Offshoring Audacity

[Image: Dubai's "carbon-neutral" ziggurat, designed by Timelinks].

I'll be in Chicago next week to host a panel on Saturday, November 8, as part of this year's Chicago Humanities Festival. The other participants are Joseph Grima, Jeffrey Inaba, and Sam Jacob.
More info:
    Look abroad: Whole cities are planned, built, and inhabited in less than a generation. Artificial islands, indoor ski slopes, and the world’s tallest this-and-that are being constructed, not in the West, but in the Middle East, China, and beyond. The result: a sense that the West’s cities are falling behind and, increasingly, watching from the sidelines. A dynamic panel will discuss the accuracy of this assessment of today’s architectural situation. What are the urban implications of so-called offshoring audacity and how can the phenomenon be described without resorting to nationalism, nostalgia, or even uncritical celebration?

    The panelists will be Joseph Grima, executive director of New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture and author of Instant Asia; Jeffrey Inaba, principal architect, Inaba Projects, and professor of architecture at SCI-Arc and Columbia University; and Sam Jacob, visiting professor at Yale University and founding director, Fashion Architecture Taste, a London-based practice. The discussion will be moderated by Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDGBLOG and senior editor of Dwell magazine.
The panel, called Offshoring Audacity, will begin at 2:30pm, lasting till 4:00, and it will take place at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark Street. It costs $5.
I hope some Chicago-based readers might stop by.

[Image: Park Gate, Dubai, by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture].

The overall theme for the Humanities Festival this year is "big ideas," inspired by architect Daniel Burnham's (possibly apocryphal) statement that one should "make no little plans." Since we're coming up on the 100-year anniversary of Burnham's urban plan for Chicago, not only does a "big ideas" – or "big plans" – Festival seem appropriate, but a panel about cities and urban design even more so.

[Image: New Songdo City, South Korea].

The specific goal, then, is to discuss the idea that the West has begun "offshoring audacity" – urban and architectural audacity – to places like Dubai, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Beijing, and South Korea.
The United States, in particular, seems to have ceded its role as an architectural and infrastructural innovator. Every week, a new indoor ski resort or artificial island-city or hyperbolic "green" pyramid is announced somewhere, in a non-Western nation – or the Chinese government announces a program of urban weather control – leaving the U.S. a nation of failed levees, foreclosed suburbs, and collapsing bridges.
These examples of 21st-century spatial exotica are our era's new fantasy environments – instant cities rolled out across the desert like magic carpets, with all of their plumbing and services intact.
It is architecture at its most audacious (or so we're told).

[Image: RAK Gateway, Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, by OMA].

The question becomes: How can we discuss all of this without resorting either to chest-puffing nationalism (it's not true, the West is the best) or to a kind of knee-jerk Spenglerian resignation (it's true, the West is over)?
Put another way: Is there really any purpose in celebrating the newest mile-high tower or solar-powered private golf community, as every architecture blog in the world seems to think we need to do right now – or, conversely, is cynicism in the face of mile-high towers really the most interesting or appropriate response?

[Image: Contemporary architecture's well-rendered visual overload, parodically assembled by OMA].

There's an interesting exchange in Joseph Grima's new book Instant Asia: Fast Forward through the Architecture of a Changing Continent. There, Qingyun Ma describes the trajectory of the Chinese architect as one of concentration: You start off huge, designing million-square-foot office complexes – if not whole cities from scratch – before gradually being established and respected enough in your field simply to design a house, say, or a single storefront.
With this in mind, is the steroidal grandeur of today's Chinese architecture simply the visible articulation of a different professional arc? Start fast – start big – then concentrate?
Are these architects building resumés, not cities?
On the other hand, if many of these towers continue to be designed, engineered, and built by western firms, are we actually witnessing a kind of bizarre projection of the West's own subconscious needs onto the blank slates of other nations? I'm reminded here of Marcus Trimble's quip that China, with its replicant Eiffel Towers and fake chateaux, has become a kind of architectural back-up harddrive for the French.
Are developing nations being used as blank spatial slates upon which the West will rewrite its own architectural history?
This also brings to mind Martin Heidegger's under-appreciated comment that American gigantism – Koolhaasian Manhattanism – is simply a grotesque reflection of intellectual tendencies within the trajectory of Europe itself. The U.S., he wrote, was a "concentrated rebound" of European thought, the camouflaged return of its own monstrous offspring.
Is this what we're now witnessing, then, taking architectural form abroad?
Or, conversely, is the presupposed difference here between the West and the Rest so impossible to maintain or to define rigorously that nothing's being "offshored" anywhere – because there's no outside to offshore to?

[Images: Waterfront City masterplan, Dubai, by OMA. It's worth reading counter-discussions of this project by Nicolai Ouroussoff and Lebbeus Woods, respectively].

In the end, then, how are we to judge these claims to architectural monstrosity made by 7-star hotels and indoor ski ranges – buildings that supposedly demonstrate alternative futures, or space on maximum overdrive?
Are these places really that extraordinary – or are they a kind of imaginative cul-de-sac, a sign that architects have resolutely failed to design a more interesting spatial future?
Have we mistaken sheer scale and algorithmic excess for formal bravery?
Has "audacity" in architecture really been "offshored" to other nations, after all – or is audacity something that architecture has lost altogether?
Where should we look to find the truly audacious?
Stop by the panel on November 8 to hear these and other questions discussed: Offshoring Audacity.

Slow Decay

[Image: By Yvette Molina, 2008; oil on 7" convex aluminum disc. Via Johansson Projects].

Opening at Johansson Projects in Oakland this week is a show by artists Katy Stone and Yvette Molina "that considers the ephemeral thrills and underlying decrepitude of the natural world" – it is "a nature walk through a mysterious and delicate landscape, where organic beauty blossoms in the midst of slow decay."

[Images: All works by Yvette Molina, 2008; all are oil on 7" convex aluminum discs. Via Johansson Projects].

