economics – mammoth the herculez gomez of architecture blogs Fri, 14 Oct 2016 19:16:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 the geopolitics of subtraction Thu, 09 May 2013 02:24:35 +0000 IIRSA
[Map of the IIRSA’s Amazonian axis, connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic across the Andes; from IIRSA document “8 Ejes de Integración de la Infraestructura de América del Sur”]

Keller Easterling, speculating about “a new counterintuitive economic model” of “infrastructural subtraction” in Domus last November:

“What are the points of leverage, trip distances or economies of scale that make air freight or rail profitable? Architects and urbanist are not themselves logisticians or inventors of new transportation technologies, but they can run the development scenarios demonstrating their spatial consequences. The license to develop may be expressed in terms of remote offsets like schools, technologies and improvements to community that recalibrate and shrink the need for roads. Roads might only exist when bundled with underground utilities, forest buffers, wireless telecommunication and other suppressors…

Just as architects are learning to look past single design events or objects, some of the most interesting scientists and economists in the world are learning to look past the rational assumptions of science to test ideas in a more complex context with multiple actors and circumstances. The soupy matrix of spatial protocols is a rich test bed for these new questions and for new extra-state agreements that pivot around seemingly irrational or changeable desires. In the Amazon and elsewhere, architects may be valuable precisely because they are not offering a hard science but rather an art of subtraction.”

This seems an extremely important space to define: if architects and landscape architects are interested, as Easterling suggests they should be, in developing the capacity to efficaciously alter or disturb the trajectory of organizational protocols which produce large-scale territorial effects like the two Easterling describes in the Domus article, Yasuni-ITT (in which the Ecuadorian government sells stakes in not developing oil resources within the Yasuní preserve) and the conflicting IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America, which aims to “integrate highway networks, river ways, hydroelectric dams and telecommunications links throughout the [South American] continent”), then we designers may need to demonstrate a peculiar utility that we offer — some set of intelligences or capacities innate or developable within the spatial design disciplines that make them useful to the design of such organizational protocols (hence, “valuable precisely because they are not offering a hard science but rather an art of subtraction”) — while simultaneously developing modes of practice and design tools that have the capacity to act on such protocols.

Easterling’s article has suggestions for the latter, as well, describing this “art of subtraction” as a new territory for design, “a perverse expertise”  “tutored by the bad company [architects] keep”:

“Since architects know to how make the development machine lurch forward, might they not also know how to put it into reverse? Might they know how to design and incentivise not only the addition but also the subtraction of development?”

The puzzle of subtraction or negative development clearly turns on quotients of space, yet it might outwit the architect who applies only the customary approach to the familiar site, building or master plan. Global development conundrums like those in the Amazon perhaps tutor an approach to form-making that does not produce the single design event or object, but rather form in a register that the political world can more easily use.

While the remote controls of foreign developers or runaway market multipliers are the source of despair for many preservationists, they might also be a source of ingenious design by architects and urbanists who design counter-multipliers or counter-remotes. Exceeding the reach of single object form, a subtraction protocol might establish an interdependency of variables that addresses multiple sites over time — a cos X that acts as a valve or governor to suppress, leverage or offset development. Just as cos X is an expression for a stream of values, these active forms, unlike a master plan, might simply provide a delta for development concentration and contraction.”

Read the full article at Domus.

dharavi: globalization and spontaneously mixed uses Tue, 06 Dec 2011 00:00:46 +0000
[The following piece, on the surprising ways that the residents of the Mumbai settlement of Dharavi have integrated that urban agglomeration into global economic networks, and the value of the unique spatial formatting that both enables and results from that integration, is the second thoroughly-footnoted guest post we’ve run from Peter Nunns. (The first was “fecal politics”.) After being on hiatus during the time when we published that first post, Peter is blogging again at Read after Burning.]

“The slum-dwellers,” he adds, “are experts at live-work space design. They spontaneously do mixed-use! We just have to learn from them.” [1]

When homes are also considered places of work – either unpaid housework or paid industrial homework – then the industrial geography of the city assumes new meanings. [2]

1 Mason 2011

2 Sassen 2001: 261

3 Patel and Arputham 2007, Fernando 2009

4 UN 2006: 37

Dharavi has been described as “Asia’s largest slum”. Between 600,000 and 1 million people live in 85 dense neighborhoods clustered on 2.4 square kilometers of low-lying, marshy land in the heart of Mumbai [3]. (Mumbai’s total population was estimated at 18.2 million in 2005 by UNDESA (2010).) It is one of the most overcrowded areas of Mumbai – and one of the worst-served by infrastructure. Dharavi contains an estimated 1,440 people for each toilet seat, meaning that “streets, lacking drainage, become channels for filthy water carrying human excrement” during the rainy season [4]. In many respects, it has become a byword for urban squalor and poverty.

5 Nijman 2009

6 Grant and Nijman 2003: 474

7 Patel 2010

8 Chalana 2010: 31

9 Benjamin 2008: 721

It’s also a chunk of incredibly valuable real estate. The relaxation of foreign investment rules brought an influx of capital into Mumbai in the 1990s, and land prices skyrocketed [5]. The city’s central business district was “the most expensive in the world” in the mid-90s, while “residential real estate prices spiralled up as well, in part in response to the influx of money from nonresident Indians” [6]. Dharavi, which lies between two of the main rail lines, with close access to the new financial district and the international airport [7], has been describes as the “Opportunity of the Millennium” for developers [8]. Remaking Dharavi would open up new territory for foreign direct investment and globally-linked industries that would benefit from proximity to the international airport and CBD. In the words of Solomon Benjamin, it would exorcise the “spectre of cities besieged by cancerous slums” by putting a “modernist spin on attracting economic development: ‘Bangalore transforming into a Singapore, Bombay [Mumbai] into a Shanghai, and Delhi into a London’!” [9]

10 Chalana 2010, Patel and Arputham 2007

11 The anticipated cost of the redevelopment rose to US $3 billion in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

12 Patel, Arputham, Burra and Savchuk 2009

The Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), first proposed in 1996 by Mukesh Mehta, an American-trained architect working in Mumbai and started in 2004, is the latest attempt to capitalize upon inflated land values. It is intended to mix slum upgrading with the development of new office space and housing for Mumbai’s upper and middle classes [10]. The $2 billion DRP [11] calls for Dharavi to be divided into five zones, each of which would be designed and constructed by a separate property development firm. Residents who could prove their occupancy prior to 1995 (later extended to 2000) would be offered apartments on the same sites or new locations in exchange for their land [12]. A portion of profits from the sale of newly-constructed housing and commercial space would be used to finance upgraded housing for Dharavi’s low-income residents, while the rest would be returned to the city government and private developers.

13 Sanyal and Bhattacharya 2010, Nijman 2009

The purpose of the DRP is to globalize Mumbai; to create the sorts of “internationally competitive” living spaces and commercial areas required by globally-mobile businesses and workers in the “knowledge economy”. But this program ignores Dharavi’s actually-existing ties to the broader urban and global economies. The slum houses a wide range of informal enterprises that are integrated into globally disaggregated assembly lines through subcontracting arrangements. While we tend to think of slums as a form of low-income housing, Dharavi’s economic role is at least as important. Its living spaces often double as informal and unregulated production spaces – like many slums, it is a “spontaneous” form of mixed-use design [13].

14 Nijman 2009: 10, Fernando 2009

15 Sanyal and Bhattacharya 2010: 163

16 Nijman 2009: 10

17 Patel and Arputham 2007: 505

Roughly 70 to 80 percent of Dharavi’s residents work within the slum – an unusually high ratio compared with many other Indian slums [14]. It contains at least 5,000 industrial enterprises, which produce textiles, pottery and leather, jewellery, food products, and so on and so forth [15]. Its southwest corner “has a major cluster of plastic recycling factories, with some estimates of well over 500 units,” while many streets are “lined with retailing, food stands, kiosks, taxis, small restaurants, some hotels, etc.” [16]. These industries “provide incomes and livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of Mumbai citizens who would otherwise have no employment” [17]. Because they also entail a number of negative externalities – low wages, unsafe conditions, and high levels of air and water pollution – they rely upon the existence of flexible, unregulated space in the city center.

18 Fernando 2009

19 Sanyal and Bhattacharya 2010: 163

20 Harriss-White 2010: 131

Work done in Dharavi is a crucial part of the city’s economy [18]. Patel and Arputham observe that it “probably contributes far more to the Indian economy than most special economic zones.” Its annual turnover has been estimated at between $700 million and $1 billion [19]. And while Dharavi is somewhat unusual in the magnitude and diversity of its industries, it is part of a wider trend in India’s globalizing economy. According to Sudarshan et al, 30 to 40 percent of India’s exports now originate in the informal economy, which “includes entire industrial clusters making goods for export (metalware, machine tools, leatherware, textiles and garments, tools and equipment, and some IT services)” [20]. The expansion of India’s international trade is related to the growth of subcontracting networks and industrial homework.

21 Harriss-White and Sinha 2007, see also Frenkel and Kuruvilla 2002

22 Sudarshan et al 2007: 179

Over the past two decades, the country’s manufacturing sector has undergone parallel processes of upgrading and downgrading: businesses in the formal sector have become more capital intensive, displacing labor-intensive work into the decentralized and more flexible informal sector [21]. According to Sanyal and Bhattacharya, “sub-contracting from large firms to small firms has been increasing and consequently numbers of homeworkers, to whom small firms in turn sub-contract, are also increasing” (see also UNIFEM 2000). In 1999/2000, there were approximately 28 million homeworkers in the non-agricultural labor force, 30 percent of whom were located in urban areas [22]. The bottom reaches of subcontracting networks are predominantly female. Rani and Unni found that in 2000/01, “home-based [production] workers constituted about 81 percent of all female workers and about 46 percent of male workers.”

23 Sanyal and Bhattacharya 2010: 163

As the case of Dharavi demonstrates, these production arrangements also rely upon certain spatial arrangements. Slums are often ideal locations for combining living and work space – a fact that is often not appreciated by redevelopment projects. Consequently, the DRP is doubly problematic for residents: it threatens both their shelter and their livelihoods. Many of the central issues of contention relate to the preservation of Dharavi’s informal industries and mixed-use spaces. As a result, “the Dharavi resistance qualifies more as a ‘labour’ mobilization than slum dwellers’ resistance” [23].

24 Chalana 2010: 31

25 Chalana 2010: 32

The current master plan “entails building the rehabilitation housing zones on less than half of the original land, and allocating only 2 percent of the land to retain ‘‘non-polluting’’ industries” [24]. On the one hand, this would either increase density to an unsustainable level, or displace many of Dharavi’s residents. The project “would likely create additional homelessness, as some estimates suggest that about a quarter of the existing residents would not be eligible for rehabilitation based on the residency requirement,” which provides for resettlement only for households that can prove residency prior to 2000 [25].

26 Sanyal and Bhattacharya 2010: 163

On the other, the DRP proposes to replace existing shelters, which often mix domestic and industrial uses, with small residential spaces in high-rise buildings. As a consequence, the “entire business district as Dharavi is under threat because most of the enterprises do not have licences and so cannot find any place in the new redeveloped Dharavi [26]. Although “non-hazardous and non-polluting” workshops can potentially be rehoused, this will still mean closure of several important industries, such as pottery, leather goods, and recycling, and the loss (or displacement to the urban periphery) of tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs.

27 Patel and Arputham 2007, 2008, Patel, Arputham, Burra and Savchuk 2009, Arputham and Patel 2010

Two community organizations have contested the DRP, moving it into a “zone of negotiation” between inhabitants and city government. In a series of articles published in the academic journal Environment and Urbanization, the leaders of the Alliance have provided regular updates on political negotiations over the project [27].

28 Patel, Arputham, Burra and Savchuk 2009: 244

29 Patel, Arputham, Burra and Savchuk 2009, Chalana 2010

30 Patel, Arputham, Burra and Savchuk 2009: 244

31 Arputham and Patel 2010: 502

To date, residents’ activism has secured several important gains. First, proposed densities have been lowered significantly. New guidelines issued in October 2008 specified a maximum building height of eight or ten stories, as opposed to original plans for 20 to 30 story apartment buildings [28]. The size of rehabilitation apartments for eligible slum-dwellers has also been increased, from 225 square feet to between 250 and 300 square feet [29]. This will, of course, make them more livable – but it will also provide additional space for home-based industries. Likewise, there have been incremental improvements to the space available for work in Dharavi. The original plans called for 50 percent of the floor space offered for sale by developers to be used for upper/middle-class housing [30]. Guidelines released in 2008 specify that 80 percent be available for commercial use – although there are wide variations between the five proposed sectors [31].

The fate of Dharavi is likely to set a precedent for future slum redevelopment projects in India. Activists and developers are closely watching the case of Dharavi: if such a large, economically important space can be redeveloped without significant consultation with residents, it will open the door for similar efforts elsewhere. In their latest update, Arputham and Patel note that the DRP is already being considered as a model for the redevelopment of a 1.1 square kilometre slum adjoining the Mumbai International Airport, which currently houses 85,000 or more households on commercially-valuable land.

