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revolution of the present in limerick

As part of the fall lecture series at the University of Limerick, Ireland, I will be showing the film "Revolution of the Present," a feature-length documentary by writer/director Marc Lafia, executive producer Jose Fernandez-Richards, and producer Johanna Schiller on Tuesday, October 14th at 5.00pm. This is the European premiere of the film, so if you are in the area, we hope that you can make it. Course director Peter Carroll and I will discuss the film afterwards. I am honored to be part of this production and immensely proud of the work the team did. There is hardly any better introduction to my work or network culture than this film. Should you not be in Ireland at the time, you can check out Revolution of the Present here.    

Kiosk @ Columbia

I will be appearing alongside Leah Meisterlin (formerly of the Netlab) and authors Astra Taylor and Andrew Blum today at noon in Ware Lounge (on the 6th floor of Avery Hall) at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation to discuss the impact that digital technology is posing on architecture, cities, and most of all our lives. Topics to be discussed will likely include data centers, debt, oversaturation, creative workspaces and the tyranny of fun, together with ways to make all this better. Hope to see you there if you are in the area!

Umbrellas in Hong Kong

Given the Netlab's work for the Uneven Growth show at MoMA, the unfolding events in Hong Kong demand comment. Although they events are dramatic and their immediate outcome is entirely unclear at the moment, they aren't anything we should be surprised about. Last spring I posted a scenario that we developed for the show titled Hong Kong, 2047. It's worth taking a look at if you haven't had a chance to do so yet. Essentially, our point is that the sort of crisis being played out in Hong Kong is evidence of a growing tension between the mainland and the coastal cities. The mainland has two routes it can follow: a humiliating capitulation along the route toward losing power and a crackdown that will make the eventual lose power exponentially greater.

Simply put, the demographic bubble in the PRC will collapse over the next couple of decades. As it does so, coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangdong, Hangzhou, and Nanjing will grow in both population and power. Such coastal cities will be closer to New York or Tokyo in outlook than to the declining inland of the PRC. If the CPC has any sense, they understand that this is coming their way and that the situation in Hong Kong is a precussor to broader tensions between the mainland and emerging coastal cities (or city-states) in the next forty years. The sort of controls that China places over the Internet today will be harder to exercise in the future as technology will allow ways to route around restrictions to proliferate: the new emphasis on unbreakable security protection in the iPhone 6 is an example of this new condition.    

Undoubtedly members of the CPC—and certainly the PLA—will want to crack down hard on the protestors in Hong Kong. If this will bring temporary relief, it will also make the inevitable process of dissociating the rising coastal city-states from the mainland more difficult. 

Now again, we're talking about a process that will take decades, not something with immediate and obvious consequences so don't look for independence flags to fly over Guangzhou anytime soon. More geriatric forces in the CPC will be tempted to go for the quick fix since they won't be around to see the consequences, but the tensions we outlined in our document seem to be ever more real today. What happens in the next few days may just decide the tenor of future negotiations when the PRC can no longer act with such impunity.     

Eyes That Do Not See: Tracking the Self in the Age of the Data Center

With the end of the summer, it's time to start updating the blog with various publications that I have made over the course of the last few months and there have been a number of them. To start off with, I published Eyes That Do Not See: Tracking the Self in the Age of the Data Center in Harvard Design Magazine number 38. Jennifer Sigler is now the editor and did fabulous work putting together this issue.

The title of my article, is self-explanatory enough, but if asked to elaborate, I'd say that my goal was threefold. First, to talk about the data center as it exists, second to talk about the architectural fantasy of the data center as an object of design when data center owners have little interest in such things (and why that may be), third to talk about how our relatinoship with the data center, surveillance, the Internet, and control society in terms of subjectivity.  

Below is a brief excerpt, but you can read my article at the HDM site

… more than just a matter of economics or security, the data center’s relationship to architecture embodies our cultural condition. Where the factory embodied processes of industrialization and modernization, data centers exemplify what Gilles Deleuze calls “control society.” In discussing the emergence of modern forms of discipline, surveillance, and control, Deleuze cites Michel Foucault’s observation that the industrial era gave birth to a disciplinary society, marked by discrete spaces of enclosure in which one endlessly was put in one’s place—from the school to the barracks to the factory to the hospital. These sites were devoted to ordering time and space, to distributing individuals into a productive force.5 Deleuze sees that system rupturing under its rigid constraints in the face of new systems that promise to be more adaptable, reformed, humane, and equitable. Rigidity is replaced by flexibility; obedience, by choice.
But the control society does not do away with power; on the contrary, power is now far more pervasive and efficacious. Instead of enclosures, control operates through modulations, in a continuously applied system that can make its demands on individuals at every moment, regardless of their whereabouts. Physical spaces are replaced by electronic access codes. Under the guise of greater freedom and flexible work arrangements, networked devices pervade everyday life, constantly issuing their demands, and ceaselessly reiterating them. Instead of resisting attempts at facilitating work taking over our lives, we respond by turning to “life hacking,” a tool to optimize our productivity.
 