These gorgeous paintings here, using layers of oil paint and glazes, are all by Yvette Molina, depicting "hazy forest scapes."

The Atlas of Hidden Water

[Image: From the "atlas of hidden water." Check out the original PDF or simply view it

An "atlas of hidden water" has been created to reveal where the world's freshwater aquifers really lie. "The hope," New Scientist reports, "is that it will help pave the way to an international law to govern how water is shared around the world."
This prospective hydro-geopolitical legislation currently includes a "draft Convention on transboundary aquifers."

[Image: The "hidden water" of South America].

"What the UNESCO map reveals," New Scientist adds, "is just how many aquifers cross international borders. So far, the organisation has identified 273 trans-boundary aquifers: 68 in the Americas, 38 in Africa, 155 in Eastern and Western Europe and 12 in Asia." One of these is the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, whose waters are nearly a million years old.
According – somewhat oddly – to the International Atomic Energy Agency:
    The ancient system’s massive reserves, estimated at 375,000 cu km of water (equivalent to about 500 years of Nile River discharge), are confined deep inside the earth’s underground chambers – staggered, tiered, and pooled beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert, oasis settlements, wadis (dry riverbeds that contain water only during times of heavy rain), small villages, towns, and large cities.
If the surface landscapes there are already so beautiful, how exciting would it be to explore those underground staggered tiers and pools...
A more detailed map is due out in 2009 – meanwhile, several more can be downloaded here.

The immersive sculpture of linked voids

When you pull back the curtain of Manhattan, what do you find?

[Image: Photo by Andrea Mohin for The New York Times].

The so-called "birthmark of the World Trade Center" has been removed from the earth of New York City. These "colossal cast-iron rings," as The New York Times describes them, were "the last visible remnant of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad" that once crossed through the World Trade Center site.
In an excavatory act that would seem to combine the best conceptual aspects of Rachel Whiteread, Michael Heizer, and Gordon Matta-Clark, what was once a tunnel – an underground space of air – has been strangely inverted, transformed into an object, freed from its terrestrial context.
Perhaps leading to the question: What if Michael Heizer had retired altogether from the art world – only to get a job, under an assumed name, as an engineer on the New York City subway system? What strange resonances might that mobile underworld now take?
An immersive sculpture of linked voids beneath the city.

[Image: Photo by Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times].

Meanwhile, as the construction work at Ground Zero continues, the whole site has become a massive archaeological site, exposing an earlier phase of planetary history.
Also from The New York Times:
    A fantastic landscape in Lower Manhattan – plummeting holes, steep cliffsides and soft billows of steel-gray bedrock, punctuated by thousands of beach-smooth cobblestones in a muted rainbow of reds and purples and greens – has basked in sunlight this summer for the first time in millennia.

    This monumental carving was the work of glaciers, which made their last retreat from these parts about 20,000 years ago, leaving profound gouges in the earth and rocks from the Palisades, the Ramapo Mountains and an area of northern New Jersey known as the Newark Basin.

    Plumbing these glacial features and souvenirs has been critical in preparing the foundation for Tower 4 of the new World Trade Center, being built by Silverstein Properties. The concrete footings from which its columns rise must rest on firm bedrock. Engineers need a clear understanding of the rock’s contours.
These "contours" form "an abstract canvas of swirling, concentric rings," we read, which help to reveal "a period far more ancient than the glaciers, about 500 million years ago, when the edges of the colliding North American and African continental plates got shuffled together."
Ground Zero has thus become a kind of horizontal stargate, a terrestrial windowpane pulled wider and wider in the landscape of Lower Manhattan.

[Image: Photo by David W. Dunlap for The New York Times].

In any case, what about those colossal cast-iron rings? Now that they've been pulled from the earth, they've been warehoused: "These have been taken to Hangar 17 at Kennedy International Airport, where large-scale trade center artifacts are stored."
But might I suggest that they be shipped upstate to Dia:Beacon, instead?

Zones of Exclusion

[Image: The charismatic boundaries of an earlier worldview – here, the Hereford Mappa Mundi].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

Another question for the topic of whether or not a “dense assortment of buildings” can ever be a real city: What is London for an eighteen-year old whose entire urban experience is confined to 200-square meters and who has never seen the Thames?

Researchers at the University of Glasgow, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have spent the past two years asking young residents of Bradford, Peterborough, London, Glasgow, Sunderland, and Bristol to draw maps of their own individual urban experience in order to explore micro-territoriality as both a cause and a symptom of social exclusion. You can read the full PDF of their report here.

“In Glasgow, Sunderland and Bradford,” they found, “a recognizable territory might be as small as a 200-meter block or segment.” In Tower Hamlets, London, fifteen and sixteen-year old boys mapped their world into three streets, a football pitch, a barber shop, mosque, Indian restaurant, and – just beyond the clearly marked “Front Line” – an off-license, or liquor store.

[Image: From the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, "Young people and territoriality in British cities" (download the PDF)].

Some of the sketches even remind me of medieval maps: the known world is an island of familiarity, simultaneously shown much larger than scale but made tiny and precious by the monsters of “Terra Incognita” that surround it. In the case of a 15-year-old girl from Bradford, today’s dragons are “moshers,” “chavs,” “Asians,” and “posh people” – all “Enemys.” The researchers found that teenage boys display an even more complete ignorance of the world beyond their perceived boundaries: these two maps of the same area in Glasgow were drawn by young men in the same class at the same school, who live on different sides of the same road.

[Images: From the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, "Young people and territoriality in British cities" (download the PDF)].

The report’s authors examined the causes, nature, and impact of micro-territorialization. Their research uncovered Bristol’s “postcode wars,” where gangs spray-paint their postcode in rival areas as a form of aggression, as well as descriptions of the maneuvers involved in going to school in one part of Bradford that match the Schlieffen Plan in strategic complexity. “In some places,” they note with reference to Glasgow and Sunderland, “territoriality was a leisure activity, a form of ‘recreational violence.’” In other words, bored and economically deprived teenagers are transforming 1960s council estates and Victorian terraces into a real-world, multiplayer World of Warcraft.

