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?
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.
Javier Arbona has a new piece up called “The Sorrows of Finance Capital,” in which he asks how it is that a university system in crisis can afford to build snazzy new buildings with vertiginously high budgets.
This is something that has bugged me a great deal lately. The credit crash has led to budget-tightening in universities, but the college building boom just keeps going. Whether it’s at SFSU—which as Javier points out, can’t afford an urban studies major anymore but can afford neomodernist digs—or at the University of Limerick, which during my at last visit a couple of weeks ago was sprouting more cranes than ever—it’s been a striking feature of the Great Recession.
As Javier points out, although the university brags that the building is funded by a $10 million gift, some $258 million (!) will have to come from construction funding. Now all this is—no surprise, alas—something that the press has chosen not to report on, and even seems to find hard to comprehend, as a series of Twitter exchanges between a newspaper critic and Javier on the above site demonstrates.
Universities have let a Wall Street mentality infect them. As a recent report by the Tellus Institute concludes, colleges and universities not only embraced risky investment strategies with their endowments, they continue to gamble with their money even after the 2008 crash. Tellus concludes that these universities “have been as much contributors to the financial crisis as they were victims of it.”
Part of the problem is that, as Karen Ho points out in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, investment banks operate on ever-smaller time horizons. Lasting value is scoffed at in favor of immediate profits that can drive annual bonuses. With university boards populated not by faculty and researchers but by “leaders” in business, universities look at their endowments not so much in terms of sustainability and social responsiblity but rather as investments from which to wring maximum profits.
No wonder, then that university presidents are enamored with flashy construction projects which are much easier to justify to boards than equitably-paid faculty or low tuition for students (indeed, both of these are at odds with the sort of mentality that Ho observes on Wall Street: employees are always disposable and any university that keeps tuition down must be failing to charge apporpriately for its services).* After a few years at a university, the building-enamored president moves on to bigger and better digs, leaving faculty to struggle to get grants to fill buildings that shouldn’t have been built in the first place.
As a byproduct, universities issue bonds and, so long as endownments keep flowing in, can service them. It’s a giant ponzi scheme with little of value for students and, as Harper’s described in a notorious graphic about the consequeneces of overbuilding in Brandeis (Brandeis has threatened a lawsuit and has accused Harper’s of slander and libel over this piece), can collapse precipitously during times of economic crisis. But while bonds were hot, Wall Street couldn’t have enough of them, so universities eagerly complied.
With regard to Javier’s exchange with the critic, there’s been a lot of chatter lately about the effect of the Internet on the field and I suppose that for whatever reason, I’m going to have to add to that chatter on Tuesday at “Critical Futures” an event at Storefront. In anticipation of that event, I’ll conclude by observing that when design critics are unable to confront kind of issues that Javier raised in his piece, then we should be asking just what merit the field has in the first place, unless its merely cheerleading for the next building boom.
* At one institution that I once worked at, the director told the staff one year that cost of living increases were not possible due to poor finances. After delivering the news to the board that he had held staff salaries down, the chairman—a local businessman—moved to raise the director’s salary.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.”
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…”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“…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.
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.
 Charles Jencks, Late-Modern Architecture and Other Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 10.
 Ibid., 8.
 Colin Rowe, The Architecture of Good Intentions. Towards a Possible Retrospect, (London: Academy Editions, 1994).
 Kevin Roche and Francesco Dal Co, Kevin Roche (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 20.
 T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology; On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, (Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press, 1960).
 Compare with Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
 Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 38.
 Kevin Roche, Statements for History (London: Pidgeon Audio Visual, 1984), Sound Recording.
 Roche, “Statements for History”
 Roche, “Statements for History”
 Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 72.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 64.
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.
Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano hasn’t given up disrupting north Atlantic air travel this summer, but what if it’s the harbinger of something bigger?
