Tag Archives: urbanism

Life Atop Ground Zero — The Message — Medium

Life Atop Ground Zero — The Message — Medium.

By the time I had moved into an apartment above The Hole, in the middle of the last decade, usage of the previous term, “Ground Zero,” was thankfully fading. It was a haphazard phrase anyway, a clash of words too evocative of territory (ground) and nothingness (zero). It lingered too long, uninvited, like an expression coined by Sartre, or maybe Rumsfeld.

New Yorkers, who wisely seemed to avoid calling it anything, also seemed to avoid the entire neighborhood. On the rare occasion that I could convince a friend to visit — to dine, or to drink, or to watch the season premiere of LOST, or to do whatever we did in that hazy decade — they would inevitably peer out the window, down onto the fenced space, softly breathing the same words:

“That’s sad.”

It was sad. But tragedy often pairs with farce, and here it was, 35 floors in the sky: a wide-angle view of the world’s most kinetic city, but directly below, an inert plat of earth.

For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.

It was like that for a long time.

But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.

We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.

[…]

“A hundred times have I thought New York
is a catastrophe, and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.”

― Le Corbusier

[…]

“New York will be a great place, if they ever finish it.”
— O. Henry

[…]

Before any of the occupants were even announced, this photorealistic wallpaper was wrapped around the construction site, a mural of aspiration pasted over the once-bleak landscape:

Like a map placed over its territory, this wallpaper is the purest projection of how the city imagines itself. In its new skin, all logos advertise the same product:

LUXURY.

The fonts may change, but the fantasy stays the same.

[…]

The new World Trade Center is the embodiment of New York City as the fantasy it has always projected, a constantly refurbished dream of America. In this place, images can change, but names are always waiting to be remembered.

This is what it means to never forget.

[…]

This neighborhood was always, from its founding, a fantasy. Fifty years ago, it literally did not exist. When the original Twin Towers were built, rubble from the site was used to push back the Hudson River, creating a new neighborhood out of thin air. I now live on the soil from the original Hole.

The rectangular appendage on the western side of Manhattan was added through land reclamation, a euphemistic process that rebuffs nature and creates new urban space. Nostalgia is impossible here, because the place has no history. It was invented.

[…]

If nostalgia is impossible, a different form of wistfulness thrives in lower Manhattan. Now, we residents fondly remember an earlier era, before the tourists.

When you live around WTC, tourism becomes a guiding principle and constant obstacle. Sidewalks congest in unexpected places, crowds gawking at construction sites and memorials, disrupting your commute. Quick, there’s an opening — seeing a path through the congestion, you plunge through the congealing mass, toward the empty space — whoa, wait! You halt, teetering, to avoid crossing a photographer’s sightline — a family portrait, taken with an iPhone, by a cop, with the Freedom Tower in the background.

Every day, on my jaunt to the subway, someone in a new dialect asks for directions. Once, several years ago, as an elderly couple approached, that beseeching look on their faces, I tried to guess — will they ask for directions to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Katz’s Deli?

“Ver eest zee 9/11?” asked the hunched man, in a deep brogue, seemingly German. The first few syllables were a jumble of harsh über-sounds, but the glaring anglicized numbers at the end resonated loudly.

“Where is The 9/11?” his wife repeated, in more familiar English.

Oh. Yes. The 9/11.

“Um, right there,” I replied, pointing at the tall fence, 20 feet away, barbed wire running along the top.

Their disappointment was obvious.

This is not a place to visit, I thought to explain. It is not even a place. There is nothing to see. It is an empty square on the map, the opposite of tourism — no adventure, no leisure, no attractions. It is void. Why would you come here? You cannot see The 9/11.

But the elderly couple moved on, circling the empty fenced space.

Now, years later, there is much to see, especially since this summer, when the 9/11 Memorial opened to the public. You can now walk right up to the Reflecting Pools, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the world.

In yet another linguistic conundrum, the memorial is officially called “Reflecting Absence,” yet the slate gray surface reflects nothing.

Was that intentional? Does the contradiction highlight the folly in deriving meaning from absence? Are the waterfalls like language itself, which aspires to be mirror of the world but is more of a foggy window? Or is “Reflecting Absence” merely a wink at the surrounding WTC towers, which reflect each other with abandon, a phalanx of architectural #selfies?

Perhaps it was a good question after all: Where is The 9/11?

[…]

Although the catchy moniker implied proximity to financial territory, Occupy Wall Street was actually several blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. However, it was right next to The Hole.

Watching New Yorkers turn into tourists, like Batman morphing into the Joker, was a supreme pleasure. Gotham seldom noticed that their doppelgangers — actual tourists — were across the street, gazing at The Hole. Both groups were strangers in a strange land, tourists on a pilgrimage of memory.

Like many people, I believed in #OWS on principle, even when those principles were unclear, which was more often than not. Occupy’s goals were often baffling, but sometimes the incomprehensible response is the perfect one. And gazing at the incomprehensible in wonderment — even better.

[…]

My neighborhood is nothing less than a surveillance state. You cannot walk outside without being photographed, hundreds of times within a block. In all likelihood, I get photographed inside my apartment. Cameras are everywhere — some obvious, some hidden.