Of course, excessive loyalty to the local, and the resulting lack of mobility, has a significant and negative impact on access to education, services, and job opportunities. In the words of one interviewee from Glasgow:
    If your horizons are limited to three streets, what is the point of you working really hard at school? What is the point of passing subjects that will allow you to go to college or university if you cannot travel beyond these streets? What’s the point of dreaming about being an artist, a doctor, etc., if you cannot get on a bus to get out of the area in which you live?
The report points out an interesting irony here: current policies in urban regeneration are dominated by strategies to increase “place attachment” as a means “to reinforce social networks and maintain the quality of an area through pride.” However, the areas that actually generate such loyalties are, in the authors’ words “often ones that have little that conventionally invokes pride.”
    It was difficult to say which was more depressing – the relentless defense of a featureless piece of open space on the fringes of a Glasgow housing scheme where there is nothing whatsoever by way of amenities, or the confinement to a socially isolated but densely populated and built-up quarter-square-mile of London of young men for whom the culture and wealth of one of the world’s great cities might as well be on another continent.
The report goes on to identify 244 anti-territorial projects (ATPs) currently in progress across the UK. Most use sports or other “hook” activities to encourage association and to teach networking skills. Disappointingly, none tackle the issue in terms of the design of physical space.

So what does the anti-territorial city look like? Some things to consider: unsurprisingly, the report found that most conflicts “occurred on boundaries between residential areas, which were typically defined by roads, railways, vacant land or other physical features.” The city center also becomes a venue for bigger showdowns: a youth worker in Peterborough explains that “the flashpoints are in the city center, the ‘big stage,’ the one place they all, you know, congregate on a Saturday.” Finally, the researchers found that micro-territorialization took place across the spectrum of low-income housing stock, from “high-density, flatted, inner-city estates; traditional, pre-1914 areas of terraced housing; and suburban, often council-built environments.”

As the authors rightly point out, lack of jobs and economic hardship are key structural forces contributing to “problematic territoriality.” But what role does urban planning, landscape design and the built environment have to play?

Can the design of the city itself generate – or mitigate against – territoriality?

(Note: Read the Guardian's take on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report here and here).

Waste Towers

[Image: London waste towers, designed by Dow Jones Architects, via Building Design].

London's Dow Jones Architects have proposed "a radical series of waste-crunching towers across London to help meet recycling targets and generate low-cost energy for local communities," Building Design reports.

[Image: London waste towers, designed by Dow Jones Architects, via Building Design].

In order for the city to reach its goal of becoming "85% self-sufficient in terms of waste by 2020," a new waste-management infrastructure is required – thus the need for "new buildings in Greater London to house advanced waste technologies."
    These would offer an alternative to the greenhouse gas-producing incineration method used by most waste service providers contracted by councils. Dow Jones and Arup assessed the scale of buildings that would be needed to deal with certain amounts of waste using specific technologies, then scattered them on four hypothetical urban sites, proposing them as “parts of the city and building types that would form an appropriate match.”
While this further convinces me that today's most interesting architectural projects are the ones that thoroughly rethink civic infrastructure – waste-treatment plants, algae farms, solar towers, tide-power generators, high-speed rail lines, space elevators – it also makes me wonder what an even more distributed form of sustainable waste-management might look like.
Why not ten sites, for instance, scattered throughout the city, instead of four – or twenty-five, or a hundred?

[Image: London waste towers, designed by Dow Jones Architects, via Building Design].

By decentralizing waste infrastructure as much as possible, you could much more thoroughly integrate quote-unquote sustainable behavior into the spatial fabric of everyday life.
I'm reminded of the differences in public recycling infrastructures between a city like Berlin and a city like Los Angeles. In L.A., for instance, you actually have to drive – often quite far out of the way – to a neighborhood recycling drop-off point simply to get rid of things like wine bottles and old magazines, whereas in Berlin you're almost constantly walking past what could be called recycling micro-stations: color-coded clusters of separate waste receptacles organized by type (glass, paper, aluminum, etc.).
My point is simply that recycling becomes what you do there – like breathing, it's the autonomic nervous system of the city – in much the same way that throwing things away is simply what you do in the United States. After all, as has been widely remarked elsewhere, urban infrastructure in the U.S. seems to be built to encourage the thoughtless and efficient throwing away of more things.
So it's a change in lifestyle that would come about through the ubiquitous, lace-like distribution of micro-infrastructure across the urban landscape.

[Image: London waste towers, designed by Dow Jones Architects, via Building Design].

On the other hand, I don't mean to imply that Dow Jones's waste towers are just recycling stations. From Building Design:
    Waste that can’t be recycled or composted would be turned into energy or useful materials using techniques such as anaerobic digestion – which produces the low-cost fuel biogas plus compost – and advanced thermal treatments, which produce syngas for industrial processes plus a vitreous slag that can be used as a construction material. The gases produced can be routed in closed loops to produce power for local electricity and heating networks serving nearby homes and workplaces.
Nonetheless, eliminating large travel distances between key pieces of "green" infrastructure and its users – i.e. the residents of the city – can be one of the most important steps in ensuring that this infrastructure will be used at all.
Knowing that a power-generating, construction waste-processing, compost-accumulating bio-tower exists somewhere in the northern suburbs of the city is certainly inspiring as a first and early step toward the design of a 21st-century city – but these sorts of things should, wherever possible, be more thoroughly integrated into the everyday streetscape.
Instead of superblock, think filigree.
Sustainable waste management will become simply what a city does.

Underground Rivers Frozen in Place

[Image: The Large Hadron Collider photographed by Claudia Marcelloni, ©CERN, via The Big Picture].

