Reading Megalopolis (at train 99 bos-nyc)

Reading Megalopolis (at train 99 bos-nyc)

Peepers, Flashers, and Other Law Breakers


The Netlab explores architecture, networks, privacy, voyeurism, and exposure on Monday, February 11, 2013 6:30pm in Columbia University's Wood Auditorium.

Since the Enlightenment, both architecture and the law have provided parallel and often complimentary definitions of the public and private. Under network culture, however, walls have a new permeability and laws have a new instability. Amidst all this, our own perception of what constitutes private life is changing with our use of online social networks.
Leaders in architecture, digital media, and the law take on this rapidly changing landscape in a wide-ranging conversation on privacy, self-exposure, and space.
Beatriz Colomina,  Princeton University SOA
Eric Höweler, Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Helen Nissenbaum, NYU Information Law Institute
Mark Shepard, University of Buffalo
Kazys Varnelis, Columbia University GSAPP

Pitchfork: Where do you think the world will be in 50 years...

Pitchfork: Where do you think the world will be in 50 years time?

AG: When I genetically engineer my child from a test tube, I want them to have big eyes.

(via Interviews: Crystal Castles | Features | Pitchfork)

Now what?

If “technology is our modernity,” now what? 

"The core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information… The real purpose of a..."

“The core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information… The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners.” -

notational: Richard Gunderman makes a case against the alleged death of the lecture as an education format. What he argues for instead is reminiscent of Alain de Botton’s notion of the secular sermon.  (via explore-blog)

Studio 2013: Building Megalopolis


Extreme Cities: Building Megalopolis

Spring 2013
Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Network Architecture Lab

Instructor:              Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Associate:             Leigha Dennis

This studio is part of the Extreme Cities collaboration between the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and Audi AG. Not merely content with the extra-large, our aims are the extreme future, the megalopolis, and the megaform.

Developed out of the Experiments in Motion program, Extreme Cities begins with the observation that cities will intensify considerably during the next fifty years. Instead of the usual mindset seeing the growth of global cities as an overwhelming set of seemingly unmanageable problems, this project sets out to take this intensification to an extreme. In doing so, we will interrogate both the past and the distant future, with the aim of having students envision unprecedented building types for the year 2063.

The studio’s site is the world’s first megalopolis, BOSWASH. In his 1961 book Megalopolis; the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottmann identified this territory as an unending conurbation of cities, satellites, and suburbs stretching from Boston to Washington D.C., For Gottmann, the megalopolis is “the cradle of a new order in the organization of inhabited spaces,” a territory in which any distinction of city and country is gone, but also a territory that is dominantly suburban.[1] Dubbing the area BOSWASH in his 1967 book the Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years, scenario planner Herman Kahn predicted that the area would reach a population of 80 million by the year 2000, up from 37 million in 1960. Kahn’s term stuck but his prediction was mistaken, missing the massive migration of population to the South and West, and a warning sign to us that prediction is a dangerous business. Architecture studio, of course, is dangerous business.

Thus, if BOSWASH is our physical site, the studio’s temporal site is in both the past and the future. We aim to go back fifty years into the past, to the era of Gottmann and Kahn, as well as fifty years into the future, to a time when current GSAPP students will reach an age traditionally considered as elderly. Doing so will unsettle our conceptions about architecture and cities, allowing us to think beyond the atemporality of contemporary culture and the limitations of contemporary thought.

Semester Plan

We will begin the semester with a historical research project into the development of BOSWASH.

Our premise is that the fifteen years between 1961 and 1976, traditionally seen as an era of decline were in fact a rich time in terms of thinking about the future of cities and particularly so in BOSWASH. In addition to Gottmann’s work, the research of BOSWASH-based scholars and designers such as Jane Jacobs, Herbert Gans, Kevin Lynch, Venturi-Scott-Brown, Stanley Milgram, William H. Whyte, Paul Rudolph, Kevin Roche, Robert Smithson, and Gordon-Matta Clark proved critical to establishing new thinking about the city. We start off with a survey of both, producing a timeline of the megalopolis and also a dictionary of urban qualities.

