Tag Archives: urbanism

Airports: The True Cities of the 21st Century – J.G. Ballard

Airports: The True Cities of the 21st Century – J.G. Ballard.

Ballardian: The World of JG Ballard

Airports, designed around the needs of their collaborating technologies, seem to be the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch and nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.

[…]

For the past 35 years I have lived in Shepperton, a suburb not of London but of London’s Heathrow Airport. The Heathrow-tinged land extends for at least 10 miles south and west, a zone of motorways, science parks, and industrial estates, a landscape that most people affect to loathe but that I regard as the most advanced and admirable in the British Isles, and a paradigm of the best that the future offers us.

[…]

I value the benevolent social and architectural influence that a huge transit facility like Heathrow casts on the urban landscape around it. I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas. I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities, and its unashamed response to the pressures of speed, disposability, and the instant impulse. Here, under the flight paths, everything is designed for the next five minutes.

By comparison, London itself seems hopelessly antiquated. Its hundreds of miles of gentrified stucco are a hangover from the 19th century that should have been bulldozed decades ago. I have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, make it clear that London is a place where people know their place.

At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen. We are no longer citizens with civic obligations, but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our lightness of baggage mandated by the system. Airports have become a new kind of discontinuous city whose vast populations are entirely transient, purposeful, and, for the most part, happy. An easy camaraderie rules the departure lounges, along with the virtual abolition of nationality—whether we are Scots or Japanese is far less important than where we are going. I’ve long suspected that people are truly happy and aware of a real purpose to their lives only when they hand over their tickets at the check-in.

I suspect that the airport will be the true city of the 21st century. The great airports are already the suburbs of an invisible world capital, a virtual metropolis whose border towns are named Heathrow, Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Nagoya, a centripetal city whose population forever circles its notional center and will never need to gain access to its dark heart. Mastery of the discontinuities of metropolitan life has always been essential to successful urban dwellers—we know none of our neighbors, and our close friends live equally isolated lives within 50 square miles around us. We work in a district five miles away, shop in another, and see films and plays in a third. Failure to master these discontinuities leaves some ethnic groups at a disadvantage, forced into enclaves that seem to reconstitute mental maps of ancestral villages.

But the modern airport defuses these tensions and offers its passengers the social reassurance of the boarding lounge, an instantly summoned village whose life span is long enough to calm us and short enough not to be a burden. The terminal concourses are the ramblas and agoras of the future city, time-free zones where all the clocks of the world are displayed, an atlas of arrivals and destinations forever updating itself, where briefly we become true world citizens. Air travel may well be the most important civic duty that we discharge today, erasing class and national distinctions and subsuming them within the unitary global culture of the departure lounge.

Exploring No-Man’s-Land in the 21st Century — War is Boring — Medium

Exploring No-Man’s-Land in the 21st Century — War is Boring — Medium.

Barrier walls in the Palestinian territories in 2004. Lisa Nessan/Flickr photo

Following the end of World War I, Europe’s intellectuals tried to understand and explain what everyone just went through. They also tried to grapple with the reality of industrialized warfare and the no-man’s-lands it created.

Blasted, blown up and raked by machine gun fire. The no-man’s-land was a place that people couldn’t go without risking death.

Some thinkers on the political left saw no-man’s-land as symbolic of the destruction of Europe’s dying, traditional political order. However, intellectuals on the right saw the battlefield as a place where young men could be reborn into the fascist shock troops of Weimar Germany.

The fixed trenches of World War I are long gone. But the no-man’s-land never really went away, according to Noam Leshem, a political geographer at Durham University in England who studies modern no-man’s-lands.

From Cyprus, Western Sahara, the Palestinian territories to the Korean peninsula, no-man’s-lands are now tourist attractions, environmental preserves and places to make money.

Leshem’s work is available at Re-Inhabiting No-Man’s Land, a collection of writing and research on modern dead zones.

[…]

Our concern began with the obvious no-man’s-land of the First World War, but Alasdair reminded me the term was constantly being circulated in reference to very different sites.

So anything from other geopolitical areas like the demilitarized zones between the Koreas, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or even urban geopolitical no-man’s-lands like the one that divided Jerusalem until 1967.

But even beyond the geopolitical vocabulary, what we saw was that no-man’s land entered our lingo to refer to anything from gangland in the heart of North American cities to tax havens in the Caribbean.

When we started looking into this, one of our key goals was to try and understand the history of the term, and to our surprise the term is much older than 1915, i.e. the Battle of the Somme. It dates back to the 14th century and to London during the months preceding the plague, when the bishop of London buys a lot of land outside the city to prepare a mass grave ahead of the bubonic plague.

We found that relationship between a space and death to be kind of one of the key characteristics of no-man’s-land throughout its history. And what we’re trying to do today is two things, is first is continue to understand the history of the term beyond its sort of Anglo-Saxon origins, but also ask what do no-man’s-lands in the 21st century mean?

RB: We often think no-man’s-land as a sort of desolate environment. But in the Cyprus buffer zone there’s actually a lot of stuff going on there.

NL: Absolutely. Cyprus is a great example. As you know, there’s a lot of economic activity. There’s a lot of farming going on in the designated U.N. buffer zone, but you also get newly constructed industrial zones that are rezoned by the U.N. for civilian use.