One of the most interesting engineering details from the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the fact that they had to freeze an underground river in place, using liquid nitrogen, in order to assemble the detector. This allowed them "to create a permafrost medium through which they could drill out the massive underground caverns" in which the LHC would then sit, the Independent reported back in 2003.
But London's got some underground rivers; they should do this there and create a subterranean skating rink.
A huge cube of ice beneath Los Angeles that's then melted slowly, over four decades, to form the city's water supply.
Meanwhile, the actual magnets of the collider itself "must be cooled to within a couple of degrees of 'absolute zero,'" we read, "the theoretical limit for how cold anything can get. This requires a constant supply of liquid helium pumped down from eight over-ground refrigeration plants – about 400,000 liters per year in total."
This temporary refrigeration of the planet reminds me of at least two things: 1) the so-called "freeze wall," no less than 30-feet thick, being constructed by Shell underground in the American Rockies as a way to access oil shale deposits, and 2) the constantly refrigerated underground mines of South Africa.
A crazed billionaire installs a pipework labyrinth of liquid helium pumps beneath his home in Barcelona – and he proceeds to create a subterranean glacier inside the faults of the earth itself, freezing the soil down to a depth of six miles and altering the local climate, before carving a spectacular series of show caves out of the permafrost, wearing Antarctic expedition gear, armed with remote control micro-tunneling machines.

Zip Line Tours Through City Space

[Image: Photo by Ryan Collerd for The New York Times].

Riding zip lines through the autumn tree canopies of rural Pennsylvania is something of a growth industry, it seems, exploring ski resorts during the off-season by speeding downhill at 50 mph in a roped-up harness.
From The New York Times:
    Some zip lines are basically thrill rides that follow the cut of ski slopes and at this time of year offer expansive views of the autumn blaze of colors, along with an adrenaline rush.

    Other courses (like the one we were on) are marketed as canopy tours, designed with a challenging combination of swaying sky bridges, cable traverses and zip line pathways cut through the deep forest. Once we climbed a cargo net to reach our first tree platform, we were literally amid the autumn foliage, not quite in the canopy of fully grown oaks and poplars but close enough to squirrels to guess their sex as they scampered from limb to limb just above us.
This kind of vertical immersion in an otherwise inaccessible overhead landscape is incredibly interesting, in and of itself – but 1) it also reminds me of a 2007 project by artists Steve Lambert and Packard Jennings in which they reimagined the city of San Francisco as a city of roller coasters, wildlife preserves, underground libraries and health clubs installed inside BART cars, and, of course, zip lines across the San Francisco Bay.

[Image: Riding zip lines to Oakland; by Steve Lambert and Packard Jennings].

And 2) the two of these together seem to imply a new kind of urban tourism, where you don't talk guided walks or buy tickets for double-decker buses: you ride zip lines above Notre-Dame cathedral and down Fifth Avenue, getting up close and personal with architectural ornament at a level of detail you would otherwise never have seen.
Sky Tours of Manhattan.
In the same way that you can take, for instance, Entourage-themed bus tours of Los Angeles, you could take Spiderman-themed zip line tours of New York.
You call up Canopy Tours and ask them to price-out the entirety of Chicago. Or Istanbul. (At the very least, they could map it).
Zip lines through the London financial district.
Zip lines through the sandstone arches of Utah.
Zip lines through Angkor Wat.
A Zip Line Olympiad across the domes and spires of central Europe.
Or don't use zip lines for humans at all; attach plants to them for the hanging zip line gardens of the 21st century. Flowering plants and ferns and oak trees go whizzing by in an aerial gardenry that defies belief.
And if zip lines could realistically open up a whole new world of spatial volume in the modern high-rise metropolis, what new architectures and city surfaces might result?

The Game

[Image: (Untitled) by Priscilla Monge, photographed by Alexandra Wolkowicz. Part of the 2006 Liverpool Biennial].

A post earlier this week here on BLDGBLOG raised the question of whether or not an urban candidate might be inherently better suited for the job of U.S. president than a rural one – but what exactly do we mean when we say "urban"?
When we read that the world is rapidly urbanizing, for instance, and that more than 50% of the earth's human population now lives in cities, what do we mean by "cities" and how can we tell when a dense assortment of buildings becomes a truly "urban" experience?
What if we are surrounded by more buildings than ever before – but there isn't a single real city in sight?

[Image: The Garston Embassy, of the Artistic Republic of Garston, part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

This summer I was commissioned by the recently opened Liverpool Biennial International 08 – the theme of which is MADE UP – to write an essay about the idea of "made-up" cities. That essay, called "The Game," was just published in the Biennial's gigantic, 300-page catalog alongside stories and essays by Haruki Murakami, Bruno Latour, Jonathan Allen, Rana Dasgupta, Brian Hatton, and many others.
"The Game" explores the idea that we might not actually know what it means to be urban, using a remark by Ole Bouman as a jumping-off point. In an essay of his own called "Desperate Decadence," published in Volume magazine #6, Bouman writes: "We have come to take for granted that those locations with large congregations of architecture must be cities."
I've re-posted the complete essay below.

• • •

[Image: The Liverpool Biennial International 08].

The internet briefly lit up two years ago with the story of Gilles Tréhin, an autistic savant, artist, and amateur urban planner who had invented a city that he calls Urville. Urville, imagined as an island metropolis for 12 million inhabitants, begun when Tréhin was only five years old, is a triumphant example of a city made up almost from nothing. Tréhin’s own guidebook to the city includes hundreds of perspectival pencil drawings; these depict, in often astonishing detail, recognizable buildings and building types that have been combined to form a cityscape that itself exceeds recognition.

With imaginary spaces like the Square des Mille Astres, the Gare d’Italie, and the Place des Tégartines, Urville’s visual appearance could perhaps be described as a kind of Belgian Venice, crossbred with Chicago, as master-planned by Baron Hausmann for an upstart hotelier in Las Vegas. In other words, the city is derivative; it is a collection of landmarks. One can make out the Sears Tower, the Rialto Bridge, the Grande Arche de La Défense, and what could easily pass for New York’s World Trade Center towers—among many other sites on the global tourist circuit—but what Urville lacks is a human face. Although the jacket of Tréhin’s book explains that the city comes complete with "cultural anecdotes grounded in historical reality," including the long-lasting spatial effects of Vichy France, World War II, and what is broadly referred to as globalization, the city is something of a void, an open-air museum of unchallenging urban artifacts.

