On Informality

Quilian Riano asked me to participate in the blogging revolving around the GSD event on Ecological Urbanism. Although Quilian is live blogging the event, like the live blogging for Postopolis going on simultaneously, I think it makes much more sense to the participants than to those of us listening in at a remove, observing highly compressed fragments of the conversation.

Even if I take my knowledge of the event second-hand, I thought I’d offer a response, prematurely broaching a topic that I’ve been engulfed in for the first part of this year. I’ll begin with the event’s statement of purpose, the core of which reads as follows:

The conference is organized around the premise that an ecological approach is urgently needed both as a remedial device for the contemporary city and an organizing principle for new cities. An ecological urbanism represents a more holistic approach than is generally the case with urbanism today, demanding alternative ways of thinking and designing.

In ecological urbanism, the informal seems to crop up repeatedly. Instead of "green architecture" and its outworn advocacy of LEED to design our way out of a global ecological crisis, the conference proposes an urbanism produced bottom-up, in a natural way, like an ecosystem.

Sanford Kwinter’s keen observation that New York’s culture has come to a crashing halt under the weight of capital, overdevelopment, and hipsterdom serves as a set-up to ecological urbanism. Instead of a vital urban realm, we have a stuffed animal (to use a phrase Peter Eisenman once applied to European cities…and let’s just be clear that today cities anywhere in the developing world don’t fare any better than Manhattan does). In the face of this collapsing formal urbanism, then, Quilian observes, informality is thriving:

[There is an]… anxiety around the failure of the formal structures in the West. Populations are dropping, immigration increasing, manufacturing and economic strength shifting to other nations. Western nations are facing a changing culture at home and a shifting power structure abroad. As formal structures fail informal systems take over.  

We’ve heard this before, in the recent fascination with favelas and their capacity for self-organization. When Rem Koolhaas spoke he brought out Lagos, his exemplar of such a self-organizing city, a nightmare condition that nevertheless he feels somehow works. In doing so, he replays Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas as well as Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, but in going to Africa, Koolhaas is not so much flipping the valence on a "low," pop phenomena as replaying the modernist obsession with the primitive (to be fair, on the East, the West is often seen in terms of the primitive). In the darkest places, the modern obsession with the primitive suggested, we would identify the next modernity. So Koolhaas hopes to do at Lagos.

If dysfunctional, the African metropolis of seven million shows up our aged cities. For if Lagos is broken and lacks a public realm, its market also appears to exist outside of organized capital or government control a perverse model of unalienated labor. Urbanization at its most base and at its most advanced, Delirious Lagos is a sci-fi fantasy of the New Bad Future* set on the Gulf of Guinea instead of in 2050. Lagos, it seems, presages the urbanism of the multitude.**

Cue Banham again and his valorization of the non-plan, which is little different from the model Koolhaas proposes, except that in Banham’s eyes, Los Angeles is still paradise, not the New Bad Future. To me, Banham’s model foreshadows the Californian Ideology all too neatly. Banham’s Los Angeles works because it has no central plan but rather is left to the competing forces of the basin. But if Banham was reacting against modernist urban planning, non-plan also encouraged neoliberalist planning ideas.*** It’d be easy to critique Koolhaas’s take on Lagos as an exacerbated version of Banham, a neoliberal city of non-plan pushed to extremes, not ruled by an unruly multitude but rather by a repressive regime that receives more than 50% of its income from (Royal Dutch) Shell Oil. 

Thank god we haven’t learned too much from Lagos yet, then. But the fascination with informality points to another problem, which is our civilization’s unsustainable level of complexity. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately, re-reading Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies and studying the role of complexity in network culture. A proper response is going to require a lengthier post, or rather a series of posts, an article or two, and a book chapter****, but for now I can make a few key points.

