on battle suits

Over at io9.com, Matt Jones writes a blog post entitled “The City is a Battle Suit for Surviving the Future.” It’s a provocative piece, the child of bldgblog (or at least a euphoric interpretation of it) plus Dan Hill’s polemics at the City of Sound and has received a bit of attention in the networked urbanism/urban computing blogosphere of late.

Jones traces a history of visionary future architectures as a means of guiding designers through the proximate future of networked urbanism. The origin point, for Jones’s history, is provided by Archigram, the British visionary architecture group of the 1960s and 1970s and their canniness in exploiting contemporary technology. In particular, he is intrigued by Archigram’s vision of a future in which urban technologies make the city more of an agent in our lives. Jones calls for designers to envision an activated urbanism, shaped by the invisible forces of networked computation.

Now I’ve argued as much myself, see for example my essay years ago in Future City. i’m sympathetic to this call for designers, but let’s back up here for a minute and, as we breathe deeply, put Archigram into its context a little.

Archigram’s work was all too easily instrumentalized by neoliberal ideologues and the corporate world. Take the first major built eruption of high tech, Rogers and Piano’s Centre Pompidou, which Jones cites as a direct descendent of Archigram. Now, it’s hard not to get inspired by Centre Pompidou, just as its hard not to get inspired by Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards or the Paris Opéra. But all are the products of a long war successfully waged against the Paris’s poor and its history. Pompidou was a sop for the destruction of the markets at Les Halles, but it was also the first great exemplar of the ability of architecture to cement a cultural turn in urbanism, e.g. the  Bilbao-Effect, thus insisting that the new Paris was nothing more than a defanged capital of culture. Jean Baudrillard would later call it “an incinerator absorbing all the cultural energy and devouring it…” The structure, he explained, was “a monument of cultural deterrence,” standing in for the disappearance of any culture of meaning, a disappearance that the building didn’t so much usher along as erase (an erasure of an erasure). At the Pompidou, culture became absorbed into the postmodern hypermarket, forever reduced to a flow within the endless circuits of capital, with architecture as a conduit for that flow. The next great monument of high tech was, of course, Rogers’s Lloyd’s of London, the British insurance market where the future, as risk, was traded as a financial instrument.

By the time that ground was broken on the Pompidou, the neo-avant-garde had left high tech far behind and Archigram was being slow-hand-clapped off stages by students who felt more bored than provoked. The Italian radicals Superstudio and Archizoom had displaced Archigram, their ambiguous, immutable, solitary objects countering Archigram’s techno-utopia (to take a term from Felicity Scott). Archigram were fundamentally modernist at heart, eager to see their visions realized in a capitalist utopia but the Italian radicals set out to critique the system, exacerbating its operations in works that were more dystopian than utopian.

Thus, when Jones invokes Warren Ellis’s comic series The Authority to conclude that cities are the best battle suits we have, I wonder if his rhetoric hasn’t revealed this fundamental problem with networked urbanism. Critique is a thing of the past for most of us, as antiquated as Archigram and its earnest modernity might have seemed in the early 1990s. When I began teaching at SCI-Arc, fifteen years ago, slides of Walking City raised chuckles among my students and I would have to explain its historical importance. How times have changed. But the research being done into networked urbanism is tied very closely to industry and even to military operations (how distinct are these under network culture anyway?). As we cheer on the latest (literal) battle suit, do we ask how these technologies will be deployed in the Iraqs and Afghanistans of the future? Or how the devices with which we activate the city control us and allow us to be tracked? Projects that critically interrogate the sentient city, as for example Mark Shepard’s Hertzian Rain does, are precious few.

i’m finishing this post while riding in a bus hurtling through a tunnel under the Hudson and it’s great to have the possibility to do this. But my fear is that some theorists have argued against critique and self-reflection for so long that a new generation doesn’t even have an inkling of how to practice it. I don’t mean we should head back to the early 1990s, but just as intelligent thinkers like Matt Jones can recapture Archigram as a model, I hope that we can recapture critique as well.


Yesterday a blog post inadvertently leaked to the published side of the site. It’ll be back, just as soon as the other 3/4 of the post are written.