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.

16 thoughts on “on battle suits”

  1. More Context
    Indeed. I also disagree with the author’s claim that Archigram was “influential” or that the various Archigrams were “in demand.” Not at all. When discussing this article with Mimi Zeiger, she quickly pointed out to Todd Gannon’s spot-on, pitch-perfect critique of Archigram in Log. That should be required reading for all of those who are ready to resuscitate Archigram in the service of urbanism. Gannon even equates Archigram with zombies via a deft George Romero reference. Furthermore, Archigram’s techno-pastoralia has already been remarked upon by different critics/historians.

  2. Thanks!
    Hi Kazys. “euphoric interpretation” is a very kind way of putting it! I’m really glad that my uncritical rambling on io9.com has kicked up a lot smarter writing elsewhere, like your piece above – a great reward for it.

  3. I’ve got a different set of issues with the piece…
    …which have to do not so much with Matt’s situation or characterization of Archigram, nor with his understanding of networked city as augmentive interface, but simply with “battlesuit.”

    I don’t want to play once again the leaden, anti-fun bad-cop role I so often seem to be assigned in these conversations – really, I don’t. But “battlesuit”??

    The term may situate networked urbanism in a pop-cultural context that lets Matt draw clear lines to Archigram – the rich loam of comics and games to which he alludes is certainly the latterday equivalent of the Dan Dare comics the Archigrams fed on in their youth – but it’s also inherently alienating to everyone who doesn’t relate to that particular set of tropes.

    I guess I just find the whole battlesuit metaphor a little too redolent of early-adolescent maleness, militarized wish-fulfillment that I just don’t relate to. (I dunno, maybe it’s actually having been in the Army. All that stuff is so much less sexy and cool to me.) It seems to be selling networked urbanism horribly short to make that of it, y’know?

  4. or a calcified shell
    having just sat through a bunch of final-year thesis projects that were horrendously outdated, I tend to agree regarding the subsitution of enthusiasm for critique. The students had not been encouraged to actually examine their theoretical sources critically. They just read something and accepted it. I think the reason Archigram gets a lot of replay at the moment is that it is a way for academics and practitioners to assert authority: ‘oh, that isn’t really much different than what Archigram were doing way back when I was a student’ – when in fact many of the technologies, implications, and political issues of the present are very different and need to be treated on their own terms.

  5. on criticism and utopia

    I’m in Limerick, Ireland now, teaching and engaging in a very, hands-on, nonstop condition, so getting back to the blog is hard, but …

    Adam, I agree about the battlesuit thing, but thought it was too obvious to comment…unless of course one could actually speak from a position of authority about the term, which unlike me, you can, so I’m glad you did.

    Matt, I’m glad you weren’t mortally offended, since that wasn’t my intent and the whole balls-to-the-wall criticism so typical of the previous generation (in my field at least) is patently offensive to me and I was thinking that I might have aped it, however inadvertently. 

    On the other hand, in defense of the piece… I was just at a lunch meeting where we talked about the decline of utopian thought today. Architecture has seen it become purely conceptual (I think my Utopia/Dystopia studio was guilty of this two years ago) but mainly nonexistent. Urban computing/ubicomp/networked urbanism is the only field that really is doing substantive work in imagining an alternative future, even if I have gripes with it, which is why I feel it worth engaging with. But I wonder why we can’t break out of the "cool toys for us" mode and get into questions of social justice or the public good (note: two things Archigram didn’t care at all about). Maybe it’s because this sort of imagining takesplace in corporations today or maybe because the public has ceased to exist. Not sure yet.

  6. Archigram
    Coming at this from a slightly different perspective, but still vis-a-vis Archigram, I think it’s also worth pointing out that there are moments in the built environment where we might now find Archigramian thinking, so to speak, having already been materialized. In other words, it’s often pointed that Archigram didn’t build anything, but I think the irony is that their entire intellectual project, more or less, has been spatially realized by other people, but by people who, we might say, are on the Dark Side.

