Tag Archives: economics

Geneva’s art storage boom in uncertain times – BBC News

It may contain 300 Picassos but few have ever explored the riches in the Geneva free port art storage site, the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes reports.

Source: Geneva’s art storage boom in uncertain times – BBC News

The art boom has led to good times for institutions known as “free ports”: bonded warehouses in which all sorts of commodities, from grain, to gold, to fine art, can be stored, and remain, while they are in storage, exempt from tax and customs duties.
The Geneva free port is, from the exterior, a rather unimpressive warehouse in an industrial area of the city.
Inside, it is said to house the largest collection of fine art anywhere in the world, although it is hard to find out exactly what is in there, as both the port’s management and local customs officials refuse to divulge any information.

[…]

“I was led to a storage place where paintings were stored,” he explained, “and I had to go through Picasso works, so I was brought down in the morning and they locked me into the safe.
“At lunchtime I had to ring for them to take me out of the vaults. It was quite a strange environment because I was alone and I was surrounded by so many valuable artworks.”
It is estimated there are at least 300 works by Picasso alone stored at the free port, many belonging to the reclusive Nahmad family, who have been buying and trading art as an investment for half a century.

[…]

One Nahmad family member has been quoted as saying that “Monet and Picasso are like Microsoft or Coca Cola”, meaning that they are likely to be safe investments for a long time to come.

[…]

“We see art actually as a very good investment,” he said. “It’s a great way to diversify your portfolio, a good hedge against inflation. There are many reasons to consider art now as an investment.”

[…]

Still, the current boom in art means free ports are booming too. Geneva is building a 10,000 sq m (108,000 sq ft) extension, due to open next year, and new free ports are springing up in Luxembourg, and in Singapore.
But, said Jean-Rene Saillard, Geneva remains the oldest, the biggest, and the one with the most art.
“It would be probably the best museum in the world if it was a museum,” he added.

I Will Learn You Architecture! — Volume

I Will Learn You Architecture! — Volume

I had graduated only six months earlier and in many ways my first job came as a complete shock. It was not so much the quality of the buildings I worked on that shocked me, or the gratuitous nature of decisions such as the above, but rather the fact that practicing as an architect appeared to have nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing to do with studying architecture. The first emotional state I recall as a practicing architect is that feeling of utter uselessness. My technical knowledge fell way short of what it needed to be, making me largely inadequate, and nobody was interested in the elevated philosophical considerations I had developed during my studies. For this job I was at the same time over- and under-qualified. It was an experience that I shared with other recent graduates. We kept our spirits up and tried to feel good about ourselves. Admittedly, we worked on garbage, but this was straightforward garbage.

[…]

Pay was good and working days were neatly confined 9 to 5’s. Still, in the face of a never-ending stream of seemingly pointless tasks, every day seemed to last a lifetime.

[…]

I was confident things would change with time. As soon as I would no longer have to execute the questionable design decisions made by others – in architecture they are that by definition – things would get better. Ultimately there would be room to put into practice some of the idealism I had developed in school. However, once I began working for myself, everything that had bothered me as an employee only presented itself in an exacerbated manner. This time there were mouths to feed. I quickly found that, in the face of economic needs, the architect is a largely powerless figure. Saying no, or questioning a client’s directives, is at best a matter of gentle persuasion, but never a battle of equals.

Many of my contemporaries resorted to teaching. Some did so fresh out of university. To me that seemed a strange career decision: a kind of pre-emptive and premature capitulation at the first sign of trouble. I also wondered what somebody barely having had a taste of the real world could possibly have to teach apart from what they themselves had been taught just a few years prior. The recycling of experience obtained from university in the context of a university seemed a strangely self-referential, somewhat incestuous process, which might help people to make it to graduation, but certainly not prepare them for a life beyond.

The creation of an educational bubble, even when invoked in the name of protecting academic integrity, seems a self-defeating purpose. In forever postponing and never confronting the shock of practice – god forbid we ever realize our own insignificance – it induces a strange state of schizophrenia. On the one hand the aspiring architect is encouraged to entertain almost megalomaniac ambitions, on the other he is left largely unprepared for the world upon which he projects this megalomania. I am not talking about a lack of technical or professional competence here, but rather about the ability to come to terms with a society wholly indifferent to his ideals. Once unleashed into the real world, the architect is perplexed by an utter lack of authority, stuck in a large gap between what he thinks should happen and what he ends up doing.

The more hermetic our schools, the more distant the realities of practice become. When practice is not engaged, it tends to become romanticized. In the context of architectural education, star architects have developed into virtual deity. (Sometimes the mere knowledge that you exist in the vicinity of one is enough for people to ask your autograph…) Still, star architects only account for a negligible portion of all that gets built. It is a weird delusion that, by having every architect aspire to that status, we can achieve even the tiniest improvement of the built environment as a whole. In the 1980s conservative policies in the US introduced the notion of trickle-down economics, in which catering to the super rich was ultimately thought to create a better situation for everybody. By cultivating a limited number of venerated architects as role models for an entire profession, we have created our own form of ‘trickle-down architecture’.

As a profession, architecture embodies a strange paradox. In economic terms it is a largely reactive discipline, a response to pre-formulated needs. In intellectual terms it is the opposite: a visionary domain that claims the future. In this capacity architecture aspires to set the agenda andprecede needs. The unfortunate thing for architects is that both conditions are equally true, making architecture a curious form of omniscience practiced in a context of utter dependency. This also explains the often Rasputin-like nature of architect-client relationships. A former employer (shortly before firing me) once said: “the most important thing for an architect is to possess charisma!” It is only now, when writing this piece, that I understand the full significance of his statement. Charisma – probably best defined as the appearance to know something others don’t without ever revealing what – is critical because, like a state of hypnosis, it has the capacity to obscure established relations of power. It is precisely the incongruence between architecture’s intellectual claims and its economic reality that causes something as vague as charisma to be of such importance. It allows the architect to temporarily suspend the disbelief of his patrons and get the upper hand in the absence of a real mandate. Charisma is pure psychology – that which mediates between the scale of one’s ambitions and the limits of one’s power.

Do I wish my education had been different? Not really. What I do wish however, is for my education to have been candid about the status of what I was being taught, that some notion of context would have been provided… a side note to explain that what I was learning was actually a relatively marginal form of idealism entertained only by a small minority; that the considerations that went into the built environment were of an altogether different nature than the ones we were being taught. It is not that I would have made another choice, nor do I dislike my profession. However, with a little more information I would have at least known what I was in for. In hindsight I would have used the six years of relative intellectual freedom considerably differently from the way I did. I would have spent less time on studying the profession’s intricacies and more time on studying its context, would have embraced the vulgarity of the real world as the only way to ultimately overcome it, would have developed more entrepreneurial and fewer artistic interests and would not have wasted the better half of my time in awe of role models which in the present world do not allow for emulation. I would have recognised Le Corbusier and Mies for what they actually are: history.

The education of architects is a precarious phenomenon. To disclose too early the realities of practice would probably discourage even the staunchest optimist. It would kill the productive idealism that you inevitably need as an architect. On the other hand architecture needs a real knowledge of practice if it is to produce any meaningful critique of that same practice. Architecture learns from what it applies and applies what it learns. The education of an architect is a permanent chicken and egg situation, where theory and praxis, idealism and pragmatism, resistance and surrender become entangled in an inextricable web in which it is forever unclear what prevails. In the context of architecture and its education, there is a permanent and inescapable interference between the object of critique (praxis) and the critic (the architect), who is formed by and complicit in that which he critiques. The contemporary architect – the human typology produced by this education – is generally doomed to be a mistrusted idealist even before he has properly started practicing.

How can teaching architecture prepare for practice without itself degenerating into a form of practice? Architecture exists by virtue of a conceptual distance from the arena in which it ultimately operates, as a hard earned space to think before doing (not something any of us would be keen to give up). Education is the perfect period to cultivate and explore such a space. Yet, for that very reason it also becomes hard to leave education, because it invariably means leaving this contemplative space. One learns to think only to find out that outside there is no real time to think, that one is condemned to an infernal rat race to keep up with seemingly incoherent demands. Such precisely was the formative experience of my first acquaintance with practice in London’s Docklands: a confrontation between carefully cultivated convictions and an absolute lack of demand for them.

Can architecture education be reinvented? Can it stop being a way to suspend practice in the name of thinking, and instead become a way to turn practice itself into the object of thinking? Here again, I am not advocating any form of radical pragmatism or some sort of surrender, but simply an enlarged curiosity: an eagerness to obtain a form of general knowledge of the context and conditions in which architecture is produced and with which it somehow has to come to terms. Architecture is a pinball in a maze of considerations and interests of which architects are often the ones least aware. Subject to ulterior (largely financial) motives, architecture is a fundamentally different phenomenon than for which architects hold it. More than a means to provide space, buildings are vehicles for investment, an indispensable pillar of the current economic system and, as we have seen with the financial crisis of 2008, also a potential source of its instability. Ignorance of this mechanism coupled with a misplaced hubris creates a lethal cocktail, in which the architect inevitably becomes complicit in causes antithetical to the ones he claims to profess.

Only when architecture confronts its true status can it be properly taught as a discipline. Clearly that will come at a price, as it will require honesty about all the things architecture should not claim, or at least not claim exclusively. One of the most important things to acknowledge is that nobody needs an architect to build a building. When it comes to architecture’s supposed core business, architects have become largely unnecessary. Architecture creates through design what happens otherwise by default. Buildings will get built, with or without architects. Building is a largely self-perpetuating phenomenon: the assemblage of a limited number of standardized industrial products, subject to an in-house expertise of contractors themselves. System building as a methodical science was supposed to have died along with the former GDR. Still, that is exactly what has become the dominant mode of building worldwide. In terms of technical expertise, architects are typically outwitted by contractors and even by some of their more professional client teams. The continued insistence that the work of an architect is the only way to arrive at a building, with abundant evidence to the contrary, forces architecture into a humiliating routine of self-legitimization. The vast majority of the built environment is of an unspeakable ugliness and the profession of architecture has done little to change that. Architecture’s own track record should discourage its claims to exclusivity; in insisting on it, architecture only contributes to its own demise.

What then is the ‘added value’ of architecture? What becomes different once an architect is involved?

In my view, the real merit of architecture does not lie in that it creates any less ugliness, but that it is aware when it does. That there is some internal system of critique that always offers hope for improvement. Economic pressure notwithstanding, architects are still a community of peers. They still combine a healthy mix of competitiveness with a sincere appreciation for each other’s work. There is a shared sense of quality among architects even in the absence of an overall consensus about style. Whenever one of them rises to an exceptional level, his or her colleagues are generally able to recognize it. Furthermore, a healthy dose of peer pressure mostly discourages architects from engaging in causes beyond their conviction. When they do, they know their colleagues are watching over their shoulder.

The other big difference is that architecture cultivates a motive beyond money. That makes it an exception in the current economic framework. I would not go as far as to say that architecture is not motivated by money, but that there is another goal that ultimately overrides money. Architects do not trade their labor for money. In fact, it is often difficult to find any correlation between their efforts and the financial reward. There is hardly a discipline that has made (unpaid) overtime the standard procedure in the way architecture has. This doesn’t even so much happen at the request of clients, but rather through an almost religious belief on the part of the architects in the importance of their labor.

In the long run however, any such motivation (work over money) will only be sustainable once the logic of money is properly mastered. In general, the exposure of architects to money is limited to dealing with budget constraints. The other side of the building economy, that of financial returns, for most part remains obscured from the architect’s view. Yet, it is these sums that make any financial expenditure on construction, including architects’ fees (defined as a percentage of construction cost) pale into insignificance. Buildings are invariably built too cheaply and sold too expensively. If architects would be aware, it would not only radically alter the nature of their work, but it could also mark a fundamental shift in the economy of architecture firms themselves. With architects’ indemnity insurance premiums going through the roof, ignorance of money is rapidly becoming unaffordable.