As Charlotte Moore wrote for the Guardian back in May 2006, Urville is "curiously timeless, swept clean of the detritus of human lives." She suggests that the city even has "no sense of character." Indeed, Urville is a strange sight. It is vast, referentially comprehensive, and visually detailed—but, outside of its sheer curiosity, there is very little there that might recommend a visit. It is Brussels or The Hague. One might even say that Urville is framed to avoid the emotional vicissitudes of everyday life.

Urville has plenty of buildings—but there is no real city.

[Image: (Untitled) by Matej Andraz Vogrincic, photographed by Alexandra Wolkowicz. Part of the 2006 Liverpool Biennial].

In a short essay called "Desperate Decadence," published in Volume magazine #6, Ole Bouman quips: "We have come to take for granted that those locations with large congregations of architecture must be cities." When I later asked him about this comment during an interview, he added: "If you don’t distinguish between those two—if you think that applying urban form is the same as building a city, or even creating urban culture—then you make a very big mistake." The question, then, in this context, is: Is it possible to invent—to make up—a city that isn’t simply a collection of buildings? Is it possible to create a genuine city from nothing—or can we only construct large congregations of architecture?

We’ve all heard by now, for instance, that for the first time in history the majority of our species—more than 50% of the Earth’s human population—lives in an urban environment today. We’ve been told, by journalists intoxicated with the superlative, that this a moment of great Darwinian consequence, an evolutionary point of no return. More urbanized than we have ever been before, have humans have apparently changed the very nature of the species: Humans are now animals that live together in cities. We are builders, dwellers and thinkers of towers and streets.

But for all the talk of the ancient hunter-gatherer finally succumbing to the bright lights of the big city, it is not at all clear that we even know what cities really are. Can we be certain, for all of the buildings currently under construction in places like Dubai, Shenzhen, and even Dallas-Ft. Worth, that it is cities we are creating? We are surrounded by more buildings than ever before, but perhaps this observation alone is not enough to say that human life has been thoroughly urbanized.

[Image: Air-Port-City by Tomas Saraceno, photographed by Adatabase. "Since 2002," we read in the Biennial's pocket guide, "Saraceno has continued, in sculptures, installations and experimental flights, to make a series of incremental steps towards his ultimate goal of cities built in the air." From the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

An interesting analogy comes to us here from the history of videogame design. In her 2001 pamphlet called Utopian Entrepreneur, published by MIT, author Brenda Laurel describes what she calls an "ugly" time in the corporate career of videogame super-firm Atari. In 1984, Atari’s sales figures, reputation, and game quality all began to nosedive. "So began the great videogame darkness of 1984 that lasted until almost the end of that decade," she writes. But what exactly happened—and how does it relate to urban design?

"The Atari corporation paid very little attention to designing for computer games," Laurel diagnoses. After all, "no one except a few isolated programmers who actually built the games was looking at the requirements for good interactivity, play patterns, or design principles." Worse still, "There was no market research on what players liked in a game." In other words, entire games and game worlds were being produced from scratch, without any real grasp of what might make a game work.
At the same time, hordes of Harvard MBAs began churning out business plans, and transplants from aerospace middle management drew up elaborate production schedules, and Procter & Gamble veterans happily began planning marketing and distribution. Great commercials were produced. Except for the programmers, however, no one was in the business of creating great videogames.
Atari had a stellar business plan and a first-rate marketing team—but, for all intents and purposes, it had nothing interesting to sell.

Following the logic of this example, it is easy enough to see Dubai—or even Tucson, Arizona—as a failed videogame in the desert, ironically under-designed and over-promoted. One could even say that we have perfected the art of the anti-city—that we have made up anything but truly urban environments. Dubai, for instance, is famously difficult to navigate on foot, requiring a ten minute car ride down six-lane motorways, complete with frequently lethal U-turns, simply to get to the hotel across the street. The city has a sum total of eleven pedestrian bridges—and twenty-five percent of the world’s cranes. While pedestrian-friendliness is by no means the only marker of ‘good interactivity, play patterns, or design principles’ in a future metropolis, it is nonetheless worth highlighting the disjunction here between the city as a dense, somewhat autistic collection of buildings and the city as a user-friendly environment.

It’s as if Dubai has perfected the art of construction, but in securing a market niche it has forgotten what needed to be built. Paraphrasing Brenda Laurel, perhaps Dubai did not do enough "market research on what players liked in a game"—only here the game is a city.

[Image: Opertus Lunula Umbra (Hidden Shadow of Moon) by U-Ram Choe, part of the artist's "archaeology of undiscovered futuristic organisms," photographed by Adatabase. Part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

But cities today are well known for popping up in the middle of nowhere, history-less and incomprehensible. There are slums, refugee camps, army bases—and Dubai. That’s what cities now do. If these cities are here today, they weren’t five years ago; if they’re not here now, they will be soon. Today’s cities are made up, viral, fungal, unexpected. Like well-lit film sets in the distance, staged amidst mudflats, reflecting themselves in the still waters of inland reservoirs, today’s cities simply arrive, without reservations; they are not so much invited as they are impossible to turn away. Cities now erupt and linger; they are both too early and far too late. Cities move in, take root and expand, whole neighborhoods throwing themselves together in convulsions of glass and steel.

Except, as Mike Davis memorably points out in his recent book Planet of Slums, the "cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay." This is "pirate urbanization," he writes, and it consists of "anarchic" anti-cities on the fringes of "cyber-modernity." We might be making up new cities everywhere around the world today, but very few of them look like Norman Foster’s eco-metropolis of Masdar, that well-rendered city constructed from nothing but petrodollars atop the sands of Abu Dhabi. Davis writes, or example, that, in "an archipelago of 10 slums" outside Bangalore, India, "researchers found only 19 latrines for 102,000 residents." There is thus what Davis calls an ‘excremental surplus’ to these rapidly expanding environments—yet these are the landscapes to which we refer when we say that humans have become an urban species.