The global city is predicated on face to face communication being essential to major business deals. But the global city model, originally outlined by my colleague Saskia Sassen, is almost twenty years old. Trying booting up your Powerbook 100 to read this blog post. In this post I’d like to speculate on the impact of the volcano, technology, and global warming on the global city.
First, let’s talk global warming and green hype. During the last decade, friendly but misguided green advocates have advocated pedestrian-oriented cities as environmentally-sound alternatives to the suburbs. But looking at America (and many countries in Europe aren’t all that different from this), most cities have seen sustained and uninterrupted declines in the last half century. The starring exceptions are the global city of various scales: New York, Chicago, Boston, LA, San Francisco and so on. For the most part, these cities have seen a remarkable renaissance as centers of business and creative activity. The urbanites who live here live in the global city, thinking nothing of jetting from London to Shanghai and alighting in San Francisco. Often, these individuals literally inhabit the global city and owning pied-à-tierres on multiple continents is increasingly as common among the super-wealthy as owning an estate is. At home, the "creative class" practices localism religiously, probably out enjoying home-smoked bacon cupcakes and carbon-neutral triple-pulled ristrettos right now.
But the idea that this kind of life—which is as predicated on consumption as existence in deepest suburbia—is environmentally sound is laughable. Apart from the manic rate of conspicuous consumption in the global city, flying one mile on an airplane produces almost as much CO2 as driving that same mile by oneself in an automobile (other side effects, including polluting in the very thin atmosphere high-up may be much worse). Moreover, if an average driver in the United States drives some 12,000 miles a year, that’s half of what you need to get into a frequent flyer club.
I think by now you get the picture: the high-flyer of the global city is much worse for the environment than the suburbanite. So much for sustainable living.
Now back to the volcano. The impact it’s had on transatlantic travel has been massive as planes continue to be grounded in one European country or another multiple times a week. Pollution-wise, the amount of CO2 it released is significantly less than the amount of CO2 that would have been produced by the Airbuses and Boeings that happened not to fly on those days (obviously, the volcano also released other pollutants, many of which are quite toxic to life). Business travel had already dropped as a result of the recession. The volcano is a wake-up call. If my business relied on frequent international travel for face-to-face meetings, I’d begin asking myself how sustainable this is from an economic standpoint and how vulnerable my business was to such disruptions.
There’s more to the story. As I stated earlier, we’re far from the day of the Powerbook 100, which couldn’t even browse the Web. 70% of stock market trades now take place between computers at millisecond-level speeds. I have a hunch that the face-to-face financial deals that used to drive the global financial markets are becoming less important economically.
Let’s put this all together then. A perfect storm is emerging. Far from the idea that the suburbs will collapse in Richard Florida’s great reset, it is likely the global city that collapses, replaced by ubiquitous high-speed telecommunications and undone by changing climatological conditions, not to mention peak oil.
Make no mistake, I’m not offering up a new utopia of any sort here. What I’m predicting is an end to network culture as we know it and it won’t be pretty. The coming collapse of the global city will be slow and brutal, accompanied by the stationary state that Gopal Balakrishnan described last year.
I don’t see many easy solutions out there. Ironically, the best bet is probably the very scare-word the American right loves to deploy: socialism. Now it’s unlikely to take hold in the US, at least not for a generation or two but some countries will probably get the drift and head in that direction. What gets us out of this morass and what form of global spatial organization replaces the global city is unclear. Still, the late, great global city was far from equitable or sustainable. We can hardly lament its passing.
I spent half of my childhood in the thick of things in Chicago and the other half in rural-exurban Western Massachusetts. It always surprises me when someone says "I can’t imagine you in the countryside" (I often fantasize publicly about living in Vermont or somewhere similarly rural). What, Points of Interest in the Owens River Valley wasn’t enough for you?