The data center is the purest site of modulation in control society. Its function is not to maximize storage but to optimize flow, making possible the barrage of status updates pushed at us—be they from social networking sites, news feeds, or e-mails—that we condition ourselves to respond to instantly. Even capital is subject to this logic. If the factory was the site where wealth was created during the Industrial Revolution, today’s most advanced levels of finance—which operate in specialized data centers such as NYSE Euronext’s Global Liquidity Centers—extract wealth from algorithmic trades that invest in and produce nothing, profiting instead from momentary discrepancies in security prices. Designed to generate profits regardless of the direction the economy is heading—and having removed the need for raw materials, labor, or commodities—algorithmic trading marks the transformation of capitalism into a series of pure modulations, a mathematical game.
 
Modern surveillance was developed hand in hand with the rise of disciplinary society in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Individuals had directions to follow, rules of behavior to abide by, and quotas to meet, all ensured by the ever-present eyes of managers and whatever mechanical means (such as time cards) could be garnered in support of efficiency. Managers sought both to see and to be seen, to gaze upon the factory or office floor and to impose their power by their own presence. The end of enclosures, however, also means the end of visibility as a means of control. The workplace is diffuse, spread across the totality of our existence, across continents, in the spaces formerly known as the office and the home, as well as the subway, the car, the airplane, and the hotel. We demonstrate our productivity through the data we generate, along with our ability to be in touch at all times. Those who run the data center aspire to Oz-like invisibility. It’s enough to know that the NSA monitors our communications to ensure we behave, and that Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion monitor our financial transactions to determine our credit score. We might imagine then a very different meaning for the phrase “eyes that do not see.” The data center has eyes that do not need to see, in the visual sense. Here, surveillance is algorithmic—it is a matter of mining for suspicious patterns of words; unusual purchasing behaviors; visits to websites harboring terrorists, child pornographers, and extremists; as well as other triggers. The same kinds of algorithms that monitor the market to determine the opportune moment to initiate financial transactions also read our e-mails and track our purchases to decide when to strike against us. “Total informational awareness” shapes the modulations of control society.

Post-Planetary Capital Symposium

I'm delighted to be speaking at Ed Keller and Ben Woodard's symposium "Post-Planetary Capital" at the New School's Center for Transformative Media today. My own talk is titled "A Mote in God’s Eye: 
Eternal Recurrence and 
the Post-Capitalist Post-Planetary." So what in the heavens is that about (sorry!)? I'll be using a discussion of asteroid mining, private space colonization, and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's "A Mote in God's Eye" to develop my arguments about the relationship between capital and complexity.  

Hong Kong, 2047

Jochen Hartmann and I are in Hong Kong again, this time with my spring studio, "Uneven Growth, Hong Kong 2047" which parallels our work for Pedro Gadanho's Uneven Growth show at MoMA, exploring the city and looking for examples of tactical urbanism and uneven growth. It's been a great trip: lots to see and we are gaining a real degree of familiarity with the city. And time for us to share with you some of the work that I did for the Netlab's contribution to the Uneven Growth. 

Using the techniques of scenario planning, I developed the following text, which serves as a basis for the Netlab's contribution to the Uneven Growth show as well as our studio (it's in the syllabus to the studio, but this is a much more refined version). Take this as a work of architecture fiction exploring not only the future of Hong Kong and China but also the future of the global city and the role of tactical urbanism within them.  

Hong Kong, 2047 

“The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the necessary effect, so it is the natural symptom of increasing national wealth. The scanty maintenance of the labouring poor, on the other hand, is the natural symptom that things are at a stand, and their starving condition that they are going fast backwards.”
 
-Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) 
 
2047 is not the sequel to Wong Kar-Wai’s film 2047, but rather the year in which the “One Country, Two Systems,” doctrine that began in 1997 as the former British colony was handed over to the People’s Republic of China is scheduled to run out, causing the city to lose its status as an exceptional zone within China. We hypothesize that instead of Hong Kong disappearing, China will disappear.
 
We begin with the observation that demographic projections show that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) faces a brick wall created by the one-child policy. The demographic dividend created by the country’s large ratio of effective producers (working age adults) to effective consumers (children and the elderly) was a critical factor in the country’s growth to date. In 2013, however, a turning point was reached and the dividend’s growth rate turned negative, with China now producing more effective consumers than producers.  Within five years, yearly declines in the numbers of new workers fresh from school will become normal in China. Between 2016 and 2026 the population of workers aged 20 to 29 will drop by one quarter. In 2026 the population will peak.  By midcentury, 30% of the country’s population will be over 60  Without young workers dreaming of a better future, productivity will erode and eventually collapse. The result will be a suddenly poor country with a population of aging, bitter men, lacking sufficient pensions, welfare, or other means of supporting themselves. 
 
China’s demographic crisis will parallel the condition of the vast majority of the world’s developed countries in which population growth has long past the tipping point. At midcentury, in addition to China, Japan, the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the United States will all endure major population declines as both poor and rich avoid having too many children. Even stern government measures, such as Vladimir Putin’s 2006 attempt to offer 250,000 rubles (about $9,200 US) to women who will have a second child, will fail to change demographic destiny. Only the southern hemisphere will continue to grow, although by then the days of its growth will seem numbered too. Notwithstanding that population growth has become a problem lately, its seeming inevitability means that our economies rely on it. As populations decline, economies do as well.  
 
For China, the result will be a catastrophic reversal of course. Most developed countries have pension and social welfare systems in place for retirees, but China has done little in his regard. The loss of hundreds of millions of able-bodied workers will cause massive difficulty for China’s factories. During the first decades of the twenty-first century, China built numerous new cities and hastily filled them with housing, factories, and starchitecture. Lacking in the cheap labor that led to their rapid growth and faced with unsustainable infrastructural needs, these will empty, becoming new Detroits.The countryside, already experiencing major demographic pressure from migration as the disparity between rural and urban life grows, will face growing hardship,  becoming a place of refuge for the elderly surviving on subsistence farming, much as in Russia today. In contrast, even with dwindling population rates, key coastal cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanjing, having demanded Hong Kong-style autonomy from the diminished central government, will continue to thrive as active players in an emerging global network of city-states. 
 
The emergence of the Chinese coastal cities will accompany the decline of the central government. The result will be the PRC’s devolution into a loose agglomeration of regional states, roughly akin to the Commonwealth of Independent States.  Globalization has been marked by the rise of devolutionary movements. Such movements result in considerable increases in political autonomy for specific territories even though they do not necessarily mean changes in the borders of nation-states (for example, Wales and Scotland in the UK or the Basque country and Catalonia in Spain) .  The PRC has already introduced greater economic autonomy for its provinces and cities as a means of spurring economic productivity, although it has thus far resisted greater political autonomy, with Hong Kong and Macau being the exceptions. Nevertheless, China is a large and diverse country and political forces in certain regions—most notably Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia—have called for greater autonomy or outright secession. For now, the government has maintained a hard line, issuing repressive crackdowns against such movements, but this sort of response has historically been proven to only fan the flames of separatist movements. With the coming demographic decline, the central state’s economic and military power will weaken. Unless carefully managed, political devolution will cause a significant loss of face for the PRC. The Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, with whom China has recently begun higher level talks, is a key player in solving this problem. Although the island has increasingly proclaimed its own identity as a culture independent of China, such an autonomous position paradoxically offers a transition out of the dilemma posed by the ROC earlier claims to be the real government of mainland China. At present, Taiwan remains an international outcast needing to defend itself from the potential military threat the PRC poses. The reality is that, lacking political recognition and facing barriers to international trade, Taiwan is increasingly dependent on China, already its top trade partner.  The result is that the island currently exists in a de facto “one country, two systems” condition, lacking only a formal agreement to that effect.  For the PRC, integrating Taiwan will remove any threat of United States military action against China while providing huge ideological support during a time of sociopolitical weakeness. Subsequent absorptions may include the incorporation of Mongolia (with its high birth rate, resources, and strategic significance vis-à-vis Russia). Within the paradoxical logic of 21st century devolution, then, an expanded China, will be go hand in hand with devolution and will find ways of avoiding loss of face while pacifying more difficult provinces. 
 
