Infrastructural Fields

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? 

Continue reading “Infrastructural Fields”

Terminal Condition. Spring 2012 Netlab Studio


Terminal Condition
Spring 2012

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

Professor: Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Assistant: Leigha Dennis


This studio explores the re-construction of a large-scale infrastructural element in the city, specifically the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. A structure of 1.5 million square feet, passed through daily by hundreds of thousands of commuters, over seven thousand buses, and thousands of automobiles, providing parking for over 1,000 spaces for automobiles on top, surmounting a subway below, linked to the Lincoln Tunnel through massive ramps for vehicular traffic, and accommodating a significant shopping area, the PABT operates in a realm between building, city, and infrastructure. We are interested in this overlap as a venue for experimentation in programming and design.

As the largest commuter facility in the city, the PABT is a necessary part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands of workers in the city. The PABT was constructed in response to growing traffic congestion in midtown produced by the operation of eight independent bus terminals in the area a decade after the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937. Costing $24 million, the PABT bus terminal started operations in December 1950, consolidating eight independent bus terminals located in the midtown area. The building has been expanded twice to accommodate growing bus traffic: in 1963 a $30 million expansion added new decks and in 1979 a north wing was built at a cost of over $160 million, integrating with the original structure with a bridge over 41st street through a series of massive X trusses designed by Port Authority chief structural engineer Eugene Fasullo.

Bringing over 50,000 sightseers to the city daily, most of whom stop at Times Square, the PABT has been a key player in midtown, caught up in a longstanding crime problem that only abated during the last decade. With a new, modern exterior and a tiled interior resistant to vandalism, the 1979 reconstruction was intended as an architectural solution. But the expanded space quickly wound up serving a growing population of hundreds of homeless people, drug dealers, and male prostitutes while the “Minnesota Strip” on Eighth avenue outside became a site where newly-arrived runaways of both genders, particularly from the Upper Midwest, would be pressed into prostitution. Soon, the brutalist trusses became seen as a symbol of the decay of the Times Square area. In response, the Port Authority invested significant funds in the redevelopment of the neighborhood and implemented crime prevention strategies. The building is now vastly safer, but with the successful redevelopment of Times Square, the PABT is one of the last vestiges of an older, less commercialized New York. Over the last decade, the Port Authority was working with the Vornado Realty Trust to construct a skyscraper over the north wing, which was built with the possibility of exploiting its air rights in mind. Plans for a forty-story office tower by Richard Rogers including a rooftop garden and eighteen new bus gates came to naught when the Chinese developer pulled out this past November.

In this exercise, we set out to develop new hypotheses for the future of the PABT which we see as needing to respond to a world in which mobility is as much a matter of portable networked telecommunications devices as travel. With the resurgence of bus travel, the Terminal has the opportunity to become an even more significant gateway into the city for both commuters and visitors. Containing significant retail space, the PABT is a major center of commerce in the Times Square area. How do we make a building that embraces civic, commercial, and infrastructural spaces while remaining secure?

Semester Plan

This studio understands the architect as a builder of not merely physical edifices but also social, conceptual, and technical structures. Our interest is to use architecture and the most advanced thinking in network culture to construct new and better ways of life. In doing so, this studio is engaged first and foremost with institution building and shaping of social behavior.

We will begin the semester with team-based based scenario plans. Students will 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. A review exploring these scenario plans will be held in mid February.

Students will individually develop detailed proposals for the reconstruction of the building by mid-review in March. These proposals will take the form of books that define the mission and goals of the reconstructed PABT and a preliminary idea for an architectural program.


As a Netlab studio concerned with the topic of mobility, this studio will be the first prototypical studio in the GSAPP Cloud. To this end, students will be expected to maintain Tumblr blogs of their research and to keep up with the online work of other students. All student work will be posted online and aggregated to the emerging GSAPP work site.


Students will be responsible for devising programs for a 21st century PABT. With the scenario plans from the first part of the studio in hand, students will be asked to identify the programmatic direction of the new PABT. Crucial to this will be a balance between city, building, and infrastructure. How can the building maintain its own identity while integrating better with the urban environment surrounding it?

In the wake of an era defined by the attention-seeking strategy of shaping, it is only appropriate to ask if architecture shouldn’t lose its singularity and obsession with performance. Can we develop architectural strategies aimed at producing less individualistic works that operate in a more ambient register, embracing formlessness instead of shaping, works that build intensity more subtly rather than giving it away all at once, works that question the boundaries between the city and the building rather than affirming them?

With regard to the site, students will be encouraged to consider the extension of the PABT into New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel and the dedicated Exclusive Bus Lane (XBL) that stretches from the New Jersey Turnpike onto Route 495, underneath the Times Square area through the underground subway station and the subway routes beyond.


Students will work with roving engineers from ARUP during the semester to address the immense requirements of the PABT and the prospects for the construction of their project without disrupting the terminal’s operation.


Ultra-realistic perspective and Photoshop-based montages are banned in this studio. We propose that this sort of representation is inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present the eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer.[1] 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.[2] 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.