Since my exurban life came during my all-important teenage years, I found it crucial to visit the city where I’d scour the record stores or to tune into WRPI, a great industrially-oriented radio station, something I could only do whenever the horrific local Christian station was off the air. When I went to college at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, I was even further from civilization and without even a decent radio station (the college radio station was obsessed with Phish, infinitely worse fate than even classic rock) and so-so record stores. I invested in a short wave radio to listen to the John Peel show (and, when I could get it, the brilliant, ill-fated Radio Sierra Leone) and took painfully long road trips to the city to the same record stores to collect more music.
All this is gone now. I haven’t been to a record store in years. I’m a bit of an audiophile so I still keep the best music in CDs but no record store is as efficient as the Net so I even that fix takes place online. In any event the record stores have closed down, the staff off to do God knows what. The scene is gone.
Why do I blog this? Simply enough: the old role of cities as places that you go to in order to experience hard-to-find culture is over. The Nick Hornby novel/film High Fidelity is completely foreign to network culture. Ours is the world of the Long Tail. Everything is available. The city is dead.
It’s time for my promised set of predictions for the coming decade. It has been a transgression of disciplinary norms for historians to predict the future, but its also quite common among bloggers. So let’s treat this as a blogosphere game, nothing more. It’ll be interesting to see just how wildly wrong I am a decade from now.
In many respects, the next decade is likely to seem like a hangover after the party of the 2000s (yes, I said party). The good times of the boom were little more than a lie perpetrated by finance, utterly ungrounded in any economy reality, and were not based on any sustainable economic thought. Honestly, it’s unclear to me how much players like Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson, and Larry Summers were duplicitous and how much they were just duped. Perhaps they thought they would get out in time or drop dead before the bubbly stopped flowing. Or maybe they were just stupid. Either way, we start a decade with national and global economies in ruins. A generation that grew up believing that the world was their oyster is now faced with the same reality that my generation knew growing up: that we would likely be worse off than our parents. I see little to correct this condition and much to be worried about.
Gopal Balakshrishan predicts that the future global economy will be a stationary state, a long-term stagnation akin to that which we experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. China will start slowing. The United States, EU, the Mideast and East Asia will all make up a low growth block, a slowly decaying imperium. India, together with parts of Africa and South America, will be on the rise. To be clear: the very worst thing that could happen is that we would see otherwise. If another bubble forms—in carbon trading or infrastructure for example—watch out. Under network culture, capitalism and finance have parted ways. Hardt and Negri are right: our economy is immaterial now, but that immateriality is not the immateriality of Apple Computer, Google, or Facebook, it’s the immateriality of Goldman Sachs and AIG. Whereas under traditional forms of capitalism the stock market was meant to produce returns on investment, a relationship summed up in Marx’s equation M-C-M’ (where M is money, C is a commodity produced with the money, and M’ is money plus surplus value), the financial market now seems to operate under the scheme of M-M’ (see Jeffrey Nealon’s brilliant Foucault Beyond Foucault). Surplus value is the product of speculation.
There’s every chance that I have little idea to what lengths the financial powers will go to continue this condition. After all, I would have said that we should have had a lengthy recession following the dot.com boom and we didn’t. Still, the Dow Jones, NASDAQ, house prices (measured in real dollars), and salaries all went down over the course of the decade, so it’s plausible to say that for the most part, the economy was a shambles.
Climate change will become more widely accepted as corporations realize that it can lead to consumption and profits when little else can. If we are unlucky, the green "movement" will become a boom. We will finally realize that peak oil has past, perhaps around 2006. Climate change will be very real. It will not be as apocalyptic as some have predicted, but major changes will be in the works. We should expect more major natural disasters, including a tragic toll on human life.
Populations will be aging worldwide during the next decade and baby boomers will be pulling more money out of their retirement accounts to cover their expenses. At the same time, younger people will find it harder to get a job as the de facto retirement age rises well into the seventies, even the eighties. A greater divide will open up between three classes. At the top, the super-rich will continue controlling national policies and will have the luxury of living in late Roman splendor. A new "upper middle" class will emerge among those who were lucky enough to accumulate some serious cash during the glory days. Below that will come the masses, impossibly in debt from credit cards, college educations, medical bills and nursing home bills for their parents but unable to find jobs that can do anything to pull them out of the mire. The rifts between all three classes will grow, but it’s the one between the upper middle class (notice there is no lower middle class anymore) and the new proles that will be the greatest. This is where social unrest will come from, but right now it seems more likely to be from the Right than the Left. Still, there’s always hope.