So what you get are sub-civilian spaces within the militarized space of the buffer zone designated for economic activity.

In addition you get a lot of smuggling—of drugs, people across the no-man’s-land. And I would add to that: tourism. The buffer zone in Cyprus has become one of the key tourist attractions on the island. Beaches, good food and you get some buffer zone watchers.

So absolutely this is a very significant space economically and a space that is constantly inhabited, governed, monitored and practiced.

There are things happening in it that makes it a significant space rather than just this empty no-go zone.

RB: There’s also environmental features to these spaces. The demilitarized zone in the Koreas is a famous wildlife sanctuary.

NL: Here’s a funny anecdote from when we were in Cyprus a few weeks. One of our interviewees told us that Cypriots just absolutely love hunting, and although most of the wildlife on the island is completely extinct, he said if you want to find snakes, go to the buffer zone. If you want to find wildlife, go to the buffer zone.

That’s the only place where animals have survived because hunting is not allowed there.

As you pointed out, the demilitarized zone between the Koreas is a very important Asian wildlife sanctuary. Chernobyl is famous for the resuscitation of natural habitats as a result of the withdrawal of human activity. The herds of wild horses that roam Chernobyl these days have become almost as famous as reactor number four.

However, there’s again an interesting history because in 19th century notebooks of expeditions in North America, we find repeated references to the no-man’s-land as a space between two warring tribes where wildlife game finds refuge.

So already that association between sanctuary and no-man’s-land is made long before we designated the demilitarized zone in the Koreas as a sanctuary or the inadvertent creation of a wildlife sanctuary in Chernobyl.

There’s a fantastic film on the community of bunnies that found refuge in Berlin between the two sides of the wall. So in the no-man’s-land in Berlin, there was a huge community of bunnies.

It’s really important issue. It sheds light on the interests that preserve these spaces. I think that’s not just about preserving these spaces for the future, but the sense that the spaces are still a part of human concern.

RB: You had a recent post on your blog about [German war veteran and writer] Ernst Juenger. What were you trying to do there?

NL: Juenger was one of the most important thinkers that repeatedly returns in his writing and thinking to the no-man’s-land. The no-man-land’s for Juenger—contrary to the traditional definition of it as this desolate no-go zone—is a very productive space.

The no-man’s-land is a space from which a new man emerges, a man that has fused with machine and with earth to create this new—almost cyborg—creature that has bettered himself to such an extent that he is a new kind of being.

Not only is this happening on an individual level, but also on a social level. He talks about there being a “community of the trenches.”

But it’s important to remember that Juenger was part of a very specific intellectual group traditionally positioned on the right in Weimar Germany that celebrated the no-man’s-land, that romanticized it. On the other side, still in Weimar Germany, we see people like Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin was exempt from military service in the First World War, but he constantly returns to the no-man’s-land as a space where a philosophical crisis happens. Benjamin repeatedly asks, what’s the meaning of this space of destruction?

[…]

In the Second World War, that is transplanted from the trenches to the enclosed space of the gas chamber, or remotely through aerial bombardment. And what we have here is a change in status and no-man’s-land is no longer applied to concrete spaces of warfare and death.

The U.N. buffer zone in Cyprus in December 2012. Athena Lao/Flickr photo

Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture – we make money not art

Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture – we make money not art.

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Iwan Baan/WENN.com

In Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk travels across Latin America in search of the activist architects, maverick politicians and alternative communities already answering these questions. From Brazil to Venezuela, and from Mexico to Argentina, McGuirk discovers the people and ideas shaping the way cities are evolving.

Ever since the mid twentieth century, when the dream of modernist utopia went to Latin America to die, the continent has been a testing ground for exciting new conceptions of the city. An architect in Chile has designed a form of social housing where only half of the house is built, allowing the owners to adapt the rest; Medellín, formerly the world’s murder capital, has been transformed with innovative public architecture; squatters in Caracas have taken over the forty-five-storey Torre David skyscraper; and Rio is on a mission to incorporate its favelas into the rest of the city.

Here, in the most urbanised continent on the planet, extreme cities have bred extreme conditions, from vast housing estates to sprawling slums. But after decades of social and political failure, a new generation has revitalised architecture and urban design in order to address persistent poverty and inequality. Together, these activists, pragmatists and social idealists are performing bold experiments that the rest of the world may learn from.

[…]

While we (in Europe) are still proudly exhibiting in biennials 3D printed visions of what the city of tomorrow might look like, cities in South and Central America are already experiencing elements of our future urban conditions. Countries in Latin America have not only gone through mass urbanization long before China and Africa, they’ve also given rise to a new generation of architects who believe that architecture can be used as a tool for social change. These men (who are not only architects but also in some cases squatters and politicians) have had to respond to housing crisis, traffic congestion, segregation, lack of political participation and other effects of rapid unplanned urbanization.

The urban experiments described in Radical Cities should teach European and North American urban planners and architects valuable lessons about conceiving and managing the mega cities of the future. Such as what happens when you value adaptability over perfect order, acknowledge the informal city as a vital part of the urban ecosystem, include the citizen into collective efforts of imagination and construction or embrace and work with the dynamic force that is precariousness.