Even if, in an extreme case, architecture’s motives were to be exclusively idealistic, it is important to realize that also idealism needs financing. (The early communists funded their revolutionary activities by robbing banks.) To overcome the banalities of the real world you need to know all about the real world. Architecture has long thought it could defeat the real world by cultivating a form of splendid isolation. Ultimately, that will not work. In order to beat the system, we first need to play the system. Only when we know how to play the system, can we play the system against itself. Currently, the system plays us.

When it comes to the education of architects, what I would propose is a reverse play between architecture and its context, a temporary state of emergency in our educational institutions, in which for a particular duration studying the context of architecture takes priority over studying architecture itself.

With context I mean anything from high-level political considerations to the mundane financial logic that goes into buildings – an understanding of any ulterior motive that, for better or for worse, affects our work. Exposed to almost every facet of this context, architecture is in a unique position to extract from it a type of knowledge that no other party can. In a landscape dominated by specialists, the architect offers a rare perspective: that of the generalist, the narrator who can translate even the most banal combination of subjects into a form of discourse. In the context of complex construction efforts, he or she is the mediator who synthesizes various and diverging interests into an integrated whole. It is generally the architect who ends up acting as the spokesperson, even if the technical and financial complexity of these efforts far exceeds his or her professional competence.

Despite the general absence of evidence to support its arguments, architecture manages to exert a strange authority. In fact, the more it is seen to abandon the whole notion of evidence, the stronger its position. Somehow it is able to mobilize a leap of faith against the perpetual inconclusiveness of numbers. It is this ability that may well be architecture’s prime asset (and perhaps therefore also what should be conveyed in an educational context). Architecture is an ancient discipline that appears to be in possession of a wisdom no one else has. Even at his most helpless moments, the architect’s autonomy is hardly in question. (Charisma helps.) Architecture is a unique combination of both sovereignty from- and surrender to those disciplines. It doesn’t need to be territorial, as its territory is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

How should architecture use this power? When it comes to building, architecture is different from any other guest at the table. It is not one of the building disciplines, but rather a meta-discipline. It describes, theorizes and conceptualizes the very process in which it participates. It offers a possibility for a critique from within. It is informed by practice, yet in a position to turn its acquired insights against practice itself. Architecture offers space for contradiction. (Even in the context of this piece, I realize that I have contradicted myself at least five times.) As a consequence, architecture has the unique potential to become a disruptive force in the context of the self-perpetuating system that the production of the built environment has become. Architecture becomes a way of beating the system: bypassing supply and demand, cost and benefit, investment and return, LEED and BREEAM and all the other performance indicators which have come to dominate building practice. Almost by default architecture becomes political, a questioning of the ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable logic of the market economy. In a last instance, it is the mere possibility of an alternative that constitutes a political agenda, even when the specifics remain sketchy at best.

If architecture is to reclaim lost ground, it needs to accept its true nature. It should stop pretending to offer the same specialized expertise as the engineers, quantity surveyors, sustainability consultants and all the other supposed ‘experts’ that congregate around ever larger meeting tables (generally with a large hole in the middle) from which buildings now magically emerge. It should not engage in the tough talk. Only when we stop viewing architecture as a professional expertise on par with other building disciplines, can architecture be free to realize its full potential.

Arena, Blueprint, Platform, Framework, Theatre, Stage, Sphere, Structure, Façade, Base, Foundation, Model… The metaphors used to describe anything from organizational structures to corporate strategies and political agendas are proof of the ever-present conceptual force of architecture. Precisely at the moment when architecture seems wholly at the mercy of powers that be, its language is being used to articulate the constructs of those very powers. Even in the context of massive innovations in business and technology, architecture maintains a surprising degree of relevance. The thinking it has developed over centuries has enabled it to infiltrate other domains. In a final instance, that should also enable it to transcend its most important professional limitation: the obligation to produce buildings.

In the late nineties, the rediscovery of architecture as a primarily conceptual medium led to the formation of AMO. It was later applied in an educational context at Strelka. Our mission was to redefine architecture purely as a form of thinking, which could be applied to an array of subjects. Informed by the broadest possible context, it could in turn inform the broadest possible context. Apart from generating a number of interesting projects – projects which one might not immediately expect from architects – it has perhaps first and foremost allowed a progression of our own knowledge. We have become the students. With the formation of AMO, ten years after my first encounter with practicing architecture, working on- and learning from projects finally struck a balance: a catering to curiosities not felt since university, generating both a sense of engagement and personal progress.

‘I will learn you architecture’, Herman Hertzberger used to tell us as students at the Berlage Institute. In hindsight his bad English carries great profundity, a deep knowledge of the secret how knowledge of architecture is ultimately conveyed: a reciprocal process in which the question of who teaches whom is best forever deferred.

China Has Overtaken the U.S. as the World’s Largest Economy | Vanity Fair

China Has Overtaken the U.S. as the World’s Largest Economy | Vanity Fair: “”

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When the history of 2014 is written, it will take note of a large fact that has received little attention: 2014 was the last year in which the United States could claim to be the world’s largest economic power. China enters 2015 in the top position, where it will likely remain for a very long time, if not forever. In doing so, it returns to the position it held through most of human history.

[…]

China did not want to stick its head above the parapet—being No. 1 comes with a cost. It means paying more to support international bodies such as the United Nations. It could bring pressure to take an enlightened leadership role on issues such as climate change. It might very well prompt ordinary Chinese to wonder if more of the country’s wealth should be spent on them.

[…]

Tectonic shifts in global economic power have obviously occurred before, and as a result we know something about what happens when they do. Two hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain emerged as the world’s dominant power. Its empire spanned a quarter of the globe. Its currency, the pound sterling, became the global reserve currency—as sound as gold itself. Britain, sometimes working in concert with its allies, imposed its own trade rules. It could discriminate against importation of Indian textiles and force India to buy British cloth. Britain and its allies could also insist that China keep its markets open to opium, and when China, knowing the drug’s devastating effect, tried to close its borders, the allies twice went to war to maintain the free flow of this product.

Britain’s dominance was to last a hundred years and continued even after the U.S. surpassed Britain economically, in the 1870s. There’s always a lag (as there will be with the U.S. and China). The transitional event was World War I, when Britain achieved victory over Germany only with the assistance of the United States. After the war, America was as reluctant to accept its potential new responsibilities as Britain was to voluntarily give up its role. Woodrow Wilson did what he could to construct a postwar world that would make another global conflict less likely, but isolationism at home meant that the U.S. never joined the League of Nations. In the economic sphere, America insisted on going its own way—passing the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and bringing to an end an era that had seen a worldwide boom in trade. Britain maintained its empire, but gradually the pound sterling gave way to the dollar: in the end, economic realities dominate. Many American firms became global enterprises, and American culture was clearly ascendant.

World War II was the next defining event. Devastated by the conflict, Britain would soon lose virtually all of its colonies. This time the U.S. did assume the mantle of leadership. It was central in creating the United Nations and in fashioning the Bretton Woods agreements, which would underlie the new political and economic order. Even so, the record was uneven. Rather than creating a global reserve currency, which would have contributed so much to worldwide economic stability—as John Maynard Keynes had rightly argued—the U.S. put its own short-term self-interest first, foolishly thinking it would gain by having the dollar become the world’s reserve currency. The dollar’s status is a mixed blessing: it enables the U.S. to borrow at a low interest rate, as others demand dollars to put into their reserves, but at the same time the value of the dollar rises (above what it otherwise would have been), creating or exacerbating a trade deficit and weakening the economy.

[…]

America’s real strength lies in its soft power—the example it provides to others and the influence of its ideas, including ideas about economic and political life. The rise of China to No. 1 brings new prominence to that country’s political and economic model—and to its own forms of soft power.

I Want It, and I Want It Now — It’s Time for Instant Gratification | Re/code

I Want It, and I Want It Now — It’s Time for Instant Gratification | Re/code (part 1)

It Takes a New Kind of Worker to Make “Instant” Happen | Re/code (part 2)

Can “Instant” Become a Viable Business? | Re/code part 3)

Instant Gratification Pioneers Kozmo, Webvan, Pets.com Still Believe | Re/code (part 4)

Living in an Instant World: What’s Next After Now? | Re/code (part 5)

Carrying two iPhones that beep out assignments throughout the day, Lyons works for four different app-enabled bike-courier services: WunWun, UberRush, Zipments and Petal by Pedal. He does about 25 to 30 deliveries per day, which adds up to about 50 miles, including the commute.

When he first got started last year, Lyons tried working for traditional bike-courier services where he would make $3 per delivery. “It was outrageous,” he says. “They treat you like an animal.”

Some of the newer services Lyons works for are subsidized. When it first started, Uber was giving away free courier service for its UberRush local delivery trial. Lyons says that demand has dropped a bit since the initial promos wore out.

WunWun — which has the insane premise of deliveries from any store or restaurant in Manhattan within an hour, for free — keeps Lyons the busiest.

Lyons claims WunWun’s system of working for tips, which are suggested within the app at 30 percent, somehow actually works. “You never really get snubbed out on a tip,” he says.

By literally working his butt off, Lyons thinks he will make between $45,000 and $60,000 this year.

[…]

“If people wanted it so badly, why did it not exist?” he says. “It was too darned expensive, and it was not sustainable. Even in 2010, a business like ours would be incredibly difficult to start because not enough sections of the population had smartphones.”

Still, Xu will admit that Palo Alto might not be the most representative test market in the world. As we drive to pick up the delivery, we pass three Teslas parked in a row in the shopping-center parking lot. “Only in Palo Alto,” he says.

But it’s bigger than Palo Alto. It’s bigger than San Francisco or New York. Take all these stories together and the larger point is: The business of bringing people what they want, when they want it, is booming.

A decade ago, we got iTunes, and the ability to buy a song bought and delivered with the push of a button. Then Facebook helped us stay in touch with our spread-out friends and family from the comfort of our couch. Then Netflix DVDs started coming over the air instead of to our mailboxes. Now it’s not just Web pages that we can load up instantly, it’s the physical world.

Not to neglect the important historical contributions of pizza joints and Chinese restaurants, but the groundwork for what you might call the instant gratification economy was laid by Amazon, which spent years building up its inventory, fulfillment infrastructure and, most importantly, customer expectations for getting whatever they want delivered to their doors two days later.

Then Uber came along and established the precedent of a large-scale marketplace powered by independent workers and smartphones. After that started to work, every pitch deck in Silicon Valley seemed to morph overnight into an “Uber for X” startup.

On the one hand, this is a positive development. As startups merge online expectations with offline reality, the Internet is becoming more than a glowing screen drawing us away from the real world. On the other hand, instant gratification tempts us to be profoundly lazy and perhaps unreasonably impatient.

[…]

As for whether there’s demand, forces are converging to fulfill the notion of what some pundits label “IWWIWWIWI.” That is, “I want what I want when I want it.” It’s not the easiest acronym to get your tongue around — but it’s pretty to look at, and it’s right on the money.

[…]

Yarrow thinks we’ve become conditioned for impatience by technology like Internet search and smartphones. “Today, we have almost no tolerance for boredom,” she told me. “Our brains are malleable, and I think they have shifted to accommodate much more stimulation. We’re fascinated by newness, and we desire to get the new thing right away. We want what we want when we want it.”

[…]

Someone had told me the day before that one way to think about all this instant gratification stuff is that it basically brings rich-people benefits to the average person.

In his view, the magic of Uber and services modeled on Uber is that they help you value your time the way a rich person would, without spending your money the way a rich person would.

[…]

For decades, books and TV shows planted seeds of desire for instant gratification in impressionable minds. But across many of these stories about suburban genies and witches, magic wands and technology of the future, there’s a shadow side to getting what you want when you want it. The princesses always seem to run out of wishes before they get what they really need. Their greed is their doom.

“Don’t care how, I want it nooow,” sings greedy little Veruca Salt, right up until she falls into Willy Wonka’s garbage chute, never to be seen again.

[…]

In Pixar’s wistful animated sci-fi story “Wall-E,” the people of the future zoom around in hovering chairs in a climate-controlled dome, with robots refilling their sodas. Their bodies are so flabby they can’t even stand. It’s the ultimate incarnation of the couch potato.