Speaking of hope, if things go right, governments will turn away from get-rich-quick schemes like "creative cities" or speculative financial schemes and instead find ways to build long-term strategies for resurrecting manufacturing. It will be a painful period of restructuring for the creative industries. Old media, the arts, finance, law, advertising, and so on will suffer greatly. Digital media will continue to be a relatively smart choice for a career, even as it becomes more mainstreamed into other professions. For example, it will become as common in schools of architecture to study the design of media environments as it is now to study housing. We will see a rise of cottage industries in developing nations as individuals in their garages will realize that they can produce things with the means of production at hand. Think of eBay and Etsy, but on a greater scale. National health insurance in the US will help in this respect, as it will remove individuals from the need to work for large corporations. But all will not be roses in the world of desktop manufacture. Toxicity caused by garage operations will be a matter of contention in many communities.
Some cities are simply doomed, but if we’re lucky, some leaders will turn to intelligent ways of dealing with this condition. To me, the idea of building the world’s largest urban farm in Detroit sounds smart. Look for some of these cities—Buffalo maybe?—to follow Berlin’s path and become some of the most interesting places to live in the country. If artists and bohemians are finding it impossible to live in places like New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles anymore, they may well turn elsewhere, to the boon of cities formerly in decline. The hippest places to live will no longer be New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. The move toward smaller cities—remember Athens, Georgia, Austin, Texas and Seattle?—will explode in this decade as the over-capitalized major cities will face crises. But to be clear, this is an inversion from the model of the creative city. These cities will not see real estate values increase greatly. The new classes populating them will not be rich, but rather will turn to a of new DIY bohemianism, cultivating gardens, joining with neighbors communally and building vibrant cultural scenes.
With the death of creative cities, planners will also have to turn toward regions. As jobs continue to empty out, city cores will also see a decline in their fortunes. Eventually, this may resurrect places like New York and San Francisco as interesting places to live in again, but for now, it will cause a crisis. Smart city leaders will form alliances with heads of suburban communities to force greater regional planning than ever before. This will be the decade of the suburbs. We began the last decade with over 50% of the world’s population living in urban areas. I predict that by the end of the next decade over 50% of the world’s population will live in suburban areas. This isn’t just Westchester and Rancho Palos Verdes but rather Garfield, New Jersey and East Los Angeles. Worldwide, it will include the banlieues and the shantytowns. Ending the anti-suburban rhetoric is critical for planners. Instead, we’ll be asking how to make suburbs better while boosting the city core. Suburbs may become the models for cities as the focus turns toward devolving government toward local levels, even as tax revenue will be shared across broad regions.
Urban farming will come to the fore and community-supported agriculture will become widespread. This won’t just be a movement among the hipster rich. It will spread to the immigrant poor who will realize that they can eat better, healthier, and cheaper by working with members of their immigrant community running farms inside and outside the city instead of shopping at the local supermarket. A few smart mayors will realize that cities in decline need community gardens and these will thrive. The rising cost of long-distance transportation due to the continued decline of infrastructure and peak oil will go a long way toward fostering this new localism.
The divisions in politics will grow. By the end of the decade, the polarization within countries will drive toward hyper-localism. Nonpartisan commissions will study the devolution of power to local governments in areas of education, individual rights (abortion will be illegal in many states, guns in many others), the environment, and so on. In many states gay rights will become accepted, in others, homosexuality may become illegal again. Slowly talk will start on both sides about the US moving toward the model of the EU. Conservatives may drive this initially and the Left will pick it up. In that case, I’m moving to Vermont, no question.