    So while we can talk forever about Archigram’s own social context and so on, it’s always seemed more interesting me, and it seems incredibly under-commented on, in fact, that the people who can be seen to as having implemented the Archigramian project, so to speak, aren’t “avant-garde architects” but, say, Walmart and the U.S. military. This is why Kazys’s own work on urban infrastructure, dissemination of goods through the urban fabric, and so on has always seemed to me to be a mapping out of the unintended realization of Archigramian ideas of urbanity. How ironic, it seems, that Archigram promised utopia but, for the most part, their ideas simply resulted in bulk hairdryer shipments to the suburbs.

    It would seem relatively uncontroversial, if not even repetitive, to say that the people today most concerned with building flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors in which You Can Do Anything™ are less often swinging nightclub owners and far more likely Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments and infinitely rearrangeable modular shelves and their themes of the week. There are already Christmas decorations up at Ikea. Similarly, the people building instant cities today aren’t the Balkan ravers of the 1990s (at least no more); it’s Camp Bondsteel and the logistics support teams of Bechtel. Or, for that matter, it’s the “megaslums.” Either way, it’s not a leisure class of hi-fi-owning Jimi Hendrix aficianados.

    What’s interesting about this to me – and this drifts away from Matt’s text and more toward the critique of Archigram underway here and elsewhere – is that Archigram’s ideas lend themselves so incredibly well to producing the very environment we live in today, an environment full of KFC-supplied army bases, offshore prison camps ringed with temporary barbed wire, and huge, HVAC-dependent wonderlands on the exurban fringe. The irony, to me, is that Archigram’s project has actually been built, I would say, but it was built for all the wrong reasons and in all the wrong ways by all the wrong people. What is also interesting here is when you look at misbegotten books like Simon Sadler’s Archigram published a few years back, Sadler makes no attempt whatsoever to track Archigram’s influence beyond the AA; he does attempt to track the military’s influence on Archigram, to an extent, but he never goes the opposite direction. There are some obvious reasons for that; i.e. there’s no documentary proof that Archigram’s pamphlets showed up on the desks of the Joint Chiefs of Staff one day and led to a revolution in military affairs, but I would say that that’s more of a fault with academic methodology and not the strength of the connection. It’s the conceptual resonance between Archigram and these other industries that deserves further comment, not the historical proof that they overlapped.

    In any case, what was it about Archigram that 1) promised such a sexualized utopia of flashing lights and on-demand self-transformation but then 2) got so easily realized as a kind of down-market Carnaby Street (which is saying quite a lot!)? How did the Fun Palaces of forty years ago get realized as Barnes & Noble/Caribou Coffee hybrids in the suburbs? How did the Walking City become Bremer Walls and Forward Operating Bases?

    Again, having said all of this, and I apologize to Kazys for dumping this in his comments thread, but I would take issue with the importance being made here of criticism. I think, in fact, that it is criticism, at least in its narrowly understood academic sense, that can so easily lead people into thinking they are overturning, or chiseling away at, existing conditions or inherited models when they are actually missing out on extremely important opportunities to make connections across the fields. In the end, though, I think this is a terminological issue; to me “enthusiasm” is valuable precisely because of its critical potential – but now the rabbit hole opens up. What do I mean by “critical potential,” in light of what I just wrote? Who knows, to be honest.

    But the idea that we all need to get serious again and really make sure we’re going in the right direction is a mistake to me.

    Or here is a bad analogy I will probably regret posting in a few minutes: honed criticism and controlled enthusiasm are effectively identical, and they accomplish the same thing. However, criticism takes everything that’s wrong with examples 1-10 and it talks about them all negatively, whilst enthusiasm takes everything that’s right with examples 1-10 and it talks about them all positively. For me, this latter approach is so much more productive and useful. And not to mention more fun (again, for me).

  7. enthusiastic criticism
    Geoff, I think you’re perfectly right about enthusiasm being a productive thing; and I certainly have no particular allegiance to the narrow academic sense of criticism; so let me adjust my position: I think that what was missing in the projects I was looking at was the ability (or even interest) in following threads. Rather than just looking at the interesting things lying around, there is a certain obligation to pull on some of the threads, to see what else they are connected to, to see where they lead, to test their strength, to see what other arrangements they are bound into. Perhaps that needs a different word than ‘critical’. I think I was wrong to oppose criticism and enthusiasm.