[…]

The most important reason that this is happening now is that workers have smartphones. After a briefer-than-brief application process, companies like Uber hand out phones to workers — or just give them an app to download onto their personal devices — and suddenly, for better or worse, they’ve got a branded on-demand service.

Over and over again, startups in the instant gratification space tell me that the most crucial part of their arsenal is an app to help remote workers receive assignments, schedule jobs and map where they are going.

In large part because they are powered by a mobile workforce, instant gratification startups avoid much of the hassle and expense of building physical infrastructure.

“Remote controls for real life” is how venture capitalist Matt Cohler described mobile apps like Uber and the food-delivery service GrubHub two years ago — because their simple interfaces summon things to happen in the physical world.

Today, that real-life remote control feels even more like a magic wand. At a lunch meeting, investor Shervin Pishevar pulls out his phone, opens the Uber app and sets his location to Japan. “If I push this button right now,” he marvels, “I’m going to move metal in Tokyo.”

[…]

He describes this as a boomerang back to a village economy. After years of trends toward suburbs, big-box stores and car ownership, smartphones could be helping us get back to where we came from. The combined forces of urbanization, online commerce and trust mean that people can efficiently share goods and services on a local level, more than ever before.

[…]

Caviar, which was founded on the premise that “no good restaurants in San Francisco deliver,” became profitable within three months of launching. It has a much snazzier list of restaurants than GrubHub, including Momofuku in New York and Delfina in San Francisco.

Caviar CEO Jason Wang says his startup plans to soon drop delivery fees to $4.99 from $9.99. It pays drivers $15 per delivery and takes a cut of up to 25 percent of each order, depending on the restaurant. Even after the price cut, “We’ll still make money, because our margins are very good,” Wang says.

[…]

Uber is a company that owns nothing. It connects available drivers and their cars to people who want to be their passengers. By juicing supply with surge pricing and demand with discounts, Uber is able to create — out of thin air — a reliable service that exists in 140 cities around the world.

Without fail, instant gratification startups say they will win because they are smart at logistics.

Describing his business, Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta says, “It really is a data-science problem masked into a consumer product.”

[…]

DoorDash’s Xu describes his purpose as a machine-learning problem: Discovering “the variance of the variance” so his algorithm can reliably estimate prep and delivery time based on factors like how long a type of food stays warm, what a restaurant’s error rate is (the norm is 25 percent) and how fast a particular driver has been in the past.

Uber aims to match up a driver and passenger as quickly as possible. Food delivery is more complicated, according to Xu.

“It’s almost never the driver that’s closest to the restaurant when the order is placed,” Xu says.

[…]

a mobile medical-marijuana delivery startup called Eaze launched in San Francisco. Not only was Eaze open for business, it was open for business 24 hours a day.

It Takes a New Kind of Worker to Make “Instant” Happen | Re/code (part 2)

it can be too easy to forget that people make “instant” happen. And, generally, these people are not a traditionally stable workforce. They are instead a flexible and scalable network of workers — “fractional employees” — that tap in and tap out as needed, and as suits them.

[…]

The smartphone is at the center of the sharing economy. Every company mentioned in this series on the instant gratification economy runs on worker smartphones. GPS, texting and mobile-app notifications are the ways to make flexible work actually work.

[…]

It’s very common for people to pick up gigs from multiple services — in the morning, grab some grocery orders on Instacart; then when you get tired of lifting large bags, run a shift during Sprig’s prime lunch hours; then when you get lonely from ferrying around inanimate objects, sign into Lyft to interact with an actual person.

NYU business school professor Arun Sundararajan’s summer research project is counting the number of jobs created by the sharing economy. He doesn’t have an estimate yet, but he points out that the U.S. workforce is already 20 percent to 25 percent freelance.

Sundararajan says he sees a lot of good in the sharing economy. “It will lead people to entrepreneurship without the extreme risks.” He thinks of platforms like Uber as gateways. “It’s even easier than finding a full-time job, which is easier than freelance.”

Can “Instant” Become a Viable Business? | Re/code part 3).

Redefining delivery for a new era of customers who want everything right away requires rethinking operations. By focusing attention on creating a powerful logistical system, and tying into the “sharing economy,” many of the new crop of startups in the on-demand space are trying to offer faster service at a much lower operational cost.

And so the young players in the instant gratification economy are ferrying cargo across town via crowdsourced workers.

Usually, these are independent contractors, who decide when they want to work, drive their own vehicles, receive directions about where they need to be via smartphone — and cover the cost of their own parking tickets. The new buzzword for this is “fractional employment.”

[…]

Deliv is trying to do deliveries of almost anything and everything later that day, for as little as $5.

[…]

Crowdsourced drivers pick up batches of orders, and then take them out to people’s homes.

“I don’t own trucks, I don’t pay for drivers I don’t use, I don’t pay for hubs,” Carmeli says. “The malls are my hubs.”

[…]

Amazon said last year that more than 20 million members signed up for its two-day delivery service, Prime, which now costs $99 per year. While that’s a small number in the grand scheme of things, the high-spending habits of the group — estimated to be more than twice as much as regular Amazon customers — are having a magnetic effect on the rest of the industry.

A skunkworks team at Google developed what became Google Shopping Express last year, by putting the Amazon Prime model under a microscope. According to a source familiar with the project, the biggest lesson was that it’s worth investing ahead of where the market might be today.

Which is to say, many people still don’t know they want same-day delivery, because today they think same-day delivery means fuss, friction and expense. But if you make something fast and easy, consumers will come to appreciate it — and maybe even pay for it. So the upfront investment is worth it.

“It’s better to build volume first, than to launch with a ‘gotcha,’” the source says.

That’s the hypothesis, anyway.

And Google isn’t testing the last part of that hypothesis — charging people money — yet.

It is currently subsidizing six-month trials of unlimited free delivery. In fact, the company is throwing something like $500 million at Google Shopping Express.

Competing with that kind of budget is a scary prospect for startups.

[…]

The scrum now includes two Ubers for home cleaning, a few Ubers for handypeople, at least three Ubers for massages, five Ubers for valet parking, a couple of Ubers for laundries, an emerging group of Ubers for hair and makeup, and so very many Ubers for food.

[…]

Could you actually make a business out of offering same-day delivery — for free? Permanently, not as a promotion.

[…]

WunWun, promises to buy anything from any store or any food from any restaurant in Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn and the Hamptons, and deliver it to any place in that same zone. It’s free.

[…]

Hnetinka was inspired by an April 2013 investment memo from Jefferies called “Same-Day: The Next Killer App,” which made two big points: 1) Free shipping has become a “must-have” in e-commerce. Half of consumers abandon online shopping carts without it; and 2) there’s the opportunity to improve on that service by making it same-day.

[…]

For today, WunWun is making money by taking a slice of tips, and by getting discounts from retailers it spends a lot of money with that it doesn’t pass along to customers.

Tomorrow, WunWun will try to create the offline equivalent of search advertising, Hnetinka says.

Stores will be able to bid to be the supplier for WunWun orders, whether tennis balls, ChapStick or Yankees hats.

“That’s when WunWun really starts to make a lot of money,” Hnetinka says. “We have created the largest demand funnel. We’ve brought together convenience of ordering online with immediacy of offline. So we’re not talking about profitability margins, we’re talking about marketing budgets.”

Instant Gratification Pioneers Kozmo, Webvan, Pets.com Still Believe | Re/code (part 4)

at that moment in time, it seemed like all you had to do was pick a noun, add “.com,” and you were in business.

As a sign of the times, one company called Computer.com spent half its $5.8 million in venture capital airing Super Bowl ads on the day it launched a site purporting to teach people about using computers.

And there were parties, legendary parties, where the likes of Elvis Costello and Beck and the B-52s played, sponsor banners bedecked the walls, and many of the revelers collected their mountains of swag while having no idea which company was even throwing that night’s bash.

Even if Kozmo and its cohort had a chance at a business model that worked, they were all spending more money than they could possibly earn on advertising and parties and weird promotional tie-ups to return movies at Starbucks.

As we all know, that boom went bust in 2000. The period’s most famous flameouts — Pets.com, Urbanfetch, Kozmo, Webvan, even Computer.com, somehow — were all gone by 2001. What’s left — a cautionary tale and some mascot dolls for sale on eBay.

[…]

Same-day service is the single-biggest wave in e-commerce, Wainwright says. The single best experience she had shopping online was when she forgot to pack a certain special black cashmere sweater before flying to New York for a business trip.

Wainwright says she realized the sweater was missing at 11 pm, when she unpacked her bag at the hotel. But it was still posted on the online retailer Net-A-Porter, where she originally bought it, so she placed another order and it was delivered to her office at 10:30 the next morning by a deliveryman in a bellboy suit bearing an iPad for her signature.

“It was absolutely the most amazing thing,” Wainwright says. “It was like $25, it was nothing. Now, the sweater wasn’t cheap — but it was the exact same sweater I had left on my bed.”

Living in an Instant World: What’s Next After Now? | Re/code (part 5)

Jennings has set up a virtual Google Voice number attached to his doorbell so he can let people into his entryway from his phone when he’s not home.

“Say you run out of toothpaste in the morning, you can order it, and then it’s ready for when you brush your teeth at night,” he says.

“The majority of the time, there’s no interaction,” Jennings says, meaning he doesn’t have to say hello to a delivery person or sign for a package.

And in the future, people may be taken out of the delivery equation altogether.

That future is coming sooner than you think. Two years ago, the geek world went wild for an idea called Tacocopter. “Flying robots deliver tacos to your location,” said its website. “Easy ordering on your smartphone.”

[…]

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see that the regulations that now limit such uses of drone technology will almost certainly remain in effect much longer than the technological limitations remain a hurdle,” wrote Mike Masnick.

Eight months ago, Amazon upped the Tacocopter stakes with a promo video for Amazon Prime Air, showing a hovering robotic aircraft depositing a package on a suburban patio. It was a marketing stunt designed to jumpstart the holiday shopping season.

Or was it?

In July, Amazon wrote to the FAA asking for permission to test flying commercial drones outside at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The company said it hopes to deliver packages weighing five pounds within 30 minutes of orders being placed.

[…]

“A lot of things fundamentally change,” he says. “Does the architecture of homes change because there’s more space when you don’t need garages and kitchens? Do you really need a grocery store? You shouldn’t use all that real estate in a city for giant parking lots, you should push a button and be able to get what you want delivered, like Instacart.”

He continues. “And then you argue, is there a world where you have Munchery [another San Francisco food creation and distribution service] delivered to a restaurant that’s not really a restaurant, but it’s a … it’s a front-end. It’s a beautiful spot with a beautiful view, and it doesn’t need a kitchen, just have a few tables for a sit-down dinner.”

This train of thought has taken him to a new place. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that,” Pishevar says. “It’s just a … a distributed table. And then someone would come serve you.”

[…]

A popular justification for all this food-startup fundraising is frequency: Most people eat three times a day, at least.

No, really, that’s what every venture capitalist will remind you. This market is an opportunity because it ties into existing daily habits. People eat more often than they need to Uber across town. And so, the biggest opportunity in “instant” is food.

[…]

Sure, making food is not novel. The innovation here is making food that ties into smart logistics systems that match supply and demand, and coordinating crowdsourced workers so that meals arrive so fast it seems like magic.

“We’re mass-producing the same meal for all these people. We get economies of scale that no restaurant will ever have because of the physical location. Whereas, we can serve the whole Bay Area with the same supply.”

This is not just a restaurant, says Tsui. Combining the core mobile functions of location and real-time makes for a fundamental shift beyond what other mobile apps — besides Uber — are doing.

[…]

Especially for those who live in the cities well served by these services, it’s probably time to start thinking about what deserves to be slowed down, and what things we’d prefer to wait for and savor. Either that, or the inexorable march toward convenience will bring us ever closer to fulfilling the prophecy of those shapeless “Wall-E” couch potatoes, who have trouble standing up after sitting on the couch for so long.

But beyond instant — what comes next?

It’s probably making those brilliant on-demand logistics systems even more brilliant, anticipating our wants and needs before we even have them, and starting to send things our way before we push the button.

