As my awesome yoga instructor Kamellia explained in class this week, this past Wednesday into Thursday was Samhain (pronounced “sauin,” more or less), the annual Gaelic festival marking the onset of the season of darkness.
I’m not sure if such an observance can ever fully resonate for anyone who doesn’t live close to the land and its rhythms, but city kid that I am, I sure did feel the turn this year — feel it, and rush forward into its embrace. In fact I’m finding nothing nearly so comfortable lately as darkness, its sensory equivalents silence and stillness, and above all solitude. I’m not unaware that being able to access these qualities at will pretty much defines privilege, of course. But long walks alone in the gloaming feel like a powerful specific for the dis-ease of life in 2018, something blessedly orthogonal to all the fear, hatred and endemic bullshit of our days.
This has been true for me, anyway; as ever, your mileage may vary. However the darkness happens to find you this year, may you know the deep still peace at its heart, and in that peace take the strength to return to the world renewed.
I’m not sure if it’s entirely discernible from the things I’ve written here, but my political sentiments these past few years have taken a reasonably sharp turn toward the position known as degrowth: the acceptance that, in Edward Abbey’s words, economic “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell”; the belief that collective prosperity and wellbeing are possible in the absence of such growth, indeed orthogonal to it; and the commitment to a way of life where value has ever less to do with the production and consumption of market goods.
These are things I believe and try to live by, not without some struggle, and I’m going to be writing more about that struggle in short order, both here and elsewhere. But before I do any of that, I want to acknowledge the staggering magnitude of the challenge involved in degrowing the economy wisely, responsibly and with care and solidarity for all, given our present sociotechnical circumstances. And I’m going to do so in the first instance by invoking a concrete practical example: the handle I recently bought for my Brompton bicycle.
As a convivial tool, I have to imagine the Brompton is all but unrivaled.* Both mechanically self-explanatory and human-scaled, it is par excellence a machine for urban mobility. Like all bicycles, of course, I can use it to get around town. But unlike most bicycles, I can collapse it in a few quick folds, so I can take it with me on the bus, or wheel it into a cafe or bar rather than locking it up outside exposed to the weather and the risk of theft. As a manufactured object and a way of moving through a real city both, it has self-evidently been cannily, cleverly and thoughtfully designed.
Every good designer, though, knows that bringing anything complex into being necessarily involves tradeoffs and compromises. And one of the tradeoffs most noticeable in the design of the Brompton is that the very moves necessary to make it fold elegantly produce a rather unwieldy package in its collapsed configuration. That the Brompton specifically is considerably more wieldy than competing folding bikes is surely one of the primary reasons for its success: it’s been devised in such a way as to let it function as sort of a trolley when folded, with all the greasy mechanicals safely tucked away on the inside. You can haul it around supermarket aisles and the like on the almost-vestigial little wheels mounted to the fender and the frame for just this purpose. But none of that means it’s particularly light or pleasant to carry in this mode…and that really tells when you’re doing something like rushing across a crowded concourse to catch the last train home.
Enter the Fahrer carrying handle. By fusing together some carefully-trimmed nylon webbing, a strip of Velcro and an off-the-shelf, commodity plastic grip, this clever little aftermarket accessory allows the rider to lift the folded Brompton from something much closer to its center of gravity. It’s a godsend for the harried urban cyclist, and a middle finger for all the chiropractors and physiotherapists one imagines cleaning up on yoiking Brompton-sore spines and shoulders back into shape.
But it’s also, dig, the fruit of an unprecedented ramification and refinement in the global product-innovation ecosystem. Combine the extraordinary democratization of digital design tools and rapid-prototyping capability; low-cost, generally Pearl River Delta-based fabrication, as well as the well-lubricated global logistics network and Chinese state policies that allow these factories to price and move goods as though they were made next door; and not least a designer’s ability to raise capital through crowdsourcing platforms, market through viral social media, and bring the things they make to market at scale via platforms like Amazon, and you wind up with two things: a dizzying cornucopia of mostly wonderful new things in the world, most of which are necessarily shortly bound for the landfill, and (/therefore) a near-insuperable challenge to the idea of putting brakes on the use of Earthly resources to make things for sale.