Thus, 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.[3]

We will look at forms of representation immanent to our topic at hand, from schedules to traffic engineering plans, flowcharts, to exploded axonometrics for vehicle parts. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand the topic we are involved in. Precise, unshaded hidden line drawings, plan, section, elevation, and axonometric offer us a carefully and logically articulated system of delineation appropriate for a bus terminal.


20% Attendance and Participation

Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.

Group meetings, regularly scheduled once per week allow us to share our research and constantly re-tune our method and approach to the material.

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 represented.

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative,  (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).

[2] Scott Thill, “William Gibson Talks Zero History, Paranoia and the Awesome Power of Twitter,” Wired Underwire Blog, posted September 7, 2010,

[3] Alex Galloway, “Cory Arcangel (Beige) and Paper Rad’s The Mario Movie" (2005) Michael Parsons, “Interview: Wired Meets William Gibson,” Wired UK posted October 13, 2010,

Continue reading “Terminal Condition. Spring 2012 Netlab Studio”

Driving in the Smart City

I recently had the opportunity to speak in a session on "Driving in the Smart City" at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona. Below is a recording of an expanded version of the talk that I gave.

As I said in the video, I don't have any specific expertise in the issue of driving in the smart city, but what I have to say in the talk is absolutely crucial to the issues covered in the session, the conference as a whole, and all forms of design.

My thinking about complexity and the dangers it poses for us has been evolving fast lately and I am convinced that this is some of the most important work I've ever done. The message is simple, but the implications are profound. To say "hope you enjoy" would not accurately describe my feelings. Let's try "hope you are moved to action, dialogue, or further reflection" instead.  


A Manifesto for Looseness from Kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

Continue reading “Driving in the Smart City”

Infrastructural City, New Jersey Style

Although the final nail hasn’t been hammered into the coffin, New Jersey governor Christopher Christie has unilaterally cancelled ARC (Access to the Region’s Core), new tunnel to connect New York City to New Jersey.

Now, ARC itself is a damaged project. Instead of ending in Penn Station or having any hope of exiting in a future Moynihan Station (the plan to reconstruct the Beaux-Arts post office across the street into a 21st century version of the glorious old Penn Station that used to greet travelers prior to the 1960s). But instead, due to politics and complexities of existing infrastructure, ARC was to terminate off-site and deep underground, making arrival at Moynihan station impossible and complicating connections to other rail lines. 

The Infrastructural City‘s lesson is that, if you give constituents and politicians enough power and you build a complex enough civilization in which notions of civil society are replaced by ideas of property rights, you are going to bring future growth to a crashing halt. So Los Angeles strangles on itself.    

The creative destruction of the New York City of consensus and big projects by a succession of mayors since Ed Koch certainly helped its recover. Finance has done very well and the city has become a playground for the wealthy even as manufacturing and the middle class have been eviscerated. But for now, the city is still unsustainable without the large numbers of commuters that work in the towers throughout Manhattan. This is a dirty secret that Manhattanites—including all too many architects and urbanists—don’t want to admit. I haven’t found a comprehensive source of statistics this morning, so my figures are a little cobbled together, still, at least 900,000 commuters enter into Manhattan every day via New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road, the Port Authority rail lines, and the buses that go in and out of Port Authority. In contrast, only some 628,000 workers from Manhattan work on the island (what do all the rest of the 1.2 million people do?) and some 880,000 workers from the other boroughs commute in. Now again, don’t rely on these figures too much, but still they seem to be roughly on target in suggesting that the majority of community into the city comes from the suburbs.

But infrastructure in and out to the suburbs is at a breaking point. Amtrak has been starved of funds for decades and its tracks and tunnels are in a horrific state of disrepair. Since New Jersey Transit has to share the Amtrak train lines in and out of the city, it has to face congestion caused by constant technical glitches on the aged, overstressed Amtrak lines. But since Amtrak owns the lines, it gets priority when only one of two tunnels is running in and out of the city.    

Now Christie’s constituency is residents who don’t commute to New York. On paper, his motivation is the opportunity to use ARC funding for highway repairs. Still, he’s a Republican and when they’re involved its hard not to imagine conspiracy theories. In particular, its plausible that part of the economic mess the country is in is due to the "Starve the Beast" policies of a generation of conservatives. Using profligate tax cuts, stave the beast was meant to create fiscal conditions that would force massive cuts in government services. The impossible situation that we face today is arguably the result. No matter how utterly incompetent the Obama administration has been, there is little question that their hands have been tied by the massive deficit and debt incurred by the Bush administration. If one applied this sort of reasoning to Christie’s move, its plausible to imagine that it’s an anti-city project, aimed to make commuting in and out of the city so much more difficult, thus forcing workers and—more importantly—corporations to either move into the city (unlikely, given current demographic flows) or to move further out into exurban areas. These, in turn, have historically been more conservative in nature (this has a bit to do with the lack of shared infrastructure, roads aside, and the insulation that exurbanites feel from the poor). So, in other words, canceling ARC is a foresighted move that will likely make it impossible for Christie to get re-elected (given the money and votes concentrated in the commuting suburbs) but will make it possible for a shift further rightward in state politics over the next several decades and, in turn, help undermine Manhattan’s future. 