Nor will this just be a way of appeasing local provinces. With their international trading power, the coastal Chinese city-states will increase their power against the center in the newly devolved China. Hong Kong’s special status will spread, becoming a model in China. Moreover, it will also spur on megacities worldwide, which have become increasingly disconnected from the territories around them. In some cases these worldwide megacities will also advocate for special status within larger countries, demanding greater autonomy, both economically and in terms of foreign policy. Such super-city-states will band together ever more over time, leaving their nation-states behind.  As the crisis at home becomes apparent, it is further plausible that China will increase its efforts overseas even more substantially, going so far as to create extraterritorial city-states on the model of Hong Kong and Singapore as joint ventures in developing countries worldwide.  
 
Nevertheless, the demographic pressures will challenge the Chinese city-states as well. Hong Kong is no exception. Since 2000, Hong Kong has had the distinction of being the country with the world’s second lowest fertility rate, Macau having the lowest. This poses a significant threat to Hong Kong’s economic future.  Underscoring the stall in internal population growth, a recent increase in emigration of educated individuals from Hong Kong means that between mid-2012 and mid-2013, the city had more migrants leaving than arriving.     
 
We hypothesize that with Hong Kong’s history of accommodating migrants from both within China and outside it, the territory will be able to resume growth through migration from other countries in Southeast Asia as well as from Africa which is now becoming extensively colonized by Chinese capital. Notably, arising out of its former status within the Commonwealth, unlike the rest of China Hong Kong has maintained continuing economic ties with India and will be able to draw on the Indian population for labor. With its population bolstered by new migration and its continuing role in global finance and manufacturing ensured by its highly developed business networks and global outlook, Hong Kong remains an incredibly attractive location uniquely suited to lead the Chinese coastal city-states.  
 
The effect of bringing in more migrant workers will produce even more inequality in Hong Kong, a stress point that has already grown almost insurmountable. As measured by the GINI coefficient, Hong Kong has the highest income inequality of any developed city or country in the world (and likely higher still since wealthy families in China habitually understate their income) and that coefficient has trended inexorably higher over the last two decades.  Thus, it is unlikely that Hong Kong will deal with its own demographic crisis by allowing permanent immigration. Rather, the government will continue to expand the existing two-tier system, allowing poor immigrants to remain in the territory only on time-delimited visas while allowing the wealthy and skilled access to the system.
 
After the explosion of the demographic bomb, the world will face a new economic reality. Adam Smith observed that continuous economic growth has historically been predicated not only on growing technological efficiencies but also an increase in both population and the amount of raw materials available. Should any of those three variables flag, growth will cease. Under stagnant or falling populations, economies begin to contract, national wealth decreases and capitalism cannot be maintained in such circumstances. Smith himself never argued that growth in the West would be endlessly sustainable. On the contrary, he uses China as an example of a country much the same as five hundred years beforehand when Marco Polo first wrote about it. China, he explained, is a stationary state, going neither forward nor backward, but rather that had “acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.”  China’s past, then, is the world’s future. 
 
The current economic crisis is a sign that capitalism is already in a stationary state and may soon be in an inexorable slide. Starting in the late 1990s, declining profit margins and radical technological changes led economies and financial markets into a pattern of booms and busts.  Within the next decade, the world’s financial élite turned away from traditional investments, toward increasingly complex and short-term ways to extract wealth such as high speed trading and quantitatively driven arbitrage so as to ensure that returns would continue regardless of the direction of the market.  As a hedge against the ever-present threat of currency collapses, the wealthy also turned to real estate in global cities, helping to drive prices skyward. 
 
We hypothesize that, booms and busts notwithstanding, these trends will continue. Capitalism itself will have long come to an end, victim of declining resources and increasing levels of complexity, its highest levels being replaced by the algorithmic production of wealth wherever a loophole may still be found. While the system lurches along, global city cores will remain strong. Highly defended, with a huge population of surplus labor to draw on for services, these will continue to be attractive destinations for the élite to work and play in (although only within a geographically dispersed strategy of global hedging that will include idyllic, defended exurban ecotopias should the shit finally really hit the fan). Most rural zones will remain sites of food production, now highly automated while also being sites of subsistence farming and low-level employment for the elderly and impoverished: a landscape of giant agro drones marching amidst a desperate elderly tenders. 
 