[…]

Alejandro Aravena created social housing for a poor community living in the north of Chile. He simply provided families with half a house and they built the rest, within a defined structural framework. The project was self-initiated and the final dwellers of the houses were involved in the design process.

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Elemental (Alejandro Aravena, Alfonso Montero, Tomás Cortese, Emilio de la Cerda), social housing in Iquique, Chile. Image Mindmap

In Colombia, it’s a new radicalized political class that took the initiative of improving the quality of life of all urban dwellers. The movement started in the 1990s when Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogotá used tactics of performance artists to tackle violence and instil a new civic culture. He reduced road accidents by hiring mime artists to mock bad behaviour on the road and to direct traffic, he set up a scheme allowing people to exchange their guns for toys and he dressed as Superciudadano (SuperCitizen) to urge his fellow citizen to take care of their urban environment. The results of his unorthodox social experiments included homicide rate dropping by 70% and traffic fatalities by more than 50%.

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Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogota, dressed as Superciudadano (Supercitizen)

Torre David which the author calls ‘a pirate utopia’ is the third tallest skyscraper in Caracas. Built in the business district to host luxury offices, the building had stood empty for 13 years until 2007 when squatters moved in. Some 3000 people now live in “the tallest squat in the world.’ Inhabitants managed to organize a legitimate electricity distribution, they enjoy spectacular views over the city and live in apartments that range from the barely inhabitable to well furnished flats with all commodities. The building has developed its own community rules and even houses convenience stores and bodegas every two floors. On the other hand, there is no elevator so going to the top floor with the grocery can quickly turn into a fitness challenge. There are open facades and holes in the floor and accidents happen if you don’t stay away from the edge.

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

WELCOME TO UTOPIA

WELCOME TO UTOPIA.

Before dawn I emerge above deck to find Steve Quinto at the ship’s wheel, where I left him last night. Steve is a rich American businessman. He once owned an international airline, pioneered low-cost travel across the United States. Steve believes the world I know is in the second phase of certain self-destruction.

[…]

Beyond those mountains is Steve’s utopia, an 800ha living ark that he has spent the past eight of his 79 years creating, investing his life’s fortune in the shipment of 300 tonnes of materials from around the world to the very edge of human existence. Paradise. Salvation. A new world for when the old one dies. He calls it Edenhope.

[…]

In coming months Ruth and Steve will ­disconnect themselves totally from the civilised world. “You have found us at an extraordinary moment in our lives,” Steve says. “As we make our transition.” Ruth has left behind houses and cars and furniture and expensive ornaments and jewellery.

The errant baby tomato beneath her feet is more precious to her than any of it. “The world of man proceeds on a suicidal journey,” she says. “We’ve turned all of life into a commodity. Everything has a price. Everything is for sale … and it finally became impossible for us. We couldn’t go on participating in it.”

There is, Steve estimates, room enough on the ark for 23 people to live comfortably. And Australians are welcome. Singles, couples, families, believers. All that’s required is a $300 one way ticket from Brisbane to Luganville and a commitment that means forever.

[…]

The turning track straightens to a clearing and there it is: the dream, Edenhope, a new world among the trees, a network of wooden bridges and paths and staircases weaving through manicured garden beds and rolling orchards with fruit trees in the hundreds and a kitchen hut and 10 octagonal bungalows made of high-end red hardwood timbers. The wondrous dreamscape includes wild blue flowers and bird of paradise plants and trees so big their root ­systems form houses of their own. There’s a communal library; a warehouse filled with ­endless tools and hardware; a surgery stocked with enough medicines to last two decades.

It’s a staggering work of human endeavour. Steve brought an earthmover and a front-end loader here from Canada. He rallied workers, paid and paid for their services for eight years; organised thousands of nine-hour sailing journeys back and forth between civilisation and sanctuary, hauling floors and sacks of concrete and machinery and miscellaneous goods in preparation for the apocalypse. He walks to a patch of dirt in the centre of his village. “It started here,” he says. “It was nothing but Ruth and I in two hammocks tied to trees.”

 

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com.

An aerial view of the Glastonbury Festival.

In June of (almost) every year, a medium-sized city emerges for a weekend in the West Country, then disappears again. The population – over 200,000 people at its peak – would make it the seventh largest city in the south of England, after London, Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Brighton (possibly its nearest relative).

Regarding the Glastonbury Festival as a “city” might seem counter-intuitive, given its premise of a partial return to ancient rural civilisation – fake stone circles and all. But a city it is, with a massive system of infrastructure and spatial organisation that is no less impressive for being temporary. This is a place where at least one of the dreams of the 1960s lives on – or where it went to die, depending on your view of the festival and its attractions.

In the 60s, the sharpest edge of British architectural culture was represented by Archigram, a collective of designers moonlighting from day-jobs working for London County Council (LCC) who put out a magazine of the same name, full of proposals for what future cities should or could look like. Many of those designs are now safely slotted away in the category of “impossible but fun” – the Walking City, the Floating City … all of them rendered in gloriously lurid Terry Gilliam-like drawings, with attendant functionalist justification for the seemingly absurd.

