnar form that we are working with is a minimalist columnar form. It is as abstract as the form of the U.N. Plaza. … The Denver and Houston projects are very simple forms. Just a modernist box with a few cuts which switch the character entirely. It’s very interesting—if you start with a box, put a skin on it—it is a typical building from the fifties or sixties. Now nick the corners to imply a base and the same to imply a top, and if you slope the top a roof is created. But it is still minimalist sculpture. It is the same aesthetic. It is just a slight in language—quite different from the traditional skyscraper form.[14]

Rather than taking the postmodern turn, what Roche is up to in these buildings is closer to what Claus Oldenburg does, producing legible, overscaled pieces (indeed, once again Roche beats me to the point, identifying Oldenburg as a parallel to his work).

Roche’s cool shaping thus anticipates the iconic structures so popular today among architects like Kazuyo Sejima, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas.

 

But not always. As Eeva pointed out, in structures like Richardson Vicks or Union Carbide, the client had no interest in an interface with the public so visual appearance gave way, producing anti-architecture, some of the more extreme versions of infrastructural architecture to date.

Still, such projects were not removed from mediation. Of Union Carbide, Roche explains.

Most suburbanites live in houses which have attached garages. In this arrangement, when they leave for work in the morning, walk through the kitchen, get into their car, drive into the building, get out and into their office—[you get] an immediate connection between their home and office.

union carbide

Now Roche sends us for a twist. He continues.

Which raises an interesting question. Can we anticipate that with the development of electronic communications, that in the very near future there will be no need at all for people to get together in office buildings? Will people simply stay at home and save themselves all the trouble of traveling? Almost in anticipation of that, what we have done is take the library or den out of the home and put it in the office building. These offices are really a collection of private dens or little workspaces attached by the umbilical of the car, to the home now, but in the near future, maybe attached by the umbilical of electronic communications to the headquarters, and the headquarters, in fact, would become just the center of electronic communications.[15]

Roche elaborates

“…many of the things we did at Carbide, we did also at General Foods. But there is a fundamental difference between them and that is that Carbide has no exterior image for the employee. It is in a sense a transfer of a living room or working space from home into a treehouse in the woods. The umbilical being the automobile. General Foods is a more positive place of arrival. It is a place that is written in your memory on the outside, a more traditional expectation; it is done for the automobile. There is a front door and you drive into it. … Carbide could have been built as General Foods or vice versa. It wasn’t appropriate to do so … because Union Carbide did not want such a presence. General Foods couldn’t avoid it. It had a smaller site out on a  highway. They couldn’t avoid being seen. They had to be seen.[16]

At Carbide the worker goes from television screen to computer screen by means of the windshield, the building compresses into infrastructure. Hidden in the woods, Carbide is a step along the way to a network culture, to a re-envisioning of architecture as media and electronic technology that a future generation will have to take on.

 



[1]
Charles Jencks, Late-Modern Architecture and Other Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 10.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Colin Rowe, The Architecture of Good Intentions. Towards a Possible Retrospect, (London: Academy Editions, 1994).

[4] Kevin Roche and Francesco Dal Co, Kevin Roche (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 20.

[5] T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[6] Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology; On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, (Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press, 1960).

[7] Compare with Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[8] Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 38.

[9] Kevin Roche, Statements for History (London: Pidgeon Audio Visual, 1984), Sound Recording.

[10] Roche, “Statements for History”

[11] Roche, “Statements for History”

[12] Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 72.

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 64.

Continue reading “Almost Anything”

On the Urban Ideology

Preliminary census figures for Chicago during the last decade are in and they are not pretty. The city's population has dropped to levels not seen since 1920. As the most notoriously segregrated city in the country celebrated the forceable eviction of the last tenants from the notorious Cabrini Green housing projects and plotted to tear down Robert Taylor homes, African Americans left the city en masse. In 2000 there were 1,065,009 African Americans in the city. In 2010 there were 887,608. Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

 

I've written before about the tremendous danger that the new "urban ideology" poses to us (for example, in encouraging the segregation of the poor into suburbs, e.g. American favelas and the homogenization of the contemporary city). The model of the "city as a luxury product" advocated by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is unjust.

Standing downtown next to the Bean, the city's symbol of its reincarnation as a creative, global city, designed by British-Indian born Anish Kapoor, it's easy to think that the city is a better place.* In some sense, I suppose it is, but in other ways, it's not, the Bean could as easily be seen as the symbol of a globalized, high-tech, élite global culture. 

When will we, as architects, urban designers, and urban planners care about this again?  

*Disclaimer… Kapoor is one of my favorite artists, so perhaps this is a little unfair, but so it is. 

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On Writing Fiction These Days

Bret Easton Ellis gives an informative interview on what it means to write books these days over at Bigthink.com.

I think that Ellis is right, that portable formats such as the Kindle are not yet fully developed as reading devices (the lack of page numbers makes them unsuitable for academics and Amazon's strange delivery pricing means that publishers are loathe to include illustrations), but suggests they are already changing readership and not necessarily for the worse.

Most interesting to me, however, was Ellis's discussion of how word processing allowed authors like David Foster Wallace to achieve lengthy, extensively footnoted works more easily. 