Continue reading “Infrastructural City, New Jersey Style”

On Hipster Urbanism

Over at Fantastic Journal, Charles Holland writes about hipster urbanism, comparing the High Line, which turns infrastructure into tourism with the reopening of a train line in east London as…get this: a train line.

Hipster urbanism is hardly rare anymore. A short while back, I enjoyed a stroll on the Walkway Over the Hudson, a former railroad bridge in upstate New York. Near where I live in New Jersey a project is underway for a train line that leads into Hoboken. The idea of building a bike path to the city is laudable. After all, I could get a Brompton and ride to the PATH train and head to Studio-X. But note that not only do trains still use the line, the train company that owns it expects that use will expand in the next few years. So is riding my bike to the city really the best use of the line? Maybe industry is old hat? 

[Walkway over the Hudson]

In the countries once known as the developed world, we’ve replaced productivity with tourism. This is a prime difference between modernism and its successors, postmodernism and network culture. Few modernists could have understood relinquishing production. Think of Tony Garnier’s fabulous Une Cité Industrielle, for example. Today, however, industry plays little role in (formerly) developed economies like the United States or the United Kingdom. In the case of the former, where finance generated roughly 12% of the GDP in 1980 and industry generated around twice that, today the figures are reversed… and this has only been exacerbated by the economic crisis. 

Remember the Roger Rabbit conspiracy theories that General Motors paid to destroy the train system to favor the automobile? It’s hardly so simple, but surely as we are heading into a new century, we wouldn’t want to exacerbate those mistakes, would we?  


Continue reading “On Hipster Urbanism”

Complexity and Infrastructure

Yesterday’s New York Times has a piece by David Segal entitled "It’s Complicated: Making Sense of Complexity." It’s nice to see the New York Times reading my blog—and even using the same Thomas Cole image (The Course of Empire) that I’ve used before in discussing the topic to lead off the piece.

But it’s no surprise: the topic’s very much in the air now and I predict that by the end of this decade it’ll be commonly understood to be as big an issue for network culture as rigidity was for Fordism. 

If you’re interested in complexity as a problem—particularly with regard to infrastructure—please come to the next Netlab event, which takes place tomorrow, May 4 at 6.30pm EST at Columbia’s Studio-X Soho. For those of you outside of the city, no worries, there’ll be a ustream feed. Please find more here.   

Continue reading “Complexity and Infrastructure”

Read the Infrastructural City

I’m delighted to announce that the good people at have organized an online reading group to read the Infrastructural City. Find out more at their site

Like Networked Publics, the Infrastructural City has become a long-term project that goes beyond the bounds of Los Angeles. I’m currently immersed in the Network Culture book, but I have some plans for a follow-up article to my introduction in Infrastructural City later this year and maybe even a book some time later. 

Continue reading “Read the Infrastructural City”

Complexity and Contradiction in Infrastructure

I gave the following talk on Banham’s Los Angeles, non-plan, and infrastructure in the Ph.D. lecture series at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in November, 2009. 

Most of us are prone to hero worship. This talk sets out to address one a major problem in the work of one of the contemporary heros of architectural and planning historiography, Reyner Banham, and his advocacy of a (mythical) laissez-faire form of planning based on his reading of Los Angeles.

Below the talk I have embedded a video. Although today its considered bad practice to read lectures, I’ve started doing it again even if my delivery seems more stale. When you give ten lectures a term outside of school and when nearly every venue insists upon something custom, the practice of keynoting ex tempore from notes becomes a bit of a drag. Eventually you realize that with a little more work—and granted, a little worse delivery—your project could convery more, have more theoretical meaning, and be generative toward other projects. At the level of production that I’ve been trying to stay at lately, the only way to produce content is to follow the advice that Slavoj Zizek gave in the movie about him: everything either needs to be a spin-off or work toward the next major project.

This talk, then, is a spin off of my work toward the Infrastructural City but also sets out to tackle Banham critically (something that I’ve also done here), something I intend to take up soon.

Complexity and Contradiction in Infrastructure

The title of my talk refers to Robert Venturi’s 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, generally accepted as an inaugural text in postmodern architecture. For Venturi, the modernists failed because they strove for purity of form in. Venturi wrote:

“today the wants of program, structure, mechanical equipment, and expression, even in single buildings in simple contexts, are diverse and conflicting in ways previously unimaginable. The increasing dimension and scale of architecture in urban and regional planning add to the difficulties. I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties. By embracing contradiction as well as complexity, I aim for vitality as well as validity.”

In other words, Venturi suggested that architects rather than trying to sweep messes under the rug, architects embrace complexity and contradiction by introducing deliberate errors in their works.

Venturi concluded that an appropriate architectural response “must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.”

Note, however, that Venturi’s argument is historically specific:
“today the wants of program, structure, mechanical equipment, and expression, even in single buildings in simple contexts, are diverse and conflicting in ways previously unimaginable. The increasing dimension and scale of architecture in urban and regional planning add to the difficulties.”

