Inner Cities Still Failing

Has the Network City solved the problem of America’s declining inner cites? No, and neither has government aid.

A new study by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner Citysuggests not. Defining Inner Cities as “U.S. census tracts having at least a 20 percent poverty rate or two of these factors ”“ a poverty or unemployment rate one-and-a-half times or higher than their surrounding metropolitan area or median household income one-half or less that of the surrounding metropolitan area,” the study concludes that neither tax incentives nor aid programs have helped stem the loss of jobs.

Moreover, the study found that nearly half of the country’s 82 largest municipalities lost jobs from 1995 to 2003 while only one of the surrounding metropolitan areas shed jobs during that period.

See the AP story.

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Will This Finally Kill That? Architecture Confronts the Urban Screen

In his article Circuit City, published in the most recent ArtForum magazine, Tom Vanderbilt draws on comments by Lev Manovich and William Mitchell to conclude that the endlessly-reconfigurable urban screen will supplant the role of architecture in the city in the near future.

bq. As new-media theorist Lev Manovich predicted in 2002, “In the longer term every object may become a screen connected to the Net, with the whole of built space becoming a set of display surfaces.” …

bq. What happens to a building when its very bricks are pixels and it becomes a screen? Can it be appreciated as a building itself, or does the image it is broadcasting simply swallow it whole? Do we judge the building by the content of its display or the mechanism that houses it? The medium or the message? Mitchell has a theory: “You can argue, of course, that architecture has always been about animated surface””?classical effects of shade and shadow as sun and clouds move (what are moldings for, after all), Barcelona pavilion effects of reflection and transparency created by glass, metal, and machine-polished surface, and subtle combinations of the two, as at LA’s new Disney Concert Hall.” Buildings, through their geometry, compute these effects. Now, however, Mitchell writes, “we can separate the software of architectural dynamics from the hardware, execute this software at high speed on inexpensive digital devices, and reprogram effects whenever we like.”

Vanderbilt’s point is a provocative one.

Over the last forty years the architectural vanguardists have felt alternatively threatened by and enraptured with the communicative capacities of media and responded, with post-modernism, through a turn to semiotic representation and more recently, under post-criticism, to affect. Desperate to communicate messages in the first case, eager to deliver moods in the second, both of these “post” movements are obsessed with the threat posed to architecture by the spectacular powers of contemporary media and try to attain the same status for the discipline by absorbing media into itself.

But this explosion of screens in the urban realm undoes both models. Mitchell points out that Disney Concert Hall’s fantastically expensive form can do little compared to an urban screen. On a more personal level, I can’t imagine any contemporary architect, no matter how in love with their work, trading their right to use a computer for a house of their own design. In the case of the architecture of affect so beloved today by advocates of post-criticism, the building’s existence on the screen becomes more important than its realization. In architecture schools that proclaim themselves as cutting-edge, the most popular design tool today is Maya, animation software designed not for making buildings but for making videos. Young instructors gleefully announce they won’t talk to students unless they do their work in Maya.

It’s easy to react against this position, as the success of the vanguard is always based on the counter-reaction it induces. But what if we accept a less moralistic stance? What if Maya is the future of architecture? By implication, what if Vanderbilt is right and the screen becomes more important than the building? Does architecture become a training platform for video game design? Some of enthusiasts of Maya have proposed nothing less.

“This will kill that,” Victor Hugo said of the printed book and the building. But as interactive artifacts housing human activities, buildings retained a certain edge that prevented Hugo’s prediction from being thoroughly realized. Now the screen, be it on a laptop or on a neutral shell, proposes to do that just as well. In the case of the urban screen, architectural high design seems to have met a threat that outdoes everything it has claimed for itself over the last forty years.

Has architectural design during this entire time been nothing but a diversion from the matter at hand, the refinement of Robert Venturi’s decorated shed? Is Venturi’s laugh the last laugh?

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Architecture Jobs Following Buildings to Asia

As I’ve been predicting for some time, architecture is beginning to learn from other fields and is starting to outsource design work to developing countries in Asia such as India. Read more in this article from India’s Financial Express.

If the building boom continues, of course all is well, but if the bubble bursts, what lies in store for the profession in the US, Europe, and Japan? A radical shake-out of lower-end jobs? Even without the bubble bursting, the field has traditionally been bottom-heavy. Outsourcing threatens that, jeopardizing the future of more marginal schools of architecture that can’t produce top-quality students. At the same time, it creates new possiblities for architects in developing countries.

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Of Google and Prefab Housing

In case you haven’t seen it, Rocio Romero’s LV Home is worth a look. Rocio was my thesis student in 1998-1999 (with Tom Buresh) and did a thesis on a headquarters (or meshquarters as she called it) for Linux, creating an argument for the use of Open Source in architecture along the way. Even if LV Home isn’t quite Open Source, it’s great to see her continuing her research along those lines.

Regrettably, so many architects seem caught in the trap that if they don’t create an aura through the unique (but with so many post-90s firms creating identical looking products, all topographical curves and squiggles, what is unique anymore?), they won’t get any business. Rocio, who is becoming much more succesful than many of these all-alike pseudo-avant-garde firms, is proving otherwise.

Speaking of prefab. It seems like Google has some ideas of their own.

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