    Archigram themselves are probably not a bad example of enthusiastic criticism; but their work has to be seen as a reaction to a particular social-spatial context: one which is very different to the present condition.

  8. images and science fictions
    A thought: why is a historical analysis so out of the question? What’s so wrong about “historical proof”? When Matt declares that “the architecture of science fiction has profoundly changed urban design”, not only does he introduce a statement that imbues sci-fi with questionable agency, but he also makes a historical argument via a statemtent of casuality. X affected Y, and here’s the proof. Past examples are marshaled to prove a point, even if this is done post-hoc. So with this in mind, I am curious as to what exactly would constitute a “fault” of historical methodology? Why is a historical method damaging? I would posit that looking at a “conceptual resonance” in this way is evidence of a methodological fault. And I’m not just writhing in the skin of a crusty architecture historian here. Put another way, saying that two things are related just because they look alike does not make for the strongest argument. X caused Y because X looks like Y makes for an interesting discussion, but it needs to go beyond that. Enthusiasm is always good, but enthusiasm can also be rigorous. The point is that many of the arguments in the io9 piece rely on a very seductive series of images—and yet why are we not questioning this seductiveness? If you want to make a case for looking at comic books and Archigram, then state why and make it compelling. We should know why we need to look at science fiction. In fact, I would even say that we already look to science fiction—the point is how to look at it differently. Writers like Frederic Jameson and Scott Bukatman have already told shown us how to (and when not to) employ science fiction as a kind of critique. They show that criticism need not be narrow. Criticism can illuminate and open different avenues for discussion. And this is even the case for the “narrowest” of criticisms.

    So, yes, back to the proof of historical overlapping. This is related to the very tricky issue of influence. When we ask whether Archigram actually influenced the military, I would answer that the military did not have to look at Archigram when they already had the work of Buckminster Fuller, Konrad Wachsmann, or Max Mengeringhausen to build upon. Which is to say that the issue is not one of whether the Air Force had drawings of Plug-In City on their desk, but of whether the military and Archigram were looking at the exact same precedents in the exact same way for their own respective work … and that seems to me an example of conceptual overlapping if ever there was one.

  9. on criticism and utopia
    The problem with coming down on the side of enthusiasm over criticism today is that we’ve all but lost the capacity for the latter. The building boom is a great example. For years, I used this site as a platform to criticize a mass deception destructive to architecture, deception that architects, critics, bloggers, and theorists were complicit in and may yet prove fatal to the discipline. During that time, so many of my colleagues embraced the boom. After all, more than one doe-eyed architect, prices could only go up. But with that lie collapsing, architecture did not attempt to find out what it did wrong, but rather euphorically lurched toward infrastructure as a new way of employing architects. Wait a second. Doesn’t the virtualization of architecture, its utter evacuation by the forces of networked finance, along with the accompanying devaluation of the product in terms of design and material, together with architecture’s inability to take any position against this not merit reflection? Or is “Junkspace” just so prescient that it says everything?

    Back to infrastructure for a teachable moment. Remember when “critics” suggested that the Infrastructural City had missed the mark because it was a cautionary tome, not an enthusiastic ode to WPA 2.0? We’ve all seen what happened. There are no plans for OMA-designed windmills and there is no massive infrastructure spending on the horizon.

    Infrastructural City—like all of my projects—goes against the grain of network culture, because network culture is by no means all roses. We’ve become so tied to immediated reality and replaced utopian thought with a proximate near-future made up of CGI-renderings of products on Engadget that we are unable to envision any productive alternatives anymore. This is, as Alan Liu, concludes in the Laws of Cool, very much the product of the knowledge industry’s dominance of culture. For all of their faults, disciplinarity and criticism have been replaced by the coolhunt and the quest for easy cash.

    Still, in their euphoric enthusiasm, essays like Matt’s have a value. We’ve also lost our capacity for utopian thought. But can we also be critical at the same time? Can’t we use utopia as a means of criticism and do it critically, that is self-reflexive taking into account what we’re doing when we do so? Couldn’t we envision greater social justice? Is there anything left beyond the informatic coolhunt?