At the LCC, many in the group had a major role in the design of London’s South Bank Centre, but as Archigram, their ideas for festivals of culture were far away from heavy husks of concrete housing orchestras and art galleries. In particular, the Instant City took the form of an airship that would move over an area which was poorly served, culturally speaking – urban, rural, it didn’t matter – and dispense cinemas, theatres and concert halls in lightweight, disposable structures that could be packed up as quickly and easily as they were unpacked. Habitually, Archigram’s legacy is reduced to the massive static art gallery of Paris’s Pompidou Centre, but the Glastonbury ‘city’ proves just how prescient they were.

It didn’t need an airship to drop the contents on Worthy Farm, but as Douglas Murphy points out in his book The Architecture of Failure, Archigram’s Instant City really was achieved at Glastonbury and its like. “If we follow the stream of Archigram thought to its logical conclusion,” Murphy writes, “there is literally no better spatial embodiment of their obsession with transience, fun, media entertainment and spectacle than the pop-up cities of the music festival – 50,000 middle-class people in a field staring at Bono is where the Archigram version of utopia takes you.”

[…]

So what sort of a city is Glastonbury, and how well is it planned? In terms of built structures, from its inception, the main stage at the festival has been the Pyramid, a lightweight structure based directly on the pyramid of Giza – eternal-looking, but still basically pop-up.

The lovely, rolling Somerset fields feature several campsites with attendant portaloos, ‘streets’ of stalls, and bars run by the Workers Beer Company that are named after various Labour heroes. Although rain can make the city look dystopian, there are extensive networks that keep it together, many of which draw on the festival’s environmentalist legacy.

Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival.
Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Much of the infrastructure is adapted into the site’s other life as a working farm: the Pyramid Stage has doubled as a cow shed, and the waste from the 6,000 portable toilets is used as compost. Most of the stages and installations are kept for the rest of the year in the Green Barn in flat-pack form; during the festival, this barn is an event control centre with a staff of 500.

The sheer scale of the planning can be ascertained from the 3 million-litre reservoirs needed for storing water. Oxfam provides the stewards, but amazingly the site was not policed until 1989. As the organisers now point out on their website: “The festival is a town in its own right, and the town needs policing.” The Avon and Somerset police force carries out “regular visible patrols” and maintains an office (or rather a ‘Police Village’) on site.

This being England, there is even CCTV. Yet compared with festivals that occur in permanent cities such as Leeds and Reading – where security guards are always ready to enforce purchases of alcohol and food from only the licensed vendors – Glastonbury still feels a relatively free city. A super-fence may keep out most of those who haven’t paid, but if you work at a stall or volunteer to clean up afterwards, you can still get in for free.

Ultimately, the thing that most distinguishes Glastonbury City from a real one is its lack of paving. When it rains, a real taste of the pre-industrial metropolis can be obtained, as tens of thousands of people stomp around in a sea of slurry. Indeed, it’s this tendency to transform into a bog which might explain why the Glastonbury model of giant-festival-on-a-farm may be in decline, in favour of those that combine various musical attractions with a chic city break: Sonar in Barcelona, Transmediales in Berlin, Unsound in Krakow. There, the attractions of a certain kind of creative city are part of the appeal, rather than rolling hills, instant infrastructure and misty views of the Tor.

Alongside this, some music festivals have started appropriating earlier spaces of modern architecture itself – such as the Pontins camp in Camber Sands, which has played host to music festivals since All Tomorrow’s Parties set up there in 1999. The Camber Sands site, with its little glazed chalets, laid-on electricity and grid-planned order, is a product of a rather more demotic, proletarian modernism than that propounded by Archigram. It is a lot more conformist and clean – “canned”, they might have said – than the world of travellers and free festivals.

Yet this less adaptable, less alternative modernism of the holiday camp festival holds an obvious appeal to anybody who has found themselves covered in slop during one of Glastonbury’s rain years. The Instant City has been transformed back into an older model altogether, the Radiant City: clean, elegant, precise, and – English weather permitting –sun-soaked. It is a small council estate filled with only middle-class people, and Throbbing Gristle playing in the background.

cityofsound: Essay: The street as platform

cityofsound: Essay: The street as platform.

Crossing

The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Imagine film of a normal street right now, a relatively busy crossroads at 9AM taken from a vantage point high above the street, looking down at an angle as if from a CCTV camera. We can see several buildings, a dozen cars, and quite a few people, pavements dotted with street furniture.

Freeze the frame, and scrub the film backwards and forwards a little, observing the physical activity on the street. But what can’t we see?


We can’t see how the street is immersed in a twitching, pulsing cloud of data. This is over and above the well-established electromagnetic radiation, crackles of static, radio waves conveying radio and television broadcasts in digital and analogue forms, police voice traffic. This is a new kind of data, collective and individual, aggregated and discrete, open and closed, constantly logging impossibly detailed patterns of behaviour. The behaviour of the street.

Such data emerges from the feet of three friends, grimly jogging past, whose Nike+ shoes track the frequency and duration of every step, comparing against pre-set targets for each individual runner. This is cross-referenced with playlist data emerging from their three iPods. Similar performance data is being captured in the engine control systems of a stationary BMW waiting at a traffic light, beaming information back to the BMW service centre associated with the car’s owner.

The traffic light system itself is capturing and collating data about traffic and pedestrian flow, based on real-time patterns surrounding the light, and conveying the state of congestion in the neighbourhood to the traffic planning authority for that region, which alters the lights’ behaviour accordingly. (That same traffic data is subsequently scraped by an information visualisation system that maps average travel times on to house price data, overlaid onto a collaboratively produced and open map of the city.)