Both Amazon and Google are already working in this direction. Or maybe instead of tacos and drones, we’ll all just get 3-D printers, so we can replicate our meals at the table, just like Jane Jetson.

And maybe then Veruca Salt would just calm down.

Me, Myself, and I by Stephen Greenblatt | The New York Review of Books

Me, Myself, and I by Stephen Greenblatt | The New York Review of Books.

File:Shunga woman reading.jpg

Shunga woman reading

Laqueur’s most recent book, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, shares with Making Sex the same startling initial premise: that something we take for granted, something that goes without saying, something that simply seems part of being human has in fact a history, and a fascinating, conflicted, momentous history at that.

[…]

Masturbation is virtually unique, in the array of more or less universal human behaviors, in arousing a peculiar and peculiarly intense current of anxiety.

This anxiety, Laqueur observes, is not found in all cultures and is not part of our own culture’s distant origins. In ancient Greece and Rome, masturbation could be the object of transitory embarrassment or mockery, but it had little or no medical or, as far as we can tell, cultural significance. More surprisingly, Laqueur argues, it is almost impossible to find in ancient Jewish thought. This claim at first seems dubious because in Genesis 38 we read that Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground,” an act that so displeased the Lord that He struck him dead. Onanism indeed became a synonym for masturbation, but not for the rabbis who produced the Talmuds and midrashim. For them the sin of Onan was not masturbation but a willful refusal to procreate. Their conceptual categories—procreation, idolatry, pollution—evidently did not include a significant place for the sinful indulgence in gratuitous, self-generated sexual pleasure. Some commentators on a pronouncement by Rabbi Eliezer—“Any- one who holds his penis when he urinates is as though he brought the flood into the world”—seem close to condemning such pleasure, but on closer inspection these commentators too are concerned with the wasting of semen.

Medieval Christian theologians, by contrast, did have a clear concept of masturbation as a sin, but it was not, Laqueur claims, a sin in which they had particularly intense interest. With the exception of the fifth-century abbot John Cassian, they were far more concerned with what Laqueur calls the ethics of social sexuality than they were with the ethics of solitary sex. What mattered most were “perversions of sexuality as perversions of social life, not as a withdrawal into asocial autarky.” Within the monastery anxiety focused far more on sodomy than on masturbation, while in the world at large it focused more on incest, bestiality, fornication, and adultery.

[…]

Church fathers could not share in particularly intense form the Jewish anxiety about Onan, precisely because the Church most honored those whose piety led them to escape from the whole cycle of sexual intercourse and generation. Theologians did not permit masturbation, but they did not focus sharply upon it, for sexuality itself, and not only nonreproductive sexuality, was to be overcome. A very severe moralist, Raymond of Peñafort, did warn married men against touching themselves, but only because arousal might make them want to copulate more often with their wives.

[…]

Reformation theologians did not fundamentally alter the traditional conception of masturbation or significantly intensify the level of interest in it. To be sure, Protestants vehemently castigated Catholics for creating institutions—monasteries and convents—that in their view denigrated marriage and inevitably fostered masturbation. Marriage, the Reformers preached, was not a disappointing second choice made by those who could not embrace the higher goal of chastity; it was the fulfillment of human and divine love. Sexual pleasure in marriage, provided that it was not excessive or pursued for its own sake, was not inherently sinful, or rather any taint of sinfulness was expunged by the divinely sanctioned goal of procreation. In the wake of Luther and Calvin masturbation remained what it had been for the rabbis: an act whose sinfulness lay in the refusal of procreation, the prodigal wasting of seed.

In one of his early sonnets, Shakespeare wittily turns such “unthrifty” wasting into economic malpractice:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?

In bequeathing the young man such loveliness, nature expected him to pass it along to the next generation; instead the “beauteous niggard” is holding on to it for himself and refusing to create the child who should rightly bear his image into the future. Masturbation, in the sonnet, is the perverse misuse of an inheritance. The young man merely spends upon himself, and thereby throws away, wealth that should rightly generate more wealth:

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone:
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?

  Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,

  Which usèd, lives th’executor to be.

The young man, as the sonnet characterizes him, is a “profitless usurer,” and when his final reckoning is made, he will be found in arrears. The economic metaphors here have the odd effect of praising usury, still at the time regarded both as a sin and as a crime. There may be an autobiographical element here—the author of The Merchant of Venice was himself on occasion a usurer, as was his father—but Shakespeare was also anticipating a recurrent theme in the history of “modern masturbation” that concerns Laqueur: from the eighteenth century onward, masturbation is assailed as an abuse of biological and social economy. Still, a poem like Shakespeare’s only shows that masturbation in the full modern sense did not yet exist: by “having traffic” with himself alone, the young man is wasting his seed, but the act itself is not destroying his health or infecting the whole social order.

The Renaissance provides a few glimpses of masturbation that focus on pleasure rather than the avoidance of procreation. In the 1590s Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Nashe wrote a poem about a young man who went to visit his girlfriend who was lodging—just for the sake of convenience, she assured him—in a whorehouse. The man was so aroused by the very sight of her that he had the misfortune of prematurely ejaculating, but the obliging lady managed to awaken him again. Not, however, long enough for her own satisfaction: to his chagrin, the lady only managed to achieve her “solace” by means of a dildo which, she declared, was far more reliable than any man. This piece of social comedy is closer to what Laqueur would consider authentic “modern” masturbation, for Nashe’s focus is the pursuit of pleasure rather than the wasting of seed, but it is still not quite there.

Laqueur’s point is not that men and women did not masturbate throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance—the brief confessional manual attributed to Gerson assumes that the practice is ubiquitous, and the historian finds no reason to doubt it—but rather that it was not regarded as a deeply significant event. It is simply too infrequently mentioned to have counted for a great deal, and the few mentions that surface tend to confirm its relative unimportance. Thus in his diary, alongside the many occasions on which he had a partner in pleasure, Samuel Pepys jotted down moments in which he enjoyed solitary sex, but these latter did not provoke in him any particular shame or self-reproach. On the contrary, he felt a sense of personal triumph when he managed, while being ferried in a boat up the Thames, to bring himself to an orgasm—to have “had it complete,” as he put it—by the strength of his imagination alone. Without using his hands, he noted proudly, he had managed just by thinking about a girl he had seen that day to pass a “trial of my strength of fancy…. So to my office and wrote letters.” Only on such solemn occasions as High Mass on Christmas Eve in 1666, when the sight of the queen and her ladies led him to masturbate in church, did Pepys’s conscience speak out, and only in a very still, small voice.

The seismic shift came about some half-century later, and then not because masturbation was finally understood as a horrible sin or an economic crime but rather because it was classified for the first time as a serious disease. “Modern masturbation,” Solitary Sex begins, “can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history.” It came into being “in or around 1712” with the publication in London of a short tract with a very long title: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES….The anonymous author—Laqueur identifies him as John Marten, a quack surgeon who had published other works of soft-core medical pornography—announced that he had providentially met a pious physician who had found remedies for this hitherto incurable disease. The remedies are expensive, but given the seriousness of the condition, they are worth every penny. Readers are advised to ask for them by name: the “Strengthening Tincture” and the “Prolific Powder.”

[…]

But marketing alone cannot explain why “onanism” and related terms began to show up in the great eighteenth-century encyclopedias or why one of the most influential physicians in France, the celebrated Samuel Auguste David Tissot, took up the idea of masturbation as a dangerous illness or why Tissot’s 1760 work, L’Onanisme, became an instant European literary sensation.

[…]

Tissot “definitively launched masturbation,” as Laqueur puts it, “into the mainstream of Western culture.” It was not long before almost the entire medical profession attributed an inexhaustible list of woes to solitary sex, a list that included spinal tuberculosis, epilepsy, pimples, madness, general wasting, and an early death.

[…]

Modern masturbation—and this is Laqueur’s brilliant point—was the creature of the Enlightenment. It was the age of reason, triumph over superstition, and the tolerant, even enthusiastic acceptance of human sexuality that conjured up the monster of self-abuse. Prior to Tissot and his learned medical colleagues, it was possible for most ordinary people to masturbate, as Pepys had done, without more than a twinge of guilt. After Tissot, anyone who indulged in this secret pleasure did so in the full, abject knowledge of the horrible consequences. Masturbation was an assault on health, on reason, on marriage, and even on pleasure itself. For Enlightenment doctors and their allies did not concede that masturbation was a species of pleasure, however minor or embarrassing; it was at best a false pleasure, a perversion of the real. As such it was dangerous and had at all costs to be prevented.

[…]

There were, Laqueur suggests, three reasons why the Enlightenment concluded that masturbation was perverse and unnatural. First, while all other forms of sexuality were reassuringly social, masturbation—even when it was done in a group or taught by wicked servants to children—seemed in its climactic moments deeply, irremediably private. Second, the masturbatory sexual encounter was not with a real, flesh-and-blood person but with a phantasm. And third, unlike other appetites, the addictive urge to masturbate could not be sated or moderated. “Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors.”

Privacy, fantasy, insatiability: each of these constitutive features of the act that the Enlightenment taught itself to fear and loathe is, Laqueur argues, a constitutive feature of the Enlightenment itself. Tissot and his colleagues had identified the shadow side of their own world: its interest in the private life of the individual, its cherishing of the imagination, its embrace of a seemingly limitless economy of production and consumption. Hammering away at the social, political, and religious structures that had traditionally defined human existence, the eighteenth century proudly brought forth a shining model of moral autonomy and market economy—only to discover that this model was subject to a destructive aberration. The aberration—the physical act of masturbating—was not in itself so obviously dreadful. When Diderot and his circle of sophisticated encyclopédistes offered their considered view of the subject, they acknowledged that moderate masturbation as a relief for urgent sexual desires that lacked a more satisfying outlet seemed natural enough. But the problem was that “moderate masturbation” was a contradiction in terms: the voluptuous, fiery imagination could never be so easily restrained.

Masturbation then became a sexual bugbear, Laqueur argues, because it epitomized all of the fears that lay just on the other side of the new sense of social, psychological, and moral independence. A dramatic increase in individual autonomy was bound up, as he convincingly documents, with an intensified anxiety about unsocialized, unreproductive pleasure, pleasure fueled by seductive chimeras ceaselessly generated by the vagrant mind:

The Enlightenment project of liberation—the coming into adulthood of humanity—made the most secret, private, seemingly harmless, and most difficult to detect of sexual acts the centerpiece of a program for policing the imagination, desire, and the self that modernity itself had unleashed.

The dangers of solitary sex were linked to one of the most telling modern innovations. “It was not an accident,” Laqueur writes, in the careful phrase of a historian eager at once to establish a link and to sidestep the issue of causality, that Onania was published in the age of the first stock market crashes, the foundation of the Bank of England, and the eruption of tulip-mania. Masturbation is the vice of civil society, the culture of the marketplace, the world in which traditional barriers against luxury give way to philosophical justifications of excess. Adam Smith, David Hume, and Bernard Mandeville all found ways to celebrate the marvelous self-regulating quality of the market, by which individual acts of self-indulgence and greed were transformed into the general good. Masturbation might at first glance seem to be the logical emblem of the market: after all, the potentially limitless impulse to gratify desire is the motor that fuels the whole enormous enterprise. But in fact it was the only form of pleasure-seeking that escaped the self-regulating mechanism: it was, Mandeville saw with a shudder, unstoppable, unconstrained, unproductive, and absolutely free of charge. Far better, Mandeville wrote in his Defense of Public Stews (1724), that boys visit brothels than that they commit “rapes upon their own bodies.”

The revealing contrast here is with an earlier cultural innovation, the public theaters, which were vigorously attacked in Shakespeare’s time for their alleged erotic power. The theaters, moralists claimed, were “temples to Venus.” Aroused audiences would allegedly rush off at the play’s end to make love in nearby inns or in secret rooms hidden within the playhouses themselves.

