if you see something, say something

After 9/11, "If you see something, say something" appeared at bus shelters and train stops throughout the United States. The New York City MTA’s is below.   

MTA see something image

The other day, as I was walking to the Watchung Plaza train stop to ride the train into the city, I saw this strange, solar-powered device chained to a metal post on the underside of the rairload bridge. Days later it was still there.  

image of mystery object under bridge

No doubt this is some kind of metering unit, but it lacks any explanation. I saw something, should I say something? Who should I call? What sound I do next?  Is it ok for mysterious boxes to just appear like this?

Instinctively, I say yes, that cities are ultimately filled with such objects and their mystery has the capacity to arouse in us a deep fascination and to encourage the imagination to take flight.


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seven for 2007

It’s time to take one last look back at 2007. For AUDC, the Netlab, and myself it was a great year, as AUDC’s Blue Monday hit the bookstores and as the Netlab brought two books—the Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles and Networked Publics—to press. The latter contains my conclusion on the Rise of Network Culture, a text that I ambitiously crafted as being one of the first attempts to periodize this moment. The reaction to it has been incredibly favorable and I look forward to seeing what people have to say when it hits print this fall. In other news, the Netlab began working at Columbia’s Studio-X space in Soho as I spent more time blogging on this site than I have in a while.

But what about the wider world? What were the trends that struck me as significant this year in architecture and network culture? This list may strike someone who isn’t familiar with varnelis.net as Borgesian, but remember that the Netlab’s mission is to study the impact of digital technologies together with electronic and social networks on architecture and the city. These developments have a critical impact on the field: how (or whether) we choose to understand them is key.

Many of these are end-game scenarios, but this shouldn’t be surprising if the rise of network culture obsoletes earlier sociocultural forms.

1. The Decline of the City, the Rise of the City

So let’s start with a condition of closure. Nearly every time I go into the city, I lament its passing. In its stead rises a fabulous machine for consumption, a playground for the global élite. Banish any thought that this city is still the place to meet others unlike yourself—Louis Wirth’s great insight that urbanism was first and foremost a way of life. The result is that the global city is, more and more, a metropolitan version of American girl town. But if a lament is necessary, its also the symptom of an aging cultural critic. So let’s not go there. Closure brings new opportunities.

After all, Jean Gottmann re-mapped the city as megalopolis for us back in 1961. Today the suburb, not the inner city, is increasingly the first stopping point for immigrants, a new mixing-ground, the place where a new urbanism is emerging. What new cultural forms will this new city, writ large, produce? France seems ahead of us in this with le Parkour and French Democracy, What else might be out there?

2. The End of Privacy

Speaking of end-game scenarios, how about the utter and complete decline of privacy in our lives? We live in a world worthy of Orwell, in which every action in our lives is increasingly transparent while the government operates in a state of exception, shrouded in mystery, operating a war without end. Nor is this only a question of the individual’s relationship to the state. With the rise of social networking sites and blogs, the boundaries between public and the private are blurred. Make no mistake, this transition is as great as that from the bourgeois public sphere to the age of mass media and will have similar architectural implications. If transparency was one of the foundational principles of modernism and if it remains so in our own architecture, what of it when, like modernization, it is no longer a goal but a default condition?

3. The Return of Big Computing

How is all that information that we are leaving behind being processed? What does it mean that social networking sites pull our attention away from PCs and onto massive, centralized sites? How about the rise of networked applications such as Google docs together with online mail storage? Key software publishers such as such as Adobe suggest that in the near future they will be switching, at least in part, to an on-demand model of software in which users rent applications from on-line sources. One of the hottest trends in web browser development in 2007 was the rise of Site-Specific Browsers.

The result is the emergence of vast server farms and the erosion of the decentralized model of networked computation. Late Fordist computing was big and centralized around mainframes while digital culture focussed on the discreet PC. In its first phase, network culture promised a peer-to-peer model even if it never delivered that, but now this is giving way to big computing.

If so, what are the implications for urbanism? Remember that the growth of the global city has in many ways been the product of its role as a command-and-control center in flows of information and capital. This has been made possible by the decentralized model of large telecom hotels located near key financial centers. But if more centralized than the distributed model that the Californian ideology promised—and thereby ideal platforms for surveillance—telecom hotels still consisted of a multiplicity of individual servers. These too are likely to be replaced by cloud computing, in which virtual servers will be rented from the big players like Amazon or Google. The result is the impending end of the telecom hotel and the rise of utility computing in its stead. Utility computing isn’t a bad name for what this new model will be like. Demanding vast amounts of space and power of these server farms will likely be located far from city cores in places like the Dalles, Oregon.

Coupled with new technologies for bringing the net to the home or office—for example, Verizon FiOS—that are being deployed first in suburbs instead of in cities, the computational drive toward urban centralization may be fading.

One consequence could be that we’ll see a lot of the "creative industries" going suburban to take advantage of faster online speeds, lower rents, and a less exhausted urban condition over the next half decade.