These are not cities in any recognised infrastructural or legislative sense; they are, rather, dense collections of buildings. In contrast to Dubai’s Atari–like desert failure, with its arid combination of over-thought business plans and an absolute lack of content, these super-slums compress far too much content into a radically unplanned space.

[Image: The Gleaming Lights of the Souls by Yayoi Kusama, photographed by Adatabase. Part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

On the other hand, sometimes a made-up city does not even require acts of construction. That is, what might appear simply to be a field of cloned single-family houses, buffered by vast tracts of manicured green space, can be transformed into a city with the stroke of a pen. Cities are thus created everyday, in other words, within the administrative guidelines for managing inhabited landscapes—and no new ground need ever be broken. These made-up cities are, in fact, boomburbs, according to Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy, two sociologists with the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

In their 2007 book, Boomburbs: The Rise of America’s Accidental Cities, Lang and LeFurgy explain that many of the largest cities in the United States today are simply hypertrophied suburbs—they are boomburbs. The mayors of established cities have had a hard time adjusting to this fact. Mesa, Arizona, for instance, an otherwise anonymous tumescence on the air-conditioned desert edge of Phoenix, is a "stealth city": Its population, incredibly, is larger than both Minneapolis–St. Paul and Miami. The authors also describe how the mayor of Salt Lake City once "dismissed the idea" that his city might have anything in common with suburban North Las Vegas, "despite the fact that North Las Vegas is both bigger and more ethnically diverse than Salt Lake City." What these boomburbs have, in lieu of historic centrality and international name-recognition, is a flexible legal and financial infrastructure. They have water rights boards and waste disposal networks, even local schools and sales tax—and though they don’t necessarily have mayors (though some do), they have "landscape management" committees and homeowners associations. These are cities made up less by buildings than by tax codes and the law.

The mayor of Salt Lake City’s widely shared cognitive dissonance, being somehow unable to see that Mesa, Arizona, is bigger than a city like St. Louis—with its Eero Saarinen-designed Gateway Arch along the banks of the Mississippi—is part of what the authors call "a national ambivalence about what we have built in the past half century." This featureless landscape of low-rise retail parks and residential cul-de-sacs—of video shops, hockey moms, and 24-hour supermarkets—has become the dominant architecture of American urbanism, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it remains critically invisible. One could even say that this landscape is all life and no landmarks—an almost exact inversion of Gilles Tréhin’s Urville, with its tapestry of landmarks and no signs of life. From boomburbs to Urville, via super-slums and Dubai, these instant cities take shape in less than a single generation and cross a fantastic landscape of competing urban forms.

[Image: An installation by Sarah Sze, photographed by Adatabase. Sze's installations "are like highly organic ecosystems, colonizing the space they inhabit." Part of the Liverpool Biennial International 08].

Is it really possible, though, that we could continue to make up and construct the wrong kinds of cities? One could perhaps be excused here for concluding that successful cities cannot be made up at all, that there is something fundamentally unthinkable or excessive to this process, something that simply cannot be planned in advance.

But that doesn’t stop us from looking for what we believe is the secret recipe—for exactly the right balance of marketing plans, water laws, historic monuments, public spaces, and so on. A thriving subsidiary industry has thus arisen in these cities’ shadows, forming a new, deliberately carnivalesque genre of international reportage. We are city-hunting. Writers fly halfway round the world to describe their newest adventures in Middle Eastern air-conditioning. These are new sights in human history, we’re told, and they’re meant to dazzle the modern mind. Every urban day is remarkable, we read, for it is different—and somehow bigger, more extreme—than the last.

So if we continue to get so many things about our cities so wrong, then the only thing to do is to keep looking—to track down Zaha Hadid’s newest building, to host design competitions for skyscrapers in St. Petersburg, to commission private islands, domes, and pyramids. We experiment with Olympic Villages. Amidst all of the dust and the eye-popping budgets, it seems impossible to believe that we won’t get at least one place right.

It’s as if, hovering there in the future possible tense, at the imaginative vanishing point of urban design itself, is the perfect city, sending ripple effects back into the spaces of today—and we can trace the outlines of its utopian arrival in the empty streets and construction sites of the spaces that now surround us.

Because it no longer matters if we are wrong about our cities; we will always be right if we just make up more.

The Castle

[Image: Duncraig Castle, Scotland; photo by Margaret Salmon and Dean Wiand for The New York Times].

There was a great article in The New York Times this weekend about an English family from Nottingham who purchased Duncraig Castle in Scotland, "set on 40 acres of forested land with its own train station, boathouse and two private islands." It is "a storybook maze of stone-clad turrets, square towers and steeply peaked gables set on a promontory at the edge of the woods overlooking the loch."
The article adds that the castle is "so large – 80 rooms – that a tour takes more than an hour, and it is impossible to remember where you’ve been or where any of the rooms are in relation to one another." Indeed, the building is "a warren of rooms – a design meant to help ward off drafts. In one room, you can actually squeeze behind a wardrobe and end up in the school addition."
As a brief aside, could you build a maze of outdoor rooms, each of them hoisted up on stilts throughout the northernmost extremes of the UK, so that they might interfere with, and thus stop, inclement weather? It'd be "a design meant to help ward off drafts" by trapping winds in little stop-boxes: like wind-shades, they'd help prevent certain storms from forming.
In other words, could you apply the internal climatic lessons of architecture – windows and doors like valves that stop drafts – to outdoor landscapes, using folly-like structures to control the weather?
You stumble on strange wooden folk-constructions in the forests of Bavaria and, not knowing what they are, tear them down; fierce storms begin that very evening, and you never – literally never – figure out what's the cause.
But those were anti-storm constructions, built over six hundred years ago, and the climate you'd been living in was manmade.

[Image: Duncraig Castle, Scotland; photo by Margaret Salmon and Dean Wiand for The New York Times].