Architects will turn away from starchitecture. Thoughtful books, videos, and Web sites on the field will grow. Parametric modeling will go urban, looking toward GIS. Some of those results will be worth talking about. Responsive architecture will become accepted into the profession as will the idea of architects incorporating interfaces—and interface design—into their work.
In technology, the introduction of the Apple iSlate will make a huge difference in how we view tablets. It will not save media, but it will allow us to interface with it in a new way. eBooks will take hold, as will eBook piracy. Apple itself will suffer as its attempts to make the iSlate a closed platform like the iPhone will lead first to hacks and later to a successful challenge on the basis of unfair restraint of trade. A few years after the introduction of the iSlate, an interface between tablets and keyboards will essentially replace notebook computers. Wine will advance to such a point that the distinction between operating systems will begin to blur. In a move that will initially seem puzzling but will then be brilliant, Microsoft will embrace Wine and encourage its production. By the end of the decade, operating systems will be mere flavors.
The Internet of Things will take hold. An open-source based interface will be the default for televisions, refrigerators, cars and so on. Geolocative, augmented-reality games will become popular. Kevin Slavin will be the Time Web site’s Man of the Year in 2018. As mobile network usage continues to grow, network neutrality will become more of an issue until a challenger (maybe Google, maybe not) comes to the scene with a huge amount of bandwidth at its disposal. Fears about Google will rise and by the end of the decade, antitrust hearings will be well-advanced.
We will see substantive steps toward artificial intelligence during the decade. HAL won’t be talking to us yet, but the advances in computation will make the technology of 2019 seem far, far ahead of where it is now. The laws of physics will take a toll on Moore’s Law, slowing the rate of advance but programmers will turn back toward more elegant, efficient code to get more out of existing hardware.
Manned spaceflight will end in the United States, but the EU, China, and Russia will continue to run the International Space Station, even after one or two life- and station-threatening crises onboard. Eventually there will be a world space consortium established, even as commercial suborbital flights go up a few dozen times a year and unmanned probes to Pluto, Mars, Venus and Europa deliver fantastic results. Earth-like planets will be found in other solar systems and there will be tantalizing hints of microscopic life elsewhere in the solar system even as the mystery of why we have found nobody else in the universe grows.
Toward the end of the decade, there will be signs of the end of network culture. It’ll have had a good run of 30 years: the length of one generation. It’s at that stage that everything solid will melt into air again, but just how, I have no idea.
As I stated at the outset, this is just a game on the blogosphere, something fun to do after a day of skiing with the family. Do pitch in and offer your own suggestions. I’m eager to hear them.
Fellow resident of my adopted hometown of Montclair, NJ and New York Times journalist David Carr has a new piece out yesterday entitled "The Fall and Rise of Media" in which he explores the rapid decline of the (traditional) media industry and makes a case for optimism about new media. It’s a good read, take a look.
Carr puts on a brave face as he remind us that all reigns are temporary. The media jobs being swept away are positions that were obsolete years ago, he suggests, all but invoking Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” as an up side to the devastation that media outlets face today. As historian Jackson Lears reminds us in his latest book, Rebirth of a Nation, Americans have a longstanding fascination with the idea of rebirth and our own era is hardly immune to.
This struck a chord for me this morning as I had just finished watching the third season of Mad Men last night* and wondered about the show’s future. (spoiler alert!) With the end of the old firm that the Mad Men worked for, would the new firm they would build be nimble and intelligent, able to embrace the changing terrain of the 1960s, a diabolical player in an alternate universe version of Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool? Or is it destined to be wiped out by the juggernaut of sociocultural change that comprises the mid and late 1960s the way Philip Johnson was, at least for a decade? In the atemporal world of network culture, we often forget how commonly we still look backward to find reference points for transformations in the contemporary world. Here I’d identify the popularity of Mad Men today. It offers us a glimpse at a moment of massive, societal transformation, as a relatively comfortable came unglued. Perhaps four decades from now we’ll see a remake of Mad Men set at the New York Times, or at a dot.com corporation. Certainly, it would lack well-designed furniture and well-cut suits, but so it goes.
