the end of architecture?

Through its commoditization and acquiescence to the demands of the market, architecture has increasingly become marginalized, if not entirely circumvented, from its role as an aid to humanity and society. If, as both Fredric Jameson (1994) and, more recently, Mark Fisher (2009) have suggested, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”[1][2], then we need to fundamentally rethink the means through which we may achieve effective, adaptive and contingent political mobilization to positively alter the urban landscape. The potentially transformative power of data, ceded to the masses, may provide the necessary impetus toward a substantial restructuring of the city, but only if its systems are capable of negotiating the attendant issues of governance, antitrust policy and security measures. It is these concerns that provided the foundation for the research paper, ‘The End of Architecture? Networked Communities, Urban Transformation and Post-Capitalist Landscapes’ presented by the authors at the recent Spaces and Flows: Third International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies held at Wayne State University, Detroit, 11-12 October 2012. The paper examined the notion that if we are to consider the future transformation of our cities, then the communities within them must be given priority as stakeholders. If we really are living in the end times of Žižek [3], we need to energetically and openly engage with the provision of a framework to evolve ‘intelligent terrain’ that is participatory and enabling. This idea was further unpacked in the context of Detroit, interrogating the data-driven toolkit currently available there in relation to its governance, communities and the (re)configuration of space [4].

the discarded city, Detroit, 9 October 2012. [photo by author]

[1]. Jameson, F. (1994) The Seeds of Time. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[2]. Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Ropley: Zero Books.

[3]. Žižek, S. (2011) Living in the End Times, Revised Edition, London: Verso.

[4]. http://datadrivendetroit.org/

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polarities

As visitors here will be aware, here at [Re_Map] we research and explore instruments of spatial control. We are interested in the discrepancy between the apparently infinite, seamless topology of digital space and networks, and their contrast with the typically fragmented, incoherent topography of contemporary urban landscapes. The question of what constitutes territorial, community, networked and residual space is paramount to our research. Indeed, our daily interactions with one another quickly make us aware that network structures have rapidly evolved to form the organisational model of socio-cultural exchange and technological development in the digital age.[i] Therefore we were pleased to recognise that even the smooth space of the Internet needs a little help sometimes. The photograph below is by Alissa Walker, and illustrates a telephone pole farm in Los Angeles, used for repair personnel to practise their skills in a hyper-regulated copse before entering the unregulated urban jungle.


[i] For an overview see: Guido Caldarelli, G. (2007) Scale-Free Networks: Complex Webs in Nature and Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Networks + wires

Thumbing Royston Landau’s New Directions in British Architecture (1968), part of the Studio Vista series, brought two interesting items to our attention. We’ve been looking at the birth of computing in Manchester and Cambridge and have come to learn that Lyons & Co. catering company ordered one of the first business computing machines in the UK. The firm was also responsible for the commissioning of Cedric Price to conduct a feasibility study into a ‘walk through’[1] centre to act as an ‘information machine’[2]for the public. The scheme was proposed for an existing building on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in London and known by the acronym OCH (Oxford Street Corner House) and designed to handle up to 5,000 visitors and staff in a flexible and dynamic arrangement designed to offer skills training, ‘teleconnections’ for the press, information storage and inter-city conference exchanges. Price conceived these interfaces using diagrams that made allusion to scientific structures and interconnectivity. This particular project preempts a plethora of technologies and services that have become embedded in modern cultural life, as far as Price was concerned the site and the city ‘must indeed allow for continuous delight in the unknown in social terms’ [3].

‘OCH can be used as a citizens’ inquiry service where teleconnections can be made to press news rooms, travel agencies, government ministries, to Parliament, industry, commerce etc, thus making information accessible which is at present underused or ignored because of access difficulties. [diagram A].

Or OCH can offer a skill-learning or research facility service through programmed machines [a Link drive-a-car trainer or a language teaching machine] or through teleconnections to other study centres. [diagram B]

Or OCH can be used as a centre equipped to provide facilities for information exchange, at a meeting level, at a conference level, or at an inter-city [concurrent exchange] conference level. [diagram C]

The basic user component in the centre would be the two-seater information carrel, but open floor space for observation, wandering, wondering, rest and refreshment by mobile preparation units is fundamental to the full use of the centre.’