Ellis writes: 

… when I look at a lot of fiction now and how dreary a lot of it is—and also not only how dreary a lot of it is but also I think our collective impatience with fiction, like just holding a book that's just full of words about a made-up situation, made-up characters. I mean, I think we now live in a society where we want more of that, what you're talking about.  More of an interactive experience.  We want to see images.  We want to see a lot more of a lights show or something.  That makes sense to me and I think that can be incredibly exciting.  So once that really does start happening I don't know, that could even possibly reenergize my faith in fiction.

I've argued before that fiction lost a tremendous amount of steam in the last two decades and I think that to some degree he's right. Still, this smacks of the age-old indictment of the visual and the spectacular. To me, the Internet is largely a textual experience, punctuated by imagery but far from the largely textless world of television. My sense is that the connections the Internet provides, both to people we know and to people who we don't know but with whom we share taste cultures, are more of the culprit. Why indulge in another fantasy life when you can indulge in your own? In that sense, network culture encourages an interest in what I call "immediated reality," and fiction pays the price.   

Moreover, as I argue in the Network Culture project, subjectivity is changing, away from a model of interiority toward a more modulated, schizophrenic existence in which we are composed by flows. If the centered subject emerged with the novel, then we shouldn't be surprised that the novel proves less compelling as that centered subject dissipates.  

I suspect that the Internet is also changing fiction writing in terms of research. On the one hand, the easy of retrieving information about virtually anything today can produce the sort of intensity we see in William Gibson's Zero History trilogy. On the other hand, it means that such books are subject to collective increased scrutiny as readers band together to uncover the sources of such knowledge.

I'm working on material like this in the Network Culture book and once this crazy month is over hope to have a chance to return to it with renewed energy.

PS

Yes, against all odds, I'm trying to post more, but I should probably not acknowledge that since I'm so likely to fail.   

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Against Print

I don't see how can I avoid sounding like an ogre or troll in this post but there's no sense in writing for print anymore. 

I'm faced with a huge amount of work on my plate and something has to what give. Since I'm already spending too little time on the blog and my book, I have to find something to cut. The victim is the print-only journal. I wish it well.

Network culture begins with a condition of information overload. Having grown up in a house with a massive library, I can appreciate the desire to have books and journals at hand and I sought to emulate my father in collecting for a while, but gave it up almost a decade ago. Objects consume scarce resources and space. Books and journals are still the worst offenders in my house. Even as cull them without mercy, they pile up around me, largely unread, passed by in a day when there's too much to do. 

Let's face it, a personal library is the academic's version of an SUV. It's handy for when you need it, but it's big and unwieldy, a poor choice when it comes to ecology and not a defensible option in a world of limits except for those who really, truly need them.  

The journals that I read regularly—the New Left Review, Mute Magazine, Eurozine, and Domus (to name a select few)—are already on the Net. There are few print-only publications and I read none of them regularly. Fetish objects like the New City Reader, Junk Jet, Volume, or Loud Paper generally wind up on the Internet in reduced or pirated form. You have to pay—or otherwise seek out—the original format if that's what you want, but the content is there for the taking.

Google books makes it possible to search through new and old books alike while pirate book sites mean that it's easy to carry thousands of books in a laptop. Pirating may be illegal now, but it's thriving—take the book scanning movement, for example—and is just the faintest ripple in the surface of the ocean before the tides pull back and then the tsumani hits.

If not in this decade, then surely within two decades virtually all publishers—book, journal, and newspaper will provide universities with everything they publish in digital form. Within that time, as I pointed out at the CCA on Thursday, most archives will also be online.  

A book or journal that in print form only is inadequate for our age. It cannot be properly searched. Hand-made indices have some degree of utility, but no matter how intelligent the maker of the index was, remain reductive, the product of one mind that can't adequately foresee everything the text will be used for. Full-text search is revolutionary for scholarship.  

Then there's portability. Like so many of my colleagues, I travel frequently, both overseas and across the Hudson to Columbia. I clung to slides until 2006 when travelling to Ireland to teach made that impossible. Books are the same. It's entirely different to have my library at my fingertips as I type.

But is this historian's desire so new? While teaching in Brazil, Braudel would visit Europe periodically and employ microfilm to record material in archives for later references. I'm confident that if Benjamin were alive today, he'd be surfing book pirate Web sites instead of frequenting old bookstores, collecting PDFs in his laptop, just in case the sites wind up shut down.

Moreover, there's another ethical question, beyond the viability of publishers which I suspect will survive in this new world (printing presses, may be another matter). A friend once told me that while she was teaching in South America, she translated my texts for her students. At the time, she explained, my work was just about the only informed commentary on contemporary architecture available online and her university lacked the funds to acquire books and journals or pay for access to material behind paywalls. Her message hit home: print publications and paywalls maintain a global imbalance of intellectual resources.     

There's nothing more tiresome than the aged (or young) scholar lamenting the lack of intellectual rigor online. Surely such learned individuals have heard of the Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim who published his De laude scriptorum manualium, defending the tradition of script against the printing press in 1492? Our fields were hardly more rigorous in the postmodern 1980s or the post-structuralist 1990s let alone the heroic era of the 1920s. Plenty of material not worth the ink and paper it cost to print was published back then. 

Instead of lamenting print, let's work together to break down paywalls, physical or electronic. Those of us in the academy are not in the business of knowledge, we're in a community of knowledge, a community that transcends old limits. Let's embrace that.  

 

 

 

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