I suppose that I’m alluding to two different types of outcome here. The first is a social one – the DRP would make many current Dharavi residents worse off, or at any rate reduce their ability to make choices about the city in which they live. But leaving that aside (and it’s a large thing to set aside!), the DRP may be a flawed project even on purely macroeconomic terms. It’s an attempt to develop Mumbai as a global city that completely runs roughshod over the actually-existing globalization occurring there. In a sense, it’s a struggle over whether a type of informal mixed-use design, and a certain mode of global integration, is allowed to continue within Mumbai.

[On the topic of the DRP, this old Airoots post, which makes a similar argument for understanding Dharavi as a “self-generating post-industrial city”, is also worth a read:

The inhabitants of Dharavi have a fantastic capacity to solve their own problems. For many, Dharavi has been a platform for social mobility to middle-classdoom. However, one problem the inhabitants cannot get their head around is the threat of a top down redevelopment plan backed by the state. This burdens the residents of Dharavi more than anything else. Not only does the state not help, it even comes in the way of self-development. Why would anyone invest in their homes or business if it risks being bulldozed in a few months or years?

What seems to separate Dharavi from the DRP more than anything else is a generational gap. In the age of user-generated content, open-source and P2P, the net generation connects intuitively with the archetype of the squatter, who, just like the hacker in another realm, delves in and strives to overcome loopholes leftover by the system, and uses community and social networking as its modus operandi. In fact, it makes total sense to understand Dharavi as a self-generating post-industrial city…

More than a master plan, Dharavi needs a liberation of the imagination. Lets drop the heavy CAD maps and GIS surveys and zoom in to the street level. All Dharavi needs is some creative photoshoping and less of a patronising colonial gaze. If allowed to develop through their own internal skills, if provided for with basic infrastructural and amenities, the hundreds of enclaves, will keep improving their conditions, as they have always done. While no one can imagine what the neighbourhood may look in a couple of decades, it is certain to represent the city’s spirit like nothing else.

Click through for the references for Peter’s post.]


Arputham, Jockin and Patel, Sheela. 2010. “Recent developments in plans for Dharavi and for the airport slums in Mumbai.” Environment and Urbanization 22(2): 501-504.

Benjamin, Solomon. 2008. “Occupancy Urbanism: Radicalizing Politics and Economy beyond Policy and Programs.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32(3): 719-29.

Chalana, Manish. 2010. “Slumdogs vs. Millionaires: Balancing Urban Informality and Global Modernity in Mumbai, India.” Journal of Architectural Education ?(?): 25-37.

Fernando, Valerie. 2009. “In the Heart of Bombay: the Dharavi Slum.” Available online at Accessed 20 June 2011.

Frenkel, Stephen and Kuruvilla, Sarosh. 2002. “Logics of Action, Globalization, and Changing Employment Relations in China, India, Malaysia, and the Philippines.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 55(3): 387-412.

Grant, Richard and Nijman, Jan. 2003. “The Re-Scaling of Uneven Development in Ghana and India.” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 95(5): 467-481.

Harriss-White, Barbara. 2010. “Globalization, the Financial Crisis and Petty Commodity Production in India’s Socially Regulated Informal Economy”. In Bowles and Harriss.

Harriss-White, Barbara and Sinha, Anushree, eds. 2007. Trade Liberalization and Indias Informal Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mason, Paul. 8 August 2011. “Slumlands — filthy secret of the modern mega-city.” New Statesman. Available online at

Nijman, Jan. 2009. “A Study of Space in Mumbai’s Slums.” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 101(1): 4-17.

Patel, Sheela and Arputham, Jockin. 2007. “An offer of partnership or a promise of conflict in Dharavi, Mumbai?” Environment and Urbanization 19(2): 501-508.

Patel, Sheela and Arputham, Jockin. 2008. “Plans for Dharavi: negotiating a reconciliation between a state-driven market redevelopment and residents’ aspirations.” Environment and Urbanization. 20(1): 243-253.

Patel, Sheela, Arputham, Jockin, Burra, Sundar and Savchuk, Katia. 2009. “Getting the information base for Dharavi’s redevelopment.” Environment and Urbanization 21(1): 241-251.

Patel, Shirish. 2010. “Dharavi: Makeover or Takeover?” Economic and Political Weekly 45(24): 47-54.

Rani, Uma and Unni, Jeemol. 2009. “Do Economic Reforms Influence Home-Based Work? Evidence from India.” Feminist Economics 15(3): 191-225.

Sanyal and Bhattacharya. 2010. “Beyond the Factory: Globalization, Informalization of Production and the Changing Locations of Labour”. In Bowles and Harriss, eds. Globalization and Labour in China and India: Impacts and Responses.

Sudarshan, Ratna, Vekataraman, Shanta and Bhandari, Laveesh. 2007. “Subcontracted homework in India: A case study of three sectors”. In Mehrotra and Biggeri: 173-209.

UNIFEM. 2000. A Preliminary Study on the Productive Linkages of Indian Industry with Home based Women Workers through Subcontracting Systems in Manufacturing Sector. New Delhi: United Nations Development Fund for Women.

United Nations. 2006. Human Development Report 2006. New York: United Nations Publishing.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Population Division. 2010. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 Revision. New York: UN-Habitat Urban Info.

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the economist on american infrastructure Tue, 10 May 2011 00:00:14 +0000
[“Enroute high” aeronautical chart of the airspace around Washington, DC, via the US Division of the International Virtual Aviation Organization and  American airports rely on obsolete ground-based air traffic control,a system whose “imprecision obliges controllers to keep more distance between air traffic, reducing the number of planes that can fly in the available space” and which “forces planes to use inefficient routes in order to stay in contact with controllers”.]

The Economist reports on the sorry state of American transportation infrastructure:

“America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart. American cities have suffered a rash of recent infrastructure calamities, from the failure of the New Orleans levees to the collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis, to a fatal crash on Washington, DC’s (generally impressive) metro system. But just as striking are the common shortcomings. America’s civil engineers routinely give its transport structures poor marks, rating roads, rails and bridges as deficient or functionally obsolete. And according to a World Economic Forum study America’s infrastructure has got worse, by comparison with other countries, over the past decade. In the WEF 2010 league table America now ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. Its roads, railways, ports and air-transport infrastructure are all judged mediocre against networks in northern Europe.”

Of course, there is nothing new about this issue (which we’ve called the infrastructural public policy problem), but it is worth reiterating, given the ease with which such reports pass before our eyes and fade from memory.  It’s quite unfortunate that, if one were to answer descriptively (and in specific reference to the United States) FASLANYC‘s call for an authentically American infrastructural urbanism, the primary distinguishing characteristics you would begin with would be descriptors like “underfunded”, “crumbling”, “antiquated”, and “poorly planned”.

The Economist‘s article does go beyond the simple description of the problem, to sketch some of the roots of the problem and describe some policies which might ameliorate the problem:

“If Washington is spending less than it should, falling tax revenues are partly to blame. Revenue from taxes on petrol and diesel flow into trust funds that are the primary source of federal money for roads and mass transit. That flow has diminished to a drip. America’s petrol tax is low by international standards, and has not gone up since 1993. While the real value of the tax has eroded, the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure has gone up. As a result, the highway trust fund no longer supports even current spending. Congress has repeatedly been forced to top up the trust fund, with $30 billion since 2008.

Other rich nations avoid these problems. The cost of car ownership in Germany is 50% higher than it is in America, thanks to higher taxes on cars and petrol and higher fees on drivers’ licences. The result is a more sustainably funded transport system. In 2006 German road fees brought in 2.6 times the money spent building and maintaining roads. American road taxes collected at the federal, state and local level covered just 72% of the money spent on highways that year, according to the Brookings Institution, a think-tank.

The federal government is responsible for only a quarter of total transport spending, but the way it allocates funding shapes the way things are done at the state and local levels. Unfortunately, it tends not to reward the prudent, thanks to formulas that govern over 70% of federal investment. Petrol-tax revenues, for instance, are returned to the states according to the miles of highway they contain, the distances their residents drive, and the fuel they burn. The system is awash with perverse incentives. A state using road-pricing to limit travel and congestion would be punished for its efforts with reduced funding, whereas one that built highways it could not afford to maintain would receive a larger allocation.”

Read the full article at the Economist.

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aerotropolis Thu, 17 Mar 2011 00:00:05 +0000
[FedEx’s “Superhub” at Memphis International Airport; via Bing maps.]

1. BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh interviews Greg Lindsay, co-author (with John Kasarda) of the recently-released Aerotropolis.  (If you aren’t familiar with the thesis of the book, you might begin with Lindsay’s recent article in the Financial Times.)  The interview is quite interesting, and in places I agree fully with Lindsay’s comments.  For instance:

“I think the examples of Memphis and Louisville are fascinating, where the sheer economic force of FedEx and UPS basically willed them into being.

Those cities used to be river-trading towns—cotton and tobacco, respectively—before they became basically southern rustbelt towns. But then, in the 1970s and 80s, they were reborn as company towns of FedEx and UPS. In a sense, their economics—for better or for worse, and that’s very much up for debate—are held hostage by our e-commerce habits: every time we press the one-click button on Amazon, it leads to this gigantic logistical mechanism which, in turn, has led to the creation of these vast warehouse districts around the airports of these two cities.

One of the things I tried to touch on in the book is that even actions we think of as primarily virtual lead to the creation of gigantic physical systems and superstructures without us even knowing it.”

It also seems that Lindsay is quite reflective about the topic, as his critical comments on the relationship between aerotropolis and autocracy or his description of the aerotropolis as a weapon in a “war between cities” make clear, and there’s much to commend in the interview (both in the questions, and in the answers).

[1] A previous post on mammoth, “wyoming is in los angeles”, explores the degree to which cities are materially tied to their “hinterlands”.

I should also note here that Manaugh expresses a related sort of skepticism in his question about “the prospect of a failed aerotropolis” — and so it’s worth reading Lindsay’s answer to that question, though it is more about the future of the aerotropolis than a debate about its present status.

2. However, I’m not convinced that the aerotropolis as Lindsay describes it — a city which is “more closely tied to other cities via air than its own hinterlands” — really exists, or is even possible.  Matter matters, and only a little bit of matter and relatively few people (at great energy cost) can realistically be transported frequently by air [1].  Maybe 100 million Chinese tourists really will be flying abroad in 2020 — but even that massive quantity is only one out of every thirteen Chinese (on China’s current population), and those 100 million wouldn’t be people whose lives are characterized by air travel, but people whose lives occasionally — perhaps annually, perhaps bi-annually — feature air travel on special occasions.

3.More interesting than quibbling about the nature of aerotropolis, though, is Lindsay’s assertion that aerotropolis is crystallized globalization:

“The notion of the aerotropolis, then, is basically that air travel is what globalization looks like in urban form. It is about flows of people and goods and capital, and it implies that to be connected to a city on the far side of the world matters more than to be connected to your immediate region.”

It seems to me that the “aerotropolis” (particularly on the more restricted Kasarda definition) is more a symbol of globalization than it is the ultimate instantiation of globalization.  Sea shipping is (and was for centuries before the invention of flight) the dominant mode of global transport.  To get an indication of the difference in magnitude between sea and air shipping, just look at Shanghai, the world’s busiest cargo port by tonnage, and Memphis, the world’s busiest airport by tonnage: Memphis sees about three million tons a year; Shanghai sees around five hundred million tons a year.  This is not a statistical aberration.

[Yangshan Deepwater port, off the coast of Shanghai — merely one of Shanghai’s many container-handling facilities; image source.]

If you want to connect to the global economy you build a port.  (Karrie Jacobs: “Even Dubai, which seems to demonstrate how a good airport (and a state-owned airline) can make a city materialize from thin air, initially tested the economic value of a free-trade zone on the Persian Gulf by building a state-of-the-art shipping port.”)  Failing that, you build an inland port, to receive and distribute goods from a sea port.  Yes, if you want to connect to certain specific components of the global economy which require high-value and high-speed material transactions (the small auto-parts industry, for instance), you build an airport, but, just as with the movement of people, that’s a special case, not the baseline.

Even Air Cargo World (which has an obvious interest in air cargo boosterism) admits that sea shipping is hardly the way of the past:

Four years ago this month, Giovanni Bisignani, the director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), sounded the alarm to airfreight experts assembled at the IATA World Cargo Symposium in Mexico City.

“Ocean container shipping is becoming more competitive and taking business away,” Bisignani told the audience during his opening address. He then rattled off some startling numbers. Growth in the ocean sector from 2000 to 2005 more than doubled airfreight growth, and from 2006 to 2010, ocean freight was to outpace annual air cargo growth by nearly 2 percent.

“New container ships are faster and cheaper to operate,” he continued. “2006 ocean container freight rates were 20 percent in real terms below 2000 levels. Airfreight rates were only 8 percent lower. … We can expect more intense price competition”

Now that a resurgence is taking place in both the ocean and air cargo industries, shippers are starting to plan for the future. It’s been reported that shippers who once operated only in the sky and had  gone to the water are making the shift back to air cargo, but there isn’t enough evidence to suggest a trend is underway. A lot is happening in the shipping industry, and it’s difficult to say how many shippers are returning to the skies, just as it can’t be said that some shippers will remain sea-bound forever. As with most things, the issue isn’t clear cut.