Price did not consult a UK computer manufacturer during his period of research and development, instead he corresponded with US firm IBM over the use of their 360-30 computer in the development of a ‘cyber-teashop’.[4] The variety of high street typologies and interconnectivity of media that this proposal preempts are vast – the shop as no longer a place for exchange of finance and product, but as a showroom in the manner of the pioneering Nike Town projects of the 1990s, virtual learning environments, video conferencing and media hubs are but a few of the later established settings that can be perceived as embedded within Price’s notion.

Matthews (2007) writing of the project proposes that OCH ‘was a deliberate attempt to explore new architectural and educational territories’[5] and quotes Price as wishing to examine these contexts ‘unfettered by tradition – scholastic, economic, academic or class structure’[6]Matthews continues to suggest that the scheme developed as biased towards the technological concerns of the framework and that the social agency and interactivity became less prominent as Margaret Littlewood was not involved in the project. Of course a technologically driven series of environments had already emerged during the 1950s in the form of new manufacturing facilities which, in some senses, whilst acknowledging of the ergonomic demands of an environment were largely technocratic in nature.

Which leads us to the second and ultimately technocratic incidence of architecture, the Central Electricity Generating Board’s (CEGB) National Tower Testing Station (NTTS) at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. The site was designed by a team under the direction of W.R. Box and operated as a commercial testing laboratory for the full scale testing of pylons and other structures from 1966. Landau, writing in 1969, is fascinated by its hugely flexible demands and expandable setting as architecture without buildings and whilst not emerging from a critical territory nonetheless embodied the spirit of Price and his contemporaries. The dramatic night time photo is from Landau’s book, as is the schematic.[7]

A 100 sqft mounting pad was secured to the floor of the disused quarry and the quarry sides used as fixing points to test the strength of the towers. Without the use of this particular site a 200ft high stand alone structure would have been required to serve the same function as the post-industrial manufactured landscape. The unique laboratory allowed specific loads to be applied to sections of the towers to test one area of the structure at a time and not to test the entirety to destruction.[8]

As ever those ‘pesky kids’, the urban explorers, have been scratching about the modern day ruins of this not so distant remnant of the future. The photograph above is from the UK site 28dayslater and was taken by user ‘rigsby‘ in December 2007, even less now remains on site as testified by later visits. As an edifice this scheme is loaded with associations to things that interest us: the infrastructure and architecture of the post-war period, the design work of the nationalised industries, the hardware of infrastructure, planning and infrastructure as networks and the use of scientific language in design, modern ruins and a host of other loosely floating notions yet to be tied down. In many senses we are yet to arrive at the type of mobile and ultimately flexible architecture presupposed by a generation of future thinkers, in others the ‘new’ forms of socio-cultural space have been erased from the memory as reality fast outstrips imagination – who remembers internet cafes with names like ‘Cyberia’? One installation here reminds us of the hardware demands of the other – the apparently ethereal, networked space, ‘free’ at the point of connection, tied by its attendant transmission devices. Infrastructure can be volume or void, solid or lattice in its manifestation, but its steady accretion in service of our continuing urbanisation in virtual and real contexts can be seen as the surreptitious age of networks + wires.

[1] Landau, R. (1968) New Directions in British Architecture (London: Studio Vista) p.108.

[2] Landau, R. (1968) p.108.

[3] Price, C. (1984) The Square Book (London: Wiley Academy) 2003 Edition, p.54.

[4] Matthews, S. (2007) From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price (London: Black Dog Publishing) p.177.

[5] Matthews, S. (2007) p.180.

[6] Price, C. (1984) ‘Oxford Corner House’ in Cedric Price: Works II (London: Architectural Association) p.65 as quoted by Matthews, S. (2007) p.180.

[7] Landau, R. (1968) pp.88-89.

[8] Lightfoot, E. & Duggan, D.M. ‘Rig for failure tests on scaffold towers’ in Materials and Structures, Volume 8, Number 6 (1975) pp.473-479.

urban maps

Ashgate have just published ‘Urban Maps: Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City’ by Richard Brook and Nick Dunn. Their book concerns the city and the ‘devices’ that define the urban environment by their presence, representation or interpretation. The texts offer an interdisciplinary discourse and critique of the complex systems, artifacts, interventions and evidences that can inform our understanding of urban territories; on surfaces, in the margins or within voids. The diverse media of arts practices as well as commercial branding are used to explore narratives that reveal latent characteristics of urban situations that conventional architectural inquiry is unable to do.