In any case, the couple who bought the castle went on to bring their entire family there with them:
    When the family moved into Duncraig in the summer of 2003, the castle had no sewage system. Everyone used portable toilets outside the castle. Seventeen people made do with one washing machine and two kitchens. Hot water ran only to Sam and Perlin’s apartment. When winter arrived at Duncraig, which is farther north than Moscow, the days shrank to a mere six and a half hours. Without streetlights or any large town for dozens of miles, the long nights were disorientingly dark. The castle’s stone facade allowed the ever-present Highland moisture to seep right in. Without central heat, it was impossible to get warm. ‘‘We all got used to wearing damp clothes – there was no way to dry them,’’ says Duncan Dobson. ‘‘You’d get into bed at night, and your bed was damp. All the clothes at the back of the wardrobe went rotten with mold.’’
The specifics of the ensuing breakdown make for a fascinating read, but, in broad strokes, everything falls apart: they actually pay part of the family to leave, buying out their initial share of the investment; a court order against opening a day school inside a leaky side-building full of broken electrical equipment is obtained; and the parents are, incredibly, evicted from the property without compensation. Asked why he evicted his parents, the husband simply says: "I thought the family had descended into madness."
Meanwhile, "black mold that covered the plaster wall so completely it looked like wallpaper" continues to grow in the unused rooms of the castle, as the couple – who still live there – sink nearly a million and a half dollars into renovations.
Read the rest if you get a chance.

(Thanks, Nicky!)

Minor Landscapes and the Geography of American Political Campaigns

[Image: The population density of the United States, ca. 2000, via Wikipedia].

If you'll excuse a quick bit of landscape-inspired political speculation, I was reminded this morning of something I read last year on Boing Boing and which has stuck with me ever since – and that's that there are more World of Warcraft players in the United States today than there are farmers.
Farmers, however, as Boing Boing and the original blog post it links to are both quick to point out, are often portrayed in media polls as a voice of cultural and political authenticity in the United States. They are real Americans, the idea goes, a kind of quiet majority in the background that presidential candidates and media pundits would be foolish to overlook.
If you want a real cross-section of Americana, then, you're supposed to interview farmers and even hockey moms – but why not World of Warcraft players? This is just a rhetorical question – it would be absurd to suggest that World of Warcraft players (or architecture bloggers) somehow have a special insight on national governance – but, as cultural demographics go, it's worth asking why politicians and the media continue to over-prioritize the rural and small-town experience.

[Image: A street in Columbus, Wisconsin, the small and, at the time, semi-rural town in which I grew up, photographed under a Creative Commons license by Royal Broil].

In a related vein, it's often said in the U.S. that certain politicians simply "don't understand the West": they're so caught up in their big city, coastal ways that they just don't get – they can't even comprehend – how a rancher might react to something like increased federal control over water rights or how a small-town mayor might object to interfering rulings by the Supreme Court. Politicians who don't understand the west – who don't understand the rugged individuality of ranch life or the no-excuses self-responsibility of American small towns – are thus unfit to lead this society.
But surely the more accurate lesson to be drawn from such a statement is exactly the opposite?
One could even speculate here that politicians from small towns, and from the big rural states of the west, have no idea how cities – which now house the overwhelming majority of the American population – actually operate, on infrastructural, economic, socio-political, and even public health levels, and so they would be alarmingly out of place in the national government of an urbanized country like the United States.
If the United States – if the entire world – is rapidly urbanizing, then it would seem like literally the last thing we need in the White House, in an era of collapsing bridges and levees, is someone whose idea of public infrastructure is a dirt road.
Put another way, perhaps coming from a ranch or a small town is precisely why a certain candidate might be unable to govern a nation that is now 80% urban.
It's a political collision of landscape management strategies.

[Image: Urban areas in the U.S. Map courtesy of NASA].

On the other hand, perhaps this juxtaposition would be exactly why a rural or small-town candidate could be perfect for the job – fresh perspectives, thinking outside the box, and so on. After all, a good rancher is surely a better leader than a failed mayor.
Or, to take an even more aggressive stand against this argument, surely the administrative specifics of your previous professional life – you were a doctor, a minister, a novelist, a governor, a business owner, a soccer dad – are less important than your maturity, knowledge, clarity of thought, and judgment?
Even having said that, though, I can't help but wonder if a candidate might "understand" one particular type of settled landscape – a small town, a thinly populated prairie, an icy state with a population one-fifth that of Chicago – but not another, more heavily urbanized type of landscape (i.e. the United States as a whole).
So I was reminded again of the opening statistic from Boing Boing – a statistic that I have not researched independently, mind you, but that appears to be based on this data – when I read that President Bush had stopped off this morning to speak about the credit crisis "with consumers and business people at Olmos Pharmacy, an old-fashioned soda shop and lunch counter" in San Antonio, Texas.
The idea here – the spatial implication – is that Bush has somehow stopped off in a landscape of down-home American democracy. This is everyday life, we're meant to believe – a geographic stand-in for the true heart and center of the United States.
But it increasingly feels to me that presidential politics now deliberately take place in a landscape that the modern world has left behind. It's a landscape of nostalgia, the golden age in landscape form: Joe Biden visits Pam's Pancakes outside Pittsburgh, Bush visits a soda shop, Sarah Palin watches ice hockey in a town that doesn't have cell phone coverage, Obama goes to a tractor pull.
It's as if presidential campaigns and their pursuing tagcloud of media pundits are actually a kind of landscape detection society – a rival Center for Land Use Interpretation – seeking out obsolete spatial versions of the United States, outdated geographies most of us no longer live within or encounter.
They find small towns that, by definition, are under-populated and thus unrepresentative of the United States as a whole; they find "old-fashioned" restaurants that seem on the verge of closing for lack of interested customers; they tour "Main Streets" that lost their inhabitants and their businesses long ago.
All along they pretend that these landscapes are politically relevant.
My point here is not that we should just swap landscapes in order to be in touch with the majority of the American population – going to this city instead of to that town, visiting this urban football team instead of that rural hockey league, stopping by this popular Asian restaurant instead of that pie-filled diner (though I would be very interested to explore this hypothesis). I simply want to point out that political campaigning in the United States seems almost deliberately to take place in a landscape that no longer has genuine relevance to the majority of U.S. citizens.
The idea that "an old-fashioned soda shop" might give someone access to the mind of the United States seems so absurd as to be almost impossible to ridicule thoroughly.