In an adjacent newsagent’s, the stock control system updates as a newspaper is purchased, with data about consumption emerging from the EFTPOS system used to purchase the paper, triggering transactions in the customer’s bank account records.

Data emerges from the seven simultaneous phone conversations (with one call via Skype and six cellular phones) amongst the group of people waiting at the pedestrian crossing nearest the newsagent.

The recent browser histories of the two PCs with internet access in a coffee shop across the road update sporadically with use, indicating both individual patterns of websites accessed and an aggregate pattern of data transfer throughout the day. At the counter of the coffee shop, a loyalty card is being swiped, updating records in their customer database. The flat above the shop is silently broadcasting data about the occupant’s usage of his Sky+ box, DAB radio with internet connection, and Xbox Live console. His laptop noisily plays music, noiselessly accreting data to build a profile of the user’s taste in music at the web-based service Last FM. This track has inaccurate or no metadata, which means it is not registered by Last FM, in turn harming its latent sales prospects.

A police car whistles by, the policewoman in the passenger seat tapping into a feed of patterns of suspicious activity around the back of the newsagent on a proprietary police system accessed via her secured BlackBerry. A kid takes a picture of the police car blurring past with his digital camera, which automatically uses a satellite to stamp the image with location data via the GPS-enabled peripheral plugged into the camera’s hot-shoe connection.

Across the road, a telecoms engineer secures a wireless device to the telephone exchange unit on the pavement, which will intermittently broadcast its state back to base, indicating when repairs might be necessary.

Walking past, an anxious-looking punter abruptly halts as the local Ladbrokes triggers a Bluetooth-based MMS to his phone, having detected him nearby, and offers discounts on a flutter on the 3.30 at Newmarket (the Ladbrokes is constantly receiving updates on runners, riders and bets, linked to a national network aggregating information from local nodes at racecourses and bookies). The potential punter had earlier received a tip on said race from his chosen newspaper’s daily sports bulletin, delivered via his mobile’s newsfeed reader software.

As he wonders whether he could discreetly sidle into the bookies to place the bet he’d promised himself he wouldn’t, the street-lamp above his head fades down as its sensors indicate the level of ambient daylight on the street is now quite sufficient, switching into a mode where the solar panel above collects energy for the evening and delivers any potential excess back into the grid, briefly triggering a message indicating this change of state back to the public-private partnership that runs the lighting services in this borough, in turn commencing a transaction to price up the surplus electricity delivered to the grid.

The same increase in daylight causes a minor adjustment in four of the seven CCTV cameras dotted along the street, as they re-calibrate their exposure levels accordingly, the digital video accruing on the array of remote disk drives at a faraway control centre is rendered slightly differently in response.

In an apartment over the bookies, the occupant switches on her kettle, causing the display on her Wattson device that monitors real-time electricity usage in the flat to jump upwards by a hundred watts, whilst triggering a corresponding jump in the sparklines displaying usage on the Holmes software that tracks that data over time, and which compares her consumption to four of her friend’s houses in the same neighbourhood.

Three kids are playing an online game on their mobile phones, in which the physical street pattern around them is overlaid with renderings of the 19th century city. They scuttle down an alleyway behind a furniture showroom as the virtual presence of another player, actually situated in a town forty miles away and reincarnated as a Sherlock Holmes-ian detective, indicated on their map by an icon of a deerstalker andgently puffing pipe, stalks past the overlaid imagined space. The three play a trio of master criminals, intent on unleashing a poisonous miasma upon the unsuspecting and unreal caricatures generated by the game.

Approaching the furniture showroom’s delivery bay to the rear, the driver of an articulated lorry grinds down through his gears in frustration as he realises the road over the lights narrows to a point through which his cab will not fit, information not made clear by the satnav system propped on his dashboard. The RFID chips embedded into the packaging of the seven armchairs in his trailer register briefly on the showroom’s stock control system, noting the delivery time and identity of the driver. When formally checked in later by the showroom’s assistant with a barcode-scanner, the damage to one of the chairs is noted and sent back to base, automatically triggering the addition of a replacement armchair to the next lorry out to this town, while recalculating stock levels.

In the shoe-shop next door, a similar hand-held scanner, unknowingly damaged in a minor act of tomfoolery a day earlier, fails to register the barcode on a box of sneakers, resulting in a lost sale as the assistant is unable to process the transaction without said barcode. The would-be customer walks out in disgust, texting his wife in order to vent his furious frustration on someone. She sends a placating if deliberately patronising message back within a few seconds, which causes him to smile and respond with an ‘x’ two seconds after that. In doing so, his allocation of SMSs for the month tips over to the next tier in his payment plan, triggering a flag in an database somewhere in Slough.

Deciding to spend his money – that he unwittingly has less of than he did a few moments ago – on a book instead, he steps into the only local bookstore on the street, using the now more expensive data plan of his mobile phone service to retrieve aggregated reviews for the latest Andy McNab, which he half-reads whilst perusing the back cover of the book. Unfortunately the corresponding prices offered up by the review system are in US dollars, as the service is not localised and thus he can’t compare prices. This is fortunate for the shop, however, and so during the resulting purchase of the book, the store’s stock control system automatically orders a fresh batch of the now best-seller whilst the on-counter top 10 displays McNab’s seemingly inexorable rise up the charts on a battered old LCD monitor.