[…]

In the late seventeenth century John Dunton—the author of The Night-walker, or Evening Rambles in Search After Lewd Women (1696)—picked up a whore in the theater, went to her room, and then tried to give her a sermon on chastity. She vehemently objected, saying that the men with whom she usually went home were far more agreeable: they would pretend, she said, that they were Antony and she would pretend that she was Cleopatra. The desires that theaters awakened were evidently understood to be fundamentally social: irate Puritans never charged that audiences were lured into an addiction to solitary sex. But that is precisely the accusation leveled at the experience of reading imaginative fiction.

It was not only the solitude in which novels could be read that contributed to the difference between the two attacks; the absence of the bodies of the actors and hence the entire reliance on imagination seemed to make novels more suitable for solitary than social sex. Eighteenth-century doctors, tapping into ancient fears of the imagination, were convinced that when sexual excitement was caused by something unreal, something not actually present in the flesh, that excitement was at once unnatural and dangerous. The danger was greatly intensified by its addictive potential: the masturbator, like the novel reader—or rather, precisely as novel reader—could willfully mobilize the imagination, engaging in an endless creation and renewing of fictive desire. And shockingly, with the spread of literacy, this was a democratic, equal opportunity vice. The destructive pleasure was just as available to servants as to masters and, still worse, just as available to women as to men. Women, with their hyperactive imaginations and ready sympathies, their proneness to tears, blushes, and fainting fits, their irrationality and emotional vagrancy, were thought particularly subject to the dangerous excitements of the novel.

[…]

at the beginning of the twentieth century, the whole preoccupation—the anxiety, the culture of surveillance, the threat of death and insanity—began to wane. The shift was by no means sudden or decisive, and traces of the older attitudes obviously persist not only in schoolboy legends and many zany, often painful family dramas but also in the nervous laughter that attends the whole topic. Still, the full nightmare world of medicalized fear and punishment came to an end. Laqueur tells this second part of the story far more briskly: he attributes the change largely to the work of Freud and liberal sexology, though he also acknowledges how complex and ambivalent many of the key figures actually were. Freud came to abandon his conventional early views about the ill effects of masturbation and posited instead the radical idea of the universality of infant masturbation. What had been an aberration became a constitutive part of the human condition. Nevertheless the founder of psychoanalysis constructed his whole theory of civilization around the suppression of what he called the “perverse elements of sexual excitement,” beginning with autoeroticism. In this highly influential account, masturbation, as Laqueur puts it, “became a part of ontogenesis: we pass through masturbation, we build on it, as we become sexual adults.”

[…]

Solitary Sex ends with a brief account of modern challenges to this theory of repression, from the championing of women’s masturbation in the 1971 feminist best seller Our Bodies, Ourselves to the formation of groups with names like the SF Jacks—“a fellowship of men who like to jack-off in the company of like-minded men,” as its Web site announces—and the Melbourne Wankers. A series of grotesque photographs illustrates the transgressive fascination that masturbation has for such contemporary artists as Lynda Benglis, Annie Sprinkle, and Vito Acconci. The latter made a name for himself by masturbating for three weeks while reclining in a box under a white ramp on the floor of the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City: “so, art making,” Laqueur observes, “is literally masturbating.”

[…]

Conjuring up his childhood in Combray, Proust’s narrator recalls that at the top of his house, “in the little room that smelt of orris-root,” he looked out through the half-opened window and

with the heroic misgivings of a traveller setting out on a voyage of exploration or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which for all I knew was deadly—until the moment when a natural trail like that left by a snail smeared the leaves of the flowering currant that drooped around me.

For this brief moment in Swann’s Way (1913), it is as if we had reentered the cultural world that Laqueur chronicles so richly, the world in which solitary sex was a rash voyage away beyond the frontiers of the natural order, a headlong plunge into a realm of danger and self-destruction. Then, with the glimpse of the snail’s trail, the landscape resumes its ordinary, everyday form, and the seemingly untrodden path is disclosed—as so often in Proust—to be exceedingly familiar.

[…]

Proust does not encourage us to exaggerate the significance of masturbation—it is only one small, adolescent step in the slow fashioning of the writer’s vocation. Still, Laqueur’s courageous cultural history (and it took courage, even now, to write this book) makes it abundantly clear why for Proust—and for ourselves—the celebration of the imagination has to include a place for solitary sex.

Slaves of Happiness Island | VICE United States

Slaves of Happiness Island | VICE United States.

My message to the head of the Louvre would be to come and see how we are living here,” said Tariq,* a carpenter’s helper working on construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a $653 million Middle Eastern outpost of the iconic Parisian museum. Set to be completed in 2015, its collection will include a Torah from 19th-century Yemen, Picassos, and Magrittes.

“See our living conditions and think about the promises they made,” Tariq told me through a translator.

[…]

Recruiters promised him a salary of $326 a month—for a $1,776 recruitment fee to be paid in advance. With a cousin guiding him through the process, Tariq flew to Abu Dhabi to work for the Regal Construction company, one of roughly 900 construction outfits that employ foreign workers in the emirate.

But when Tariq arrived, Regal didn’t need him. For 24 days, he waited without pay, living in a squalid workers’ camp. When work finally materialized, he learned he would make only $176 a month. His boss confiscated his passport so that he couldn’t change jobs or leave the country. He sends half his salary back to his family. After 11 months in the Gulf, he still has not paid back the loan he took out to get there.

[…]

Though it is now only a sunbaked construction site, Saadiyat, a ten-square-mile atoll 500 yards off the coast of Abu Dhabi, will be home to branches of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University, alongside hotels, shopping, and luxurious homes. It will be a cultural paradise, conjured by the country’s vast oil wealth but built on the backs of men who are little more than indentured servants.

[…]

The Saadiyat Island Cultural District is the flagship project of TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), a state-owned firm responsible for much of Abu Dhabi’s development. Announced in 2007, with an initial budget of $27 billion, according to media reports, Saadiyat will be the largest mixed-use development on the Arabian Gulf.

TDIC’s website promises fantasias of contemporary architecture. Plans show museums that look like they are pierced with moonbeams or modeled after the feathers of giant birds. After a day of culture, visitors will be able to relax at the St. Regis hotel or the Shangri-La. They will be able to play golf on world-class courses, or lounge by a series of man-made lagoons and mangrove forests, and then eat at one of dozens of gourmet restaurants run by international celebrity chefs. While construction of all these projects is happening piecemeal, Saadiyat, as envisioned by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al Nahyan, chairman of TDIC and member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, may be completed by 2020. For at least five more years, the island will need a veritable army of laborers.

[…]

Workers at the Louvre are all employed by a company called Arabtec, one of the Gulf’s largest construction outfits. The government of Abu Dhabi holds a 20 percent stake in Arabtec, and workers have staged strikes against them for years.

In 2007, up to 30,000 Arabtec workers went on strike in Dubai. Men building Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, put down their tools. The strike had been coordinated with mobile phones to protest low wages and poor living conditions. Police arrested 4,000 strikers. At the end of ten days, Arabtec promised a pay raise. Managing Director Riad Kamal told Reuters that the impact on the company’s profits would be less than 1 percent.

But the strikes—and crackdowns—continued. Three thousand more workers went on strike in Dubai in 2011. They made $176 a month and wanted a $41 raise. The police arrested 70 men they claimed were ringleaders. “Their presence in the country is dangerous,” Colonel Mohammed al Murr, director of the Dubai Police’s General Department of Legal and Disciplinary Control, told the National, a state-owned newspaper.

After this, Bangladeshi workers, who were alleged to have helped organize the strikes, were banned for an indefinite period from seeking UAE visas.

[…]

Arabtec also replaced Bangladeshis with Pakistanis. It was classic divide-and-rule strategy, harking back to the British Empire. In August 2013, the tension exploded into riots between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Saadiyat Village. Workers turned their tools against one another. The police fired live ammo into the air.

After the riots, Pakistani workers were shipped off to other camps.

[…]

While wages may sometimes rise, the Emirates will never permit workers to formally organize. Workers’ councils, or any form of unionization, are strictly banned.

[…]

Ibrahim lives in one of Abu Dhabi’s labor camps, in a low-rise building set among row after row of identical blocks. Like most camps, it is hidden deep in the desert, far from central Abu Dhabi. Forty thousand men can live in a single camp. They are Nepali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian—and work for a variety of companies. Often, since they don’t speak English, they won’t know what project they’re building.

Corporate buses ferry workers to job sites. Even these are no respite from the heat. Despite laws to the contrary, many buses have no air conditioning. Commutes last up to two hours, and the temperatures often reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ibrahim showed me a cell-phone video of the windowless dorm he shares with ten men. Outside, he has only a mosque, a hypermarket, and the sun.

On his one day off, Ibrahim told me, he would like to stroll Abu Dhabi’s corniche. But there’s no public transit. He is a virtual prisoner in the workers’ city.

Besides a few cashiers, the camps contain no women—just as the UAE, flush with laborers, is two-thirds male. Men save up for occasional visits to Ethiopian prostitutes. They too are migrants, often former maids who ran away from abusive employers. Because of their dark skin, Ethiopian prostitutes aren’t favored by the country’s Emirati elite and have to charge prices that even laborers can afford.

“We are so bored, and it’s a long time away from home,” Ibrahim told me when I asked him about the women. “We sit in that room for the whole day. We can’t go outside because of the heat, can’t afford to get to the beach or the mall.”

Some workers sleep with each other. Several of Ibrahim’s acquaintances have been jailed for having romantic relationships with other men. To save face, one of them, a Pashtun, told his family he’d been charged with murder.

“A beautiful boy is like a girlfriend,” Ibrahim said. Bus drivers, among the best-paid workers, court good-looking young men with promises of meals at restaurants and cell-phone credit.

[…]

Roughly 10 percent of the UAE’s 9.2 million residents are citizens. The rest are “expats” (if they’re white-collar professionals) or “migrant labor” (if they’re working class). Foreigners can live in the Emirates for generations, but short of proving Emirati heritage, there’s no way they can get citizenship. They can be deported at whim.

Amid this disenfranchisement, Emiratis can appear to foreigners like aristocrats. One can be arrested just for flipping them off in traffic.

Pravasalokam is a hit TV show in Kerala, India. A reality program whose name means “Workers’ World” in Malayalam, the show depicts the rescue of workers who have disappeared—due to jail, poverty, or abuse—in the Gulf. The Gulf nightmare is well known, yet migrants keep coming. The $14 billion a year in remittances they send home is integral to the economies of Nepal and Bangladesh (in Bangladesh the two largest sources of foreign currency are migrant labor and garments). But migrants are pushed by war as well as cash. Many workers hail from Kashmir, Pakistan’s Taliban-dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and other crisis areas in South Asia.

Whatever his country of origin, a migrant almost always has to pay a recruiter fee (which is then shared with subcontractors inside the Emirates). While hiring companies claim to cover costs like airfare, visas, and medical exams, recruiters in the sending countries and their partners in the UAE often skim a year’s potential wages from the worker himself. In some countries recruiters dodge local labor laws by hiring subcontractors, who trawl villages for the illiterate, the desperate, or those simply frustrated enough to risk the dangers of the Gulf. Workers take out loans, empty their families’ savings, or use land as collateral.

At Mafraq Workers’ City No. 2, a labor camp 23 miles from central Abu Dhabi, I interviewed workers cutting one another’s hair in an improvised outdoor barbershop. They crowded around me, telling me about salaries of $150 to $300 a month and police who hassled them if they dared visit the beach in their salwar kameez. While Emiratis are dependent on migrant labor, they’d prefer that the workers stay invisible in their off-hours.

Friends crouched in the shade beneath buses. One group sneaked a forbidden bottle of wine. The rules here were as strict as summer camp—no booze, no cooking, no gambling, no porn.

[…]

Saadiyat Island is also home to what is billed to be the most humane labor camp in the entire Gulf. In response to international pressure, TDIC created what they call the Saadiyat Accommodation Village to house all workers building Western cultural institutions. In the words of its developer, it “provide[s] an internationally recognized world-class standard of living.” Its huge cricket field, writing classes, and a library containing Steinbeck are everything a visiting dignitary could desire.

[…]

Tariq, the Louvre worker, told me, “The grounds are the only things that are good. Everything else will make you feel awful. The bathrooms always stink. We don’t even have doors there. The food given to us is inedible.”