This text, then, comes about at a transition point between late modernity and postmodernity and its virtue is that Venturi not only diagnosed a condition, he also suggested an architectural approach. Both of these suggested a schism from the modern, a move into a new condition. Today I want to talk about another phase in the era of complexity, which is why I cite Venturi at the outset. 

Along with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Venturi’s next book, the 1972 Learning From Las Vegas would tackle issues of signage, semiotics, automobility and the commercialization of the American city, flipping the valence on landscapes that had been roundly derided as degraded by architecture critics. But for the purposes of this talk, its worth noting that the authors original interest was in Los Angeles and the Yale studio that resulted in Learning from Las Vegas visited that city first. It may be that the more smaller and more picturesque of the two cities (unlike Vegas, Los Angeles has no central strip) proved more easily explainable.

For architects and historians of architecture (I file myself in the latter category), Reyner Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies took on the urban conditions in a more total approach. Banham set out to dissect the city as a total landscape—both geographically and historically, both physically and psychically—as well as in terms of its infrastructural, social, and architectural systems. In this, Banham’s work has been pathbreaking and The Infrastructural City uses his book as inspiration and as a point of departure, something that my subtitle Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles alludes to.

But Banham’s foremost innovation was to flip the valence on the historical evaluation of Los Angeles, praising precisely those qualities that others listed as irredeemable failings: its posturban sprawl; its lack of an overall plan; its chaotic, untamed signscape; its comical roadside architecture; its ubiquitous boulevards, parking lots, and freeways. 

Although we could ascribe this to a characteristic British fascination with the degraded, Banham also had a theoretical impetus. By the mid-1960s, he had become fascinated with the possibilities of what he called “non-plan,” a laissez-faire attitude toward urban planning, part of a larger project that he undertook along with Paul Barker, deputy editor of the magazine the New Statesman. In 1967, Barker ran excerpts from Herbert Gans’s The Levittowners “as a corrective to the usual we-know-best snobberies about suburbia.” At roughly the same time, Barker and Peter Hall set out with a “maverick thought… could things be any worse if there was no planning at all?” The result, strongly influenced by Banham’s writings in the magazine, was a special issue publshed in 1969 and titled “Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom.” Barker recalls, “We wanted to startle people by offending against the deepest taboos. This would drive our point home.” To this end Hall, Banham, and architect Cedric Price each took a section of the revered British countryside and blanketed it with a low-density sprawl driven by automobility. According to Barker the reaction was a “mixture of deep outrage and stunned silence.”

For Banham, Los Angeles stood as the greatest manifestation of Non-Plan to date. “Conventional standards of planning do not work in Los Angeles,” he wrote, “it feels more natural (I put it no stronger than that) to leave the effective planning of the area to the mechanisms that have already given the city its present character: the infrastructure to giant agencies like the Division of Highways and the Metropolitan Water District and their like; the intermediate levels of management to the subdivision and zoning ordinances; the detail decisions to local and private initiatives; with ad hoc interventions by city, State, and pressure-groups formed to agitate over matters of clear and present need.”

Now there’s some question as to how well Banham’s Los Angeles worked in the first place: it was in its worst period of air pollution in history, the freeways were wreaking devastation upon the city and the Watts Riots had just shaken any lingering mirage of Los Angeles as either a progressive metropolis or as paradise for the white middle class. Still, in his evaluation, Banham felt that the city—in his mind epitomized not by the Watts Riots but by the individualistic exuberance of Watts Towers— worked because it had no central plan. Rather, planning was left to the competing forces in the city, public and private.

If Banham set out against modernist urban planning, non-plan gave a theoretical basis for neoliberalist planning. Reducing the modernist ethical imperative to a question of fascination with the bottom-up to embrace “a messy vitality” (this is not Banham but Venturi’s term), modernism would be reduced from a question of morality and rational planning to a question of desire, both individual and institutional. The result parallels Manfredo Tafuri’s observation in Architecture and Utopia that the avant-garde’s singular accomplishment is not so much a physical change to the metropolis but rather an adjustment in how it is viewed. We can see this quite literally in Banham’s own role in his book: what remains at the end of the modern project is the experience of the city and the observer’s voyeuristic pleasure in the psychogeographic experience of drifting on the boulevards and freeways of the city.

But things have changed. For one, the 1970s were an era of limits for the city, the state, and country with the first large-scale economic recession since the war, the OPEC  energy crisis, Vietnam, and finally stagflation. If the late 1960s were a period of great social unrest, by the mid-1970s, such unrest had largely been reshaped into concerns with individual rights and self-realization, above all the right to property and to dispose of one’s wealth as one wants. Thus, the system of non-plan that Banham lauded would be institutionalized in California in 1978 with the passing of State Proposition 13, reducing property tax by 57% and mandating that future tax increases require a two-thirds majority in the state legislature. Two years later former California governor Ronald Reagan would become President and set out on a draconian program of reducing non-military governmental spending at a national level.