In the city, if high finance will essentially be a game, everyday life for individuals worldwide will follow suit. By 2047, with income disparity high and social mobility low, those unlucky enough to be in the top 1% have little opportunity to better their conditions. Instead, as they eke out a living, they occupy themselves in a world increasingly dominated by the logic of games. The governments of megacity-states, burdened with debt and facing radically limited budgets turn to tactical urbanism as the only possible way to make interventions in the city and to keep the populace away from the barricades.
 
 
 

     

On the Invasion of the Ukraine

Just because I study the Internet doesn't mean I don't think it's full of idiocy. Take for example the widespread NOAA map showing radiation spreading across the Pacific from Fukushima. Pity that it's not representing radiation but rather the height of waves produced by tsunamis. Alas, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is no different, as a perusal of recent tweets on the matter say.

I won't dignify the inanity by actually quoting these tweets but some of these just blew my mind, like the one that suggested the invasion is created by the press to distract from ongoing negotiations over the Tran-Pacific Partnership Treaty.

The fact of the matter is that this is the biggest political crisis the world has faced since the fall of the Soviet Union and is extremely unlikely to turn out as well as that did. 
 
Quite obviously, the sovereignty of a nation is under attack. The pretext is a familiar Russian script: "ethnic Russians are under duress." Why are they under duress? Because the puppet regime that Putin installed in the Ukraine and that bankrupted the state fell? If they are under duress, where are the crowds on the streets welcoming them? Where is the footage of the duress they are facing, so easily made in our networked day?
 
For centuries Russia has been a belligerent neighbor, seeking to expand its territory at a given opportunity. Its leadership understands this plays well at home and, with the success of Sochi behind him, Putin has decided to go for the gold and demonstrate how no one can touch him. 
 
Thus far, US President Obama's statements suggest that he thinks of this largely as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing" and is not considering military options. More sensibly, Lithuania and Latvia have invoked Article 4 of NATO. Militarily unchallenged, Putin's invasion of the Ukraine will not cease with Crimea and, if still unchallenged, will bolster his desire to rebuild "Greater Russia." 
 
Not only is there a threat against a host of countries such as the Baltic States, of which I am a card-carrying member, there is another threat than anyone should consider. Those of us old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union also remember that there were joint calls for the Ukraine to rid itself of its nuclear weapons. The Ukraine did so in return for a treaty that guaranteed its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the last few days that has been undone. So now, put yourself in the shoes of countries that can have—or will have—nuclear weapons and really shouldn't have them, countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan? Or Israel? If faced with pleas to eliminate their nuclear weapons in exchange for territorial security, just how will they react in the future? 
 
Obama is already going down in history as an exceptionally weak President, his only saving grace being that he isn't an outright catastrophe like his predecessor and foreign policy has been a particularly weak point (not that domestic economic policy or his handling of national healthcare were strong points). How he handles the biggest challenge his administration has yet faced may well define how his presidency is remembered. 

Architecture, Network Culture + Minecraft

It's my great honor to be speaking at Taliesin West today, 27 February at 7pm in Scottsdale, Arizona. My lecture will be about network culture, my work with the Netlab, and my kids' constructions in Minecraft). 

GSAPP Books presents an Abecedary of Ink

I am delighted that tonight I will be participating in a reading from my colleague Michelle Fornabai's book ink Or “V is for Vermilion as described by Vitruvius” An A to Z of Ink in Architecture. 

 
ink proposes a creative and critical inquiry into ink’s instrumentality in architecture to delineate a subtle story—a latent history of architecture in ink—placing ink in our world with the purpose of gaining knowledge within and for the architectural disciple.
 
Featuring Carl Andre, Martin Ariza Medrano, Neil Armstrong, Jane Austen, Sunil Bald, Gilles Balmet, David Benjamin, Ila Berman, Gavin Browning, Babak Bryan, Amy Carpenter, Alexis H. Cohen, Craig "KR" Costello, Yolande Daniels,Denis Diderot, Qin Feng, Karen Finley, Michelle Fornabai, Peter Galison, Martin Gayford, Takeshi Iizuka, Wendy Jacob, Pavitra Jayaraman, Caroline Jones, Roland Juchmes, Karel Klein, Pierre Leclercq, Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, Diana Martinez, Thom Mayne, Kate MccGwire, Henri Michaux, Dean Motter, Nashid Nabian, Daisy Nam, Javier Navarro Alemany, Taeg Nishimoto, Tom Norton, Eiji Osawa, Spyros Papapetros, Jason Payne, Karla Rothstein, Heather Rowe, Teri Rueb, Yehuda E. Safran, Pamela Sams, Ashley Shafer, Sha Xin Wei, Galia Solomonoff, Nader Tehrani, Marc Tsurumaki, Kazys Varnelis, Catherine Veikos, Anthony Vidler, Vitruvius, Enrique Walker, Wei Jia, Mark Wigley, Mabel Wilson, Xu Bing, Xu Li, Akira Yamasaki, Soo-in Yang, Chiang Yee, Michael Young, and Zhang Xu
 