4. Systems not Sites

2008 is the Web’s fifteenth anniversary. But the old Web is dead. We just don’t build Web sites from HTML anymore. If you have a site, it’s run by a content management system. Now some backwards sites still rely on Flash, but they’re easy to identify: they haven’t been updated in two years. Instead, most sites that people I know operate or own are either built on Open Source database-driven systems based on modularity and interoperability or hosted on server farms.

Could there be any connection here at all to architecture? Well, if our virtual spaces operate on such principles, why are our real spaces still based on handicraft, low-quality labor, and thoroughly proprietary (the more so, the more "advanced" they purport to be)?

Sure, scripting is all the rage now (having taken over from parametrics), but for the most part this has aimed at producing "cool" design without taking any responsibility for it. Nothing new about that since Eisenman’s House series in the early 1970s. Is there any chance that architecture can figure out network culture before its shown the door?

5. Goodbye, Bilbao

On a related note, one of the most pernicious influences in architecture over the last decade has been the Bilbao-effect, the idea that architecture could effect urban change simply by looking cool.

Sure, it worked for Bilbao—maybe everybody was just so shocked by Gehry’s only decent building in thirty years—but 2007 was the year in which it became clear that this idea was thoroughly played out. Just who is going to go to Toledo to see SANAA’s Glass Pavilion, let alone Roanoke to see Randall Stout’s Art Museum of Western Virginia?

There’s no question that the Bilbao-Effect has been bad for architecture, validating long-obsolete practices and putting the focus on visibility precisely at a moment when invisibility should have been the focus. Take scripting again, its painfully retardataire, obsessing with form rather than program.

Remember the 1960s, when Philip Johnson museums sprouted everywhere from Utica to Lincoln, Nebraska? Or the 1980s, when every city thought it needed a stadium and convention center to attract businesses until Richard Florida encouraged them to think what that they really needed was an art museum and a gay district?

So too, this fad will pass. Watch the Bilbao-Effect take on water as the real estate bust continues into the next year and begins to negatively affect tax rolls. Architects better make sure they’re not so thoroughly identified with cool form that the discipline suffers heavy damage. After all, the alliance of big architecture, big business, and big government has gone awry once twice—in 1929 and 1968—and it nearly meant the end of the discipline the second time.

[Interesting historical note: 1968 – 1929 = 38. 2007 – 1968 = 38. Meaningless no doubt, unless perhaps you believe in Kondratieff waves but interesting to think about how when we refer to 1968 as our formative cultural moment, we are referring to something as distant in time from us as Black Friday was from 68.]

6. The Bust

Which bring us to… the bust in residential real estate. Like the Economist, I have been predicting this for a while and it’s finally here. And like anything that’s been around too long, the boom bred all sorts of badness as it lasted too long. As a consequence, it may well be harder to pull out of this one than it was to pull out of the great recession of the early 1990s.

It’s going to be tricky for the profession not to take on heavy damage in the next year, even with China and Dubai (themselves not very stable propositions) offering work to many. I hope everyone has their paper architecture skills honed. For a short time, at least, paper architecture could be a good thing. The boom has been going for so long that its exhausted the profession thoroughly.

Take Rem, for example, I suppose it’s nice that he’s building the CCTV tower and all, but during the 1990s he was one of the great thinkers in the field. He hasn’t had anything interesting to say since Junkspace and that was pre-9/11 and while Porto was certainly a great building to visit, what happened to immensely intelligent urban plans like Melun-Senart or Yokohama? I was talking to one colleague. In his view, this was no surprise. Rem is going to be able to collect social security a year from now and he’s said everything he would ever say. Could be. But there are plenty of thinkers who do great works in their sixties, unless of course they’re off chasing their retirement dollars in China and Dubai. And Rem is only one example. Architecture needs practice from time to time to thrive, remember when Praxis (a journal I greatly admire) was founded as a counter to the world of paper architecture and bad theory? But architecture needs down time too and its state of continuous partial attention is, well, increasingly irritating and pointless. The same can be said of culture as a whole. Let’s have a good recession and get some good music and art out of it for a change, ok?

7. The iPhone

It’s hard to deny the impact of the iPhone. Even with all of its faults—the most awful network in the country, a locked-down interface, and an interface that has its quirks, such as no cut and paste—its a remarkable achievement. For now it unites the iPod and the cell phone, but what’s more interesting is that the iPhone is roughly as powerful as a 2002 vintage iMac.

Nor is it unimportant that even as Apple and AT&T proved themselves to be part of the old economy, locking down the platform not just once but repeatedly, a guerilla army of developers successfully broke Apple’s code. Among the programs already available for the iPhone are a Last.FM scrobbler, Navzon’s simulated-GPS locator that works by triangulating your distance from cell phone towers, and a program that uploads photographs you take immediately to Flickr.