[…]

According to Ross, Saadiyat Village is a “high-security zone” where workers are constantly monitored.

Workers live more than a mile beyond a checkpoint they are forbidden from walking to. Their only escape is a bus that runs once a week to Abu Dhabi. In the wake of the Arab Spring, security concerns are cited to outside visitors as a reason for keeping the all-male workforce in physical isolation. But if controlling and isolating workers helps TDIC manage the fallout of international pressure, it also produces a less than ideal side effect for the press-shy Emiratis: It helps workers organize and resist.

[…]

The most simplistic accusation against Abu Dhabi is that by building branches of the Louvre or Guggenheim, the city is buying culture. This logic pretends that Cleopatra’s Needle ended up in Paris through the goodness of Egyptian hearts, or that Lord Elgin didn’t just pillage the marbles that bear his name.

Those accusations also perpetuate another myth: The UAE has no culture of its own.

Two generations ago, the Emiratis were Bedouins, nomadic desert people whose main economic activity was pearl diving. They built wind towers, trained falcons, and composed swashbuckling poetry. Emirati culture was rich, but Emiratis were poor. Now they are wealthy. From the lens of European dominance, Emiratis can seem like improper overlords.

Or perhaps Europeans are just jealous. The UAE’s oil money could have disappeared in the coffers of Western energy companies or corrupt leaders. Instead, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, built a munificent welfare state. Emirati citizens get free education, health care, and electricity, as well as generous wages subsidized by the government. They pay no taxes. But the foreigners who compose 90 percent of the population don’t share in this largesse.

[…]

One afternoon I stood inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in central Abu Dhabi. Built in 2007, the gigantic structure made me gasp at its loveliness. Its design spans the breadth of Muslim art: The domes were Taj Mahal, the stucco Moroccan, the tiles Turkish, the gold palm columns seemingly from the future. It embodied the cosmopolitanism of the Muslim world, vital with the energy of this young country.

[…]

Andrew Ross from Gulf Labor stressed that an institution’s responsibilities don’t end with construction. “If you visit Saadiyat, you find NYU is the only finished building. Apart from the workers’ village, it’s surrounded by nothing. It will have construction going on for 20 years around it.”

[…]

“You know how Ford said you can have any car you like as long as it’s black? In the UAE they can make whatever you want, as long as it’s a building. They can’t make free speech or human rights,” Ahmed Mansoor told me in the curtained-off back room of a Dubai restaurant.

[…]

When I asked him about the Western cultural institutions being built on Saadiyat, he told me, “All these glittering buildings and huge names are there to hide an ugly face… Artists around the world appreciate the human struggle for freedom. In the UAE, we are only buying the image.”

Can you have art without freedom? Splendid objects get made for the highest bidder. Challenging ideas require something more than the Emirates may care to provide.

I put this question to a young artist born in the UAE. He told me: “By entertaining any vision of a culturally engaged metropolis, [the UAE] has opened up a Pandora’s box. Critical culture is forced into a more subversive form. This subversion itself can be a form of poetry. I have to think like this, because I live here and I need to survive the aftermath of my own thoughts.”

[…]

I asked a butcher the price of a cow’s head. The crowd screamed as undercover cops yanked him away. The butcher was arrested, seemingly as punishment for speaking to a Westerner. Terrified that he might also be arrested, Ibrahim suggested that we leave the market quickly.

[…]

“I have nothing to do with the workers,” said Zaha Hadid, the star architect behind one of Qatar’s phantasmagoric soccer stadiums being built for the 2022 World Cup, when the Guardian asked her in February 2014 about the deaths of 882 migrant laborers constructing her design. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.” Hadid is now designing the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre on Saadiyat.

The West’s museums lie atop metaphoric graveyards. Art’s temples have always been built on the backs of the poor. The Louvre in Paris touts its history in the passive voice on its website: “Was built to the west of the city”; “wings begun under Louis XIV were partially completed.” But what of the peasants who sweated and died in the construction? Of them, official histories have little to say. Neither do official histories mention the miners who mined the fortune that let Solomon R. Guggenheim build the museum that bears his name.

Defenders of Western institutions in Abu Dhabi are right about one thing. They are not unique. The labor abuses at the Louvre or NYU are the same labor abuses that are happening throughout the UAE. The UAE is not the worst country for workers in the Gulf, and the Gulf is not the worst region for workers in the world. Most countries sustain themselves on the labor of transient, disposable people. This may be unofficial, as in the United States (our agricultural industry would collapse overnight without undocumented migrants), or it may be institutionalized, as in the UAE.

Aggregate – Risk Design

Aggregate – Risk Design.

Back the Bid. Leap for London. Make Britain Proud. Emblazoned across photomontages of oversized athletes jumping over, diving off, and shooting for architectural landmarks old and new, these slogans appeared in 2004 on posters encouraging Londoners to support the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Featured twice in the series of six posters—along with Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Column, the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, and the Thames Barrier—was 30 St Mary Axe, the office tower known colloquially as the Gherkin for its resemblance to a pickle, or as the Swiss Re building, after the Zurich-based reinsurance company that commissioned the building and remains its major tenant.

One poster shows the upper half of the Gherkin standing alone against a clear sky. A gymnast vaults above the building, using its smoothly rounded apex as a pommel. The contrasting blues of his uniform echo those of the building’s glazing, while the higher of his legs aligns with one of the spirals that animate the otherwise crisp and symmetrical tower. Constructing affinities between body and building even as it captured attention through a dramatic juxtaposition of scales, the poster associated British athleticism and architecture as complementary manifestations of daring and skill. In representing Games-hosting as a leap akin to vaulting over the Gherkin, it also imagined public investment as the running of a risk. By figuring the building’s dynamic equipoise as support for the gymnast’s virtuosity, it enlisted the Gherkin as evidence that London possessed the expertise and daring to handle that risk—to manage the complex investments and construction projects in infrastructure, architecture, and landscape needed to host an Olympic games.

[…]

the Gherkin has been compared to many objects of similar shape, including a pine cone, a bullet, a stubby cigar, a pickle, and a penis.

[…]

Upon its completion in 2004, this unusual yet centrally symmetrical form created a distinctive and consistent silhouette widely visible across London. Reproduced in countless advertisements, drawings, photographs, and postcards as well as in films, television shows, video games, and other media, the Gherkin has become one of the world’s newest urban icons, a junior partner to the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center. The building has served as a powerful branding instrument for Swiss Re; for British design expertise, in particular that of the building’s architects, Foster + Partners; and for the London of Tony Blair’s New Labour, Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty, and the 2012 Olympics.1

[…]

Like any icon, the building carries many meanings. As the Back the Bid poster suggests, prominent among these are risk and its management. Most generally, “risk” denotes the effect of uncertainty on objectives. More commonly, the term describes the quantification of uncertainty through the probabilistic calculation of likelihood for any kind of negative outcome. Risk was once a technical concept specific to maritime insurance. In the coffee houses and early exchanges of London’s nascent financial district it described the commodity that insurers sold and shippers bought to manage the economic danger posed by the uncertain conditions of travel by sea. As capitalism, with its dynamic of continual change, introduced ever more uncertainty into daily life ashore, over the course of the 19th century risk became part of broader Anglo-American economy and culture. Once located exclusively in nature, risk came to be recognized as a dimension of human conduct and society. Assuming risks became part of the freedom and self-mastery that characterizes modern liberal subjectivity.3

The expanding corporate economy rationalized contingency by generating new financial instruments of risk management: savings accounts; markets in bonds, futures, and stocks; insurance policies. In the 20th century, advanced industrial nations socialized certain kinds of risk through regulation, state health coverage, and social insurance. In constituting the nation as a risk community, these measures diminished the prevalence of risk as a framework for individual action. Since the 1970s, however, these large-scale risk communities have weakened and responsibility for risk management has increasingly returned to individuals and corporations. Sociologists and political theorists have identified risk as a major currency of governance and self-governance in neoliberal society.4

Since it entails imagining uncertainties and projecting potential futures, risk is always in some sense imaginary. It is “a construction of an observer,” in the words of sociologist Niklas Luhmann.5 The unique design of 30 St Mary Axe addresses the ways we imagine the risks associated with climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization. Spiraling atriums with windows that open to allow natural ventilation suggest that innovative design can help highly technological societies use less energy and slow down potentially catastrophic human-induced climate change. Protective barriers, security cameras, and a diagrid structure enclosing shops along a public arcade and plaza suggest that resilient design can secure the open society by making even a prominent terrorism target accessible and welcoming. A handsome new skyscraper in the City of London, the quasi-autonomous financial district at the heart of the British capital, suggests that quality design can enlarge the supply of prestige office space for global businesses without jeopardizing the visual appeal of London’s townscape for residents and tourists.

[…]

By reshaping salient risk imaginaries, the building mediated significant changes in the City of London’s spatial form, economy, and governance. The Gherkin’s development established a new cluster of branded high-rise office towers that expanded economic activity in London’s financial district by changing its physical and urban character. Its planning and design provided a framework for revisions to planning regulations that favored the interests of landowners, developers, and multinational financial services firms over those of heritage conservationists—changes linked to a restructuring of governance that diminished the autonomy of the City Corporation, the City’s distinctive and traditionally insular government. The design and construction of 30 St Mary Axe are a smaller-scale instance of what Arindam Dutta calls “metaengineering”: the design of entire economies through intertwined architectural, urban, and policy intervention.6

[…]

Climate change

The Gherkin may have supported gymnast Ben Brown well in his Olympic bid vault, but it affords only precarious footing to the giant polar bear featured in a poster created three years later by activists from the Camp for Climate Action to publicize a mass protest at Heathrow Airport against the environmental degradation caused by air travel. Teeth bared, the bear stands atop the tower swatting at jets. Seeking purchase on the smoothly rounded tower, its claws grasp at the slight relief offered by spiraling mullions and fins.

Conflating the story of King Kong, a jungle monarch captured and killed by the metropolis, with the climate change icon of the solitary polar bear stranded on a melting ice floe, the poster associates the Gherkin with the rest of London’s corporate office towers through its sooty brown coloring yet sets the building apart by foregrounding its unique form and patterning. Like the Empire State Building for the famous gorilla, the Gherkin is at once the epitome of destructive capitalism and a redoubt that evokes aspects of the bear’s native environment while offering a dubious last chance for survival. Echoes of September 11 tinge the image with menace, suggesting that the Gherkin epitomizes the hubris of global finance. For artist Rachel Bull, the building is an ambivalent climate change icon courting risks beyond its capacity to manage.

[…]

Articles about the design emphasized the mixed-mode ventilation that would cool the building much of the time. Many writers repeated the claim by Foster + Partners that the building management system would exploit these features to reduce the building’s energy consumption by as much as fifty percent relative to other prestige office towers. “Nature takes care of the temperature of the building,” explained Norman Foster in one interview. “It is only in extreme heat and cold that the windows close and the temperature is regulated by the automated air conditioning system.”7 The Gherkin was “London’s first ecological tall building,” in the phrase used by Foster + Partners and circulated widely in the press, and it soon became a case study in books and courses on building technology and sustainable design.8 The building emblematized the potential for architectural innovation to reduce resource consumption and so to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic climate change.