Uneven Growth Studio, 2047 (2014 GSAPP studio)

Uneven Growth: Hong Kong 2047

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

Instructor: Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Associate:  Jochen Hartmann

This studio parallels and informs the Uneven Growth exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art in November 2014. The intent of both studio and exhibition is to tackle the complex condition of the megacity and the growing economic and social inequality within it.

As in the exhibition, the Network Architecture Lab’s physical site is Hong Kong and the temporal site is the year 2047. At this point the “One Country, Two Systems,” doctrine that began in 1997 as the former British colony was handed over to the People’s Republic of China is scheduled to run out, and the city is scheduled to lose its status as an exceptional zone within China. We hypothesize that Hong Kong will not disappear, but that instead China will.

We set out to ask how architecture can address uneven growth in Hong Kong and other megacities. Rather than finding strategic solutions, we intend to identify the conditions and location in which to operate.

This studio is conceptual, aimed at developing arguments and polemics, but it sets out to do so using the tools of the architect. We propose architecture based on rigorous programming rather than generative designs or cool forms, architecture as a system of thought that makes abstract knowledge experiential, and conceptual thinking rational and understandable. We maintain that buildings can be constructions of thought in addition to material, conceptual machines that produce arguments and state positions.

Against a cynical world in which architects—and even studios in schools of architecture—have unabashedly agreed to serve authoritarian clients, we believe it is still possible to act. We reject neoliberalism’s doctrine that “There Is No Alternative” together with the self-expressive and performance-based models of design that dominate today as fundamentally incompatible with a future of extreme scarcity and declining populations. We ask not only how architecture can continue to function in this condition but also how it can play a transformational role in it. This studio’s central task is the invention of an ethics of design appropriate to a diminished future.

Students participating in this studio will be required to travel to Hong Kong for site visits. Travel will be funded through the school.

Scenario

“The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the necessary effect, so it is the natural symptom of increasing national wealth. The scanty maintenance of the labouring poor, on the other hand, is the natural symptom that things are at a stand, and their starving condition that they are going fast backwards.”

-Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations(1776)

Demographic projections show that the People’s Republic of China faces a brick wall created by the one-child policy. The demographic dividend created by the country’s large ratio of effective producers (working age adults) to effective consumers (children and the elderly) was a critical factor in the country’s growth to date. In 2013, however, a turning point was reached and the dividend’s growth rate turned negative, with China fairing now worse than many other countries. Within five years, yearly declines in the numbers of new workers fresh from school will become normal in China. Between 2016 and 2026 the population of workers aged 20 to 29 will drop by one quarter. By midcentury, 30% of the country’s population will be over 60. Without young workers dreaming of a better future, productivity will collapse. The result will be a suddenly poor country with a population of aging, bitter men, lacking sufficient pensions, welfare, or other means of supporting themselves. The central government will lose its grip on power, leading instead to a loose agglomeration of regional states, roughly akin to the Commonwealth of Independent States. In an effort to mask the collapse, the last PRC regime will describe the devolution as a natural process to recognize the differences within the country and will negotiate deals to include Taiwan, Mongolia, and post-DPRK North Korea into the commonwealth.

China’s crisis will parallel the condition of the vast majority of the world’s developed countries in which population growth has long past the tipping point. By midcentury, in addition to China, Japan, the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the United States will all endure major population declines as both poor and rich avoid having too many children. Even stern government measures, such as Vladimir Putin’s 2006 attempt to offer 250,000 rubles (about $9,200 US) to women who will have a second child, will fail to change demographic destiny. Only the southern hemisphere will continue to grow, although by then the days of its growth will seem numbered too. Although population growth has become a problem lately, its seeming inevitability means that our economies rely on it. As populations decline, economies do as well.