For our survey, we will take repeated forays into the nearby areas of BOSWASH, visiting the Empire State Plaza in Albany (one of America’s largest megastructures and an attempt to create a link to BOSWASH that is generally considered to have failed), Union Carbide Headquarters in Danbury, and take repeated forays into New York City. Our goal is to investigate architectural interventions that reflect specific qualities of the city, engage in the region, and anticipate a future, particularly those that Kenneth Frampton has identified as megaforms, an architectural genre of massive sprawling horizontality that he sees as native to the megalopolis.[2]

During the first half of the semester, each student will examine one project in this region and timeframe in extreme depth and identify the governing urban quality in it. If the Ford Foundation exemplifies generosity, which projects demonstrate mobility, asymmetry, complexity, or cosmopolitanism?

Students will be required to produce two well-developed drawings of publication-level quality that address the architectural project through project-specific analyses. Some projects may have remarkable circulation and crowd patterns, space planning, environmental systems, etc. These drawings should be produced over time, developing throughout the first half of the semester, as more information is unearthed and will be simultaneously oversaturated with information and rigorous restrained (in other words, you will find out so much utterly amazing information that even though you will only add the information you cannot resist adding, there will be a lot of it). Students should look to the representational techniques that their projects’ architects and others produced for inspiration. Grand exterior axonometric drawings, intricate multi-layered plans and analog data visualizations will become common tools for representing projects of the megalopolis.

Accompanying this, students will collect a dossier of information on the single urban quality embodied within their project. Using photography and film, they will capture evidence of this quality within the present day city. Students will situate this data in the form of a timeline that examines the temporal dimensions of their quality and its architectural, urban and social implications.

This historical research will act as the basis for the second half of the studio in which students will extrapolate a new building type. This time, projecting fifty years into the future, students will produce a new architecture typology that reflects and aids the changing characteristics of the radically intensified megalopolis of 2063. These future projects must have a timeline of their own, and should demonstrate a nonlinear intensification of multiple urban conditions while embracing one urban quality.


Course Blog

Students will be expected to maintain and post regularly to a shared course Tumblr blog of their research and design progress. All student work will be posted online tagged by student name (firstname-lastname).


Students will work with roving engineers from ARUP during the semester to address the structural and environmental systems in their designs. Even the most speculative of projects can benefit from the advice of these experts.


Ultra-realistic perspective and Photoshop-based montages are banned in this studio. We propose that this sort of representation is inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present the eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer.[3] Evacuated of any critical intent, such work only cements the false notion that modern technology has made communication transparent.

But more than that, if all architects produce a form of science fiction, then to paraphrase William Gibson, we need to remember that as we construct futures, all we have at our disposal is the moment that we are currently living in.[4] The moment we construct a future it starts to age rapidly. Since the crash, along with the development of technologies that were formerly consigned to an endlessly deferred proximate future such as near-universal wireless Internet, locative media, tablet computing, and touchscreen interfaces, it seems that we have exhausted the era of the next new thing, of rapid technological and cultural development and obsolescence.

Thus, envisioning the future through architecture forces us to follow Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “all media is dead media,” to understand that appropriate representational strategies that might resist capitalist realist representations might emerge out of a new understanding of what Gibson calls a “long now,” a temporally stretched condition out of which we can freely recombine material and representational motifs.[5]

We will look at forms of representation immanent to our topic at hand, both the means of representation that architects and others working on these and similar projects would have used, but also the other means of representation of the day, e.g. schedules, traffic engineering plans, flowcharts, exploded axonometrics, and so on. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand how to think and represent visually.

Precise, unshaded hidden line drawings, plan, section, elevation, and axonometric form the basis for this studio.


20% Attendance and Participation

Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. By this we mean that students should be in studio at least from 2 to 6 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays unless they have made other arrangements or are conducting research. Please let us know in advance. In no case will we meet with students who arrive after 4pm on that day unless they have prearranged the late arrival with us or there are mitigating circumstances.

Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.

Students are expected to be at pin-ups and reviews on time with work ready to present. Students who are not ready at the beginning of the pin-up or review forfeit the right to receive criticism. Students are expected to contribute to pin-ups and reviews, both in terms of criticism and questions as well as by working in a team to ensure that rooms are ready to present in (adequate chairs, projectors, and so on).

40% Concept

Students will be graded on the originality and rigor of their concepts. All students need a coherent thesis in this studio.