Managing climate risk was deeply inscribed in the design of 30 St Mary Axe because it was integral to the market mission and brand identity of the client. Swiss Re is a reinsurance firm, the world’s second-largest insurer of insurance companies. It manages the risks taken on by risk managers. Reinsurance emerged in the 1820s as a local and regional risk-spreading measure among fire insurers in Germany and Switzerland, becoming an integral part of the financial risk management sector as the insurance industry internationalized during the latter part of the 19th century. Created in 1863 by two primary insurers and a bank following a fire in Glarus, Switzerland, the Swiss Reinsurance Company by the turn of the 20th century was a leading firm in a globalized reinsurance market. While the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 tested its capacity to meet its obligations, the firm remained solvent to benefit from Swiss neutrality during World War I and from the weakness of Germany’s economy after the war, when the Swiss firm bought one of its competitors, Bavaria Re. The company expanded after World War II as social insurance became widespread among industrialized nations, and it has remained among the largest reinsurers alongside rival Munich Re.9

In 1995 the company created a new corporate identity, taking “Swiss Re” as its global brand name and adopting a new logo and minimalist graphic language. Shortly afterward, the firm constructed headquarters buildings for its operations in the United States and the United Kingdom, making architecture “a crucial communications tool and an intrinsic part of the Swiss Re brand,” according to Richard Hall, author of Built Identity, a company-sponsored volume on the firm’s architecture.10

[…]

Natural catastrophes are the primary cause of insured losses, so Swiss Re attentively monitors and predicts the impact of weather and climate on economic activity. The firm emphasized sustainability in its corporate literature and policies before many others did; lighting designer Mark Major recalled receiving a “massive” sustainability manual from the firm, the first such document he had encountered.11 “For us, sustainability makes excellent business sense,” explained Sara Fox, the project director hired by Swiss Re to direct construction and occupation of 30 St Mary Axe, “because we pay claims on behalf of clients for floods, heat waves, droughts. To the extent that these claims are related to global climate warming, it is only prudent of us to contribute as little to it as possible.”12 At the same time, the company would seem to benefit from perception that climate change poses insurable business risks, so calling attention to climate risk could stoke demand for the company’s products.

[…]

By thematizing its environmental control systems and energy consumption features, Swiss Re’s new UK headquarters at once highlighted climate risk and demonstrated the company’s commitment to managing that risk through practices of sustainability

[…]

The building’s ostentatiously streamlined form, tinted glass spirals, and visibly operable windows called attention to its capacity for supplementing or substituting mechanical ventilation with natural ventilation. Intentionally understated lighting at the building’s crown emphasized restraint in energy consumption. The smoothness of that crown, where the doubly curving curtain wall resolves into a glass dome, eliminates the roof that so often supports chillers and fans—visible elements of industrial environmental control. By tucking this equipment into plant rooms near the top of the tower—as well as into the basement and a six-story annex building across the plaza—the building obscures the extent of its reliance on energy-intensive mechanical ventilation and temperature control. Instead of supporting mechanical equipment, the apex contains a private dining room with a 360-degree view that spectacularizes London. Seen from outside, as an element in the skyline or a distinctively patterned whorl in satellite images of the city, the summit of this distinctively roofless building stands out from neighboring buildings.

[…]

The Foster + Partners brand is associated with highly controlled, self-contained buildings that employ modern industrial materials to celebrate technology and tectonic articulation.

[…]

In presentations to clients and planning officers, project architect Robin Partington likened an intermediate scheme to an egg, while Foster compared later versions to a pinecone. The firm constructed a lineage for the Gherkin that stretched back to the work of Buckminster Fuller, the onetime mentor of Foster’s who is a primary reference point for some concepts of sustainable design.14 The building’s architects saw the Gherkin’s interior atriums as successors to planted “sky gardens” in the Commerzbank headquarters. The plaza and shopping arcade at the building’s base were modest vestiges of earlier schemes that featured extensively tiered leisure and commerce zones. To the architects they evoked precursor projects that reimagined the work environment as a planted landscape of open-plan trays within a glass enclosure, including the landmark building the firm had completed in 1975 for the insurance firm Willis Faber & Dumas and the Climatroffice, a 1971 concept for a multilevel escalatored office environment enclosed by an oval triangulated spaceframe.

The section and plan of the Climatroffice project (1971) show how the Foster firm reconceptualized the platforms, escalators, and enclosure of the U.S. Pavilion as elements in a freestanding climate-controlled office building. Courtesy of Foster + Partners.

The U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, in which the United States Information Agency set floor decks linked by elevator and escalator within a five-eighths geodesic sphere, provided a model for the Climatroffice and successor projects from Foster + Partners, including 30 St Mary Axe.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fuller and Foster collaborated on a few unbuilt projects, and the Climatroffice was a direct adaptation of the U.S. Pavilion from Expo 67,

An early attempt to regulate building climate performance by automating environmental control systems. Intermediate schemes for Swiss Re, known colloquially as “the haystack” and “the bishop’s mitre” or “breadloaf” adapted the platforms and escalators of the Climatroffice and the U.S. Pavilion to the St Mary Axe site by partially submerging a stack of staggered floorplates below ground and encasing the stack in a glass-and-steel diagrid enclosure recalling Fuller’s spaceframes.15

This schematic design from spring 1998 envisions 30 St Mary Axe as an adaptation of the Climatroffice, with staggered floorplates set within a curving steel-and-glass enclosure.

Photographed in March 1998, these study models show the massing already permitted by the Planning Department alongside some of the alternative building configurations considered by Foster + Partners early in the design process.

With its diagrid structure, double-curving glazed skin, and automated building management system (along with a rotating sunshade intended for installation inside the apex but not completed), the Gherkin evoked the U.S. Pavilion’s five-eighths geodesic sphere stretched vertically to improve its aerodynamics and accommodate office floors to a height capable of realizing the value of its constrained but expensive site. With his collaborators Shoji Sadao and John McHale, Fuller intended the U.S. Pavilion to function as a Geoscope (a global hypermap) and a facility for exposition visitors to play the World Game, a scenario simulator through which they would test strategies for redistributing resources in order to maximize human well-being. The platforms and escalators that filled the Expo dome were added by another firm at the client’s insistence. At 30 St Mary Axe, as in the Climatroffice, Foster + Partners adapted the pavilion as built rather than as initially conceived, setting aside Fuller’s technocratic utopianism while adapting its forms, aesthetics, and technical solutions. Despite these differences, the building claimed the mantle of Fuller’s reflexive modernism, his attempt through technocratic design to automate processes of progressive optimization in resource use and so to steer humanity toward a more sustainable resource use trajectory.16

Like the U.S. Pavilion, the Gherkin suggested that the ecological risks of modernization could be managed through technological innovation and that sustainable design could promote rather than inhibit economic growth. In another parallel to the U.S. Pavilion, the automated environmental control features at 30 St Mary Axe failed to achieve declared objectives. In practice, the Gherkin has not achieved the economies heralded during its construction and first occupancy. Its vaunted energy performance is imaginary.

[…]

On Tuesday, April 26, 2005, though, that regulating geometry failed in a small but significant way when one of the building’s operable windows broke off and fell some twenty-eight floors to the ground. Building managers concluded that one of the mechanical arms controlling the window had failed.17 Following this episode, Swiss Re and its management company disabled the mixed-mode building control system as they tested and replaced the chain-drive motors controlling window operation. The system has been used on only a limited basis since. Many tenants have walled off the atriums, and some have insisted on lease provisions guaranteeing that mixed-mode ventilation will not be employed in their zones. Since 2005, as far as I can determine, the windows have opened only occasionally, and only on the lower floors, which are occupied by Swiss Re. This means that mixed-mode ventilation is available in only one of the four sets of six-story atriums. For all but its first year of operation, then, the building has run primarily on mechanical ventilation.18

One of the environmental consultants who modeled the building’s anticipated performance compares its owners and facility managers to overly cautious sports-car owners who never take the Ferrari out of second gear. But it’s not clear that the building could have lived up to the promised energy savings even if its mixed ventilation mode were fully activated. The enclosure and ventilation system combine building components taken from climate-control strategies that are usually deployed independently and that may not work together from the point of view of building physics.

The double-skin façade zones encased by clear glazing presume that air between curtain wall layers will absorb solar heat, rise due to the stack effect, and vent to the exterior through narrow slits at the top of each two-story structural bay. But these cavities are open at their sides to the two- and six-story atria that are intended to draw fresh air through the building by exploiting external pressure differentials.

These atria in turn are—or were—open to the adjoining office floors. Rather than operating as discrete systems, then, the cavities, atria, and floors are integrated into continuous air masses. So if the triangular operable windows were opened as intended for natural or mixed-mode ventilation, the stack effect venting of the double-skin facade zones, the pressure-differential venting of the spiral atriums, and straightforward cross-ventilation within a single floor could all be operating simultaneously—and at cross purposes.19

[…]

the performance of the mixed-mode ventilation has never been rigorously tested or empirically confirmed.

Nor has this hybrid of ventilation systems been employed in another tower, by Foster + Partners or another firm, in more than a decade since the design was completed. The combination of double-skinned facade, atriums, and open floors connotes improved environmental performance and aligns the building with symbolically powerful precursors. But what it yields functionally is an internally incoherent environmental control system of undetermined performance capability.

The Gherkin makes extensive use of industrial materials whose manufacture consumes a great deal of energy, and the atriums give it an unusually low ratio of usable square footage to total square footage. If its provisions for natural ventilation aren’t used, 30 St Mary Axe is not a green tower, it’s an energy hog. So it’s striking that the building has been a critical and financial success despite its failure to realize one of the headline claims made about its design.

[…]

Even if it has not reduced the energy consumption of its occupants, 30 St Mary Axe has changed that risk imaginary by persuading people that design can manage the climate risk of postindustrial production. For this, the building needed to change perceptions, and this task was achieved by design features that highlight the building’s capacity for natural ventilation, combined with simulations that imagined how the building would perform.21 In legitimizing the building as an exemplar of sustainable design, the simulations created space for the design risks that this innovative and cynical building runs. Addressing the imagination rather than the climate, they bought its designers freedom.

[…]

Terrorism

By pulling away from its irregular property lines, the tower achieves almost perfect formal autonomy from its context. The gap between the circular tower base and trapezoidal site boundaries forms a privately owned public space (see also the third image, “Site plan showing the plaza and context of 30 St Mary Axe.”), a civic and commercial amenity in this densely built part of the City.

The plaza is much reduced in activity compared to what Foster + Partners envisioned during the schematic design and permitting phases of the project

This perspective sketch from fall 1998 shows how the base of the building might function as an airy retail zone extending below plaza level

[…]

This residual urban space allows visitors and passersby to see the building’s curving sweep and to appreciate visually its formal coherence. It also creates a security perimeter, a glacis or open zone permitting video surveillance of all approaches by some of the roughly 115 CCTV cameras located on the premises. Within the building, access to the office floors is controlled by lobby turnstiles that admit staff by card-swipe. Visitors must pass through airport-style security screening at an x-ray and metal detector station to the right of the turnstiles behind the reception desk. Card-swipes also control access from the elevator banks to the office floors above.

These techniques for monitoring and controlling access are standard for high-quality office space in the City. Financial services firms have constructed protected enclaves for their workers since the early 1990s, when the City responded to a series of Provisional IRA bombings by instituting new territorial strategies as a way to “design out terrorism.”22 30 St Mary Axe sits within the security perimeter known as the “Ring of Steel”: the array of access controls, barricades, automobile checkpoints, license-plate tracking, security cameras, traffic monitoring, parking restrictions, and stepped-up policing that encircles the financial services core of the City. By creating a nested series of security perimeters, the building reinscribes the Ring of Steel at multiple scales.