By the time that Reagan took office, with a decade of cutbacks caused by the combination of economic crises and funds being siphoned off for defense, due to dwindling urban tax roles caused by outmigration since the 1930s and due to the more natural phenomena of age, infrastructure was coming undone nationwide.

Thus in 1981, precisely at the instigation of the nation’s Californization (or, and I hesitate to suggest it, Californication?) economists Pat Choate and Susan Walters published a pamphlet for the Council of State Planning Agencies titled America in Ruins: Beyond the Public Works Pork Barrel. The pamphlet soon attracted a large amount of press attention, including a Newsweek cover story on August 2, 1982 entitled "The Decaying of America.” (August 2, 1982) and a US News and World Report story To Rebuild America: $2,500,000 Job, September 27, 1982. Literature searches suggest that is at this moment that infrastructure begins to gain popularity as a term. Infrastructure enters into the national consciousness during crisis.

But a Californicated America would have no room for public infrastructural spending. Instead, the exemplary infrastructures of the 1980s and 1990s—telecoms after deregulation, the mobile phones, the Internet—are privatized. Here, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron describe the legitimizing narrative for such ventures as the Californian Ideology, a union of hippie self-realization, neoliberal economics, and above all, privatization advocated by Silicon Valley pundits like Stewart Brand editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of Wired Magazine. As Barbrook and Cameron suggest, the growth of Silicon Valley and indeed, California as a whole, was made possible only due to exploitation of the immigrant poor and defense funding. Los Angeles, after all, became the country’s foremost industrial city in the postwar period, largely due to defense contracts at aerospace firms. So, government subsidies for corporations and exploitation of non-citizen poor: a model for future administrations. 
But there’s more to infrastructural crisis then neoliberal economic policy. Once again Banham and Los Angeles provide a reference point. Banham describes the ecologies of Los Angeles as dominated by an individualism that allows architecture to flourish. But such a model of the city is insufficient. In the Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles, William Fulton describes Los Angeles as an exemplar of what Harvey Molotch calls “the city as growth machine.” In this model, certain industries—primarily the finance and real estate industries—dominate urban politics with the intention of expanding their businesses. Newspapers too endorse the growth machine as a way of expanding their subscription base and selling real estate ads. Moreover,  arts organizations such as the symphony, opera, and art museums are also beholden to the model of the city as growth machine.These interests promote a naturalized view of growth in which we are simply not to question that cities will always get bigger or that they should always get bigger.

By the 1960s, however, homeowner discontent about encroaching sprawl led individuals to band together to form homeowner groups. The first of these was the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, which protested the construction of a four-lane highway in place of scenic Mulholland Drive. Soon, homeowners teamed with environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club to create a regional park in the Santa Monica Mountains to prevent further development in their back yards. By the time that Proposition 13 passed, Angelenos were set against the growth machine and with it, too, the big infrastructure necessary to drive it or even the projects necessary to repair it.   

The result, then, is a long, steady process of infrastructural decay, privatized infrastructure acting as a layer or retrofit onto a decaying public infrastructure.
It’s in this context, then, that we must situate both Venturi and Banham, as transitional approaches to the material, reducing questions of complexity to form matters, which of course is not too uncommon in architecture. In Venturi’s case, complexity is produced through form, in Banham’s case formal complexity is produced by the laissez-faire city.

Now I’d like to turn to some contradictions that emerge out of this condition. First, we could sense a threat to the vaunted neoliberal individual rights from failing infrastructure.  Some of these are quite obvious: the inconvenience of traffic and long commutes but also the potholes that (in Los Angeles) cause an average of $746 of damage annually per automobile, collapsing bridges, energy crises caused by privatization such as electricity grids failing and refineries going offline indefinitely (here the city of Los Angeles, which has not privatized its power wound up ahead of the rest of the state during the crisis that brought down Gray Davis during Enron’s salad days).
Neoliberalism thus exacerbates what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls “risk society.” Banham’s autopia isn’t a risk free world, but rather a condition in which risk and threat are everyday factors, creating a contradiction within capitalism. Beck:

“… everything which threatens life on this Earth also threatens the property and commercial interests of those who live from the commodification of life and its requisites. In this way a genuine and systematically intensifying contradiction arises between the profit and property interests that advance the industrialization process and its frequently threatening consequences, which endanger and expropriate possessions and profits (not to mention the possession and profit of life).” (Beck 1992: 39)

* * *
Now if environmentalism was in part, a movement created by homeowner desires to protect their rights, we would expect that infrastructural collapse (or for that matter the state of California schools) would also be of concern to homeowners and corporations, but in California, Proposition 13 and a politics of stalemate make it impossible to act. Even as voters seek mandates to restore services, the state is hamstrung by the legislature’s terror of touching Proposition 13, which is known as the “third rail” of state politics. Last month the Guardian asked “Will California become America’s first failed State?”

I want to be stress that in other respects conditions have intensified, moving postmodernism to another phase. Take risk. Environmentalism has been thoroughly capitalized as the green movement, with the Californian ideology now promising to save us from global warming through technological means. Crisis becomes profitable.
Crisis becomes profitable.