Columbia teaches in English. There is help available for difficulties with the English language in the university, but lack of understanding is not an excuse.

40% Execution and Presentation

A good concept means little if it is poorly executed or presented. Presentation and execution are not trivial, nor are they mere “polish,” rather the choices made in presentation and execution should inform, and be informed by, the concept.

Students are expected to render and present their work clearly, succinctly, and elegantly.

Work should be thoroughly and completely represented.

A Brief Bibliography of Books regarding Design and Presentation


Elam, Kimberley. Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.

Hurlburt, Allen. The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books. New York: Van Norstand Reinhold, 1978.

Jardí, Enric Twenty-Tips on Typography (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2007).

Muller-Brockmann, Josef. Grid Systems in Graphic Design. Zurich: Niggli, 2001.

Samar, Timothy. Making and Breaking the Grid. A Graphic Design Layout Workshop (Beverly, MA: Rockport, 2002).

The Grid System,

Tomato,Bareback: A Tomato Project (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press,1999).



Preliminary Bibliography


Abalos, Iñaki, and Juan Herreros. Tower and Office: From Modernist Theory to Contemporary Practice.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Associates, Archizoom. “No-Stop City. Residential Parkings. Climatic Universal Sistem." Domus 496 (1971): 49-55.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

———. "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown." Economy & Society 26, no. 4 (1997): 447-55.

Bell, Genevieve, and Paul Dourish. "Yesterday's Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing's Dominant Vision." Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11, no. 2 (2007): 133-43.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. (New York: Harcourt, 1968.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Empty Fortress; Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self.  New York: Free Press, 1967.

———. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.  New York: Knopf, 1976.

Brash, Julian. Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City. Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Caillois, Roger. The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader.  Durham N.C: Duke University Press, 2003.

Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity. 2nd ed.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2004.

———. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2010.

———. End of Millennium 2nd ed.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2010.

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

Crystal, David. English as a Global Language.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Postscript on Control Societies." In Negotiations, 177-82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Eckardt, Wolf von, and Jean Gottmann. The Challenge of Megalopolis; a Graphic Presentation of the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Twentieth Century Fund Report.  New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative.  Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009.

Frampton, Kenneth. Megaform as Urban Landscape, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999.

Flood, Joe. The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City--and Determined the Future of American Cities.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

Foster, John Bellamy. "The Financialization of Capitalism." Monthly Review, April 2007, 1-12.

Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture.  London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Gottmann, Jean. Megalopolis; the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States.  New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961.

———. Megalopolis Revisited: 25 Years Later. Institute for Urban Studies Monograph Series.  College Park, Md.: University of Maryland Institute for Urban Studies, 1987.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989.

———. A Brief History of Neoliberalism.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hatherley, Owen. Militant Modernism.  Winchester: O Books, 2008.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  New York: Random House, 1961.

Johnson, Simon, and James Kwak. 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. La production de l'espace copyright Editions Anthropos 1974, Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991.

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority; an Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

———. The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Addison-Wesley Series in Social Psychology.  Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1977.

Osborn, Frederic J., and Arnold Whittick. The New Towns: The Answer to Megalopolis.  London: L. Hill, 1963.

Patterson, Clayton, Joe Flood, and Alan Moore. Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007.

Pell, Claiborne. Megalopolis Unbound: the Supercity and the Transportation of Tomorrow.  New York: Praeger, 1966.

Phillips, Kevin. Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism.  New York: Viking, 2009.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

———. "Global City 20 Years Later." A+U, February 2011, 10-16.

Scheppe, Wolfgang, Migropolis: Venice: Atlas of a Global Situation.  Ostfildern: Hatje/Cantz, 2009.

Shepard, Mark, ed. Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space.

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Short, John R. Liquid City: Megalopolis and the Contemporary Northeast.  Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2007.

———. Liquid City: Megalopolis and the Contemporary Northeast.  Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2007.

Sky, Alison, and Michelle Stone. Unbuilt America: Forgotten Architecture in the United States from Thomas Jefferson to the Space Age: A Book. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Stern, Robert A. M., David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove. New York 2000: Architecture and Urbanism between the Bicentennial and the Millennium.  New York: Monacelli Press, 2006.

Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial.  New York: Monacelli Press, 1995.

Swatridge, L. A. Problems in the Bosnywash Megalopolis: Pollution, Transportation, Sprawl, Social Problems. Selected Studies in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.

Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1976.

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. New Studies in Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Tomlinson, John. The Culture of Speed. The Coming of Immediacy.  London: Sage, 2007.

Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture.  New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Wigley, Mark. "Network Fever." Grey Room  (2001): 82-122.

Wolf, Peter M., and American Federation of Arts. The Future of the City: New Directions in Urban Planning. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974.





Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961), 9.

[2] Kenneth Frampton, Megaform as Urban Landscape, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999), also available at

[3] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative,  (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).

[4] Scott Thill, “William Gibson Talks Zero History, Paranoia and the Awesome Power of Twitter,” Wired Underwire Blog, posted September 7, 2010,

[5] Alex Galloway, “Cory Arcangel (Beige) and Paper Rad’s The Mario Movie" (2005) Michael Parsons, “Interview: Wired Meets William Gibson,” Wired UK posted October 13, 2010,

2012 and Obama: More of the Same

With the second inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, we also breathe a guarded sign of relief. The eight years of Republican rule at the start of the millennium were enough to discredit that party for the rest of the millennium, but it also came with a certain weariness. This time around Obama did not run on a platform of hope. And how could he have? He squandered that platform within a month of assuming office the first time around, appointing a boys' club of advisors that made the early comparisons to Kennedy's Camelot seem all too prescient. The first Obama administration backing finance over building infrastructure and helping the poor, turned to the expediency of drone strikes over the messiness of peaceful resolutions, dismissed both single-payer and a government options for national healthcare, and stayed quiet about climate change.

In fairness to Obama, it isn't a personal failing that led to this as the emergence—indeed, yesterday's New York Times described how the Obamas themselves have been changed by the difficulties they have faced in trying to create change Washington. So, too, the conditions discourage the change that Obama stood for in 2008. After a violent correction created by six years of bubble economics—more if we count the years and the early 90s stock market run up before that—we have found ourselves in a stationary state in economics and a perpetual stalemate in politics, not only in the US but also in the EU.

The perpetual stalemate that I outlined in the introduction of the Infrastructural City has no spread worldwide, and not just in infrastructure either. The vital center is gone, replaced by a rat king. Instead of a pendulum swinging from left to right, we aren't going anywhere. Mummification or cannibalism seem to be the only options, and if the latter offers possibility, can you really be sure you are chewing on your neighbor, not yourself? 

But to underscore, better Obama and perpetual stalemate than Bush and 9/11, Starve the Beast , the mideast wars, and the economic correction of 2008.

Speaking of a perpetual inability to make progress, it's time for me to make some amends for my own lack of progress on this blog, at least for the moment. Jumping from a late-ending semester to a much-needed vacation to a scramble to the start of the semester delayed my traditional year-end review post, so even as I look ahead at the forty-nine weeks to come in 2013. 

But if our age is atemporal, what's a missed week or three? Obama proved not to be "the next big thing" and so I'll begin my look back at 2012 the same way I began the last two years, with my observation that

2010 marked the year in which "the next big thing" came to an end. (more here)

Such is life during the middle atemporal. Time passes, but we don't clock it. Obama is re-elected, but we find ourselves relieved, not hopeful. Since the dawn of the personal computer era, the steady progress of digital technology has seemed as regular as the seasons and technology drove our sense of change, particularly for generations younger than the Baby Boomers. It still is, but tablets and assisted-GPS-enabled smart phones aren't new anymore, they're part of daily life for most anyone who reads this blog, and the release of a new iPhone or iPad is becoming routine even for those who once accorded such releases a cult value. If Moore's Law still holds, the relentless doubling of megahertz and megabytes came to an end a while back. There's new technology on the horizon, most notably an Internet of Things that will permeate everyday life. We can see it in devices like the Nest thermostat and Twine wireless sensor block, but so far these networked objects are creeping, not rushing, into our lives the way smart phones and tablets did. Smart innovators understand that we are in a period of refinement now, not massive innovation. Make it good, not make it new.

For its part, architecture continues in the same listless, directionless condition that they have been for over a decade. But perhaps something has changed.