Maybe the Fahrer handle itself didn’t come about in exactly this way, but it might as well have. For all intents and purposes, these days just about any one of the few hundred million people sufficiently privileged to make use of that ecosystem can perceive a need not currently being addressed by the market and mount a response — generally, a response framed in terms of that market, and thereby extending its dominion. What previous generations might have thought of as garage or garden-shed tinkerers willy-nilly become capitalists now, entrepreneurs, self-conscious “innovators.” By the same token, though, an ever-greater amount of material-energetic investment is invoked to produce things of ever-lower marginal utility, as just about any passing want results in a manufactured solution, and each manufactured product catalyzes its own downstream explosion of model-specific bolt-ons, clip-ons, accessories and enhancements — many of them in fact originally user-produced, in the way I’ve described here.
This isn’t to harsh on the handle in and of itself. It’s hard to put in words, in fact, just how much I appreciate it, and with a negligible amount of maintenance it’ll last as long as the bike it’s mounted to will. It’s equally hard to imagine anyone wanting to return to a world in which only a very few, relatively centralized and hierarchical organizations had the power to determine what got made and what did not, least of all me. But if the sunk material-energetic investment in my handle can at least be plausibly defended, the same can’t necessarily be said about dozens of other things I have strewn around the house, or tens of thousands of things on sale in the neighborhood shopping center on Kingsland Road, or a hundred million things for sale on Amazon and Alibaba. Here indeed is an empire of things, the ecosystem responsible for their existence functioning de facto as a massively distributed, more or less entirely unfunded R&D lab for the major manufacturers, as well as a massive generator of signals relating to desire and agency in its fulfillment.
Every single last aspect of this situation is fascinating to me, worth unpacking at some length, and when I hoist my bike by its new handle it is all quite literally present at hand for me. In its own curious way, this handle stands as an object lesson as to why we desperately need to degrow “the economy,” and, at the very same time — at least for anyone possessed of intellectual integrity — a very good argument for the precisely opposite position. Whenever I wrap my hand around it, it makes me acutely aware of the tremendous and growing tension between the gorgeous, entirely laudable desire to ensure that the highest possible number of human beings are able to express themselves materially and the way we presently arrange to attend to that desire. More: it makes me painfully conscious that we have yet to realize anything like the full cost of that arrangement.
*I fully acknowledge that the Brompton both suffers in this regard from, and would most likely be impossible as a commercial proposition without, its reliance on proprietary, noncommodity, non-industry standard components. A fully convivial folding bicycle — designed as thoughtfully as the Brompton, but engineered from the wheels up to use components even the least well-equipped bikeshop will have in stock or which are otherwise user-serviceable — is certainly something worth thinking about.
As I seem to have acquired, in some quarters anyway, a reputation as an uncompromising and intractable Luddite where matters of networked technology in everyday domestic life are concerned, I thought I’d share with you today some minor evidence that I’m not unalterably opposed to each and every such appearance. I give you…the Ember.
This is precisely the kind of networked device I might have written off as a near-meaningless frippery a few years ago. It’s a nicely-designed ceramic mug with a rechargeable heating element built into its base, allowing you to set the temperature at which you prefer to drink your coffee or tea.
All it is, really, is a thermostat — but a thermostat in a surprising, and surprisingly welcome, place. There isn’t any computation to speak of going on. The networked aspect is nicely circumspect, and it’s mainly there to let a smartphone app serve as the user interface, keeping the mug itself appropriately stripped down. You pair it with a phone once, on first setup, and that’s it. Everything else is done through the app, and you don’t even need to interact with that too much once you’ve got your preferences dialed in.
I should say that Ember is not perfect, either as a product or as a piece of interaction design. The embedded, multicolor LED fails to communicate much of anything useful, despite its multiple, annoyingly blinky and colorful states; all I really need to know from it is when the mug needs to be recharged. That need arises far too often, at least when it’s set to maintain the temperatures at which I prefer to drink coffee. And inevitably, I have concerns about the nonexistence of any meaningful security measures, a nonexistence that in fairness is endemic to all consumer IoT devices, but remains inexcusable for any of them.
But Ember gets some things right, and when it does, they tend to be very right. By far the most important of these is that it works as a mug, prior to the question of any networked or interactive functionality. The vessel has a good heft to it, and when you set it down on a solid surface, the feeling of a damped but substantial mass that’s transmitted through the rubberized rings at its base is just very, very satisfying. The ceramic surface has a pleasingly velvety texture — so much so, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder if it’s one of those miracle materials that will turn out to have been threshold-carcinogenic twenty or thirty years down the line. It’s gratifyingly easy to clean.