“I have seen some conversion of sea to air, and we certainly saw it for a lot of 2010,” Shah says. “I don’t know if that trend is still continuing. It probably is, but it probably depends and the commodity, and it depends on the industry.”

If you’re looking for a physical instantiation of the ways that contemporary globalization is radically different than 19th-century globalization (and you’re not satisfied with the shipping container, which really is one of the most important innovations of the twentieth century), then I’d suggest that the tubes are a better place to start than the airports.

[Container shipping in the aerotropolis of Dubai — like Shanghai, one of many terminals.]

4. I do wonder if there is an element of unintentional bias operating in the formulation of Lindsay and Karsada’s theses?  If you’re wealthy (or fortunate enough, like I am, to be middle-class in a country where the middle-class is wealthy by global standards), you might connect to the world by flying around it; but if you’re not, you probably connect to the world — experience globalization — through the products you participate in the manufacture, design, storage, marketing, or sales of, the products you purchase, and/or the raw materials that you participate (directly or indirectly) in the extraction of.  If your experience primarily falls into the former category — experiencing the world by traveling it in airplanes — it would be unsurprising if this biased you towards overestimating the significance of airports as drivers of urbanization, and underestimating the impact of the latter items on urbanization.

5. All that said, the existence of the aerotropolis, whatever its fate, future, and ultimate importance is, seems undeniable, and so I’m convinced that this is an important and fascinating phenomenon, well worth studying.

[In return, Greg Lindsay interviews BLDGBLOG.  Lindsay and Manaugh will be continuing these conversations at upcoming live events — click through to BLDGBLOG’s interview for details.  Elsewhere, Kazys Varnelis reacts — with appropriate suspicion about the future prospects for jet-setting global citizens of the aerotropoli — to commentary and chatter surrounding the release of Aerotropolis.]

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markets, constituencies, and infrastructure Fri, 11 Feb 2011 17:58:49 +0000

I’ve been reading the blog Market Urbanism quite a lot recently. Writing recently about “the problem with “public” transportation” (and after noting the frequent use of ‘public transit’ where the broader ‘mass transit’ would be more appropriate), they argue:

…although the [New York] Subway was heavily subsidized by the government, the truth is that it was a very expensive and ineffective replacement for elevated trains, which are just as fast as subways, and far cheaper to build. The els were quite profitable and transit companies were eager to build them, but the NIMBY interests didn’t like the noise they made and the city resented the limited role that it had in the lines. In fact, it was the city holding out for a subway and the massive spending binge it took to finally build it that contributed to mass transit’s insolvency – a trend which continues unabated today. If the city hadn’t insisted on the unsustainable luxury of forcing all rapid transit underground (a theme I hope to explore more deeply in the future), then Second Avenue, and a whole bunch of other streets, would have gotten rapid transit a century ago. (And I won’t even get into the fact that much of the NYC “Subway” is actually repurposed old private elevated lines.)

There is a lot to agree with in that graf, but the conclusion of the post, which is literally “public transportation sucks”, lacks nuance (hah) — as does the implied conclusion that private development will always lead to a better solution than public. For example, it would be interesting to see property values plotted along aboveground and underground train lines in NYC and Chicago. It’s easy to call underground mass transit an unsustainable luxury, but would that assessment be altered by an offset resulting from increased property tax income derived from higher property values along underground lines? More generally, I’m not convinced that the formulation ‘cheaper and easier equals more attractive to private companies equals better solution’ is universally true, though this will probably be the case in many scenarios, due to the high opportunity cost of not building additional lines paid when cities choose to focus limited funds on less noxious but more expensive underground lines. In an excellent later post, Market Urbanism makes a case that the opportunity cost of not embracing private elevated lines was actually tremendous for America:

Though everyone loved the subway (well, sort of), burying rapid transit is much more expensive than building it above streets and alleyways, so few cities ever mustered up the funds to build subways. (This cannot be emphasized enough: Elevated lines were(/are?) cheap and profitable enough to be built by relatively apolitical private enterprise, whereas subways were not.) From this lack of els came horrible street crowding and congestion as people piled into overburdened at-grade streetcar lines. From this congestion came height limits, and from these height limits came sprawl, and from sprawl came the automobile and parking lots, and by the Great Depression, development pretty much ended.

The complicated nature of this set of cost/benefit trade-offs between public and private infrastructures is why we’ve argued in the past that, when discussing the creation and operation of infrastructure, using ‘development for constituents’ vs ‘development for markets’ is a better way to frame this debate.  This framing provides a window into some of the key results of the two methodologies, such as (respectively) geographically comprehensive coverage vs redundancy at high-impact nodes, or pricing to increase use vs pricing to increase profitability and financial sustainability. Infrastructural development is always in response to some sort of demand, and the type of demand (or mix of demands) has a significant impact on the nature of that development.

I would love to study the differing characteristics of constituent-driven and market-driven infrastructural development, as I suspect that the resulting infrastructures lead to dramatically different generative effects on the development of urban systems. How do patterns of infrastructural development differ depending on the type of demand which instigated their creation – and how do these effects remain embedded in the city as it develops among its infrastructures?

[For more beautiful early maps of NYC transit, like the combination plan / section drawing of the Interborough Rapid Transit lane from 1904 above, visit this incredible online archive:]

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obama’s national infrastructure bank Fri, 17 Sep 2010 12:44:30 +0000 Infrastructurist has a quick summary of reactions to the Obama administration’s proposed National Infrastructure Bank.  (The reactions are mostly positive, from sources as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and The New Republic.)  Of course, enthusiasm for the proposal — which, as far as I can tell, is an excellent idea — should be grounded in an awareness of the massive gap between the relatively small pool of money proposed for the bank — $50 billion — and the enormous sea of money — $2.2 trillion over the next five years — that would be required to actually restore our chronically underfunded infrastructures to good condition.  (And, if I read the Infrastructure Report Card correctly, that’s just restoration, not building new infrastructures to under gird a competitive economy for the coming decades.)

architects without architecture Mon, 13 Sep 2010 21:43:07 +0000 As a coda to our collaborative reading of The Infrastructural City, mammoth spoke with Kazys Varnelis, editor of that book, about how the infrastructural city and “network culture” are related, what the contents of an imaginary new chapter for The Infrastructural City might be, and the future of architecture in the wake of global economic crisis.

mammoth: For readers who are not familiar with the larger body of your work, we thought we might begin by situating The Infrastructural City within that broader context. Besides editing The Infrastructural City, you’ve also edited two other books (Networked Publics and The Phillip Johnson Tapes), co-authored Blue Mondays with AUDC co-founder Robert Sumrell, and are writing another book, Life after Networks: A Critical History of Network Culture. Our understanding is that you are trained and typically describe yourself as an architectural historian, not an architect, though of course you have taught architecture at schools on both American coasts, as well as overseas. How do the “networked ecologies” that The Infrastructural City describes relate to this larger body of work — particularly your investigations of “network culture” and your training as a historian?

Varnelis: I did receive my primary training as a historian of architecture. Now that training took place within Cornell’s architecture department , as opposed to, say an art history program and I took studio—the sort of ultra-disciplinary, purely formal “Cornell and Cooper” studio that is virtually extinct these days—and worked in an office for a time. But it’s an important distinction to draw. More than virtually any other field, architects generally insist that only individuals trained (or even licensed) as architects are qualified to speak about it. This is endemic to the discipline and detrimental to it. Manfredo Tafuri would say that it forces every argument to be operative; another term for this would be instrumental. If a text doesn’t end with an uplifting little section on how architects can use it in their work, it’s not only damaged, its potentially damaging. That’s a common perception and it is a bad thing for criticism since it reduces it to a subservient role; it’s a bad thing for architects since it suggests that they couldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to think for themselves; finally, it’s a bad thing for architecture since it prevents its deepest assumptions from being called into question.

Some people have expressed confusion about what we were out to do since they wanted it to be a ringing endorsement of a direction. They wanted to see OMA-designed windmills and so on. That would have been a very different project and a very predictable one as well. But that was a misunderstanding. Our intent was to produce a book that would redefine how we understand cities, infrastructure, and Los Angeles. I wanted the book to be relevant decades later, the way that Banham’s Los Angeles: Architecture of Four Ecologies was (although by now, I’m afraid, it’s long since worn out its utility). Superficial readings that aim for endorsements of design decisions won’t work. One has to dig deeper to understand what our point is. Older forms of infrastructure are history: we say that on the back cover. We’re in a different condition in this country: you can tilt at designer windmills all you want, but unless things change radically at a sociopolitical level, they aren’t going to get built. Our current administration is more interested in supporting the ethereal structures of financialization than any sort of building. Let’s get that clear. Republicans will do even worse, unless perhaps, you are a fan of military technology. Either way, the cards are stacked against us. Under the boom, things looked mildly better in Europe, but the EU is unlikely to leave the recession behind anytime soon. The Infrastructural City might be a good guide to the near future of architecture there as well, even if we didn’t anticipate it would be. And please, let’s not chase the dream to China:  demographics are stacked against the Chinese. A decade of growth and they’ll in the same situation as we are, only without any kind of social safety net.

As far as how this book fits into my current work, I have always been much more interested in big picture investigations—the scale of the Annales school or of thinkers like McLuhan, Jameson, and Baudrillard—than in microhistories. Even my dissertation was an affront to accepted notions of what a Ph.D. in the history of architecture should be: I set out to investigate how architecture turned to a spectacularized design methodology in the postwar era (most notably that very “Cornell and Cooper” education that I was taught) and how that synced up with a general aestheticization of politics in the field. When I was doing this kind of work everyone else was focusing on the small scale, on miniaturesque accounts of noble architects toiling somewhere in obscurity.

With regard to the Johnson Tapes, he was a key player in this moment and I’m still fascinated by the postwar era. Modernism had lost its ideological impetus but continued on in its own way, zombie-like, unable to cope with the consequences of an increasingly complex, technological society. When Joan Ockman approached me about editing the Johnson Tapes for the Buell Center, of course I was glad to do it. Columbia’s been great to me and this was an opportunity to do something very direct for the school while also reviving my work on Johnson and late modernism. I think that a critical book on Johnson is necessary: Schulze’s bio is hardly that. And the field of late modernism is still wide open: I’ll be working on Kevin Roche later this year and that will give me the opportunity to revisit that work as well.

For the last decade, I’ve been interested in how cities, society, and culture are transforming at this very moment. It’s not just a matter of how network technology drives forms of inhabitation, it’s how society is changing, partly in response to new technologies  but also actively shaping those technologies in specific ways. With Robert Sumrell, I began exploring these questions both through conceptual design and through theory. AUDC continues to go strong and you’ll see work from us from time to time.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with the Networked Publics team during a year-long residency at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC and, after I came to Columbia, we shaped that material into a book for Doug Sery at MIT Press. We’ve continued asking the question of how the public is changing throughout the spring of this year and are collaborating with Domus and with Joseph Grima on new projects related to the topic throughout the summer and fall.

My big project currently is a book on network culture. This is a theoretical reflection on our own time as an era distinct from postmodernism. I mean, surely we can’t operate with the idea that, a generation after it first came together, postmodernism is still a current theoretical model. The role of technology in everyday life is completely different, for example. It’s become a new dominant, a kind of horizon for our culture that it most emphatically was not back in those days. Meanwhile, financialization has risen to new heights and manufacturing has all but expired in the developed world. I’ve published stretches of the book already and am aiming to have a draft on my Web site by the end of the year. It’s a huge undertaking—and a shifting one—but it’s crucial to leaving behind the notion that analysis has nothing to teach us anymore. Instead of bemoaning our economic condition, let’s celebrate the fact that the unreflective scramble for shoddy work is over.

Let’s start thinking again.

mammoth: It seems to us that The Infrastructural City essentially does two things. First, it is aimed at a better understanding of the infrastructural city. We might call this mapping (in a more generalized sense that the mere production of graphical representations of urban conditions), you refer to “redefin[ing] how we understand” cities. That task clearly constitutes the bulk of the text. Second, it is also, at least occasionally, concerned with the question of how urbanists can operate — can pursue desirable change — in the infrastructural city. As it develops an understanding of the infrastructural city, it shows why the traditional tools of the urbanist (first and foremost, the plan) have become increasingly ineffectual, and argues that we need, in response, to develop new tools. Later, we’d like to return to this second concern, to suggestions about what might replace those traditional tools, because we think The Infrastructural City contains some valuable hints about those tools — such as your discussion of a “command line” architecture in “Invisible City”, or Roger Sherman’s argument for an architecture that interacts directly with property, risk, and the informal transactions that produce the form of the city. First, though, a question that relates to the task of understanding the infrastructural city, as well as the “different conditions” you allude to.