Round the corner, the number of copies of the McNab book in the municipal library remains exactly the same. Instead, the large external LED display hoisted over the door at huge expense conveys the volume of ISBNs of books being swiped by librarians inside the building, in real-time. Part of an installation by students at the local art college, the most popular genres of books taken out, inferred from the aggregate of ISBNs and cross-referenced with Amazon, are displayed every five minutes via a collage of randomly-selected movie clips from YouTube that match broadly that same genre and keywords (filtered for decency and sensitivity by bespoke software which is itself receiving updates, detailing what is considered obscene at this point). Currently, a 2-second sequence of a close-up of David Niven’s nose and moustache from The Bridge Over The River Kwai morphs into the bulging right arm of Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, cradling a stolen Soviet rocket launcher. The patterns of clip consumption at YouTube twitch accordingly.

Looking up at the display in fascination and bewilderment, an elderly lady stumbles over a pothole in the pavement. Helped back to her feet by a younger man, she decides to complain to the council about the pothole. The man suggests he can do that right now, from his iPod Touch and using the library’s open public wifi, by registering the presence of a pothole at this point on the local problems database, Fix My Street. The old woman stares at him quizzically as it takes him fifty seconds to close the website he had been looking it on his mobile (Google Maps directions for “hairdressers near SW4”, a phrase he’ll shortly have to type in again, having neglected to bookmark it) and access fixmystreet.com. He spends the next few minutes indicating the presence of a pothole outside the library on Fix My Street (unaware of the postcode, he has to select one from a few possible matches on street name), before he moves on, satisfied with his civic good deed for the day. The elderly lady had long since shuffled off, muttering to herself. Although Fix My Street smartly forwards on all issues to the corresponding council, a beleaguered under-trained temp in the also underfunded ‘pavements team’ is unaware of fixmystreet.com and unable to cope with the levels of complaint, and so the pothole claims five more victims over the next two weeks until someone rings up about it.

The LED display board can also sniff what is being accessed via the library’s public wifi network, and displays fragments of the corresponding text and imagery. It switches briefly over to this mode, in order to denote that Fix My Street was being accessed, and displays some details of the transactions detailing the pothole issue. Before flicking back to the YouTube x ISBN installation, the display then conveys some information from the local council about a forthcoming street upgrade, blissfully unaware of the possible connection to be made between that and the pothole. Unfortunately, at that point, the pale sunlight hits the screen at such an angle that it cannot be read by two hurrying passers-by anyway. The display then dissolves into a slow pan across Keira Knightly’s delicately arched eyebrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the swinging briefcase of one of the passers-by, an Amazon Kindle e-book reader briefly connects to the public library – having previously visited the library, the owner had registered the public wifi in her settings. It commences a rapid-fire series of handshakes with Amazon’s systems, swapping personal details back and forth with user profile information, and thus beginning to download a new book by Ian McEwan to the device. Despite the wealth of metadata in this rich stream of data, the Kindle’s closed system means that the library’s databases, and LED display installation, cannot possibly be made aware of this literary transaction being conducted using its infrastructure. Either way, with seven seconds the Kindle user is out of range and the download automatically fizzles out, settling back to wait for the scent of open wireless.

Behind the library, a small 19th century cottage that’s been on the market for a year now is being re-valued by estate agents. This new figure, a few thousand pounds less than the previous, is entered automatically via the estate agent’s PDA and ripples through their internal databases and then external facing systems. It doesn’t trigger any change in three other proprietary databases listing average house prices in the neighbourhood until three weeks later. This house price change subtly affects the average for the area, which is later recombined into the aforementioned map that compares with commuter times for the borough.

An employee of the local water company knocks on a door up the street, calling in order to take a reading from the house’s meter. She uses a bespoke application on her mobile phone, which should indicate the location of the meter on the property. In this case, it doesn’t, so she has to ask.

Five TomTom satnav systems in five of the twelve cars on the street suddenly crash for reasons unknown, causing an instantaneous reboot and login sequence over the course of twenty seconds. One driver notices.

The four other drivers are slightly distracted by the glow of a giant TV screen, installed and operated by the council but paid for through corporate sponsorship, which glowers over the end of a pedestrianised-shopping mall at the end of the street over the lights. It’s broadcasting the Australian Open tennis, which is being played live in Melbourne. A homeless person is sleeping underneath the screen, soaking up some of its transmitted warmth. An on-street information kiosk stands beside the screen, offering a scrollable map of the local area and directory of local businesses. It’s little-used, as the directory of businesses was always incomplete and intermittently updated, its data now rusty and eroded by time. Plus maps are available on most people’s mobile phones. Still, the printer installed in its base occasionally emits a money-off coupon for some of the local businesses.

Under the pavement on one side of the street, a buried sensor records the fact that some fibre-optic cables are now transmitting data with 10% less effectiveness than when they were installed. A rat ascends from an accidentally uncovered grille under the library’s down-pipe nearby, its whiskers containing trace elements of plastic cladding.