[Images: From the fascinating series of electoral maps produced by M. T. Gastner, C. R. Shalizi, and M. E. J. Newman after the 2004 U.S. presidential election].

Of course, I understand that there are electoral college strategies at work and so on; but what I think remains unchallenged throughout all of this is the idea that small town voters somehow offer a more authentic perspective on the political life of this country – and not, say, people in West Hollywood or the Upper East Side or Atlanta or even Reno. Or World of Warcraft players. Or people who eat sushi. People who read Harry Potter novels.
"President Bush stopped off today with a group of people who read Harry Potter novels – the eleventh-largest demographic group in the United States – to discuss the ongoing financial crisis..."
Which group is larger, more important, more likely to vote, more demographically representative of the United States?
Call them micro-niches or whatever new marketing term you want to invent, but it seems like American politicians are increasingly trapped in a kind of minor landscape, a geography that is demonstrably not that within which the majority of Americans currently live.
"Barack Obama campaigned today in the early 1960s by visiting a small pancake house near Springdale..."
In any case, the entire political premise of the last eight years seems to have been one of landscape: big city dwellers near the Great Lakes and the ocean coasts simply don't understand small town communities, and they're embarrassingly out of touch with the everyday big skies of lonely ranchers on the plains. But while this might be true – and I don't think it is, frankly – reversing this belief is surely even more alarming: the idea that someone whose background includes ranches and small towns should go on to lead an urban nation in an urban world seems questionable at best – and potentially dangerous in actual practice.
Again, though, there seems to be no adequate way to measure how political exposure to certain settled landscapes might affect a candidate's ability to govern – and so this post should simply be taken as a kind of geographic speculation about democracy in the United States.
But it does raise at least one interesting group of questions, I think, including: what are the real everyday landscapes of American life, if those landscapes no longer include old-fashioned soda shops and small-town hockey arenas – or do such everyday landscapes simply no longer exist?
And if there are no everyday landscapes, then surely every landscape we encounter is, by definition, extraordinary – so we should perhaps all be paying more attention to the spatial and architectural circumstances of our daily lives?
Further, if political candidates have managed to discover – and to campaign almost exclusively within – an American landscape that seems not yet to have been touched by the trends and technologies of the twenty-first century, then why is that – and is it really a good indication that those candidates will know how to govern an urbanized, twenty-first century nation?
Finally, if urban candidates – or coastal candidates, whatever you want to call them – "don't understand the west," which is simply cultural code for not understanding small town life and for being out of touch with the moral hardships of the American countryside, then surely that's not altogether bad in a country that is 80% urbanized?
Put another way, it would certainly be frustrating to think that a candidate doesn't understand how a cattle ranch or an alfalfa farm operates, or that a candidate has no experience with a small town and its parent-teacher associations and so on – but it is extraordinarily troubling to me to think that a candidate doesn't understand how, say, New York City functions – or Chicago, or Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, or Phoenix – let alone the globally active and thoroughly urbanized economic networks within which these and other international cities are enmeshed.
Surely, then, it is small town candidates and politicians with ranching backgrounds who are demonstrably unqualified for the leadership of an urban country?
Surely we need urban candidates for the twenty-first century?

Rethinking Union Station in an Era of High-Speed Rail

I'm also pleased to announce that I'll be on the jury for a design competition hosted in Chicago next month, brought to you by the Chicago Architectural Club. The purpose of the competition is to rethink – and redesign – Chicago's Union Station, updating it for an era of high-speed rail travel in the United States.
Unfortunately, it's a bit late in the game to be announcing this: designs are due by October 15!
But I've uploaded the competition brief to my Flickr page, so check it out – and hopefully it's not too late for some of you to participate.
I'll be meeting with the jury to announce our decision on Sunday, November 9; you can read more about that here.
But if our transportation options change, and high-speed rail does become an infrastructural fact of American life, then how can the design of our cities keep pace? What will Chicago – indeed, what will all metropolitan forms in the American midwest – look like in the year 2020, if high-speed rail becomes a viable option? Will we see future super-cities hot-linked one to another across the plains – or simply well-made train stations plunked into existing cities here and there?
While I'm in Chicago next month I will also be hosting an amazing panel with Jeffrey Inaba, Sam Jacob, and Joseph Grima, easily three of the most interesting people working in architecture today – but I'll be posting more about that soon.

A mix of possible routes: BLDGBLOG speaks with Vito Acconci

A quick note before I hit the highway: I'll be interviewing Vito Acconci on Saturday, live in Reno at the Nevada Museum of Art. This will be part of the Museum's 2008 Art + Environment Conference, previously discussed here.

[Image: Vito Acconci, Blinks, Nov 23, 1969].

From an article about Acconci's work in The New York Times:
    ''My biggest fear is that architecture is necessarily a kind of totalitarian activity, a kind of prison, in that when you design a space you're probably designing people's behavior in that space,'' he says. ''So the goal of our work is to make a mix, a mix of possible routes, a mix of alternate routes, alternate channels.''
Be sure to read Shelley Jackson's interview with Acconci in The Believer, take a look at his work courtesy of Azure, and stop by another profile of the artist-architect over at designboom.

[Image: An artificial island in Austria, designed by Vito Acconci].

I'll report back with details next week (and hopefully with a transcript or recording of the event), and I hope to find the time to do some blogging from the event itself.
Of course, if you're anywhere near Reno, please stop by!

[Image: Vito Acconci, from Following Piece, 1969].

(Note that the title for this post – "A mix of possible routes" – comes from the profile of Acconci written by Aric Chen for The New York Times).