In his article, Carr points to a new generation of under-30 journalists armed with netbooks, wireless connections, and visions of reshaping their world. Let’s hope so. The dinosaurs were dinosaurs not only because of their attitude and their budgets, but also because of the poverty, our worse yet, the outright fiction, of their reportage (no disrespect to David, but the Times itself often led the way with this: Judith Miller anyone?). No question, it’s high time to renew media. Already the architectural blogosphere is smarter, sharper, and more critical than newspaper critics have been in decades.
But there’s also much to dread and not just for the dinosaurs. Rarely do things go back to normal after a serious downturn. Economic regimes undergo radical changes during recessions, often even more dramatic than during boom times when excess liquidity keeps the status quo well lubricated.
What we’re seeing now, then, isn’t just the disappearance of some crufty old salts from journalism, but rather the restructuring of the creative class. Media is very much at the forefront of this. Faced by the perfect storm of a collapsing subscription base and the decline of the advertising dollar, media corporations have figured out that the losses of income are permanent and made cuts accordingly.
In contrast, architects are flailing about. This doesn’t mean that job losses in the profession haven’t been massive, but the profession has done little to rethink how it operates. There’s little question that we won’t see another building boom the size of the one we just witnessed again in our lifetime (nor do I wish it: there’s only so much economic destabilization we can take!). The downsizing is going to be permanent. The result will be heady competition between young unemployed veterans with serious job experience after a few years in the job force and a corps of new graduates trained in new skills that even those who graduated five years ago don’t have. If my readers want to see me as a pessimist, that’s fine, chalk up my position to a refusal to buy Prozac, but I’ve lived through enough recessions to know that the last few years were a huge anomaly and there’s a price to be paid for the excesses.
Beyond the collapse of the media sector, the very core of the contemporary upper middle class—jobs in media, advertising, real estate, finance, law and other services—faces evisceration, and may well follow the lower middle class into extinction over the course of the next decade. Those jobs are gone now and with them a host of possible commissions for architects. More than that, since the Obama administration’s greatest accomplishment seems to be to have unloaded the word “hope” of any meaning, at this point it seems likely that the shift rightward during the next elections will ensure that cities are deprived of the funding necessary to keep them afloat. Fade back to Mad Men and the early 1960s. It’s at this moment that New York takes a turning point and Mayor Robert F. Wagner sees his city entering into a multi-decade fiscal crisis from which it barely recovered.
Decades from now, will the monuments of the last decade—sadly much inferior to the monuments of the 1950s (where, after all, is our Seagram or Lever? The Standard? Magnolia Bakery maybe?)—remind us of the last days of the Creative Class and the hipster city? In 2029 will Sex in the City be as anachronistic in its depiction of the city as a thriving place for young people, just as Breakfast at Tiffany’s was in 1979?
Or is it possible that somehow the Obama administration will wise up? That he’ll take a cue from Harvard and fire Larry Summers together with the investment bankers that have infected the Cabinet, and insist that America not only has a public option for health insurance but that we’re going to rebuild manufacturing, in some smart, as yet unforeseen way? Heck, maybe the multitude will throw off its shackles and we’ll all live in a Shangri-La of post-Marxist immaterial culture.
One thing’s for sure, though. We’re not going back to 2002. Time will tell who succeeds in navigating through it as individuals, nations, and worlds.
*In general, I don’t have the time to ever watch shows when they first come out so I watch them time-shifted, either on my pitifully small Verizon DVR or on my AppleTV, Roku box, or sometimes even via Blu-Ray disc from Netflix. I point this out since I want to hammer home how media consumption habits are changing. It’s particularly interesting watching my children, who have never known a world without on-demand or, for that matter, full-time PBS Kids Sprout.