In the two years since the publication of The Infrastructural City, we’ve seen several major social and political events that are affecting the city and its infrastructures. First and foremost amongst these is the global economic decline. Prognostications for the future of that decline vary wildly, but it is indisputable that the bubble conditions in which the latest layer of growth in the infrastructural city was laid down — the cell networks, the vast ex-urban speculations, the “return-to-the-city” condominiums — have ended, and been replaced by economic uncertainty. (Though we doubt anyone would accuse you of having failed to anticipate this decline, it is one thing to anticipate it, and perhaps another to watch it play out.) One might also add to this the major political swing that you’ve just noted, from Bush to Obama, which corresponded to a fairly broad hope (amongst urbanists, at least) that infrastructure would have its day in the sun of federal funding, and the disillusionment that has followed as what infrastructural funding has been forthcoming has been largely concentrated on (admittedly needed) road repairs and (unnecessary) rural highway expansions, both prized for their ‘shovel-ready’ quality. Meanwhile, technological changes — and corresponding societal shifts in the use of technology — have continued. As Lane Barden anticipates in the text, the Nokia phone featured on an ad cascading down the side of an office tower in one of his photographs now looks virtually antiquarian, so distant is it in form and function from the smart phones which increasingly dominate the cellular market. And their adoption is not strictly limited to the wealthier technophiles one might expect. The Census Bureau, for instance, recently found that one of the most effective ways to reach impoverished Hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles is through downloadable apps and content.

Given these events, it seems quite possible to us that your reading of the infrastructural city has shifted in those two years. Is that true? How might you map the infrastructural city differently today? One way to think about this might be: is there a chapter that you would include in a 2011 edition of The Infrastructural City that you didn’t include in 2008?

Varnelis: I’ve thought a lot about what the new chapter would be. I think that the book holds out a bit more hope than the current situation really warrants and I needed to be more precise about the problems we face.

So many people today hold out this idea that technology is our horizon: anything that goes wrong, it seems, technology can fix. Design, in this sense, is technology’s right-hand. All of the pseudo-academics and critics who praised the “creative city” and the Bilbao-effect suggest that design can get us past any problems. Is your city a post-apocalyptic rust belt? Well, some clever design, say via a Muji Store and a couple of design museums, will solve the problems. Or heck, embrace the favela chic and just re-brand it as the Rome of the Rust Belt.

A new chapter would analyze how we got where we are and the impossibility of achieving the kind of change that we need through design. Specifically, this chapter would be on how the problems of complexity, over-accumulation, and diminishing returns in our society block the older idea of infrastructure as a form of commons.

There’s little question that over-accumulation produced both the boom and the crash (just why this is a mystery to so many economists is beyond me). We’ve seen, to put it in the simple terms that This American Life used, the growth of a giant pool of money that business has accumulated since the start of capitalism. It took centuries for the well-off and even relatively well-off to accumulate $35 trillion of investment money worldwide, but in the six years between 2000 and 2006 that giant pool of money doubled. All of these investors with all of this money wanted high returns; they looked at the performance of market indices like the Dow and saw unprecedented rates of profit (in the case of the Dow from 891 in 1980 to over 11,000 in 2000), considerably more than the historical rate of return from manufacturing (which historically speaking has been roughly 8%). After all, many of them had accumulated their money that way so why not expect the good times to continue? And of course rates of taxation that also were historically low helped all of this. The theory went that as long as tax rates were low, the economy would boom and the resulting growth would generate even more revenues than if taxes were at a higher, sustainable level. This was a great idea except that it was a little akin to taking speed to get you through a project: surely if it improves your stamina tenfold, it’s got to be good for you, right? Well, eventually your teeth will fall out, but if you keep at it you can always get out, right? Collectively, investors in the developed countries ceased investing in production and instead turned more and more to complex financial instruments that could produce high rates of return, even if these were based on  bubble economics. Manufacturing’s been gutted in places like the US or the UK. In our case, in 1980 manufacturing was about 25% of the GDP while financial services were about 12%. By the end of the bubble in 2006, manufacturing was down to 12% while finance had soared to over 20%. I hate to say that things have gotten worse since, but they have.

Again as far as “solutions” go, the case of China is a special one: capitalists are investing in an area with tremendous inequalities and inefficiencies and able to reap huge rewards from low wages and massive productivity gains. That’s how you can make good money on a $40 DVD player that cost a dollar or two to produce. But that won’t last forever.

And then there’s housing. Architects were eager to participate in that boom and it was quite stomach-turning to see them plunge headlong into a mad system. And housing did well, for a time, returning the necessary rates of investment, but again, it was based on something from nothing. Even now, in so many places—including the countries that I know well, the US, UK, Lithuania and Ireland—the bubble still has some 20 to 40% to fall to return to reasonable rates based on long-established historical relationships of what kind of real estate wages can support. Architecture became virtual in the last decade, but it did so in “luxury” housing, not in cyberspace. Moreover, just how economies that have no more real industrial base are supposed to produce the wages to pay for this inflated real estate is beyond me.

I mentioned it in my introduction to the book, but now I’d be more emphatic about the role of neoliberal economy policy in all this. Low taxes means little investment in infrastructure. Railroads are literally falling apart. Gutted by underinvestment, average train speeds have been declining for years. Refineries and the electric grid are stressed to a breaking point as deregulated industry avoids tying up capital in rapidly-depreciating physical things whenever possible. So it’s no surprise that, when Obama picked Larry Summers to come up with an economic policy for him, the former Harvard President who once said that women weren’t smart enough to be scientists or engineers chose bailing out financial services and handing out stimulus checks to consumers instead of investing in infrastructure.

That’s the reality we’re up against and the Zaha Hadid-designed windmills that critics are upset with me for not going ga-ga over are little more than Potemkin Villages masking a world continually collapsing.

The economy is infrastructure. I should have been more clear about that.

I also think it would have been helpful to talk about complexity in the way that Joseph Tainter discusses it, yoking it to the framework that I’ve developed above. We’ve become so incredibly adept at routing around our problems that a topological map of our world—if it were possible—would be something like a map of the infrastructure in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. So to keep this increasingly convoluted and highly bureaucratized system going, we have produced intense levels of complexity that require greater and greater amounts of energy to keep going. This energy is quite literal and we’re seeing diminishing marginal returns on energy invested even as peak oil looms (and of course oil is our major source of energy). At a certain point, the system becomes unsustainable and the result is collapse, which Tainter defines as a greatly diminished level of complexity. Tainter suggests that the way out is innovation, by which he means technological innovation although I think that the financial innovations that I described earlier are similar. The problem is that these systems are unsustainable in a fundamental deep way. The Infrastructural City isn’t just a condition, it’s a bellwether for a long-term culture of crisis.

In that light, although I’m tremendously sympathetic to projects like Roger Sherman’s game theory urbanism as a way of operating within such highly complex environments, the lack of a larger approach within the book suggests the lack of a larger solution within design per se. Rick Miller and Ted Kane’s piece is brilliant in its unpacking of the problems that “light,” privatized infrastructure produce in cities. It’s not so much a question of AT&T not extending its coverage enough, it’s a question of how mobile phone companies lead cities to conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs. That’s not an appropriate role for cities: what happened to ideas of the Commons? That’s a failure point for the imagination and redevelopment of infrastructure today. Other pieces are like Calvino stories, unmasking the unsustainability that underlies the infrastructural city: a town that excavates itself turning into a series of giant holes, a river that will disappear if its restored to its natural state, the re-watering of a desert lake, and so on. The book’s value in my mind—and what I am trying to do through my current writing—is to make people go out and uncover the deep madness underlying our society. People talk about the irrelevance of academics. Maybe that’s because we got too busy talking about obscure theory and weren’t willing to focus on the deeper issues that, frankly, it was our duty to take on.

mammoth: How peculiarly American are these problems? While financial upheaval is clearly a globalized and interconnected phenomenon, one gets the impression that, as a political and cultural matter, the “idea of the Commons” remains relatively healthy in, say, continental western Europe. And that perhaps corresponding advantages accrue to design culture: there is a greater quantity (and quality) of public work to be done, critical infrastructures are more likely to be designed by public teams which include architects and landscape architects (rather than by private corporations). There, the odd, ad-hoc semi-publics that control American local, urban politics — NIMBYist neighborhood associations, our individualist distrust of the very idea of expertise, etc. — do not appear to have such a stranglehold on planning processes. Or, for that matter, even with all the governmental dysfunction and systemic poverty, the situation seems less deadlocked in South America, where young designers are thriving, backed by governments, institutions, and individual leaders who are arguing for the importance of a commons, and, critically, backing that argument up with targeted spending. We’re thinking, for instance, of the celebrated case of Medellin, where architecture has been treated as social and economic infrastructure.

Varnelis: These problems aren’t just American. We’re dealing with global problems endemic to an aging capitalism. The idea of the commons is certainly more popular on the continent, but if you listen to the response to the economic crisis there, it’s that this is the end of the European welfare state. In other words, the crisis will make Europe is going to be more like the US/UK/Ireland, not less. I hate to say anything bad about the unions in a country where unions are all but dead, but unions were part of the problem in the US and are a bigger part of the problem in Europe. Rather than working to build a more just system across the board, unions have instead turned to protecting entrenched membership. This is a major problem in America, whether it be the collapse of NASA or the collapse of cities and its increasingly the problem in Europe too. Watch for a European PATCO crisis soon. Don’t expect much building anytime soon, unless it’s done with funny money.

Now when we look at Medellin, certainly there’s a lot to applaud. But you’re also looking at a condition where capital has moved to a place that has been underproductive for too long. There’s no question that it’s easier to do more in places that are growing.

mammoth: You mention that the loss of the “idea of the Commons [is] a failure point for the imagination and redevelopment of infrastructure today.” But here in America, has there ever been a strong culture of the idea of the Commons guiding the development of infrastructure? Certainly, there have been select examples — Eisenhower’s freeways — but many of the infrastructures that have been most influential in the development of our cities, such as Los Angeles’ own streetcar networks and New York City’s subway, were privately funded and planned. Should architects be working to reclaim (or construct) the idea of the commons? Or do we — architects, landscape architects, designers, urbanists, who all presumably hold out some hope of remaining relevant to the future of the American city — need to find ways, like Sherman’s approach, to design around the absence of the commons? Or perhaps this pair of questions sets up a false dichotomy, and the way to continue working while not ignoring the “deeper issues” is to hold seemingly Sisyphean tasks like reclaiming the idea of the commons in tension with flexible and approaches which are aimed at small, tactical acts of productive architecture?

Varnelis: Let’s be careful about one thing: neoliberalism—coupled with Ameriphobia overseas—has been highly effective at depicting this idea of the US as having always been the same. There’s been a radical rewriting of history to make it seem like the frontier myth is all there is. There’s always been a back and forth and many of those infrastructures were turned public rather rapidly only to see much greater success. Often, of course this has been in service of real estate, as the case of the LADWP  shows too clearly.

As far as design: I agree with you. Architects have been too enthralled by neoliberalism for too long, e.g. public/private partnerships (don’t even get me started: bad loans for bad private projects are a major source of fiscal crisis in cities today), the market, etc. We need to advocated for policy change, toward greater shared resources. I think it’s obvious to anyone that the current political and economic system is massively dysfunctional and will come to an end. Just when, none of us know. Will it be replaced by a happy form of fascism? Just possibly. Architects need to advocate for positive political change, but as they do so, they’re going to need to find a way to make do and, in general, it is going to be tactics like Roger’s that are going to make a difference on an individual level.

mammoth: A consistent argument mammoth makes is that the value of architecture and architects lies in much more than just the design of buildings. Which is not at all to say that we find buildings uninteresting or unimportant, but rather that architecture as a discipline ought to think of itself more as a way of thinking than as a discipline that — like, say, structural engineering — is primarily concerned with developing a unique kind of technical expertise and defending that ‘turf’ from the encroachment of other disciplines.

You make a similar comment in a recent interview published in Triple Canopy, saying that “architecture doesn’t teach you how to regurgitate knowledge, rather it teaches you how to deal with problems. Architecture has always been about much more than just building buildings”.

This is a particularly relevant position, we think, in a climate where “building buildings” is, as you note, something we should expect to see relatively much less of. (Kenneth Frampton, writing in Steven Holl’s new monograph Urbanisms, notes that Holl literally had to go to China to find the regulatory and financial freedom to build the sort of “megaforms” that he had been drawing. Setting aside whether those buildings are necessary or not, it seems an instructive lesson in the difficulty of realizing what might traditionally be considered ‘significant’ architecture.)

Do you think, though, that architecture schools are really producing architects who are prepared to be thinkers rather than technicians?

Varnelis: Absolutely. The longstanding recession that started in the early 1970s and lasted until the mid-1990s led many architects to investigate radically different methods of production. Unfortunately, the building boom led the field astray, back into a disciplinarity of the most conservative kind just at the same time as it egged them on to build pretty much the worst buildings since the mid-nineteenth century. It was a colossal failure of a decade, a model of everything we shouldn’t have done. “Make it new!” So few of us were asking why, why should we make it new? Even fewer were asking why make it at all. Education, which could have paved the way for a new century of architecture, has been devastated. Most schools have either retrenched into a nostalgia for the hand or a fetish for parametric fantasies. Doesn’t anybody think about how these people will be employed?

But this is the reason that I’m at Columbia. Dean Wigley set out to create what he calls the “expanded architect,” building a school in which you get an architectural education, but you also employ the methods you learn in nontraditional venues. It’s a big enough school to easily accommodate such efforts.  The sort of work that the Spatial Information Design Lab, or C-Lab, or the Netlab is doing is, generally speaking, unlike what’s produced in architecture schools or in the typical office, but it’s essential for pushing the boundaries in the field. I’m optimistic that other schools will follow our lead to do the same in the future. Imagine what sort of students you might produce if a school decided it wasn’t necessary to deal with the accreditors anymore. People have been asking why teach history and theory. Well, why teach structures or professional practice? Maybe not everyone needs these classes. I think it’s a radical experiment that’s well worth pushing.