Hundreds of thousands (and just possibly over a million) users have jailbroken their phones, downloading programs onto them and something like one in six went a step further to unlock them to use non-AT&T SIMs. For comparison’s sake, Apple only sold 4 million iPhones. This means that hacking firmware is no longer only for the elite anymore. If you haven’t done so yet, it’s easy… just click this naughty link. Whether Apple gave in or whether this was their canny intention all along, they are releasing a developer kit and opening the iPhone for third-party applications in February.

If Apple opens up the iPhone enough and if Navizon allows hooks into their system from other applications, then the era of mass locative media will be upon us very rapidly in 2008. And if that doesn’t happen, then the upcoming Google Phone likely will do that too.

But in this interesting post, Chris Messina suggests that there’s something disappointing about this situation. Messina, an advocate of web-based applications, suggests that the iPhone could have been the first real web-driven platform. Now I think there is something interesting here since web apps are in many ways easier to code for (at least for me). There are rumors that the next iPhone update will allow Safari bookmarks to be saved as icons on the iPhone, something that relegated web apps to second-class citizens thus far. If, I differ with Messina in thinking that a forced march into web apps was a bad idea and if I’ve suggested that there are problems with the web apps model (see #3 above), there is potential here that could be exploited. Of course, I’ve also said things about web apps in item #3, so exercise some degree of caution as you throw away the CDs for your software.

Alright, enough of 2007. More than half of its last day has passed. Time to pay my final bills of the year, grade my final essays of the year and hope that the former will be smaller, the latter much better in 2008. Stay tuned tomorrow for a surprise or two on the blog.

No doubt there’s much more to say about this past year. As always, I’d love to hear about it. Comment away.

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on architecture’s relationship to the city

So I am listening to a particularly beautiful version of one of a songs by my favorite band, Underworld (Rick’s Down Ambient Mix of Born Slippy.nuxx to be precise) and began the usual Internet-dérive, drifiting about to look at different things on the net. 

I ran across this description of how Karl Hyde comes up with his lyrics. Underworld’s lyrics are, in a certain sense meaningless. Trying to find what the words mean will generally result in madness, but in fact they are out to convey affect, in the case of Born Slippy.nuxx, to get across the feeling of being completely plastered, reduced, as Karl says, to a piece of meat and absorbing little snapshots of the city. An excerpt:

Where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics from, Karl?

For me, there is an inherent beauty in the city. I see the city as a very very beautiful place. Even the underside of it. There’s a beauty even in the kind of… the forceful presentation of something. As long as it’s meant with no malice or anger or violence, there’s a beauty in its energy.

What is ‘Born Slippy’ – a dream? A dream come true? Or is it your view of reality?

In the simplest form, it’s me walking through the streets of Soho trying to get back home to Romford in Essex. I was referring to myself reduced to a piece of meat, due to the fact that I’d drunk too much. The bigger story is that I’m fascinated by the kind of snapshots that one retains when you’ve had a couple of drinks. These kind of very precise snapshots one has of a little piece of street, or of a rubbish bin, or of a tape-recorder… I’m talking about being like a hoover, hoovering up all the images and the sounds and the smells of the city. Because after all it’s cities that would inspire me.

But that gets me to why I’m writing this…of all the arts architecture is unique in that it seems largely unable to embrace the world as found. Instead, captivated by luxurious finishes and new materials, this field seems to be stuck in the creation of utopian fantasies best suited for Wallpaper* magazine. Now I don’t want to retread the well-worn ground of everyday urbanism, which set out not to recapture the as found as much as to find the beauty in the everyday, the little miracles. Instead, I want to ask if there is any way to capture the roughness of the street just at the moments in which it seems to be leaving us…

Certainly AUDC is interested in these qualities, but we aren’t out to build are we? What about the New Brutalism? What about some of Venturi’s best work (e. g. the Lieb House)? The Gehry House? Or is polish (real or phenomenological) mandatory for architects today? 


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is gentrification the new urban blight?

Thanks to Archinect for this Psychology Today article on the importance of diversity in cities. Today, the conventional wisdom points to the unpredictability and creativity that one finds in cities as essential for network culture. Outsourcing may work, but not for work demanding innovation.

Alas, as I’ve been suggesting for quite some time now, we have a new kind of urban blight emerging in places like New York, San Francisco and Boston. In “The Embers of Gentrification” at New York Magazine  Adam Sternberg suggests that the fires of gentrification may be self-perpetuating, but they may also be self-extinguishing.

image of red hook

Blogged with Flock

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silent disco

My student Maria introduced me to the the Silent Disco the other day (well, she showed me the site, unfortunately we didn’t find one nearby). Pioneered at clubs which did not have permission for loud music, silent discos pass out headphones to dancers who listen to music sent out via radio. See CNN or this Youtube video:

So what are the strangest manifestations of network culture that you’ve seen? Please, comment away! Your chance to be famous for a day (yeah, right).

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suburbs vs. cities

I just ran across MUDOT magazine for urban documentation, opinion, and theory: mudot.org. 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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