[iDC] Cities, Speculation, and the Non-addressable

Mark Shepard mshepard at andinc.org
Mon Sep 25 00:31:58 EDT 2006

Usman wrote (way back when),

> It seems quite strange to me that architects these days don't  
> appear to be participating in the kinds of imaginings of the future  
> that they used to (e.g. Archigram, etc.). Some might say this is a  
> good thing of course; but isn't it funny that, although Tony Dunne  
> (of Hertzian Tales) has spoken frequently about how the  
> architectural process of speculation was a great influence on the  
> way he thought about designing objects back in the early 90s, now  
> it is architects (myself included) who refer to him because of his  
> designs for "hertzian space"?

This quote _still_ resonates with me as I try to grapple with why  
architects remain reluctant to address how pervasive, networked,  
embedded, and context-aware computing pose both opportunities and  
dilemmas for architecture and urbanism. If anything, I would argue  
that it is this silence on the part of architects that actually  
contributes to a future so many here have expressed concerns about.

Here's what Marina Vishmidt wrote on the Empyre list about New Songdo  

> Here we have an r&d theme park being promoted as some sort of  
> tenable proposition of how we'll live in the future - this is  
> nothing new of course ("past futures"), in fact is symptomatic of  
> 20th century technological determinism of all stripes, hegemonic,  
> subversive, capitalist, communist, modernist, totalitarian - is  
> even endearingly retro in a way - but it reiterates a populist- 
> media narrative of how profit-led innovation and investment is  
> currently the only driver for social change, which actually means  
> it is not a question of retro-futurity at all.  It is the opposite:  
> an elimination of all futures, to be supplanted by a timeless and  
> normalised/normative crisis of accumulation, conflict, and the  
> short-circuiting/management of its dysfunctions by technological/ 
> military/carceral means.

I don't think this discussion (at least most of it) is "just an  
excuse not to talk about, think about, touch the things" that really  
matter. New Songdo underscores the need to "occupy the imaginary" of  
the near-future city (as Trebor likes to say), so that we might  
influence how it evolves. Although I suspect doing so is more about  
negotiation than resistance or imposition.

To the extent that architecture as a practice is based on processes  
of speculation and projection, and concerned with how the  
organization of space influences (and is influenced by) how we occupy  
it, architects could play a key role in the negotiation.

But why aren't they?

One reason might have to do with architecture's continued fetish for  
form and material (I'm thinking here of the fascination with "blobs"  
and new materials so fashionable at the top architectural schools  
recently). Concepts of "hertzian" space and networked things  
destabilize strictly architectural conceptions of space, place and  
material form in ways that are hard to account for within a  
discipline that to date has focused primarily on shaping the  
_physical_ world. Until architects can see these technologies as  
"material" to be formed (rather than simply products to be  
specified), as something more than just a way to optimize the  
environmental performance of a building, as more than a means to  
visualize or represent spatial flows as formal propositions - it is  
unlikely that we'll see many significant contributions.

Another reason could be the intractability of new patterns of use and  
behavior that some of these technologies enable (not in itself a bad  
thing). The traditional (modernist) idea of an architectural  
"program" - the association of defined spaces with specific  
activities organized by a rationalized "plan" - is of little use at a  
time when activities within contemporary spaces are defined more by  
codes (legislative, economic) and the affordances of wireless  
networks and programmable devices. And while many (myself included)  
have looked to research in both architecture and computing from the  
60s that rejected the idea that behavior and activity can be reasoned  
about in terms of a static organizational diagram, a return to anti- 
plan, hybrid or generic "programs," or to second-order cybernetics as  
a means to _control_ the indeterminate in interactive systems, would  
be equally problematic.

Still another might concern language. For example, the words  
"intelligence" and "programming" mean something different to computer  
scientists than they do to most architects.

Adam Greenfield gave a provocative talk at Conflux last weekend  
titled "Lynch Debord: Killing the Fathers, or if you meet Jane Jacobs  
on the road...", suggesting we need to "jettison our dependence on  
the beloved heroes and heroines of 20th century urbanism in order to  
understand what's happening all around us." But unlike assertions  
that the dérive and the Situationists "have been done, done, done,  
done, and done" (which sounds like an academic bandwagon to me), his  
point was more that we are no longer living in a time where the  
individual can claim an alterity through radical urban play or where  
the Lynchian "Image of the City" is legible in terms of urban form  
alone, but a time where Jacob's West Village finds its progeny in  
Celebration, Florida.

With the introduction of the next version of Internet Protocol - the  
protocol by which computers are associated with a unique numerical  
address - enough unique addresses will be available to cover every  
square meter of the planet. As "information processing dissolves into  
behavior," non-addressable space becomes ever more valuable. This is  
not a call for the architectural equivalent of an RFID zapper, the  
construction of "cell-free" zones, or an architecture of "blankness."  
Maybe it's less a question of grand, heroic social agendas that take  
oppositional strategies for granted. Maybe it's more about minor  
tactical maneuvers, incremental acts, and subtle modulations that  
seek to expand upon (not limit) the quotidian aspects of urban living  
that are always partial, non-addressable, and full of contradictions?


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