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risk Sat, 17 Jul 2010 18:07:47 +0000 These are chapters eight and nine of The Infrastructural City; if you’re not familiar with the series, you can start here and catch up here.

Thinking about the new urban landscape and public space and wondering where to start, I suddenly remember how, as a boy, I built my first crystal receiver […] You would put the headphones on, turn the potentiometer and you could hear all kinds of more-or-less vague noises from different radio stations. They would become clearer and then fade away again. This produced a mysterious effect and it suggested that the sources were far away. The most stunning aspect of the experience was that “they” had always been there and that “they” had been there simultaneously. There were so many of “them” that the crystal receiver worked best at night, when most of the stations were off the air. In the dark, intimate space under my blankets I would scan the air. It made clear that public radio, public space was everywhere, and that you just had to plug in.

Bart Lootsma, “The New Landscape” from Mutations

This space has gotten a little more complicated since Bart Lootsma’s childhood. The multivariate public commons composed of broadband spectra has become increasingly contested, mirroring an evolving bureaucratic complexity in contemporary cities. Much of The Infrastructural City up to these chapters has mapped the development of this complexity, tracing how the humble beginnings of roads, gravel pits, and aqueducts gave rise to the Los Angeles we know today. By confronting infrastructures initiated early in the city’s history the text investigates the interdependence among (variously) the urban landscape, city politics and culture, and the infrastructures themselves. These two chapters – Roger Sherman’s Count(ing) on Change, and Ted Kane and Rick Miller’s Cell Structure – represent a slight shift in focus, presenting us with a set of infrastructures wholly developed recently, in a more congested urban sociopolitical landscape.

Before we go any further, I’d like to second FALSANYC in noting that Cell Structure‘s implication that private development of infrastructure is a new demon, ignores history:

In fact many of our great urban and regional infrastructures have begun as private ventures. The railroads were originally private enterprises, the New York City subway/interborough rapid transit system was privately funded, and the electric grid in much of the northeastern US is under the auspices of the private-but-heavily regulated Con Edison. But we live in a decade when all design writing is hyperbolic [gentle tease: note the irony here] and rather than building on the past, seeks to break with it and launch the world into the future based solely on the brilliance of this or that practitioner/theorist.

This is not to imply Cell Structure is incorrect arguing that the private development model which created the cellular networks is without shortcomings, or in need of comparison to public infrastructural endeavors. But the strict public versus private dichotomy is an oversimplification. The grey area between ‘public’ and ‘private’ is magnified from both sides: by cities which behave like businesses; and by heavily regulated yet privately held companies (like the example of Con Edison above), as beholden to the public who vote in their regulators as they are the shareholders who vote on their board. I don’t mean to contend that the difference between public and private is unimportant, just that it masks a more important distinction brought to light by Cell Structure, which is development for constituencies vs development for markets.

Historically, infrastructural developments [by federal, state and regional interests] reacted to the urban needs of both private and public constituencies, addressed localized real estate interestes, responded to the need for commercial links between disparate communities, and implemented cold war defense logistics [….] Private infrastructure flourishes in [a] vacuum of myopic jurisdictions, taking advantage of gaps in oversight to create new, private realms unburdened by the equal access that has historically been the obligation of utilities operating in the public realm.

We learn public infrastructure projects are usually beholden to the demand of constituents (voters, special interest groups, chambers of commerce, etc). This generally leads to comprehensive (‘fair’) coverage, yet often inefficient or unreliable operation, as there isn’t much redundancy built into the system because its goal is to cover the most possible constituents at the lowest cost. In contrast, privately developed infrastructures are virtually always in response to market demand (though they may transition to constituent control at some point in their future). Competition among providers will often result in redundant, more reliable networks (as seen in the layout of New York’s subway system, and the overlapping cellular networks in Los Angeles), but access can spread more slowly, with increased coverage occurring in sync with profitability.

These results are more obviously rational when correlated with the milieu of risks and incentives faced by responders to constituent demand and/or market demand. Because competing telecommunications companies could control the size and location of their infrastructural investment (tailoring it to certain markets), numerous players fought over the same lucrative market population, leading to redundancy for that market, and gaps elsewhere in the city. Limiting size and scope of investment to the most promising markets was a risk management strategy, and creating cell phone towers which execute a singular function with a high degree of efficiency wasn’t a risky approach to infrastructural development.

In contrast, the property developers, land owners, and various other invested parties catalogued by Roger Sherman in Count(ing) on Change don’t have this same flexibility – the location and population they have to work with is fixed. Because of this, they managed risk while maximizing their ability to earn incentives by capitalizing on their rights and engaging in negotiated deals which engendered many possible scenarios for success. They made due with what they had, with what was around them:

In the northeastern corner of Hollywood, for instance, a property has been assembled out of three lots to construct a virtual urban ecosystem. It is “habitat” to four entities: two by right (a car wash and a juice bar), and two by adjacency (an apartment building and a public right-of-way). Though each use attracts a different audience, the structures and territories they occupy connect to one another spatially in a way that at the same time articulates their socioeconomic interdependency.

One of four couplings among the above stakeholders was the de-facto transition of a wedge-shaped piece of Hollymont Car Wash’s property into an addition to the public right-of-way:

Why would the owner of the wash willingly cede a portion of his own property? Simply put, the car wash, realizing that it could not use that odd sliver of land for its operation, recognized the value it possessed as a tool with which to construct a “clean” public image for itself. That the wash also uses its grey water to irrigate this landscape further underlines their awareness of the collateral benefits that could accrue to them through a seeming unselfish gesture.

Sherman’s excellent chapter (subsequently expanded into a book, which just arrived at mammoth HQ yesterday) describes three more increasingly-complex negotiated urbanisms-in-microcosm, arguing that game theory (far more than any masterplan) is the true protocol by which our cities persist.

The field of Game Theory, which studies the dynamics of negotiation, lays out similar bargaining strategies players (in the case of the city, these include property owners, neighbors, merchants, city agencies, etc.) use as they cross their own political and economic objectives with a finite set of available options. […] Even if never precisely predictable, the endgame is nearly always the same: to settle upon an equilibrium enforced by each player’s self-interest. More than any other single logic, it is the nature of how this inevitable quid pro quo, or tradeoff is settled that offers the greatest potential as a productive instigator of change-by-design: where design is nothing less that a strategy of both staging and creatively working out the causal relationships that comprise the city-as-ecosystem, and in so doing not only makes evident but actually constitutes the tie that binds the system

Of course, to be able to confidently engage with cities at this level requires the ability to accurately estimate risk and reward – capital, political, social, etc. – not only as applies to one’s own interests, but also to persuade other invested parties. It’s intriguing to hypothesize about what would happen if this model of risk management – one which maximizes paths toward success instead of developing one model and limiting it to the most promising markets – was applied to privately developed infrastructures, like Los Angeles’ telecommunications networks. But then we remember that surely, it already is, and the results just aren’t always what we had hoped for. Whether this is because developments at that scale simply aren’t nimble enough to engage at the level of the examples Sherman describes, or because they have made attempts but found the incentives insufficient, I don’t know – but occasionally, the negotiations are successful, as demonstrated by the multiple projects in Count(ing) on Change which engage oil drilling companies, the Department of Water and Power, and LA Department of Building and Safety.

[I scarcely knew where to begin writing this post. There is so much more going on in these chapters that I barely touched on: the use of embodied urbanism urbanism techniques (to borrow the term from Free Association Design), sometimes accidentally or serendipitously, which instead of legal or financial agreements is the bond of many of these agreements; the notion that some infrastructural networks (like cell phone towers) are useful from a very early stage, while others (like subways) require a greater critical mass, and the impact this has on developing new type of infrastructure in the city; the expanding role of private developers creating public infrastructure (check out this law which Arizona just passed, for example). I’m sure we’ll find plenty to talk about during the extra week we gave ourselves.]

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infrastructure construction as jobs stimulus Sun, 14 Mar 2010 02:39:55 +0000

Free Exchange posted this chart emphasizing the challenge long-term unemployment poses in this recession. It seems to indicate that construction-based stimulus could be especially effective in reducing such unemployment, furthering the case for a stimulus program emphasizing the construction and repair of infrastructure.

But there’s just not that much room to cut unemployment by putting the short-term unemployed back to work in this latest recession. Only six percentage points of unemployment are attributable to those out of work less than six months. To get the unemployment rate down below, say, 7%, you have to take a big chunk out of long-term unemployment.

And that means putting back to work a lot of relatively low-skilled workers who were previously employed in construction, in manufacturing, and in retail and service industries. In an economic climate in which construction and personal consumption are likely to contribute very little to output growth for the next few years.

That’s a tall order. Not since the Depression has the American economy had to pull off anything like it.

Beyond the benefits which accrue to regions and economies from an infrastructure’s performance, their construction is an effective form of stimulus; during this recession, it would target a portion of the workforce having an especially difficult time finding jobs.

productivity signaling and size borrowing Sun, 07 Mar 2010 20:54:19 +0000 Ryan Avent, who maintains the indispensable blog The Bellows, is one of my favorite writers on economics and urbanism. He recently drew attention to two interesting papers which are related to his response to an article in the the American Prospect by Alec MacGillis which was critical of Richard Florida (which mammoth previously highlighted). Avent contends that the competition among cities for highly productive workers is inevitably and partially zero-sum, because these workers will tend to aggregate:

That tautology [referencing the American Prospect article: “Creative people seek out places that draw a lot of creative people.” – SB] doesn’t just lie at the heart of Florida’s theory; it describes the actual functioning of urban economies. The value in economically dynamic cities is the people that populate them. Where once, firms would pay high land prices to be near coal deposits or harbors, based on the economic advantages those amenities conferred, they now pay high land prices to be near talent. This yen to concentrate in particular areas has a number of dynamics. Firms want to be near customers and clients. Workers want to be near firms. Firms want to be near workers. Where there are lots of firms and workers, there will also be businesses serving those workers — in business and in the provision of consumption opportunities — and those services attract additional firms and workers. Everyone wants to be where everyone is, and it’s tough for anyone to go somewhere else because somewhere else is where people aren’t.

The result is an urban geography that’s very lumpy. People clump together, because there are gains to doing so.

Recently, Avent highlighted a paper which puts some academic muscle behind this point by identifying one of the signaling mechanisms behind this aggregation (more simply – how do highly productive workers know where to clump?). The abstract reads:

Agglomeration can be caused by asymmetric information and a locational signaling effect: The location choice of workers signals their productivity to potential employers. The cost of a signal is the cost of housing at a location. When workers’ price elasticity of demand for housing is negatively correlated with their productivity, skill-biased technological change causes a core-periphery bifurcation where the agglomeration of high-skill workers eventually constitutes a unique stable equilibrium. When workers’ price elasticity of demand for housing and their productivity are positively correlated, skill-biased technological improvements will never result in a core periphery equilibrium. This paper claims that location can at best be an approximate rather than a precise sieve for high-skill workers. [hyperlinks added – SB]

High housing prices in cities may act as a signaling mechanism to businesses about worker productivity in those areas.   Workers who 1) purchase higher priced housing expect themselves to be able to earn the money to pay their mortgage or rent, and 2) are responding to the externalities present in that area which they believe assists their productivity.  In the above argument, the tautology presented is that creative class workers are both those who are signaling and the externality which causes the signaling.  It’s plausible that high housing prices aren’t just indicative of a quality workforce to employers, but also to other workers; and the fact that workers are willing to pay a premium for housing is demonstrative of the value they see in ‘lumpy’ portions of the urban geography.

We can see the paradox implied for cities on the outside of this feedback loop looking in – their relative lack of creative class competitiveness should be offset by increased affordability, yet instead of making the cities more attractive, it only serves to reinforce the perceived shortfalls of the city!  Avent proposes a number of federal and local policies for shrinking cities (investment in education, investment in infrastructure, “aid” to ameliorate problems resulting from decline) that I find a whole lot more compelling than those espoused by Florida, whose prescriptions are not as incisive as his diagnosis – they seem to be designed as products easily re-sold to cities who are looking for a silver bullet, instead of measured responses to challenging conditions.

The second paper Avent highlights argues that small cities in a region can ‘borrow’ size from one another, allowing them to approach some of the benefits of density seen in larger urban regions while reducing some of the disadvantages.  From the abstract:

Recent concepts [such] as megaregions and polycentric urban regions emphasize that external economies are not confined to a single urban core, but shared among a collection of close-by and linked cities. However, empirical analyses of agglomeration and agglomeration externalities so-far neglects the multicentric spatial organization of agglomeration and the possibility of ‘sharing’ or ‘borrowing’ of size between cities. This paper takes up this empirical challenge by analyzing how different spatial structures, in particular the monocentricity – polycentricity dimension, affect the economic performance of U.S. metropolitan areas. OLS and 2SLS models explaining labor productivity show that spatial structure matters. Polycentricity is associated with higher labor productivity. This appears to justify suggestions that, compared to relatively monocentric metropolitan areas, agglomeration diseconomies remain relatively limited in the more polycentric metropolitan areas, while agglomeration externalities are indeed to some extent shared among the cities in such an area. However, it was also found that a network of geographically proximate smaller cities cannot provide a substitute for the urbanization externalities of a single large city.

