suburbs vs. cities

I just ran across MUDOT magazine for urban documentation, opinion, and theory: I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here, but what caught my eye this morning was Michael J. Thompson’s article How Suburbs Destroy Democracy and Alex Schafren’s response As a
Child of the Suburbs
as well as Thompson’s rejoinder to Schafren.

I side quite clearly with Schafren on this one. After all, I was born in 1967, the year that Herbert Gans wrote the Levittowners. It’s been forty years and its remarkable how little things change. Suburbs = bad. Cities = good. Gans’s work seems to be forgotten. Grab a copy. It’s well worth the read.

Here again I’m glad for my Los Angeles experience. If Los Angeles was not without its problems (after all, there are reasons I don’t live there anymore…), the experience taught me to rethink the self-validation that still seems to prevail here in the city (note to non-residents: New York is the city, not New York, not Manhattan, the city). Somehow, living in the city is pure goodness. Somehow, shopping in Soho stores (most of which can be found in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus) is equal to democracy. To be fair, in his rejoinder, Thompson argues that he isn’t so much glamorizing the city (and indicts the growing homogeneity of cities) as condemning suburbia, but I’m not sure how that is that much different. In any event, read the back-and-forth and judge for yourself.

The city, as we once knew it, is disappearing. Not only is it becoming more homogeneous, many of its classic functions—such as being the place to which immigrants go first—are being absorbed by areas once called
suburban. If urbanism wants a major task for this century, here it is: look at the suburbs, learn from them, and figure out how to make them work. Jane Jacobs taught us the virtue of cities, perhaps too well. Her defense of Greenwich Village not only saved that community, it made it impossible for anyone with a working-class income to live there. The endless condemnation of the suburbs and validation of the city is tired today.

Schafren rightly argues that re-imagining the suburb is a crucial task today. Lamenting it won’t get us anywhere. And yet, the common refrain is still suburbs bad, city good. Just as parts of cities (take Manhattan for example) are becoming suburbanized, turned into homogeneous, consumption-oriented territories (how different is a co-op with a doorman from a gated community?), suburbs are far from the homogeneous places they once were. There is exurbia, edgeless cities, inner-ring suburbs, outer-ring suburbs, and technoburbs among the many species of community out there. Some of these are incredibly homogeneous, some of these are radically diverse. Sometimes the homogeneous and the heterogeneous co-exist only a border apart. The impossiblity of continuing to use categories such as suburban, urban, or rural is made clear through Claritas’s PRIZM system, based on demographics, marketing research, and of course, voting patterns, It’s worth taking a look at, as is Michael Weiss’s book on the system, The Clustered World.

So let’s put a moratorium on the word "suburb" for a decade or two, until we can learn to use it again. And, with that minor corrective in place, turn to the task of envisioning the networked (sub/ex/edge/dense/empty/global/local)urbanism of this century and seeing what we can do to remedy its downfalls.

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american girl town

At today, an article on the five-year renovation of Aurora, New York by the wealthy creator of American Girl dolls.

What does this kind of reconstruction say about our relationship to the past? Is there an past left after it has been so thoroughly "recreated"?

See here.

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the city unplugged

On Monday at 6.30, I will be speaking at a Columbia event that looks at the role of urban models in three recent ACTAR publications.

The City Unplugged

Do urban models still exist? Three Columbia authors present three books on (urban) conditions, tales and trajectories that challenge what it means to talk about the "city" today.

Kadambari Baxi, Barnard + Reinhold Martin, GSAPP
Authors of: Multi-National City (ACTAR, 2007)

Daniela Fabricius (M.Arch 03), PennDesign/ Pratt
Author of: 100% Favela (ACTAR, 2007)

Kazys Varnelis, GSAPP
Author of: Blue Monday (ACTAR, 2007)

Moderated by: Michael Kubo, ACTAR

city unplugged

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networking empire

Wired carries an article on "The NSA’s Lucky Break: How the U. S. Became the Switchboard to the World," pointing out how international tariffs make it more economical for many countries to route their communications lines through the United States. That Central Asia remains politically unstable and that satellite communications are too slow for regular communication amplifies this condition.

As the article points out, this allows the government easy access for monitoring this delightful fountain of global information.

telecoms map

Of course I’ve been saying this all along.

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google and the data center in a shipping container

Below, one of the oldest digital camera images I have, taken in 1999 back in Long Beach, California. I’m not sure anymore if the camera I took it with was a digital camera or a video camera which could take photographs. Either way it was a long time ago. Eight years today is a long time ago…

shipping containers

But on to today’s post. As any regular reader of Slashdot knows, Google (founded in 1998… when hotwired and altavista were the search engines to beat) announced it had patented the concept of a modular data center in a shipping container. See here.

While architects fetishize the shipping container as a building block for quasi-prefab residential structures, Google suggests that the shipping container is much more interesting when it is full and when it can be anywhere.

Although, as the Slashdot article points out, the USPTO has proven itself incapable of addressing the contemporary moment yet again (Brewster Kahle came up with the concept and gave it to the public domain in 2003), Google’s interest in the idea is nevertheless interesting, as is its suggestion that the data center holds a key advantage in that during economic downturns, it can move somewhere else. Imagine the local authorities’ reaction when the petabyte shipping containers begin to migrate to another place. Or for that matter, imagine a Quartzsite of data centers in shipping containers. Is this a final end-condition for the human project?

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Red Arc/Blue Veil

If you’ve read Blue Monday, then you know that the book is really about an album cover. Given that, I’m particularly glad to announce that one of my photographs has been used for John Luther Adams’s Red Arc/Blue Veil, published by Cold Blue Music.


album cover


The photograph is from the trail up to White Mountain Peak, towering above the Owens Valley as the third highest peak in California. We never made it all the way when we tried scaling it on July 7, 2002, but I took some photographs along our route that we’d use for the Owens Valley Book with CLUI. That evening, while at the Restaurant at Convict Lake, we did some math and realized that Jennifer was pregnant with Viltis, our first child. So it was a memorable day.

Given the CD, it’s certainly a privilege to have my work on the cover. John Luther Adams is an important composer, working in the tradition of American experimental music. He lives in Alaska and uses his music to evoke the moods of that soundcape. Made up of compositions for percussion and piano, Red Arc/Blue Veil moves between shimmering quiet passages and intense sound. You can get it from the label, Bill Fox’s Cold Blue Music.

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