On to my last two points. Profit, as Robert Brenner tells us in the economics of global turbulence has become a problem, in part because of some of the problems that face infrastructure. Massive investment in fixed capital make it impossible to abandon when more efficient structures elsewhere threaten. The most familiar aspect of this, of course, is the rise of Chinese industry and the evacuation of American production. But infrastructure is of equal concern. Infrastructure, like other technologies, follows a classic S-curve, in which initially steep returns per dollar invested are followed by diminishing returns as the curve flattens.

The results, for the country have been devastating. California, together with Soho and Boston appeared to enjoy massive growth in high technology, particularly telecommunications and digital technology, during the last three decades. But much of this growth happened not in terms of production, but rather in finance, both in the lucrative financial instruments that accompanied public offerings and in terms of technology that made ever more complex financial operations possible.
Traditional profits, in this context, were considered devalued in comparison with the profits obtainable. Jeffrey Nealon in Foucault Beyond Foucault suggests that in this sort of operation, the classic equation that Marx observed in Capital of M-C-M’ is now rewritten as M-M’, in other words, capital leads to capital growth without any intervening commodity.

The result, then, is a bit of what we saw this spring when, after President-Elect Obama made a YouTube speech calling for a WPA 2.0 as an economic stimulus, he turned away from infrastructure in the actual stimulus bill. Blame has been laid on Obama’s chief economic advisor Larry Summers.

But how the Democrats (or in California, Schwarzenegger) are going to get out of this mess is entirely unclear. Economic indicators suggest that the country will endure a long term period of stagnation, different from, but reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. This month, the New York Times reported that unemployment and underemployment now stands at 17.5%, the highest level since the Great Depression. Official unemployment in California now stands at 12%. These are staggering numbers. The state is making cutbacks while raising tuitions at the University of California system, leading to mass student protests and the regents macing students. California leads the nation again, it seems.

If the restructuring of the 1980s destroyed manufacturing, this decade’s recession has mowed down the creative class and the financial sectors. In the latest New Left Review, Gopal Balakrishnan suggests that we have entered into a stationary state, a long period of systemic stagnation. As he points out, Adam Smith never expected the wealth of nations to improve perpetually but rather expected it would come to an end in the nineteenth century as resources were exhausted. Capital’s perpetual growth would have been a mystery to him.
To conclude then, I want to return to where I started, the theme of complexity. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately, re-reading archealogist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. 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, Tainter observes, they become more complex, especially in terms of communication. A highly advanced society is highly differentiated and highly linked. That 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 10.6, my car, the train, and so on.

This is the contemporary system at work, and it’s characteristic of the bureaucratized nature of complex societies. On the one hand, 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. But in reality, not only is this dysfunction necessary for the operation of the service economy, these kinds of entities rub up against each other, exhibiting cascading failure effects that produce untenable conditions.

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 not just catastrophe but collapse, which Tainter defines as a greatly diminished level of complexity.

Just as rigidity was the failure point for Fordism, complexity is the failure point for post-Fordism. In this light, the culture of congestion valorized by Koolhaas is undone by the energy costs of that complexity.

Now I agree with Tainter when he concludes that the only hope to forestall the collapse of a complex society is technological advance. I’d argue that this is what’s driving the field of networked urbanism at the moment. But, 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 cool kids at LIFT and SXSW are dreaming up are too little, too late.

Technology itself is already 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 more Mike Davis than Reyner Banham, something few have caught on to yet.

We should have taken our lumps when the 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.

So we need to develop a 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.

Now 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, perhaps we can imagine a better future.  

I want to conclude by talking about whether I’m a pessimistic or an optimist since I’m apparently being accused of being a pessimist at all my talks recently (parenthetically, I’ll add, I suppose that’s better than being accused of being an optimist). Back to Los Angeles: anyone visiting Hollywood Boulevard is accosted by attractive young men and women asking if one is an optimist or a pessimist. The next step is being lured into the Scientology Center to take a test. Maybe we’re better off not taking that test, but rather looking at reality, not a future scripted by a science fiction writer.

Second, I’m afraid that academe is a bit infected by Prozac culture these days. Hope would be fine if we had a President who seemed to have an ability to deal with the issues or if the alternative to this one wasn’t so deeply frightening.



Complexity and Contradiction of Infrastructure from kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

Continue reading “Complexity and Contradiction in Infrastructure”

Interview with Joseph Tainter on Collapse

Archeologist Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies has done much to shape my thinking about our contemporary predictament. Issue 20 of Volume Magazine carried an interview I did with Tainter earlier this year but since the interview had to be cut down to fit the graphic design required by Volume, I thought I should post it online in its entirety.


KV: In your book you argue that civilizational collapse, as it took place in ancient societies such as the Chou Dynasty in China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Rome is “a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by complexity and why it leads to collapse?