And as far as that additional functionality is concerned, the mug does what it says it will, does it well…and it’s a hoot. It turns out that there’s a real Weiserian frisson to be had from something that violates all the subtle, subconscious expectations you’ve built up over a lifetime of drinking hot beverages from ceramic mugs. The confoundment of assumptions is so deep, indeed, that it takes you awhile to catch up with the new reality — to realize that you can go answer the doorbell or otherwise be distracted for five or ten minutes, and still come back to a piping hot beverage. In fact, Ember stands the principle of evaporative cooling on its head: because the heating element is still set to maintain a larger volume of liquid at a given temperature, but most of that volume will have been drunk away by the time you get to them, your last few swallows are noticeably, delightfully hotter than any you’ve had since first filling the mug.
To be clear, the Ember mug is not something anyone needs, especially at this price point. But I admire its clarity of purpose, in leveraging a modest deployment of technology to furnish its user with a small but nevertheless genuine everyday pleasure. And without wanting to be pompous about matters, I happen to believe there’s a crucial role for small but genuine pleasures in difficult times like the ones we happen to be living through. You may find yourself surprised by the degree to which a sip of hot coffee lands when you sip it forty or forty-five minutes after brewing — at least, I surely was, and am — and how psychoemotionally sustaining it can be when it does. Most of that is probably the coffee itself, doing what it is that coffee does, but better by far a networked product that is modest and humble in its aims, and succeeds in meeting them, than one which promises everything and does none of it particularly well.
In the runup to our June event in Tallinn, the good folks at Housing Europe have asked me to address a brief series of thoughtful questions. I share the questions and my answers to them with you here, in the hope that you’ll find them as usefully provocative as I did.
Social anxiety, introversion, isolation, and feelings of loneliness are on the rise, especially in the younger generation, a result of various factors including the irony-laden hyper-connectivity of social media, smart phones and screen time, general alienation from our schooling and work, our physical surroundings, ourselves and each other – is there any way in which technology could be used to actually curb this trend at all?
Well, there are of course any number of apps that claim to spur us to mindfulness and presentness, and I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the same hyperconnectivity you’re talking about actually works pretty well for some. I’ve seen studies suggesting, for example, that the most densely-connected social media users tend to score well above average on self-reported measurements of happiness and life satisfaction.
But as far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of a master’s tools/master’s house situation. I don’t think you can reliably underwrite the kind of psychically restorative, face-to-face interaction we seem to require with the same technologies that corrode our ability to attend to and be emotionally present for one another. There are powerful physiological processes engaged by the way smartphones and apps are currently offered to us that tend to militate against our very ability to be present: consider the way the flickering of our screens involuntarily entrains focus, so that you can’t not glance at a screen entering your field of vision, at least momentarily. Or the dopamine cycle, which, as we now know, is consciously exploited by app designers to capture and retain our attention, beneath the level of conscious awareness — that’s what the little red bubble with the number of unread messages is all about, it’s very carefully tuned to be an irresistible trigger to action. The notion that we might somehow override these very old, very deep features of our nervous system at will strikes me as naive.
So what’s the alternative? The alternative is to cultivate a greater sophistication regarding what networked information technology is for, where in our lives it’s best and most wisely deployed, and when the time has come to quite literally set it aside and surrender ourselves to an as-nearly-unmediated encounter with the other as we can feasibly achieve. But that itself takes education, and patience, and the desire to do so, and above all the recognition that it’s not by any stretch of the imagination always comfortable to be in the unmediated presence of another human being, their claims and prerogatives. There’s a skill involved with being copresent with each other in such a vulnerable way, or even a craft, and we could all use some refinement of that craft. Myself very definitely included.
Would it be advisable to build a city from scratch and, if so, would you enjoy being involved in this project and what guiding principles would you wish to employ?
Advisable? In the abstract, I’d have to say no. Most likely inevitable, though: the number of people worldwide who are now looking to avail themselves of urban density and urban opportunity — in not a few cases, mind you, because they were forcibly displaced from the land — will clearly stress the infrastructural carrying capacity of existing conurbations to the breaking point. So we need to bring new ones online, even if it takes a few decades for anything resembling a genuinely metropolitan sensibility to bed into such places.
Would I enjoy being involved in their design? Of course. Like any other urbanist, I have my own pet theories and received nuggets of wisdom about how it is one might go about designing a city so that it simultaneously underwrites equity, complexity, texture and sustainability, and I’d love the opportunity to put those theories to the test. Who wouldn’t?