A blogger posts an entry on her weblog regarding some new graffiti on the library’s rear, uploading the image via her mobile phone, thanks to her blog platform’s relationship with Flickr, a popular photo sharing site. She adds a cursory description of the stencilled representation of the Mayor’s face superimposed onto a £50 note instead of the Queen’s. Shortly afterwards, she receives an SMS from the service Twitter, indicating that two of her friends are heading for a café up the street, and she decides to intercept them to discuss her find, sending back the URL of her post and the time of her imminent arrival. Her phone’s Google Maps application triangulates her position to within a few hundred metres using the mobile cell that encompasses the street, conveying a quicker route to the café. Unfortunately, none of their systems convey that the café is newly closed for redecoration.

Working from home in his small house backing onto the old cottage, a lawyer files his case notes via the password-protected intranet his company operates, his wifi network encrypted to prevent leakage of such confidential data. He then closes his network connection, switching instead to his neighbour’s wifi network – which has been left purposefully open in the interests of creating a cohesive civic layer of wireless coverage on their street – in order to watch the watch the highlights of his football team’s two-nil victory the night before. In this way, his own remarkably cheap wireless network data plan never goes beyond its monthly cap. This parasitic wireless activity is only curtailed months later, when the previously benevolent neighbour uses some free sniffer software she downloaded to detect the presence of the wifi router that’s responsible for the majority of the data usage in the street.

A local off-license has an old monitor in the window that cycles through a series of crude screen-grabs of faces of shoplifters of local stores, derived from the various CCTV systems owned by a local association of shopkeepers. Unfortunately, the face of the purchaser of the Andy McNab book is mistakenly added to the system three weeks later.

(Coincidentally, in a meeting being conducted several miles away, a project team working on council tax systems briefly considers whether a system of localised screens displaying which houses in the street had not paid their council tax yet, updated wirelessly, would be ethically sound.)

Waiting at the lights, someone pays their council tax by mobile phone, triggering an internet-based bank transfer via SMS. Across the road, a car belong to a city-wide car-sharing network patiently waits to be activated by a swipe of a member’s RFID card. It transmits its location and status back to the car-sharing network’s database every few minutes.

Also in a prime position by the lights, a café is briefly office to two businesspeople having an informal meeting. Although the café’s wireless network is closed, their usage charges are paid for by the company they work for, and they barely notice the cost. The company credit card details are retrieved automatically over a secure transaction. Though it has poorer muffins, the café opens 90 minutes earlier than the library.

A series of small high-resolution displays, hanging under each traffic light and angled towards stationary drivers, alternately communicates the number of accidents that have occurred around these lights in the last year, and then the current speed limit, which can be calibrated to an optimum level for the current traffic conditions in the borough. The traffic lights also house the city’s congestion charging system’s cameras, logging the number-plates of cars passing through its network of inner-city streets.

A wireless sensor network, carefully and discreetly embedded in the trunks of trees lining one side of the street, silently monitors the overall health of the limes and planes, collating data and waiting patiently for the council’s tree surgeon to inspect the arboreal vital signs.

At the end of the line of trees, a new bench has been installed on the street. At either side of the bench, there are two standard electrical power-points freely available for citizens to recharge their phone or laptop. A small LED winks to indicate this, alongside a standardised explanatory icon drawn up by the department also responsible for the highways’ signage systems. The power running to the bench is carried via flexible cables that can twist and stretch around the growing roots of the nearest trees. The bench also carries a WIMAX transmitter as part of a research project led by the local university. As such, this bench appears as a key node on several GIS.

A cab drives through the traffic lights as they switch to green and it quickly signals to turn left, looking to nose back on itself as the presence of a fare is indicated at a nearby hairdressers, via the in-taxi control system. A faraway voice crackles over the intercom a few seconds later attempting to verify that the driver is en-route. The driver clarifies she is en-route but that she’ll take a few minutes more than usual as her satnav system indicates high traffic levels across the three normal routes taken.

At another building on the street, a new four-storey commercial office block inhabited by five different companies, the building information modelling systems, left running after construction, convey real-time performance data on the building’s heating, plumbing, lighting and electrical systems back to the facilities management database operated by the company responsible for running and servicing the building. It also triggers entries in the database of both the architect and engineering firms who designed and built the office block, and are running post-occupancy evaluations on the building in order to learn from its performance once inhabited.

In turn, and using this feed, the city council’s monitoring systems note the aggregated energy usage for the commercial buildings on the street, constantly shuffling its league table of energy-efficient neighbourhoods. The current score for the street, neighbourhood and city is displayed outside the nearby library, on a trio of vertical axis wind turbines with LEDs embedded in their blades.

A prototype of a similar monitoring system, but embedded in the bus-stop opposite the library, records the performance of the lights, travel information displays, large plasma-screen advertising display, and the chilled-beam cooling system newly installed for comfort. The travel information displays themselves receive updates in real-time via a slice of radio spectrum allocated to such data, indicating the proximity of the next five buses. This same system also conveys the latest information on the whereabouts of the no. 73 in particular, in the form of an SMS to a prospective passenger who has selected this as her ‘favourite bus’ via the transport company’s website. Around the corner, she breaks into a trot accordingly.