Linking up all our shrinking cities probably isn’t the answer – we need to be judicious with how public money is reinvested into cities, looking not only at propping up flailing urban centers but also at how the money can be spent most cost-effectively, with the greatest net benefit to the economy as a whole. However, it’s clear that there are economic benefits to tight regional networking, and that strategies emphasizing investment in telecommunications and transportation are worth evaluating as we grapple with a changing economic and urban landscape in the United States.

[Link to paper 1, link to paper 2. Avent also writes for The Economist’s Free Exchange blog]

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the best architecture of the decade Mon, 25 Jan 2010 18:06:41 +0000
[The Large Hadron Collider]

The end of a decade inspires a lot of list compiling; in that spirit, mammoth offers an alternative list of the best architecture of the decade, concocted without any claim to authority and surely missing some fascinating architecture.   But we hope that at least it’s not boring, as this was an exciting decade for architecture, despite the crashing, the burning, and the erupting into flames.

The unfortunate thing about year-end lists is that they often devolve into self-congratulatory displays of one’s good taste.  With that in mind, allow us to state at the outset that the purpose of this list is not to preen the superiority of our taste (we’re well aware that the critics who pen those boring lists have visited far more of the relevant architecture constructed this decade than we have), but rather to share a handful of the reasons that we’re genuinely excited about the future of architecture, and to hopefully engender a bit of that excitement in a reader or two.  To that end, the items on this list have been selected to represent some of the most hopeful trends which impinge upon the territory of architecture (and, occasionally, landscape architecture, as the constant and intentional conflation of the two disciplines which is a mammoth trademark continues).  You’ll discover that our criticism of boring lists consists primarily in their being confined to (a) buildings and (b) things built by architects, though our list includes both buildings and things built by architects.

In fact, “favorite” might be a better way to describe this list than “best”, but we’ve stuck with “best” because it’s more fun, as you can’t argue about “favorites”.  With those disclaimers out of the way (and hopefully conveniently forgotten), in no particular order, mammoth‘s best architecture of the decade:

[Image of the reverse osmosis cylinders, which remove “viruses, salts, pesticides and most organic chemicals” from water being treated by Orange County’s wastewater reclamation plant, via Wired’s photo gallery]

With apologies to Matt Jones, whose piece for io9, “The City is a Battlesuit for Surviving the Future”, spawned great conversation last year, you might say that the Groundwater Replenishment System is a small step towards a new way of thinking about urban hydrology: the city is a stillsuit for surviving the drought.  Intended to halt the traditional mass flush of urban effluent and wastewater into the ocean, Orange County’s latest addition to its wastewater infrastructure is “the world’s largest, most modern reclamation plant”, capable of turning “70 million gallons of treated sewage into drinking water every day”, according to the LA Times.

This capability, a staggeringly futuristic feat of engineering and technology, has unfortunately been derided as “toilet-to-tap” by opponents of wastewater reclamation, who fear the contamination of drinking water supplies.  As a result of this short-sighted political opposition, the plant’s treated water is injected into the bedrock beneath the county, counteracting saltwater intrusion and replenishing underground reservoirs, rather than forming a closed loop of water use and reuse, but the potential for that closed loop is there, and there’s no doubt that the closing of water use loops will become an increasingly central infrastructural tactic for municipalities and governments facing decreased water supplies and rainfall in the coming decade.  Closed water loops may even become as integral and expected a part of architecture as air conditioning is today (as a recent article in Landscape Architecture said, in what I thought was an unexpectedly beautiful phrase: “buildings are the new aquifers”); until then, we have the Groundwater Replenishment System.

Watch an eight-minute explanation of the function and purpose of the GWR System from the Orange County Water District, or scan the Orange County Water District’s headquarters in Fountain Valley on google maps; read a short overview of global efforts to utilize recycled sewage, at National Geographic.


[images of the LHC and CERN via Wired Science]

This recent Vanity Fair feature provides a succinct overview of the reasons that the LHC was the first and most obvious candidate for this list:

The L.H.C., which operates under the auspices of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, cern, is an almost unimaginably long-term project. It was conceived a quarter-century ago, was given the green light in 1994, and has been under construction for the last 13 years, the product of tens of millions of man-hours. It’s also gargantuan: a circular tunnel 17 miles around, punctuated by shopping-mall-size subterranean caverns and fitted out with more than $9 billion worth of steel and pipe and cable more reminiscent of Jules Verne than Steve Jobs.

The believe-it-or-not superlatives are so extreme and Tom Swiftian they make you smile. The L.H.C. is not merely the world’s largest particle accelerator but the largest machine ever built. At the center of just one of the four main experimental stations installed around its circumference, and not even the biggest of the four, is a magnet that generates a magnetic field 100,000 times as strong as Earth’s. And because the super-conducting, super-colliding guts of the collider must be cooled by 120 tons of liquid helium, inside the machine it’s one degree colder than outer space, thus making the L.H.C. the coldest place in the universe.

The Large Hadron Collider is an excellent example of a theme that runs through this list, ably described by BDLGBLOG‘s Geoff Manaugh in his book (and quoted here with apologies to dpr-barcelona, who I borrowed the use of this quote from):

“Architecture schools and publications today seem almost desperate for a new avant-garde –even for a “new Archigram”– but they seem only to be looking within the field of architecture to find it. For the sake of argument, let’s say that BP, with its offshore oil rigs, or the U.S. military, with its rapidly deployed instant cities, or private space tourism firms are the new Archigram. They, too, are experimenting with spatial technologies and structures. Is it possible that the “new Archigram” won’t involve architects at all –but will be, say, rogue engineers from the construction wing of an international oil-services firm?”

As we see it, the LHC falls easily into the long tradition of Architecture without Architects, but with scientists, engineers, and miners standing in for, say, traditional Saharan construction technologies and the vernacular architecture of the Mediterranean coasts; instead of timeless ways of building, a building that may have altered time itself.

Various blog coverage of the Large Hadron Collider of note includes Pruned’s post on the descent of the last of the LHC’s more than seventeen hundred magnets into the subterranean complex, BLDGBLOG’s speculations generated by the necessity of freezing an underground river in place in order to construct the complex, and the Large Hadron Collider tag in Wired Science‘s archives, which covers the birth and life of the LHC in exhaustive detail.


[images via SEED magazine slideshow]

A doomsday vault for when it all goes terribly, terribly wrong? Well, yes, but that’s not all the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is.  Located in the Norwegian village of Longyearbyen, one of the world’s northernmost towns, the vault is a bank dedicated to the preservation of variety and dynamism, itself a seed for the regeneration of complexity in ecosystems.  Ironically, given that mission, everything about the structure strives toward stasis: political and geographic locale; ownership and maintenance of the seeds; interior and exterior climate conditions; technology and construction.  Like the LHC, Svalbard’s Seed Vault is sublime because of purpose and engineering, not aesthetic or theoretical vision — though the structure, again like the LHC, does not lack in aesthetic wonder.

Norway owns the Vault, but not the seeds it contains.  The majority are varietals of staple crops from around the globe, sent by local seed banks across the globe to take advantage of the Vault’s offer of free storage.    Unlike these local banks, the Vault is not meant for regular access.  These seeds will only be reclaimed in situations of dire need.  But those situations are not post-apocalyptic scenarios in which survivors begin a trek to Svalbard to salvage seeds, as rebuilding after catastrophic collapse, while perhaps a romantic scenario, is not the primary disaster which SGSV guards against.  Rather, the Vault stands as a bulwark against the creeping (and probably inevitable) extinction of various crop strains and their valuable genetic data – perhaps even before we have had time to examine their potential.

Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, identifies Svalbard’s mission in an interview with C-Lab in Volume 17, “Content Management”.  He describes a crop called ‘Lathyrus,’ or Grass Pea, which is easy to grow, requires little water and fertilizer, and could “easily be the only crop you need to provide food for yourself and your family.”  However, it is also toxic, and if you eat enough to ward off starvation, you have also eaten enough to paralyze yourself:

It’s an awful choice that the most unfortunate people on earth have, which is to starve to death or become paralyzed. That is where I think the seed vault comes in. Within this crop there is a fair amount of diversity, and some varieties have less toxin than others. We use the collections to breed new varieties that have all the great qualities I just mentioned without the bad quality. If we can do that, we can provide the poorest people on earth with a great insurance policy. In a sense, I know the attraction of the doomsday vault is doomsday, but I really see the whole see vault as something remarkable and positive


[Image from Urban Omnibus’s write-up on the “Museum of the Phantom City”, a fantastic iPhone application which lets the phone owner navigate the history of architectural proposals for the (paleo-)future of Manhattan as an extension of their experience of the physical city]

Much has already been written about the iPhone as an extension of both city life and architecture, by persons with better understanding of both the technology and its import, but we’d be extremely remiss if we failed to include a device with the capacity to so thoroughly transform the urban experience.  Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of that transformation is the capacity of the smart or ‘app’ phone to serve as a window into additional layers of data on the city — often described as ‘augmented reality’ — while tying smart phone users into the network that maintains those layers of data.  Smart phone users are not merely passive observers of the augmentation of the physical infrastructure of the city by networked data, but participate in the active construction of that data.

The interface between place and network appears likely to grow stronger, as the linking of network participation with location which first gained mass effect through the iPhone is strengthened and deepened by hardware and software advances, such as hyper-local trending topics on twitter, google goggles, wikitude, collective memory models, and the tools being developed by MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group.  Public utilities can utilize the collective intelligence of a city’s citizens to detect system malfunctions; citizens can develop tools to gather reports of failure within the urban system, collate those failures geographically, and pressure government to react using the collected data.  And as the network becomes increasingly tactile, immediate, and geographically relevant, it can be expected to develop more direct interfaces with buildings.

If you doubt that the iPhone is appropriately considered an act of architecture, we suggest considering the argument discussed our recent post object fixations: urban systems are “defined most fundamentally not by structure and infrastructure, but by practice, action, and thought-process”; what act has more signficantly altered the practices and thought-processes of urbanites in the past ten years than the mass distribution of smart phones?


[images via Elemental]

Quinta Monroy is a center-city neighborhood of Iquique, a city of about a quarter million lying in northern Chile between the Pacific Ocean and the Atacama Desert.  Elemental’s Quinta Monroy housing project settles a hundred families on a five thousand square meter site where they had persisted as squatters for three decades.  The residences designed by Elemental offer former squatters the rare opportunity to live in subsidized housing without being displaced from the land they had called their home, provides an appreciating asset which can improve their family finances, and serves as a flexible infrastructure for the self-constructed expansion of the homes.

The first challenge that Elemental faced was a strict budgetary limit of $7500 (USD), the standard Chilean per-family housing subsidy.  This subsidy would have to purchase the land, architecture, and infrastructure of the development, yet is only enough — at market-rate construction costs in Chile — to buy thirty square meters (322 square feet) of built space on such a center-city site.  Because of this, social housing in Chile tends to be produced as outlying sprawl, where land can be bought more cheaply, allowing a greater percentage of the subsidy to be devoted to the architecture.  Unfortunately, for reasons that are not fully elucidated in Elemental’s project description (though I am led to believe those reasons are the low value of the land social housing is usually built on and the low quality of the construction), social housing in Chile tends to depreciate in value, rather than appreciate, further miring families in poverty, as the housing subsidy is the largest single sum of aid that most impoverished families will receive from the Chilean government.  If that movement could be altered — if the housing could be designed so that it appreciates rather than depreciates — it might be the difference between long-term poverty and a gradual climb towards sustainable familial self-sufficiency.

[The Quinta Monroy site in urban context, via google maps]

Elemental’s first decision was to retain the inner city site, a decision which was both expensive and spatially limiting: there is only enough space on the site to provide thirty individual homes or sixty-six row homes, so a different typology was required.  High rise apartments would provide the needed density, but not provide the opportunity for residents to expand their own homes, as only the top and ground floors would have any way to connect to additions.  Elemental thus settled on a typology of connected two-story blocks, snaking around four common courtyards, designed as a skeletal infrastructure which the families could expand over time:

We in Elemental have identified a set of design conditions through which a housing unit can increase its value over time; this without having to increase the amount of money of the current subsidy.

In first place, we had to achieve enough density, (but without overcrowding), in order to be able to pay for the site, which because of its location was very expensive. To keep the site, meant to maintain the network of opportunities that the city offered and therefore to strengthen the family economy; on the other hand, good location is the key to increase a property value.

Second, the provision a physical space for the “extensive family” to develop, has proved to be a key issue in the economical take off of a poor family. In between the private and public space, we introduced the collective space, conformed by around 20 families. The collective space (a common property with restricted access) is an intermediate level of association that allows surviving fragile social conditions.

Third, due to the fact that 50% of each unit’s volume, will eventually be self-built, the building had to be porous enough to allow each unit to expand within its structure. The initial building must therefore provide a supporting, (rather than a constraining) framework in order to avoid any negative effects of self-construction on the urban environment over time, but also to facilitate the expansion process.

Finally, instead a designing a small house (in 30 sqm everything is small), we provided a middle-income house, out of which we were giving just a small part now. This meant a change in the standard: kitchens, bathrooms, stairs, partition walls and all the difficult parts of the house had to be designed for final scenario of a 72 sqm house.