JT: I approach complexity from the perspective of an anthropologist. In our field one of the oldest questions is how and why human societies evolved from relatively simple and undifferentiated to complex and highly differentiated. Complexity in the framework I use consists of two components: structural differentiation and organization. Structural differentiation refers to the development of new categories of social roles, institutions, information, settlements, occupations, technologies, etc. Organization is how those are constrained so that they behave to form a system. If everydone does as they please there is no organization, and structural elements cannot form a system. Organization limits and channels behavior. So increasing complexity consists of increasing differentiation of structure combined with increasing organization. With a collapse, an established level of complexity is quickly lost.


KV: So as civilizations develop, you conclude, they differentiate—for example, by creating highly specialized social roles—and build greater and greater levels of organization that require higher investment of energy to maintain. Eventually the marginal returns on investment decline and civilizations either figure out how to deal with that situation or collapse. You note that from the perspective of humans as a species and hominadae as a family, complexity is quite unusual. Most of our existence has been in small settlements or nomadic groups that have relatively little differentiation and low levels of complexity.


Today we are living in the most complex society that has ever existed, yet we’ve avoided collapse thus far. Why is that?


JT: Diminishing returns to complexity are probably inevitable, but collapse doesn’t necessarily follow. Collapses are actually not that common. There are several ways to cope with diminishing returns to complexity. One is to find energy subsidies to pay for the process. That is what we have done with fossil fuels. And it is a big part of why a future crisis in fossil fuels is the most important thing we should be worrying about.


KV: All but a few geologists suggest that a decline in fossil fuel extraction is inevitable. In 1998 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah said "The oil boom is over and will not return… All of us must get used to a different lifestyle." Are we doomed?


JT: The critical point is when we reach peak oil. This is the point where 50% of recoverable reserves have been extracted. At this point, production might be kept level for a few years with heroic efforts, but soon production will start to decline. And every year after that there will be less oil available than the year before. One of the challenges with peak oil is that you know you’ve passed it only in hindsight. So there is naturally controversy about how close it is. Some analysts think we have passed it already, but the effect is masked by the economic downturn. How badly peak oil affects us depends on how quickly we bring alternative energy production systems into place. If we delay too long, the party will be over. This is a real danger. Developing new energy sources is the most important thing we can do.


KV: What about technological innovation? The spread of digital technology, the Internet, and mobile technology contributed to the economic recovery during the last fifteen years. There has been a bit of talk about innovating our way out of this recession too, for example through urban computing, green architecture, or investment in new kinds of infrastructure. Is such optimism in technological solutions warranted? Are there pitfalls to it? Are there other means by which we can avoid collapse?


JT: Short answer: It’s complicated. Long answer: Technological-innovation-as-savior is part of our cosmology. It is a fundamental part of our beliefs, so frequently we don’t think about it rationally. Relying on technological innovation to find some solution is what I call a faith-based approach to the future. There are two things about technological innovation that concern me. The first is that, like other endeavors, research grows complex and costly and can reach diminishing returns. This is covered in the Collapse book so I won’t elaborate here. The second problem is what is known as the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, pointed out that in the long run technological innovations aimed as at using less of a resource actually lead to even more of the resource being used. His example was coal, but the principle applies across the board. As technological innovation leads to economy in using a resource, people respond to the lower cost by using even more. I conclude from this that technological innovations can offer only short-term advantages. They quickly become outdated, then the next round of innovations may be harder to achieve.


KV: Beyond outright collapse, is it possible to have partial collapses of complexity? Given that I go to see my parents in Lithuania frequently, I am fascinated by the ruins of the Soviet Empire. This wasn’t an outright collapse, but certainly a major level of social organization was shed.


JT: The term “collapse” has, of course, many colloquial meanings, and often it is applied to the demise of political entities. For academic purposes I prefer to use it to mean a rapid, substantial loss of complexity. With the end of the Soviet Union there was certainly some reduction in complexity, coming mainly in the form of a diminishing of organizational control. But this was not comparable with the loss of complexity in western Europe at the end of the Western Roman Empire. So the end of the Soviet Union may have been like other collapses in some ways, but it was not similar in scale.


KV: Similarly, I wonder about the role complexity played in this recession. If the popular sentiment was—until quite recently—that all of our access to information turned financial decision into a very rational enterprise, this turned out to be utterly false. One of the key problems with the financial instruments such as tranches and collateralized debt obligations is that they were simply too difficult for most people, even the MBAs, to understand. Is this recession an attempt of the system to get rid of toxic complexity?


JT: Keep in mind that complexity emerges to solve problems. In regard to the economic crisis, part of the problem was insufficient complexity. Remember that complexity includes both differentiation of structure and increase in organization. The financial business had over the last few years innovated new structures—new fiscal products such as derivatives. This was not met by an increase in organization, which would have involved regulation and government oversight. The problem emerged because the financial system (involving both the private and public sectors) was not complex enough. Now it appears that the government will add the organization, but of course too late in regard to the current crisis.


KV: Yes, of course, you’re right. Corporations strove to create deregulated business environments and yet all that seems to have backfired.