  10. Historical Accuracy
    Enrique, I think you’re absolutely right to call for historical accuracy in one’s own writing; it would be hard to disagree with this, in fact. In some ways, I’m reminded of Thomas Frank’s dismissal of Anita Roddick, the late entrepreneur and founder of the Body Shop, who had been heralded as the green movement’s second coming because she was opposed to nuclear waste… But it’s hard, indeed, to find a business owner who actually promotes nuclear waste as one of its corporate credos. In other words, of course we need to be accurate.

    Drawing speculative analogies between two very diverse groups of ideas — say, FBI forensic evidence collection techniques and the growing archive of bodily relics held by the Catholic Church — is not just the stuff of poetry or self-indulgence. It is a conceptually useful tool for stimulating new, sometimes even academically unacceptable ideas. An historian could presumably never prove that J. Edgar Hoover had theological goals for his FBI evidence collection teams — or that he was inspired by European reliquaries — but it’s an interesting comparison to make, and it might even result in new analytic directions for someone to follow.

    What I would hope, in general, is that we could reaffirm — or let me just say: I would like to go ahead and reaffirm the analytic value of mythology, enthusiasm, and evidentially unjustified speculation. These techniques and genres don’t in any way require historical inaccuracy — but to confront them with (and dismiss them based on) their “accuracy” is a very serious kind of false accounting, like asking Lebron James if he can fill out his own tax return and concluding that he must not be a very good basketball player if he can’t.

    To compare Pentagon fantasies of weather-control to Norse myths will presumably never come with an Ivy League-certified moment in which I can reveal that the Pentagon library is well-stocked with books about Ragnarok, but it’s not uninteresting to draw comparisons between the two. The same with Archigram and Camp Bondsteel. This is not to say that Max Mengeringhausen’s influence on the U.S. military is uninteresting — in any way — but simply that we should not stop there. We should continue to put A next to B and see if it works out. We should challenge things by putting them into new contexts — and this is the terrain of speculative analogies, not history.

    Uranium weaponry viewed against terrestrial descriptions found in the poems of John Milton; urban water filtration plants viewed against the transformative practices of Elizabethan alchemy. Historical accuracy is not on our side here, but these comparisons do some very interesting things nonetheless.

    As a brief aside, my own graduate school experience was 1) absolutely and genuinely terrible, and 2) irreparably scarred by the experience of seeing otherwise well-meaning people grind their brains against the wall of empirical evidence. Such-and-such a painter could not be referred to in the same paper as such-and-such another painter unless you could conclusively prove that a) those two people had once physically met somewhere, b) they had exhibited their work within view of one another, and this moment had been noted textually in the form of original source documents (and those documents were in your university library), or c) the first person had the second person’s book in their library and they had publicly noted that they’d actually read it. Everything else was dismissed as unacademic speculation; even pointing out similarities between these two painters’ work was thus unjustified. This still strikes me as such an unbelievably awful a way to educate people that I am tempted to go in the opposite direction and denounce historical rigor simply out of a desire to be annoying; but that would not be true to my views.

    I think it is a mistake to reject speculative enthusiasm, even if it produces excessive claims on behalf of the Walking City. These sorts of indulgent miscues are, in a wider context, very minor infractions compared to the historical inaccuracies of someone like Glenn Beck.

    Finally — and I apologize again to Kazys, and basically to everyone, for going on (and on) in this comment thread — but a giant soup of ideas that includes Archigram, military technology, Warren Ellis, 21st century science fiction, Buckminster Fuller, Norse myths, utopia, and much more is very useful and inspiring to me as a writer. But I am not an historian. I don’t want to be an historian. It isn’t valuable to me to throw certain things away because they’re not the most historically accurate way of describing a situation. I would take King Arthur wed with Ridley Scott’s Alien — or whatever — any day if faced, instead, with the task of having to outline the exact, empirical steps by which Ridley Scott’s screenwriter had once read Mark Twain, which led to King Arthur, which led to Thomas Malory… or whatever. I’d rather have a heart attack.

    But this doesn’t mean that people should just go around making weird shit up about Archigram, or giving them credit for things they didn’t do.


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