In the end, when the given money is enough for just half of the house, the key question is, which half do we do. We choose to make the half that a family individually will never be able to achieve on its own, no matter how much money, energy or time they spend. That is how we expect to contribute using architectural tools, to non-architectural questions, in this case, how to overcome poverty.

[Quinta Monroy shortly after construction of the initial framework and living space, but before the families have begun self-construction, via Elemental.]

Elemental, in other words, have exploited the values and aims of ownership culture (which mammoth has suggested understands the house to be first a machine for making money and only second to be a machine for living) not to support a broken system of real estate speculation and easy wealth, but to present architecture as a tool that can be provided to families.  While the project is embedded with some of the assumptions of the architects (such as that faith in the potential of ownership culture, for better or worse), this tool is primarily presented as a framework, a scaffolding upon which families are able to make their own architecture.  This seems like an important step — made visually apparent by the strong contrast between the simple lines of the initial framework and the colorful and varied familial additions — in the direction of what Lebbeus Woods describes as offering architecture as “the rules of the game”, or, the thinking he described behind a “capsule” which could offer architectural aid to people living in slums:

From the side of the slum dwellers, it might seem an unwelcome intrusion from outside, just another quick fix imposed by the economically advantaged on the desperately poor, serving the interests of the rich by transforming the slum according to their well-intentioned but—to the slum dweller–necessarily opposed values. It is especially important, then, that the transformative capsule enables the slum-dwellers to achieve their goals, serving their values, and does not reduce them to subjects of its designers’ and makers’ will. Inevitably, the values, prejudices, perspectives and aspirations of the designers and makers will be imbedded in the capsule and what it does. Therefore the slum-dwellers should, in the first place, have the right of refusal. Also, they must have the right to modify the capsule and its effects as they see fit. It cannot be a locked system, capable of producing only a predetermined outcome. The implication of these freedoms is that the capsule, whatever its capabilities, could be used to work against the intentions of its designers and makers. Because the effects of the capsule would be powerfully transformative, its possession would involve risk for all the groups, and individuals, involved.

Take a video tour of Quinta Monroy or watch a documentary about Quinta Monroy (in Spanish); construction photographs of a similar project by Elemental in Monterrey, Mexico; a brief article at Dezeen; a bit of commentary on the project as well as the stories of two of the inhabitants of the houses, at The Incremental House, a research blog by one of the 2008 Branner fellowship recipients.


[Perspective view of P-REX’s proposed “wetland machine”, the regional master plan, and a factory and agricultural land within the watershed of the masterplan; images via P-REX, Pruned, and Google Maps, respectively]

The IBA Emscher Park — most famously symbolized by Peter Latz’s Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, a fantastic recreational park that recycles the industrial past for contemporary recreation without losing the melancholy charm of the “natural decay and dilapidation of the site”, but as a whole, “[embraces] more than 120 distinct projects” scattered through out the Ruhr — is perhaps the exemplary global example of how a systematic program of landscape and architecture can combat regional decline in the wake of de-industrialization.  If this list were a list of the best architecture of the previous decade, the Emscher Park would be the first item on the list.  However, while the Emscher Park is a good and kind way of dismantling an industrial region in response to global economic trends, incorporating the repair of the damaged ecology of that region into the construction of new spaces for recreation and provision of the physical infrastructure for cultural programming, it is nonetheless fundamentally a deconstructive program.  It is only intended to preserve the industrial infrastructure of the past as museum, not to re-purpose that infrastructure as the foundation of new production economies and new industries.

Which is why projects such as P-REX’s Pontine Systemic Design, a regional master plan which proposes the transformation of a portion of Italy’s drained Pontine Marshes into a wetland machine which serves to repair and maintain ecological balance in an industrial and agricultural region while that industry and agriculture remains vital, are so important.  A 2008 NYTimes article explains the intentions of Alan Berger, the landscape architect who founded P-REX:

[Berger] is recommending a radical solution: not so much to restore the environment as to redesign it.

“It is so ecologically out of balance that if it goes on this way, it will kill itself,” said Alan Berger… who was excitedly poking around the smelly canals on a recent day… You can’t remove the economy and move the people away,” he added. “Ecologically speaking, you can’t restore it; you have to go forward, to set this place on a new path.”

Designing nature might seem to be an oxymoron or an act of hubris. But instead of simply recommending that polluting farms and factories be shut, Professor Berger specializes in creating new ecosystems in severely damaged environments: redirecting water flow, moving hills, building islands and planting new species to absorb pollution, to create natural, though “artificial,” landscapes that can ultimately sustain themselves [emphasis ours].

The Pontine Systemic Design represents exactly the sort of “reformulation” of the “historically suppressed” “biophysical landscape” “as a sophisticated, instrumental system of essential resources, services, and agents that generate and support urban economies” which Pierre Bélanger called for in his recent article in Landscape Journal, “Landscape as Infrastructure” (PDF).  P-REX’s website describes the elements of the wetland machine which lies at the heart of the regional master plan:

Choosing a gigantic, consolidated wetland site will likely be more viable in the complex patchwork of land ownership. Given Latina’s situation, distributed treatment areas would be both enormously complex to purchase and ineffective to manage. The Wetland Machine’s dimensions are directly related to the amount of wetland area needed to treat the amount of water in the Canale Aque Alte—the major collector for this highly polluted zone. At 220 l/s, with a load around 50+ mg/l of N, at least 2 square kilometers of treatment wetland will be required. The design retro-fits and widens existing canals to serve as flow distributors. Furthermore, soil cut/fill operations are used for terraforming shallow ridges and valleys to hold/treat water and make raised areas for new public space and program. At 2.3 sq. km., the new wetland machine will drastically improve the regional water supply and provide needed open space for recreation. At only 6 km from Latina, the site could house programs and environments almost completely lacking in the region—large open landscapes with diverse vegetation. Extensive edge habitat diversity or programs—shallow shoals for juvenile fish and swimming, starker edges for fishing and water storage.

The landscape, in the form of a constructed wetland, becomes the central hydrological infrastructure of this polluted agricultural and industrial watershed, a transformation firmly situated within the understanding of landscape infrastructures as  the key component of “urban ecologies”, which Bélanger delineates in “Landscape as Infrastructure”:

Endogenous and exogenous processes, such eutrophication, combined-sewer overflow, sediment contamination, invasive flora, exotic fauna, depleted water reserves, and seasonal floods can no longer be perceived as isolated incidents, but rather as part of large, constructed hydrological ecolog that is entirely and irreversibly connected to the process of urbanization.  The slow, yet large-scale accumulated effects of near-water industries and upstream urban activities once considered solely at the scale of the city, are now more effectively understood at the scale of the region.

Insofar as the P-REX’s design represents a step in the direction of this regional consideration of landscape infrastructures, it provides hope that architecture and landscape architecture may yet have some agency in addressing in what Berger has described as “the larger-scale environmental issues that are currently affecting urbanized regions”.

Though the project is not yet built, as far as I am aware P-REX and the provincial government are still collaborating on the planning and design of the project, with every intention of seeing it through construction; and, at any rate, mammoth has no distaste for entirely speculative projects. Pruned has an excellent summary of the project, which includes higher-resolution images of the project provided by P-REX.  I wrote a brief piece two years ago attempting to situate Berger’s design within the cultural landscape history of the Agri Pontini, though the efficacy of that effort was surely inhibited by my lack of knowledge of Italy; at any rate, I still think the contrast/parallel between the early 20th century pump machinery which drains the Pontine Marshes and the wetland machine proposed by Berger is fascinating.  Abitare did an excellent recent interview with Berger touching on the Pontine Marshes but dealing primarily with Berger’s research techniques, methodologies, and thoughts on the discipline of landscape architecture.


[Images via CNET]

Developed by MIT’s Smart Cities group, headed by William Mitchell, CityCar is:

…a foldable, electric, two-passenger vehicle for crowded cities. It uses Wheel Robots—fully modular in-wheel electric motors—that integrate drive motors, suspension, braking, and steering inside the hub-space of the wheel. This drive-by-wire system requires only data, power, and mechanical connection to the chassis of the vehicle. Wheel Robots have over 120 degrees of steering freedom, allowing for a zero-turn radius and 90-degree parking (sideways translation); they also enable the CityCar to fold by eliminating the gasoline-powered engine and drive-train. Folded, the CityCar is very compact (roughly 60” or 1500mm), with an on-street parking ratio of at least 3:1 to traditional cars. It is also lightweight (1000lbs) and modular, and automatically recharges when parked, reducing battery needs and excess weight. The CityCar has two use models: private (traditional ownership), and shared (Mobility On Demand, high-utilization, one-way shared systems like Paris’s Vélib’ bicycle-sharing program).

While the technology behind CityCar is interesting in and of itself, architecturally the most interesting aspects of CityCar are the dynamically-priced markets for electricity and roadspace which Smart Cities envision developing around the second, shared use model.  Through GPS systems embedded in the cars, congestion pricing could be altered in real-time in response to the flow of traffic through a city’s streets, achieving a far more perfect market reflection of the urban condition than could be imposed by any top-down model.  Similarly, CityCars — being essentially mobile batteries — would be tied through their recharging stations into a city or region-wide smart grid, purchasing electricity at cheap rates during off-peak hours from the grid and selling it back to the grid at higher rates during peak hours, at once exploiting the market potential of the smart grid and becoming an essential component of the grid.  The CityCar, then, is not merely a vehicle traveling across fixed infrastructures (or a smaller version of today’s cars), but is itself a distributed infrastructure, resilient, flexible, and responsive to input from the city.

A Boston Globe article highlights some of the pragmatic and regulatory difficulties that will be faced in attempting to bring the CityCar to mass realization; interestingly, this CNET article notes that Hawaii — where residents often travel from island to island without their cars — has shown interest in CityCar as a mass transit system; read a roundtable conversation between William Mitchell and Robin Chase (founder of the car-sharing service ZipCar) at the Next American City; read a feature on Chase at Urban Omnibus; this Places article discusses the notion of “fracture critical” infrastructures, and how their potential for disastorous failure suggests the necessity of resilient and flexible infrastructures.


[images via Metropolis slideshow]

There was a lot of talk in the past decade about how landscape architecture — whether in the slightly older guise of landscape urbanism, or in the more fashionable and current guise of landscape infrastructure — would come to dominate urban design practice.  Both architects and landscape architects, from Koolhaas to Corner, noted that the contemporary city is dominated by flatness, that the singular architectural object is powerless to overcome the conditions of that flat city, and that landscape architects are seemingly well-equipped, being situated at the boundaries of ecology (with its emphasis on process and flow), architecture, and urban planning, to operate on flat yet incestuously complicated cities.

Yet that potential has been largely unrealized.  Designers, even in competition and academic endeavors (to say nothing of what has been built) stuck with what they knew: overtly formal, often beautiful, but ultimately stale master-planning exercises.  The influx of data-based and algorithmic methods of indexing has done little to shift this paradigm; if anything, it has reinforced the tendency to resort to the beautiful drawing because of the ease with which it can be created, and the veneer of systemic complexity they grant a project.  What use is the diagram when the plan is indistinguishable from it?

New York City’s Fresh Kills competition and the on-going work by Corner’s Field Operations, the competition winners, is one of the few examples that buck that trend, demonstrating the ability of an office led by a landscape architect to produce a synthesis of ecological, urban, social, and infrastructural processes on a large scale within an extremely complicated urban system.  This kind of work, of course, operates intentionally on long time scales, and so it is perhaps not surprising that even Corner, probably the best-known of the landscape architects who joined the first wave of landscape urbanists, has only completed one major landscape (at least as far as I’m aware), the rather disappointing High Line.

What is particularly exciting about Field Operations’s Fresh Kills for landscape architects is that this massive new park isn’t being built so much as it is being grown and cultivated, thereby realizing a firm reliance on the flow and flux of ecologies as not just inspiration for design, but as the tool of design, as is explained in Andrew Blum’s 2008 article for Metropolis on Corner:

Corner saw [Fresh Kills] as a proving ground—not just as a park but for landscape architecture as a whole. It stacked up all the challenges he had been wrestling with: contaminated lands, exhaustive environmental reviews, competing community interests, glacially slow (if not totally absent) funding, and the opportunity to create an aesthetic unencumbered by Romantic landscapes. (In all of this, Corner was influenced by the landscape architect Peter Latz’s Land­scape Park Duisburg-Nord, which was mostly completed by 1999.) “It was: Look, this is a landfill, it’s a regulated landscape, the soil is atrocious, how can you imagine a park here?” Corner says, describing his initial thought process. “It’s not an exercise of trying to design a fantastic park; it’s an exercise of trying to design a method to get from what it is now to something that is green, public, and safe. And that process would then produce a park that had very unique spatial and aesthetic experiences and properties.”

Corner called his scheme Lifescape, and the notion at its heart, part ecological and part poetic, came out of the earlier thinking: to grow the park, to reengineer the site as a “self-sustaining ecosystem,” an “autopoetic agent”—like a cell. One of the biggest challenges at the site was covering the mounds with at least four feet of soil, to make them safe for picnicking; Lifescape imagined the park growing that soil. “It’s easy to sit and dream up fantastic things,” Corner adds. “The trick is to dream up fantastic things that are smart with regards to the realities at stake.”