Let me bring up one more example: I recently edited a book exploring the fate of infrastructure in Los Angeles, although it could really have been any major city in any developed country. Our conclusion was that the sort of infrastructure that we built in the early 20th century—think of Wililam Mulholland constructing the Los Angeles aqueduct to carry water down two hundred, twenty-there miles from the Owens River or the city’s freeways—is a thing of the past. As individuals became more concerned with their property values and quality of life, they also became more adept at defending them. Homeowner’s organizations, neighborhood groups, and ad hoc alliances of community residents are incredibly good at making sure that infrastructural interventions will not impact them and displace such projects or forestall their construction. At the same time, public agencies have also become keen experts at defending their turf. Infrastructure, we observed, follows a curve of diminishing returns. Adding another lane to an overcrowded city freeway, for example, would cost a tremendous amount of money—likely a billion dollars a mile—and cause massive disruption, but would only alleviate congestion for a few years. As semi-autonomous systems interfere with each other, layers of complexity form that can be very hard to get adequate returns from.


JT: Public involvement in governmental decision-making generates what I call an escalation dynamic. It is a like an arms race, but of course usually non-lethal. As public groups become successful at contesting government decisions, government agencies must get better at formulating and defending those decisions. This drives up costs. In the U.S. Forest Service (where I once worked and saw this process in operation) this came to be called “analysis paralysis.” Then, as the government gets better at defending decisions, public groups must themselves become better at contesting decisions. They also must raise money for lawyers and specialists. The cost of both formulating and challenging decisions is driven upward in a spiral.


Adding an extra lane to a freeway does, of course, put one in the realm of diminishing returns. But I realized long ago that such projects are not only about transportation. They are equally about politics, interest groups, and employment. The decisions will therefore not necessarily be economically rational.


KV: Modern architects believed that architecture would be able to solve society’s problems by creating more powerful systems of organization to get rid of malfunctioning, older ones. In the 1960s and 1970s, all this changed. Architects began to find ways to value complexity and congestion. In his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction, Robert Venturi all but defined the future trajectory of the field by suggesting that complexity should be embraced by architects living in a complex culture. In other words, he called for architects to abandon the modernist idea of forcing a simple building to hold a complex program and complicated physical plant. Instead, Venturi advocated complex buildings that would acknowledge the contradictions inherent in highly organized life to the extent that they even anticipated their own failures. Meanwhile in his 1978 Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas suggested that congestion was what made cities vital. If these books animated much of architectural thought into the last decade,

it strikes me that we are now in a time of over-complexity and over-congestion, a period in which complexity is getting away from us. Whether its trying to get a new subway built in New York, a high speed rail line built between San Francisco and Los Angeles, managing my insurance policy or just getting my universal remote to work, the levels of complexity we’ve built appear to be spiraling out of control. And then of course there’s peak oil looming. It’s not clear to me what we do in such a situation. Do you have any thoughts on this?


JT: Congestion does not necessarily equal complexity (in my conception). Congestion may mean a lack of complexity (insufficient organization). The irony of complexity is that it simplifies. That is, elaboration of structure and organization simplifies and channels behavior. Isn’t this was Le Corbusier was trying to accomplish? Le Corbusier wanted to design complex systems—systems that were highly structured and organized. The trouble is that in the human realm you can’t design a truly complex system from the top down. The Soviets tried that, as did the Brazilians with Brasilia.


A few years ago I was asked to talk at TTI Vanguard, a group that sponsors quarterly workshops on cutting-edge issues in information technology. The topic was “The Challenge of Complexity.” The first talk was by a computer professor at UCLA who was originally from New York. He used Holland Tunnel to illustrate network congestion, implying that it had a problem of complexity. When a stoplight was added at Holland Tunnel, traffic throughput improved. When it came my turn to talk I pointed out that the problem of Holland Tunnel was insufficient complexity—that is, insufficient organization. The stoplight increased organization, simplyfying the system and making it function better.


KV: I was struck by how in Collapse you suggest that collapse was actually preferable for many of the people who experienced it.


JT: Western European peasants saw their taxes drop and probably saw more of their children survive. But times became more violent and less certain. In the Maya area, perhaps 1,000,000 people died around the time of the Maya collapse. It’s a matter of perspective. For those who survive, life may be better. But usually it is not better for the elites.


KV: How do we survive this period of diminishing returns and crisis? As a civilization and as individuals? How do we live with crisis?


JT: I am often asked questions like this, and I am less optimistic now that I once was. Certainly we need new energy sources or the future will be very unpleasant. But new energy creates its own problems, which in time we will have to address. We can foresee this with nuclear energy and its waste. Even so-called "green" energy sources will be environmentally damaging. All of our adaptations are short term. They solve immediate problems but set the stage for future problems. Eric Sevareid once said "The chief source of problems is solutions." He was right, but that does not mean that we forego solutions. I like to use an athletic metaphor to think about sustainability. It is possible to lose—to become unsustainable and collapse. But the converse does not hold. There is no point at which we have "won"—become sustainable forever. Success consists of staying in the game.

Continue reading “Interview with Joseph Tainter on Collapse”