The subjects covered are presented within a wider framework of urban theory into which are embedded case study examples that outline the practices, processes and interpretations of each theme. The chapters provide a contemporary reading of urban socio-cultural conditions using ‘mapping’ as a lens to explore and communicate the social phenomena and lived experiences of the dynamic and temporal city. Mapping is developed as a form of critical instrumentality to expose, record and contribute to the understanding of the singular essences of space, place and networks by thematic, cognitive and experiential modes of investigation.

Urban Maps provides an interesting new way of “minding the gap” between the contemporary urban condition and architectural design. Calling on familiar and well-loved theoretical friends like Walter Benjamin, but also bringing in exciting new contenders such Thomas de Quincey, the narrators interrogate an interdisciplinary array of projects from graffiti to branded environments. The map is posited as a central element of design behaviour, and Brook and Dunn argue convincingly that to address today’s pressing urban issues architecture must move outside its normal frames of reference, and engage with a new vocabulary and conceptual framework comprising images, networks, films, marks and objects.’

– Jane Rendell, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, UK, author of The Pursuit of Pleasure (2001), Art and Architecture (2006), Site-Writing (2010)

 

‘Fifty years ago, Kevin Lynch offered us a classical reading of “the image of the city” based on a waning ideal of clear built landmarks and distinct urban signs. Now, through inspired insights and an in-depth inquiry into a vast array of contemporary urban practices, the authors of Urban Maps reveal us how the complex narratives currently converging in the appropriation and redefinition of an eroded urban space require a totally revamped cognitive mapping… From the readings of cinema to the interventions of street art, from the markings of graffiti to the identities of brandscapes, and from the wanderings of contemporary art to the fictional drives of theory, architecture is confronted with the need to review the cartography of its references when facing the ascendancy of the urban condition – and the prominence of new networked, information augmented realities – as substituting for previous conceptions of the city.’

– Pedro Gadanho, architect, curator and writer, Lisbon, Portugal

Infrastructural Urbanism

The question of the future of urban landscapes with regard to their transformation as the physical basis of sociability is currently frequently illustrated as declining in favour of dematerialized, delocalised, ever-present digital systems and networks is timely. However, this may not actually be as recent a phenomenon as it may first seem, as Melvin Webber described in his highly influential article. ‘The Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm’ of 1964, urban life and urban experience were always synonymous with a partial dissociation from the constraints of reality. This forms the basis for the recent research paper the authors presented at Spaces and Flows: An International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, held  at the University of California, Los Angeles, 4-5 December. The paper, ‘Infrastructural Urbanism: Ecologies and Technologies of Multi-layered Landscapes’ proposed the development of ‘digital ecologies’ through their use of digital infrastructures to afford meaningful relationships with respect to urban transformation. A key aspect of the position presented was in the use of such technology to develop instrumentality with which to facilitate ‘thick’ descriptions of digital networks and communities and contribute to our understanding of their spatiality. This research therefore sought to describe and explain this transformation and propose theoretical material to address some of the attendant issues.

navigating data/cityscapes

The authors were invited to present at the international conference, Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference 2010: Confronting the Challenges of the Post-Crisis Global Economy and Environment, in London, UK on 3rd September. The paper, ‘Digital Networks: between open source mobility and closed loop assemblages’, responds to what a number authors have referred to as the ‘network city’ via an increasing abstraction of space coupled with the continual erosion of place. This has precipitated a number of effects on social and cultural activity and respective communities, most significantly, the original nature of the public realm within the built environment as both a receptive and reflexive domain appears to now be located in digital networks that permeate contemporary life rather than physical conditions. The ubiquity of technology across our daily communication and other exchanges as a correlation of increased growth of broadband in the developed world and the global continuum facilitated by mobile phones, has become manifest in readily accessible, ever-present networks that not only challenge our ideas and experience of place but have precipitated an evolution in relationships of time and distance. In addition, these digital infrastructures afford the connectivity and mobility of communities with niche interests to be networked in an unprecedented manner. Who operates across this territory, how and why? The schism between the high degree of connectivity that permeates the digital networks versus the increasingly fragmentary nature of the physical urban condition has provided a rich geography for exploitation for artists, communities and sub-cultures who are involved in navigating this ‘inbetween landscape.’ A range of case studies were used to illustrate such negotiations and subversions of urban space and their implications for an increasingly hybridised public domain that seeks to explore digital and physical boundaries.