OMA's CCTV building, completed in 2012, is last heroic gesture in architecture, ending an era of over-indulgence. Rem Koolhaas, whose brilliant "Junkspace essay condemned the overdose of masterpieces under network culture turned out to have made the most over-wrought monument of all, befitting its function as the headquarters of the propaganda machine of the world's largest authoritarian government. In a brilliant master stroke, CCTV is a monument to self-importance, the biggest piece of junkspace around, necessitating massive amounts of structural steel and painstaking computer calculations for no particular reason whatsoever. Defying the general condition of political stalemate that we face across the world, CCTV affirmed the continuing possibility of tremendous effort, proving that a signature architect and an authoritarian government can cut through the red tape and get things done. Koolhaas explains "It took 10 years to realize, and I have been in Beijing once every month. You can imagine the degree of engagement that implies." But that's all CCTV was, an immense potlatch, a monument to engagement. With the building complete, the effort ceased and the building vanished. Nor should we be surprised. After all, it had been the subject of a show at MoMA back in 2006 and we had already lived through its destruction in 2008, when its previously unknown fraternal twin, the TVCC building, burned next door. The culmination of post-critical work, CCTV was smooth and easy, never difficult, leaving no invitations to criticism or even to architectural responses, its after-effect being that of complete saturation and total satiation.

But this is not to say that there are not possibilities out there. On the contrary, no steady state is truly steady. There is a lot churning in the murk, indeed churning more vital than most anything going on during the building boom on which my generation's best and brightest spent themselves. Contemporary architecture students today know no future besides economic stagnation. These recent graduates—and I am thinking of my students both at Columbia and at the University of Limerick in Ireland—are less interested in working for signature offices and more interested in carving out new models for practice. Open Source and commons-based architectural practices are no longer just concerns of theorists like myself but instead have become a possibility for practice. Likewise, the appointment of Pedro Gadanho as the curator of contemporary architecture at MoMA points toward the re-emergence of the political in architecture, albeit this time without the cynicism that marked that constellation in the 1990s, and towards the maturation of architecture fiction. What was once on the fringe is now coming to center stage. As it does so, how architecture fiction will maintain its radically remains a key question.

Architecture fiction's real-world counterpart may well be extreme climate events. Peter Cook one wrote "When it rains in Oxford Street, the architecture is no more significant than the rain." If this recently has been rephrased in terms of digital clouds, perhaps we could suggest, "When an extreme climate event hits Oxford street, the architecture will disappear in the rain." Extreme climate events wreak a sort of architecture fiction of their own, questioning the assumptions that we have literally built upon.

[Iwan Baan's post-Sandy cover of New York Magazine]

In the United States, last year was the hottest year on record, beating the previous year (1998), by an entire degree on average. In addition to Hurricane Sandy, 2012 delivered massive, damaging thunderstorms punctuated by tornados, Hurricane Sandy, an immense draught in the US midsection, torrential rains in Britain as well as in India and Bangladesh, floods in Lithuania, crippling snowfall in the Ukraine, and so on. Such events are becoming normal. Since we bought our house at the end of May 2012 we have experienced three once-in-a-lifetime storms. Since there are four of us, does that mean we have one more big storm to go in 2013? Or are we measuring insect lifetimes? In a presidency shaped by focus groups, Obama shows no interest in addressing climate change, thus creating a massive missed opportunity that will doubtless be noted by historians of the future. So we end with a paradox. 2012 taught us that the stagnant state of network culture isn't stasis. Instead, it is accompanied by massive, unpredictable change. It's up to us to figure out how to harness that unpredictability for good and how to use extreme change and extreme proposals work to better society. I hope that in retrospect I will have something more positive to say about 2013.

"The Future is Unwritten" RIP Joe Strummer 8/21/52 -...

"The Future is Unwritten"

RIP Joe Strummer

8/21/52 - 12/22/12 

The music of the Clash changed my life. His  Meeting Joe Strummer in Sophie’s one night in New York in 1989 was one of the high points in my life. 

The Instagram Storm and the City

It’s been almost a week since Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, delivering the sort of punch that used to be a once-in-a-lifetime but now seems to be an annual event, if slightly worse in ferocity.