There’s still a lot to prove in this, um, proving ground — but mammoth suspects that landscape architecture will need more projects like Fresh Kills, not less, if it is to flourish in the next decade.

Of further interest might be this critique of Fresh Kills from Mario Ballestros, as well as this response to that critique from the official Fresh Kills blog and another response to the same critique which I posted a while ago at Eatingbark.


[image via Wikipedia]

The massive network of rail-lines, including conventional rail but particularly high speed rail, now spanning vast portions of China (and growing exponentially through the coming decade) is perhaps the best example of the continued relevance of the infrastructural “superproject” to emerge in the past decade.  Nonetheless, we debated whether or not it belonged on this list and, rather than assemble our points into a coherent argument, thought we’d share that debate directly.  You’ll note that we’ve entirely skipped over the question of whether a rail network can or should be considered architecture at all.

Stephen: I’m not yet convinced China’s high-speed rail belongs on the list.  It’s not terribly different from any other high speed rail system in how it affects the country, how it came to be, or (as far as I know) any particularly impossible engineering condition which needed to be overcome.  It’s not a triumph of project management or marketing, of building a massive infrastructural project despite difficult political or economic circumstances, because China is $loaded$ and, as a single-party state, doesn’t face the sort of political entanglements which make rail so difficult to build in the United States.

You mentioned earlier that it is an example of the continued relevance of the infrastructural superproject… in what way?  As economic stimulus? As a nation-building ‘look at us’ project?  Some other fashion?  I am concerned all we learn from this project is that China can do whatever it wants – at which point, its just a Pretty Cool, Really Big Project.

Rob: I think that definition of “continued relevance” is too narrow.  Sure, it’s most definitely not an example of an infrastructural building program which could be duplicated in a modern western state – but most states aren’t modern western states.

Stephen: Most states aren’t China either.

Rob: No, but it’s tremendously relevant to the future of China, and one in five people in the world lives in China.

Stephen: True.  You know I’m as big of a high-speed rail supporter as anyone, considering its ability to act as both near-term and sustained economic generator.

Rob: And while it’s true that most states aren’t China, there are other big, functionally-single party regimes – Russia, for instance.

Stephen: This project serves largely the same function as other HSR networks around the world.  Does it qualify as a best-of project just because it exists?  Does China building the rail system prove a massive infrastructure project is relevant to Russia?

Rob: If it proves that it is (a) possible and (b) will have important effects on urbanization in that country, then, yes.

Stephen: Maybe a new, enormous pipeline is more relevant to Russia… so the question is, what exactly is China’s HSR proving? That HSR projects in particular are worthwhile, or that any large infrastructural project is – as long as it is fine tuned to the needs of a region, with the political and economic conditions present to enable its creation?  And if it’s the latter, I’m inclined to say “Well, of course that’s true!”  But then, maybe you and I operate in a bubble where the value of the Big Infrastructural Project is taken as a given, and outside that bubble, reinforcing the relevance of the Big Infrastructural Project isn’t a bad idea, however disappointing it may be that they are only possible in select conditions.

Rob: I’m more convinced now than I was at the beginning of the conversation that it belongs. At the beginning I was ready to throw it out, but now I’m convinced it represents a major trend in infrastructure which we’re otherwise ignoring.  I think the last point you make as a devil’s advocate is key: while the acceptance of the continued value of large infrastructural projects may be a current idea within our circles, I doubt that it is so widely agreed.

[Map of China’s current and proposed high-speed rail connections via the excellent Transport Politic]

Stephen: Right.  China’s HSR is a best-of-decade project because of its function as a signifier for the relevance of many types of large infrastructural projects, even if they are only possible in select areas.  It’s in because it’s important in defining the urban future of China, as other sorts of projects might be for their respective countries.  I think it’s instructive to contrast it against some other projects on this list which are better able to integrate themselves into areas without the benefit of a powerful centralized authoriy, like the Orange County Wastewater system or CityCar.  Projects which are smaller, lend themselves toward incremental expansion, and minimal disruption of current systems, especially land-ownership.  Those projects are often geared toward the remediation of damaged or obsolete infrastructures, whereas the Chinese HSR system is being introduced in as near a blank-slate condition as is possible in the twenty-first century.  Not only do projects in non-authoritarian regimes need to be smaller and nimbler, but they are generally reactive.  The fear of a broken system must exceed the fear of an angry mob of NIMBYs before action is taken.  Appealing to the prospect of a better future is — unfortunately — quite often impossible.

Newsweek has an article about China’s High Speed Rail network here; images of the network can be found here at Treehugger; map of existing rail lines here; discussion of the scale and importance of this project relative to China as compared to HSR endeavors by other countries, here.


[images via Architectural Record]

Parque Biblioteca España is one of a number of notable projects built in the past decade in Medellin, Colombia, whose exceptionally progressive mayor, Sergio Fajardo, is using infrastructure, landscape, and architecture to spark renewal and combat systemic poverty.  Much as Elemental’s Quinta Monroy made architecture a legible toolset for the residents of one city block in Iquique, the program of infrastructural development in Medellin has deployed architecture and landscape across the entire city, providing the city’s residents — and the inhabitants of the mountainside “comunas”, in particular — with an infrastructural toolset to rebuild their city and neighborhoods.  Once the headquarters of Pablo Escobar, wracked by corruption and violence, and described as “the murder capital of the world”, Medellin has been transformed by an emphasis on public culture, shared spaces, and transparency.  The Metro de Medellin was extended into the comunas by the construction of Line K, a public-transit cable car which replaced tedious and slow two-hour bus rides down the steep mountain side with a fast and comfortable twenty-minute ride, sparking the growth of community businesses in the comunas.  A botantical garden located in the dangerous neighborhood of Moravia was renovated to remove walls, symbolically opening the garden to the community, and upgraded with a striking new central pavilion under which cultural events are organized and attended.  The additions are both as small as the introduction of staircases connecting mountainside homes and as large as the system of five library parks, which includes Biblioteca España, providing safe and open places for meeting, playing and learning in the heart of the comunas.

[Passengers ride Line K, via the NY Times]

I highly recommend this slideshow from Medellin, taken by Quilian Riano (formerly fruitful contradictions, now @quilian on twitter and one of the two people behind DSGNAGNC), as well as Riano’s post at his Archinect school blog after visiting Medellin; the New York Times ran an article a couple years ago on Fajardo and Medellin; an Architectural Record article describes Parque Biblioteca Espana.


[Modesta Tabanao in her general store in the Philippines. She received a loan of $225 “to purchase additional inventory and working capital” and is on-track to repay the loan over its nine month term.]

If the recent flury of projects in Medellin shows how traditional infrastructure tactically deployed can revitalize a city, Kiva shows how a non-traditional monetary infrastructure can do the same:

In 2004, Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley witnessed the power of microfinance firsthand while on a trip which would become a life-changing experience. Visiting East Africa – Jessica conducting impact evaluation surveys for Village Enterprise Fund and Matt filming interviews with small business entrepreneurs – they were able to see and hear firsthand how small grants of only $100 – $150 had been used to build small businesses which could then support a family. They heard stories of people who were able to sleep on mattresses instead of dirt floors, afford to take sugar in their tea daily instead of occasionally, and buy fresh fish for their families a few times every week rather than once a week. Instead of meeting the poor and helpless, they found themselves meeting successful entrepreneurs who had generated enough profits from their small businesses to create a real impact on their standard of living.

Kiva is an infrastructure for distributing relatively small amounts of money to entrepreneurs, particularly in developing countries.  Its brilliance is the realization that people would rather give to individuals — other people — than to an organization.  Rather than sell you on a particular charitable mission, Kiva’s website engages donors by encouraging them to become stakeholders in the economic future of specific recipients.  It displays their stories and, importantly, their business and repayment plans. Kiva, like those networks of physical structures more commonly understood as urban infrastructures such as roads, sewers, and powergrids, is fundamentally characterized by the properties of connection and transmission, which enables it to have widespread effect on cities across the globe.

Mammoth has written frequently about the city as it is constructed by complex interactions between systems, economies and societies, and argued that architects should engage this context. If one accepts this set of relationships as not merely descriptive of the processes within a city, but as the fundamental material of the city, more basic to the nature of urbanity than skyscrapers or freeways, how can the invention and deployment of Kiva not be considered an act of urban design?  Kiva is infrastructural urbanism at its purest: unconcerned with directing the formal evolution of the city, focused instead on generating the financial mechanisms which enable citizens to participate in reshaping the city.  These qualities make it n effective agent in some of the most informal urban conditions on the globe, conditions which confound traditional architectural response.

[PLOT’s “Clover Block” scheme, an unsolicited proposal for public housing in the city of Copenhagen which generated enough public interest to provoke a competition for the design of public housing on the site, via rory hyde dot com blog]

Kiva also suggests hopeful and alternate models of architecture practice, perhaps beginning to incorporate or co-opt a similar infrastructure in place of the traditional financier-client-architect funding model.  Studies like the Office of Unsolicited Architecture and this post by FASLANYC begin to hypothesize what such a model might look like. They compliment financial experimentation found in projects such as these documented by Rory Hyde, architectural outfits like Supersudaca, and practices like Parking Day.  We’re not sure how (or even if) the infrastructure Kiva has developed for financing entrepreneurs is scalable to the development of an architecture or landscape project.  But mammoth believes that the dynamic between client, financier, and designer provides fertile ground for experimentation, and we hope lessons learned from Kiva can be applied to architecture in the coming decade.

[This post was co-authored by Stephen and Rob; we’d love to hear what we’ve gotten wrong (and why!), as well as what we’ve missed; we’ve got a handful of near-misses for this list in hand that we’ll hopefully get around to writing about soon.]

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quarantine economies Sun, 13 Dec 2009 06:50:45 +0000 I’d like to echo Rob’s delight at being able to attend the final critique of the Landscapes of Quarantine Studio in NYC hosted by BLDGBLOG and Edible Geography.  We’ll make sure and keep folks posted on the details of the studio’s exhibit at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, which is due to open in early March.  I can’t wait to see what the participants develop.

Coming away from Saturday’s discussion, I couldn’t shake my fascination at the potential quarantine has to shape novel economies within existing systems – a line of thinking drawn from Front Studio’s project.  They investigate the spatial and social implications of having a quarantined city-within-a-city.  Proposed are a variety of tactics for segregating populations in an integrated environment, including appropriating under-utilized city and building infrastructure (such as fire escapes and phone booths) for a quarantined population’s circulation and disinfection; and color-coding portions of building facades (and scenting the infected population) as stay-away signifiers for the healthy population.

As is brilliantly communicated to the citizens of New York in Amanda Spielman’s project, NYCQ, disease spreads on virtually everything.  Because goods are equally (along with people, and, apparently, pets) disease vectors, the simultaneous integration and bifurcation of contaminated / non-contaminated populations proposed by Front Studio challenges us to consider the exchange of goods between them.  The system must enable the quarantine of people, as well as goods – inevitably establishing an economy of quarantine.

When good becomes vector, it still has value. But a fixed overall supply of goods combined with a leftward-shift in the demand curve (from an entire population to a contaminated population) must result in a lowered price for that good.

An instance of this exact phenomena is currently underway in New England.  The Asian Longhorned Beatle is causing the quarantine of trees in certain locations throughout Massachusetts and surrounding states.  Now, quarantining trees might not seem to be such a big deal, considering that trees don’t move – but, regulations on the transportation of trees into and out of the area are having a significant impact on the resale value of firewood.  The areas under quarantine have an over-saturation of wood, and nowhere to send it.  The fact that non-quarantined wood from nearby areas needs a permit (an arduous process) to be transported through or near quarantined areas only serves to further exacerbate the issue.

A map of the quarantine zone around Worcester, MA

What is so fascinating about this is that is incentivizes breaking into quarantine.  A family living in suburban Natick with a camper shell on their pickup truck can’t resist the dirt-cheap firewood in Worcester because of the extra-cold New England winter.  A poor family living in the Bronx decides to buy their cereal for 75% off (after it had been scanned, flagged, and sent for resale in a quarantine-only store during an outbreak of mutated H1N1 in NYC) because they can’t afford the now premium-priced, ‘guaranteed H1N1 free’ supply; so they sneak into a quarantine store, or perhaps buy it from illicit Q-market goods smugglers. To make matters worse, the incentive would be greatest at the beginning of an outbreak, during the most critical moments for containment, because that is also when the disparity between markets is greatest (resulting in the largest possible leftward shift in the demand curve, and consequent drop in price of the good. Another way to think about this is realizing that if everyone was quarantined, the price differential would disappear.)

Does incentivizing entry into quarantine encourage or restrict the spread of disease?  If the success of a quarantine has less to do with its comprehensiveness than its imporosity, incentivizing entry would likely pose a big problem.  If nothing else, a comprehensive quarantine response which included goods would probably over-emphasize the affect of an outbreak on the poor.   And I think it’s important to note that incentivisation could happen organically, not as result of any program.

Because the moment of incentive occurs when a good is flagged as quarantined, our choice is either 1) don’t mark goods, and have no quarantine or 2) mark goods, and incentivize entry into quarantine.  Which is worse? Too much quarantine, or not enough?

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