[…]

The plaza is one such device. Shielded by its low walls and planters as well as by bollards capable of stopping a car or truck, the plaza provides “standoff,” the protective distance that mitigates the impact of a bomb blast. Another security perimeter is provided by the building’s structural system. The lateral stability of the perimeter diagrid provides superior blast resistance as well as structural redundancy in case part of the steel cage is knocked out by a bomb or vehicle. The curtain-wall that clads the diagrid enhances the protection it affords: consultants who worked on the project noted that the building’s double-curving form—key to its deflection of wind—would significantly reduce the impact of blast forces in the event of another bombing adjacent to the site. Toughened and laminated glass sheets designed to flex and then break into harmless pebbles are set into deep, cushioned rabbets capable of absorbing additional blast energy. The decentralized and zoned HVAC system, which draws air in through narrow vents between window courses at the edge of every floor and heats or cools it locally using circulating water pipes, eliminates the risk that a chemical or biological attack will travel through centralized air handling systems from a mailroom or main intake.23

By integrating an array of security measures into its design, 30 St Mary Axe exemplifies the cultivation of resilience as a response to the threat of terrorism. (Following the World Trade Center attack in September 2001, with the Gherkin’s pilings already sunk, the steel purchased, and stairs and elevators locked into place, the architects, consultants, and developers performed a resilience check on the building. After concluding that the diagrid structure was likely to survive an airplane impact without collapsing, they strengthened bollards, added a guard station on the truck ramp, eliminated vendor carts from the plaza, and retrofitted what was to have been a property management office behind the lobby with airport-style x-ray and metal detector screening for visitors.24) This building secures itself against anticipated forms of terrorist assault as well as can be imagined given its tight siting and provision for businesses and public uses in its base and plaza. In security jargon, its features provide target hardening designed to discourage attacks and direct them elsewhere through a carefully modulated combination of overt and implicit strategies. Bollards, visible cameras, and security checks encourage target substitution by generating security theater. But because many of the truck barriers are built into the landscaping, blast resistance is integrated into the overall building form, and air intakes are sublimated into curtain-wall joints, the building masks many more of its security measures from daily perception.25

[…]

The property developer was able to purchase the St Mary Axe property and secure planning permission for a tall new building in the midst of a tightly regulated historic preservation zone only because the site had been partially cleared in April 1992 when the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb consisting of one hundred pounds of Semtex and a ton of fertilizer inside a van parked at 28 St Mary Axe. The blast severely damaged the listed neoclassical building housing the Baltic Exchange, the international shipping exchange that since the mid-18th century has been part of the City’s financial sector and the global mercantile economy. The bomb also precipitated planning and policing studies that led to creation of the Ring of Steel following a second bombing one year later in Bishopgate, just a block away from St Mary Axe.

[…]

in choosing to consolidate its London workforce into a single tall building sited on the Baltic Exchange property, Swiss Re significantly increased its terrorism risk exposure.27 Since the company’s business is reinsurance against risks, including those of terrorism, the exposure it purchased at 30 St Mary Axe was not only a liability—it was also an asset. By highlighting the company’s commitment to managing terrorism risks through prudential planning, design, and policy, a distinctive new building on a symbolically charged site like this created value for the reinsurer as it expanded its activity in the UK market.

[…]

By soliciting risks and handling them ostentatiously yet seemingly effortlessly, 30 St Mary Axe accrued capital for the clients and the City of London, for the architects and their consultants—and also for design as a risk management practice. With each solicitation, gain, and management of risk, the design acquired agency by becoming a stronger branding instrument.

[…]

Created in 1993, Pool Re spreads insurance liability for terrorist attacks and other catastrophes across all the insurers active in the UK market. Because extreme losses beyond predefined commitments made by the private insurers are guaranteed by the British state, Pool Re spreads ultimate liability across the entire UK taxpayer base, socializing some of the most extreme risks borne by private insurers and reinsurers.29 This collaboration between the state and a globalized insurance market in creating a new risk management regime is one of the neoliberal mechanisms for “governing at a distance” that have displaced the insular “club government” that prevailed in Britain, and particularly in the City of London, from the late 19th century to the late 20th century: a tradition of self-regulation by private institutions and their socially vetted leaders operating via informality, tacit knowledge, and autonomy from public scrutiny and accountability.30 As both the UK headquarters of a major reinsurer and a valuable asset within the terrorism risk zone covered by Pool Re, 30 St Mary Axe emblematizes the new arrangements whereby risk mediates British governance.

Globalisation

Unlike New York and other cities in which zoning codes entitle landowners to some kinds of development “as of right,” the City of London regulates property development through case-by-case review by planning officers, who judge how well proposed construction conforms to City-wide plans and guidelines regarding factors such as building height, development density, access to transit, impact on views and the visual character of the area. In order to develop the Gherkin, the property owners and Swiss Re had to secure planning consent from the City Corporation, the governing body of the City of London, through its chief planning officer, Peter Wynne Rees. The review and permitting process that culminated in the granting of planning consent in August 2000 spanned not only the planning office but also the market, the courts, and the press. Rees brokered a multilateral negotiation so intensive that we could almost say the building was designed by bureaucracy. Part of that negotiation entailed imagining and staging risk: climate risk and terrorism risk, but especially the financial risks associated with globalization.

As the Olympic bid poster reminds us, the Foster + Partners design for 30 St Mary Axe helped the City of London to rebrand itself as a center of innovation and investment, and so to secure the City’s position within a neoliberal economic geography construed as a competition among cities for global capital and its management.31 These triumphalist associations mask a more complex history, though. It would be more accurate to say that the building brokered a renegotiation of authority, decision-making, and spatial control through which the City Corporation traded a measure of the autonomy it historically possessed in order to retain meaningful sovereignty in a changing world.

A block west of the St Mary Axe site was the 47-story Tower 42, designed in the late 1960s by Richard Seifert and at 183 meters then the tallest building in the UK. Since the building’s completion in 1981 the City had enforced an unwritten prohibition on further skyscraper construction, steering developers and architects toward the design and construction of “groundscrapers,” low-rise but horizontally extensive buildings that evoked neoclassical business palaces of the Edwardian era while providing minimally obstructed floorplates along with the communications cabling and air conditioning required for computing-intensive trading.32 These large buildings, which emulated North American precursors in providing the large floorplates and open workspaces preferred by multinational corporations and large financial firms, reflected a concession on the part of planners to a transnational range of clients and developers increasingly prevalent in the City office space market after the “Big Bang” banking deregulation of 1986.33 Construction of the Canary Wharf development in the Docklands had created a second business district a few miles to the east, its American-style skyscrapers drawing some large banks and financial services firms from the City, which was also conscious of competing with Paris and especially Frankfurt for the footloose capital of Europe’s financial services business.

[…]

For English Heritage, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, and other preservation advocates who opposed the initial Foster designs, the prospect of a skyscraper on the Baltic Exchange site risked jeopardizing the visual management framework that regulated development based on a network of protected views toward the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.34 Negotiating among the various parties to the development process challenged the City Corporation to balance the risk of breaking the conservation-oriented spatial regime it had maintained since the early 1980s against the risk of losing its primacy as a location for financial services to competing locations. The team that developed the Gherkin for Kvaerner and Swiss Re had worked together previously in developing Canary Wharf. By suggesting that they would build in the Docklands rather than occupy the consented GMW groundscraper, Swiss Re and Kvaerner pressured City planners—but also empowered them—to lift the prohibition on tall buildings. This stance was a bluff, but it established one component in the rhetorical framework within which the City ultimately changed the regime regulating its architectural and urban form.

The other component of that framework was design. Kvaerner hired Foster + Partners in 1996 to draw up an office tower for the Baltic Exchange site. From the start, the task of this design was to realign risk imaginaries so that for Rees and his City Corporation constituency the risk of denying permission for a tall building would seem to exceed the risk of granting it. The Foster firm responded with the Millennium Tower project, an implausible proposal imagining a skyscraper with 1,700,000 square feet of floor space that, at 385 meters tall, would have dwarfed every other building in Europe.

Included among the documents submitted toward the end of the planning review was this chart showing some of the variant designs considered for 30 St Mary Axe between 1996 and 2000

This design was a provocative bargaining posture signaling to the heritage lobby and the City Corporation that the new owner expected to be able to build a tower on the Baltic Exchange site. Shortly afterward the Foster firm prepared a more realistic 170 meter version for Kvaerner to show to prospective occupiers.

[…]

Rees allowed Swiss Re to develop a large volume of office space in a tower just three meters shorter than the NatWest Tower. In return, he extracted concessions: the building would provide a public plaza, it would accommodate retail uses, and it would achieve a high standard of “design quality.”35

The granting of planning consent for 30 St Mary Axe did not only reflect a shift in policy regarding this particular site. It also initiated a new regime of spatial regulation governing development in the City. Codified two years later in a new Unitary Development Plan, this regime welcomed high-rise towers within “clusters” that deferred in some degree to the view corridors around St Paul’s Cathedral, so long as the new buildings provided public amenities and exemplified quality design.

Towers permitted under this new regime include Heron Tower, the Leadenhall Building (The Cheesegrater), Broadgate Tower, the Pinnacle, and 20 Fenchurch Street (The Walkie-Talkie).36

Displayed in fall 2011 at the marketing office for 20 Fenchurch Street, this visualization imagined how the new cluster of skyscrapers around the Gherkin would appear from across the Thames

Branded like 30 St Mary Axe with signature profiles and nicknames, these skyscrapers maximize the value of City land while using design to raise rents and profits. This regulatory shift allowed local and multinational landowners, developers, and investors to capitalize on the increased value of City properties, and it reasserted the primacy of the City of London among the world’s centers of banking, insurance, and finance. Led by the Swiss Re project, these towers have transformed London’s skyline, urban character, and real estate market. A study conducted a couple of years after completion of 30 St Mary Axe found that the Gherkin had displaced the dome of St Paul’s as the most prominent City landmark in the perception of City workers.37

[…]

as geographer Maria Kaika points out, construction of the Gherkin should also be understood as a defeat for the City Corporation, since achieving these economic gains entailed the loss of a measure of control over the city’s form and appearance.

[…]

Pressure from transnational corporations and capital since the Big Bang, she argues, “forced the City to reinvent its spatial identity” in a way that favors skyscrapers over conservation considerations as it generated a form of architectural patronage identified not with City’s traditional institutions but with transnational capital elites. The towers built since 2002, she concludes, are not the “commitments in stone” of a prior era but rather “functional objects of capital accumulation” that “operate more as branding objects for multinational corporations or as speculative objects for real-estate developers.”40

Risk design

Survey Foster’s London from the private club at the top of the Gherkin. At your feet is the Square Mile, dotted with and fringed by Foster + Partners office buildings: Moor House, the Wallbrook, offices at 10 Gresham Place, and headquarter buildings for Bloomberg, Allen & Overy, and Willis. To the south are buildings at Tower Place and, just across the Thames, the new development of More London, including several more office buildings and the striking City Hall—leased by its private developer to the Greater London Authority. Downriver to the east in Canary Wharf you’ll see the Citibank tower and the HSBC UK headquarters. With a little imagination you can picture the Canary Wharf Underground station, too. Upriver to the west are several more projects, including the Millennium Bridge across the Thames, a redeveloped Trafalgar Square, the National Police Memorial, the roof over the British Museum’s Great Court, buildings at the Imperial College, and Wembley Stadium.

Your view of some of these buildings will be blocked by the even taller skyscrapers that have gone up nearby since 2004 as the cluster has grown. You’ll still see the river, though, where you might spot one of the YachtPlus 40 powerboats that Foster designed cruising upriver toward the Albion Riverside offices and the Riverside Apartments and Studio in Battersea. This is where the firm is headquartered. It is also where Foster kept his primary residence until 2008, when he transnationalized himself and became a tax exile—footloose rather than place-loyal, a Swiss citizen rather than a British Lord. The previous year, Foster had restructured the firm (valued at about 300 million pounds or $593 million) to prepare for eventual succession and cashed out by selling a forty-percent stake in the company to a London-based multinational private equity and venture capital firm.42

By building so many prominent commissions associated with millennial London, Foster + Partners has strongly shaped the cast of the contemporary city.43 Modernist but classically so, favoring self-contained and symmetrical geometries along with a high standard of craft and the deep detailing of high-quality materials, the architecture of Foster + Partners connotes progressive innovation. The firm’s impact on the city has become so extensive that it must be considered in urban and economic terms, as a practice of metaengineering. Like Arup, and often—as in the case of 30 St Mary Axe—in partnership with Arup, Foster + Partners designs not only buildings but also economies and governance practices.

Foster and the firm he founded have been central to remaking London over the past two decades because their architecture fits the vision of New Britain put forward by New Labour from the mid-1990s through the 2000s, including neoliberal methods for governing at a distance through risk.44 Noting that the firm’s buildings more often provide the appearance of rationality than they deliver rational functionality, some critics have concluded, as one puts it, that the firm “supplies the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything” for a British establishment seeking to maintain its authority by appearing to change.45 Studying the Gherkin suggests a different conclusion. Addressing the ways we imagine risk and opportunity in climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization, the firm’s buildings sometimes use design to transform economies and governance.