We’re been fine, but kept busy by the difficulties of running things off a generator for a week and dealing with two small children who have an unexpected week and a half off. Best-laid plans have again come awry and any thoughts of being able to focus on my work have been banished by the necessity of learning the fine points of chainsaw operation, waiting in line for gas, restocking our fireplace inserts with wood, and helping out neighbors without generators or heat.

Manhattan is steadily getting back to normality, with lights back on after days of outages in some of its most fashionable neighborhoods while limited subway service has been re-established with Brooklyn. Things could have been much worse and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easily these services were brought back on line, given the city’s antiquated and ill-maintained systems.

Sandy is the Instagram Storm, with individuals (as well as Time Magazine, which sent out five photographers to document the storm using the service) posting storm images at a rate of 10 per second and a Web site titled #instacane built to display them. Of course individuals and publications resorting to Instagram sought to lend an air of retro-hipness to their work while sharing it on social media, but perversely the over-exposure of Instagram images (since when has anything still hip been on the cover of Time?) will kill the service, forcing hipsters away from it; while numbers will likely rise for a short time, the Facebook-owned service's days are now numbered. Sandy is likely to remain the only Instagram storm, its photographic record permanently marred by an injudicious use of a gimmicky filter. I suppose we should just be happy it isn't the HDR storm. But of course it couldn't be, since HDR's images are so firmly un-hip, their over-saturated images recalling the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. Instead, Instagram's trick isn't that it just creates a look, but rather that its pre-distressed antique images produce affect, allowing both the taker-as-viewer (here less as an artist and more as a dandy with a Claude Glass) and viewer alike to suspend between temporalities, simultaneously inhabiting both the 60s and 70s heyday of Kodachrome as well as a more recent moment of viewing the color-shifting of Kodachrome dyes as they age (as evoked in tumblr blogs of scanned photographs like In the case of the Instagram Storm, the use of Instagram evokes the storm's status as a legendary event, something to be lived through to tell one's grandchildren about while also emphasizing that this was the place to be at that moment—that is, both experiencing the storm and being a part of the Instagram buzz about it. But the temporal displacement also invoked a saccharine sweet sense of loss. Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." But experiencing the storm through Instagram suggests detachment and an inability to have experiences, no matter how overwhelming, except through media. Still, we should not confuse the use of Instagram to experience the storm with the viewing of events on television. On the contrary, as a social network Instagram bonded users together as a participatory, networked public while Instagram's filters made the photographs seem more personal. 

But where the hip parts of Brooklyn largely experienced the storm through Instagram and where lower Manhattan was immersed in a days-long blackout, large areas of both the city  and the Northeastern megalopolis beyond the five boroughs were destroyed. Although the blackout may have undone the smug sense of superiority that some Manhattanites have about their way of life, it reinforced the differences within global cities. The post-Sandy experiences of Instagram-wielding Open Source urban adventurers winding their way, Situationist readers in hand, through the darkened streets of Lower Manhattan in search of candle-lit bars are a far cry from the harrowing conditions that individuals in Staten Island and Queens continue to live under. This is, in at least two ways, the product of neoliberalism. First, neoliberalism has flattened some differences between developed and developing countries, creating a larger Gini coefficient in the former—particularly in the United States. The result is the development of a third world in the first, of élite, secure enclaves such as Manhattan (below 125th street, at least) surrounded by vast territories of the disenfranchised. Second, utility deregulation, a low tax regime, and the rise of NIMBYism have left infrastructure in the developed world fragile and overloaded, as we documented in the Infrastructural City.

It's unlikely that any of this will change soon. Rather, we should expect the opposite. Crisis is the new normal under network culture. Climate change is producing more severe weather events even as the stagnant global economy seems like it can only operate on a boom and bust cycle. Collapsing infrastructure and the cycle of economic crisis provide a fertile terrain for the Shock Doctrine, which was so effectively applied in New Orleans after Katrina.

Little question that Wall Street will finish its pull out from Lower Manhattan, which is now largely a symbolic and historical base of operations. I'm still uncertain about what the effect on poor areas of New York and New Jersey will be, but it's unlikely to be positive. Watch carefully for signs of the Shock Doctrine being put in place though, it is lurking right around the corner…… 

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