WTC now resembles an absurdist theatrical troupe where robotic cameras take pictures of tourists taking pictures of cops taking pictures of tourists. It’s a fucking panopticon opera down here.

[…]

A “Freedom Tower” cannot exist in a surveillance state. This place is freedom’s antithesis.

[…]

But this morning, September 11, 2014, I awoke to a new place. The land is completely different — a new skin of America, a luminous carapace shimmering with optimism, but ambivalent about forgetting its past and fantasizing its future. I am still unsure what to call the land below, but for the first time, I can embrace not knowing.

This is what it means to forget.

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China: USB External Hard Drive to the French – Super Colossal

China: USB External Hard Drive to the French – Super Colossal.

In Tianducheng, on the outskkirts of Hangzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province a Pariisan streetscape facsimile is taking shape. It has all the bits you make expect from an alternate Paris: an Eiffel Tower, a tree lined boulevard, mansard roofs galore. 2000 people reportedly live there,

We are aware that reporting on zany building in China is cliché, but then it struck us: what if China wasn’t behind this after all? What if France was? What if it is an act not of banal facsimile, but one of pre-emptive preservation?

Perhaps France is making a backup copy of itself.

Emails circulated the architecture mail system several times over last year with pictures of Ronchamp sitting in the dusty Chinese city of Zhengzhou. An interesting novelty. But with a portion of Paris also turning up, a pattern is forming.

Could China be the USB external hard-drive of the French built environment? Regular backing up of our data is a just a fact of life for most of us worried that we may lose important data. External USB hard-drives are being made for less and with higher capacities every day, such that the delete button is increasingly becoming irrelevant. So why limit our backups to data? China’s construction industry seems perfect for the task of backing up bricks rather than bits – cheap and powered by the brute force of sheer population. Copies of places may be made in a fraction of the time that it took to create them.

If in the event of a catastrophic episode, the part of France in question could be restored and life would go on as it was before.

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.

Corpography in No-Man’s Land | Re-inhabiting No-Man’s Land

Corpography in No-Man’s Land | Re-inhabiting No-Man’s Land.

From its first entrance into the English language, designating a mass burial site for 14th century victims of the Black Death, no-man’s lands exhibit an often violent encounter between bodies and the materiality of the earth. So much so, that a distinction is no longer possible.

In his 1922 essay The Battle as Inner Experience, Ernst Jünger describes how the Fronterlebnis – life on the edges of no-man’s land – dissolves the boundary between body and space, transforming the soldier into an integral part of a frontline ecology: “There, the individual is like a raging storm, the tossing sea and the rearing thunder. He has melted into everything”

The experience Jünger describes is not just a traumatic subjection of the body to mechanised war, but, as Jeffrey Herf notes, an almost erotic rebirth and transfiguration of men into a new, improved community of the trenches that will lead the creation of “new forms filled with blood and power [that] will be packed with a hard fist”. Rather than resort to nostalgia for a pastoral pre-industrialised era, in the no-man’s land Jünger discovers a landscape where body, machine and soil are fused to form “magnificent and merciless spectacles”.

[…]

In Svetlana Alexievich’s remarkable book of testimonies from Chernobyl, the wife of one of the firemen who was exposed to extreme levels of radiation described the bio-chamber in which he was placed during his hospitalization in Moscow, and the extensive quarantine measures that isolated the man from the medical staff. To complete his dehumanisation, one nurse referred to the dying man as “a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning.[…] That’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor”. The radical unmaking of the human body to the extent that it is no longer distinguished from the original space of disaster, echoes the violent dissolution of distinctions between body and space that constituted the disastrous corpographies of WWI.

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.

Welcome to the Virtual City – J.G. Ballard

A city built for speed is a city built for success | science fictional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ed Ruscha, Gasoline Stations, 1989.

Shepperton, for what it’s worth, is not suburbia. If it is a suburb of anywhere, it is of London Airport, not London. And that is the clue to my dislike of cities and my admiration for what most people think of as a faceless dead-land of inter-urban sprawl. Hurrying back from Heathrow or a West Country weekend to their ludicrously priced homes in Fulham or Muswell Hill, they carefully avert their gaze from this nightmare terrain of dual carriageways, police cameras, science parks and executive housing, an uncentred realm bereft of civic identity, tradition or human values, a zone fit only for the alienated and footloose, those without past or future.

And that, of course, is exactly what we like about it. We like the fast dual carriageways, the easy access motorways, the limitless parking lots. We like the control-tower architecture, the absence of civic authority, the rapid turnover of friendships and the prosperity filtered through car and appliance purchases. We like roads that lead past airports, we like air-freight offices and rent-acar forecourts, we like impulse-buy holidays to anywhere that takes our fancy. The triangle formed by the M3 and the M4, enclosing Heathrow and the River Thames, is our zone of possibility, far from the suffocating city politics and self-obsessions of the metropolis (transport, ugh, fares, rents, kerb-side vomit). We are the unenfranchised citizens of the shopping mall and the marina, the internet and cable TV. And we’re in no hurry for you to join us.

J.G. Ballard, “Welcome to the Virtual City”, Tate, Spring 2001. p 33.