In China, many interior cities, hastily filled with housing, factories, and starchitecture during the first decades of twenty-first century will empty, turning into Detroit-like ghost cities. In contrast, even with dwindling population rates, some coastal cities, having demanded Hong Kong-style autonomy from the diminished central government, will continue to thrive as active players in the global network of city-states. Since 2000, Hong Kong has had the distinction of being the country with the world’s second lowest fertility rate, Macao having the lowest, but with Hong Kong’s history of accommodating migrants from both within China and outside it, Hong Kong will be able to resume growth through migration from other countries in Southeast Asia as well as from Africa which is now becoming extensively colonized by Chinese capital. With its continuing role in global finance and manufacturing, Hong Kong is uniquely suited to lead the Chinese coastal city-states.

Hong Kong’s special status will spread, becoming a model for other megacities increasingly disconnected from the territories around them. Megacities will advocate for such special status within their larger countries, demanding greater autonomy, both economically and in terms of foreign policy. Such super-city-states will band together more formally over time, leaving their nation-states behind.

Even so, as in the rest of the world, inequality in Hong Kong will have grown almost insurmountable. As measured by the GINI coefficient, Hong Kong has the highest income inequality of any developed city in the world (and likely higher still since wealthy families in China habitually understate their income) and that coefficient has trended inexorably higher over the last two decades. Thus, it is unlikely that Hong Kong will deal with its own demographic crisis by allowing permanent immigration. Rather, the government will continue to expand the existing two-tier system, allowing poor immigrants to remain in the territory only on time-delimited visas while allowing the wealthy and skilled access to the system.

After the explosion of the demographic bomb, the world will face a new economic reality. Adam Smith observed that continuous economic growth has historically been predicated not only on growing technological efficiencies but also an increase in both population and the amount of raw materials available. Should any of those three variables flag, growth will cease. Under stagnant or falling populations, economies begin to contract and national wealth decreases and capitalism cannot be maintained in such circumstances. Smith himself never argued that growth in the West would be endlessly sustainable. On the contrary, he uses China as an example of a country much the same as five hundred years beforehand when Marco Polo first wrote about it. China, he explained, is a stationary state, going neither forward nor backward, but rather that had “acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.” China’s past, then, is the world’s future.

The current economic crisis is a sign that capitalism is already in a stationary state and may soon be in an inexorable slide. Starting in the late 1990s, declining profit margins and radical technological changes led economies and financial markets into a pattern of booms and busts. Within the next decade, the world’s financial élite turned away from traditional investments, toward increasingly complex and short-term ways to extract wealth such as high speed trading and quantitatively driven arbitrage so as to ensure that returns would continue regardless of the direction of the market. As a hedge against the ever-present threat of currency collapses, the wealthy also turned to real estate in global cities, helping to drive prices skyward. 

We hypothesize that, booms and busts notwithstanding, these trends will continue. Capitalism itself will have long come to an end, its highest levels being replaced by the algorithmic production of wealth wherever a loophole may still be found. Global city cores will remain strong as well. Highly defended, with a huge population of surplus labor to draw on for services, these will continue to be attractive destinations for the élite to work and play in (although only within a geographically dispersed strategy of global hedging that will include idyllic, defended exurban ecotopias should the shit finally really hit the fan).

Just as high finance will essentially be a game, everyday life for individuals worldwide will follow suit. By 2047, with income disparity high and social mobility low, those unlucky enough to be in the top 1% have little opportunity to better their conditions. Instead, as they eke out a living, they occupy themselves in a world that increasingly dominated by the logic of games. The governments of megacity-states, burdened with debt and facing radically limited budgets turn to tactical urbanism as the only possible way to make interventions in the city and to keep the populace away from the barricades.

Semester Plan

The semester will begin with a scenario planning exercise to hone what Hong Kong, 2047 will be like. Students will work individually or in teams to identify the drivers in society, technology, economics, ecology, and politics likely to impact the building over the next generation. These scenario plans will be communicated through the technique of architecture fiction. An exhibition exploring these scenario plans will be held in early March. After joining into teams to investigate possible sites, students will individually develop detailed proposals for their scenarios by the end of March. For the final review, students will develop responses to their scenarios.

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).

Engineering

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.

Representation

We propose that the ultra-realistic renderings commonly used in studios today are inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present, delivered to us through the wonders of technology while we eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer. 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. 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.

If Gibson is right and society is gripped by “future fatigue,” then 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.

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.


Grading:

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.