The plasma display is currently running an advert for the local radio station’s breakfast show (displaying a live stream of SMS messages sent to the show, filtered for obscenity and likelihood of libel). As the slightly out-of-breath imminent passenger arrives within range of its Bluetooth-based transceiver, it cross-fades to a display from the city’s premiere modern art gallery, with whom she has registered her mobile phone as a preferred mode of communication and whose systems are quickly cross-referenced for her attendance record for the last few years, and thus it informs her of a new exhibition about to start.

This she doesn’t notice at all, but one person in the loosely-defined queue around the bus stop does, and scribbles the details on his hand. Four seconds later, the display recognises another mobile phone with an open Bluetooth connection and an active account within the agglomeration of companies that have registered their databases with this advertising service, and shifts its display accordingly. The call-and-response between the queue and the screen continues until the bus finally pulls in and the screen’s transient audience dissipates. It settles back to a carousel of generic advertising messages and local information tailored to that street and its surrounds.

As the bus departs, the new passengers on-board swipe their RFID-based integrated transport system ID cards, updating mass transit databases with every possible aspect that can be gleaned from this simple activity (time of day, location, frequency of use, favourite entry points etc.) The now-empty seat in the bus-stop registers that it is indeed now empty using simple sensors, and wirelessly logs this fact with a database monitoring the usage and state of street furniture in the neighbourhood. Powered by solar panels on top of the bus-stop, it creates a pulsing ambient glow.

Across the road, another billboard displays the number of reported burglaries and bag-snatches in the neighbourhood in the last three months, live data direct from the police force systems. This causes several passers-by to feel a touch more anxious than they did a moment ago. Had they walked past a moment before, the billboard would have been displaying information on a forthcoming community sports day at the local park. One of the passers-by would have recognised their son in the video of last year’s winners, running in slow motion under the crisp typography. A moment before and the passers-by would have been subjected to a tortuous promo for a Portuguese avant-garde play currently running at the local theatre, within which a QR code displayed in the top-right hand corner could’ve been read with a mobile phone’s IR reader, delivering the website for the theatre to the phone’s browser.

Of the two bars, two pubs and three cafés on the street, only one has recently checked that the location and description data overlaid on Google Maps is present and correct, and thus is fortunate to receive the custom of two hungry Hungarian tourists for a full English breakfast with all the trimmings.

Twenty metres below the ground, a tube train scurries under the crossroads, outrunning its halo of data that details its location and speed from the engine control systems, while CCTV conveys images of the carriage directly underneath. The carriage contains forty-four mobile phones seeking a signal, some with Bluetooth headphone sets; ten BlackBerries and four other PDAs likewise; thirteen mp3 players of varying brands, a couple also with Bluetooth headphones; seven sleeping laptops.

Directly overhead, ten thousand metres up, the distant roar of a commercial airliner’s Rolls-Royce engines, beaming their performance data back to engineers via satellite in real-time …

And press play …

[…]

The snapshot above, without the explanatory narrative of the systems being touched by these activities, would just like a freeze-frame of a few people and vehicles set against a backdrop of buildings. A photograph or drawing would show only a handful of people, a few vehicles and some buildings.

[…]

Forty years ago, the British architects Archigram suggested that “When it’s raining on Oxford Street, the buildings are no more important than the rain”. The group’s David Greene subsequently asked “So why draw the buildings and not the rain?”. Why indeed? The sketch above tries to describe data rather than rain, but they’re similarly ephemeral.

Scenographic Urbanism: Paul Rudolph and the Public Realm: Places: Design Observer

Scenographic Urbanism: Paul Rudolph and the Public Realm: Places: Design Observer.

For decades, 20th-century modernists had favored openness in urban planning, maintaining that undue density caused social problems and that expansiveness and green, park-like spaces were healthful and therapeutic. The early 1960s saw a shift away from this thinking, and by this time Rudolph had concluded that open spaces actually caused alienation. Thus he advocated enclosure, believing that it would stimulate strong, positive, emotional responses from individuals and the community. To be sure, Rudolph’s notion of what constituted community was unclear, perhaps because of his intense focus on individuality. To a large extent his notions about urbanism, enclosure, and communal space — mostly an appreciation of the traditional city’s formal, aesthetic qualities — were drawn from City Planning According to Artistic Principles (1889), by the late 19th-century Austrian planner Camillo Sitte. [6] Rudolph frequently referred to Sitte in articles and lectures and in discussions about urbanism for his Yale studios. Like Sitte, Rudolph believed that buildings that shared walls exemplified tighter, more cohesive urbanism.

[…]

Famously employing the term “agoraphobia” to describe the alienating effects of vast open urban spaces, Sitte criticized the psychological impact of conventional planning. [7] In a way that appealed to the musician in Rudolph — in his youth the architect had aspired to be a concert pianist — Sitte thought the city should be like the stage set for an opera — a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, with squares and piazzas for civic activities, such as parades and communal festivals, that would have the emotional impact of musical theater directed by a great conductor. These views resonated with Rudolph, and he found especially appealing Sitte’s criticism of conventional planning strategies, of collaboration and bureaucratic organization. “Works of art cannot be created by a committee or through office activity,” Sitte said, “but only by a single individual; an artistically effective city plan is also a work of art and not merely an administrative matter. That is the crux of the whole matter.”