Tainter’s thesis differs from Jared Diamond‘s (and also precedes it by a decade). Instead of turning to the external forces of ecological catastrophe (as Diamond does) or to foreign invasion (as other commentators do), Tainter sees complexity as the downfall of societies. As societies mature, he observes, they become more complex, especially in terms of communication. A highly advanced society is highly differentiated and highly linked. This doesn’t just mean that I have a lot of "friends" on Facebook and Twitter, it also means that just to manage my affairs, I have to wrangle a trillion bureaucratic agents such as university finance personnel, bank managers, insurance auditors, credit card representatives, accountants, real estate agents, Apple store "geniuses," airline agents, delivery services, outsourced script-reading hardware support personnel, and lawyers in combination with non-human actors like my iPhone, Mac OS 10.5, my car, the train, and so on. This is the service economy at work, and it’s characteristic of the bureaucratized nature of complex societies. If, in a charitable reading, we produce such bureaucratic entities in hopes of making the world a better place, keeping each other honest and making things work smoothly, in reality, they rub up against each other, exhibiting cascading failure effects that lead to untenable conditions. But more than that, in Tainter’s reading, complex societies require greater and greater amounts of energy until, at a certain point, the advantages of the structures they create are outweighed by diminishing marginal returns on energy invested. The result is collapse, which Tainter defines as a greatly diminished level of complexity. 

In this light, the culture of congestion that Koolhaas valorized in the 1970s is undone by the energy costs of that complexity. Now I suspect that Koolhaas understands this full well. His essay on Junkspace is an attack on what his earlier model of congestion had become, on the reduction of the City of the Captive Globe (note the absence of traffic in Madelon Vriesendorp’s drawings) to West L. A. at 4pm on a Friday. Lagos, for him, is the new New York, a non-Western Other outside the system, a (non-)plan for thriving in the over-complex, over-congested world. Koolhaas’s Utopian vision of Lagos is a model for life in Junkspace, an anarchist condition in which larger governing structures no longer dominate everyday life and the architect merely sets some scripts in play for others to follow. We can see this in some of OMA’s best work, like Melun-Senart or Yokohama, although less so in the last few years.  

A decade ago, I was enamored with this approach, but now I don’t think we can simply solve our problems by drawing on informality and distributed self-organization as models. For even if architects turn toward a radical humility, that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden complex systems somehow unravel themselves. Just as rigidity was the failure point for Fordism, complexity is the failure point for post-Fordism.

So I’d agree with Tainter when he concludes that the only hope to forestall the collapse of a complex society is technological advance. This is something we’ve been really good at lately and I’ve suggested elsewhere that it might be possible to dodge the complexity bullet again, even if think these advances will be outside of architecture. But, frankly, I’m not so sure we can do it. This is where my optimism rubs up against my nagging feeling that urban informatics, locative media, smart grids, and all the things that the kids at LIFT and SXSW are dreaming up are too little, too late. Technology itself is all but unmanageable in everyday life and adding greater layers of complexity can’t be the solution. It’s in this sense that the Infrastructural City was much more Mike Davis than Reyner Banham, something few have caught on to yet.***** We should have taken our lumps when the dot.com boom collapsed and retrenched for five or six years. Instead we added that much more complexity (take the debt and what is required to maintain it or the impossible war or the climate) and now our options are greatly limited. 

If ecological urbanism pushes us to ask some of the right questions, I suspect informality isn’t going to be the answer, just the latest buzzword. Instead, perversely, I’m going to suggest a little patience. Architects have been so stuck looking for the newest methodology for so long that we’ve exhausted our resources to understand the present. Urban theory needs to develop an entirely new set of tools to deal with the failures of the neoliberal city and the impossible conditions of complexity today. This is hardly an overnight task, if it can be done at all. 

Tainter holds one other card, suggesting that most of the people who experience collapse don’t mind it too much. Many of them seem happy enough to just walk away from the failing world around them, much like owners of foreclosed homes do today. Eventually a new civilization springs up and with it, with it, so do new tasks for design.   

*A 1980s phrase that never stuck, referring to films such as Blade Runner, Outlands, Alien/s, Robocop that point to a damaged future for civilization.

** If Lagos is a certain perverse model of the distributed urbanism of the multitude, then its also the opposite of AUDC’s reading of Quartzsite, for which of course you should see Blue Monday.

*** See Jonathan Hughes, "After Non-Plan" in Jonathan Hughes and Simon Sadler, Non-Plan. Essays on Freedom, Participation, and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism (London: Architectural Press, 2000).

**** Yes, this is likely to make it into the Network Culture book.

***** Except one writer, who referred to the book as colored by a Marxist vision, assuming I suppose, that in a mass-market publication that would be something of an insult.  


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