As to what principles would guide me in any such engagement, it shouldn’t be too much trouble for anyone with even a glancing familiarity with my work to guess their general contours. The first is to provide maximum scope for people to determine the circumstances of their own being, as individuals and collectivities both. The second, which is obviously in a fair deal of tension with this, is to proceed always from the understanding that quality of life for all is best achieved by closely and respectfully attending to the needs of the most vulnerable users of a space.
Have your thoughts or attitudes changed or developed since 2013, when you wrote “Against the smart city”?
At the time I wrote “Against the smart city,” I was — very atypically — cowed by some bizarre notion that the pamphlet’s credibility would be enhanced by a relatively even-handed description of the things I was writing about, even though they were plainly terrible. Figuring that the smart-city schemes I was discussing were so prima facie foolish (or, in the case of PlanIT Valley, outright fictional) that a relatively uninflected account of them would speak plainly enough for itself, I just didn’t put things as sharply as I could or should have. Not to put too fine a point on it: I pulled my punches.
And what happened in the months and years that followed is that, on a fairly regular basis, I’d hear from the architects and engineers who worked on those efforts, people fairly intimately involved with the creation of Masdar or Songdo and so on. They’d write to me and say, “You know, that project was so much worse than you said it was. You have no idea how much worse.”
Well, look: I’ve spent a few years of my life inside large, multinational technology firms. I did have some idea. It’s true that I didn’t have the fine details at hand — and lordy, did they ever make for cacklingly schadenfreudy, if somewhat hair-raising, reading — but even given what I knew at the time, I certainly could have been more pointed in my critique.
The irony, of course, is that the pamphlet is clearly already pretty far to one side of the spectrum of published opinion on the question of the smart city. Yeah, there are a number of critical academic papers that treat the issue, some of them quite tasty, but as far as the popular literature on the subject is concerned virtually everything else out there is a more-or-less optimistic attempt to justify or recuperate the idea of the smart city. If we stipulate, then, that “Against the smart city” pretty much already defines one pole of debate, here I am suggesting that taking these insiders at their word means it should have been much harsher still. I shouldn’t have let myself been affected by tone arguments advanced by purely imaginary interlocutors in my own head, or watered down the truth of what I knew about the elemental mendacity and incompetence of smart-city schemes out of some profoundly misguided notion of the politics of respectability.
It’s a lesson I bear in mind whenever I’m asked to comment on things like Sidewalk Lab’s adventures in Toronto.
Migration as a result of conflict, poverty, land grabbing, climate and demographic change, as well as a type of continuous mobility as a consequence of the pursuit of education or employment opportunities, and, on a more positive note, our curiosity and desire to explore the world, means that we often find ourselves in new and short-term living situations. Could you think up a system in which people could be appropriately and comfortably housed on such a basis?
Sure, and it wouldn’t even necessarily look all that different from present-day AirBnb, at least in schematic. (Let me be clear that I have absolutely no problem with something like AirBnb, provided first of all that every permanent resident of a city in which such a service operates has access to safe, decent, centrally-located housing, unimpeded by considerations of income or affordability. The beef I have with AirBnb is the way it distorts the rental market, and secondarily the signature psychogeographical condition that tends to crop up pretty reliably when much of a city’s historic center is given over to the needs of tourists and other short-term visitors.)
And circling back to your earlier question, here’s a place where I definitely think networked technology has an important role to play in defining the contours of a decent, grounded, equitable modus vivendi. Along these lines, I did some thinking awhile back about what I was then calling “space as a service.” There’s also been some pretty innovative work on ways in which networked shelter and mobility assets might be integrated, epitomized for me by Höweler + Yoon’s Shareway 2030 project from a few years ago.
What do you think is the way — if there is such a way — to make sure that these “radical technologies” you talk about in your latest book actually serve an inclusive design of everyday life that does not leave anyone behind?
If there is a way, it would have to involve massively enhancing the inclusivity, the representational diversity and sheer invitationality of technological development organizations, so that the apps and services that set the bounding conditions on our lives aren’t exclusively devised by a markedly self-similar cadre of young, privileged, able-bodied engineers and designers. Designing technological products and services that are pertinent to and sensitive of the needs of people who don’t happen to process information, understand embodiment or experience space like the existing development cohort is necessarily going to have a lot to do with who’s in the room when the thing’s being made, and what power they’re able to claim. The watchword has to be “nothing about us without us.”
Note that I am not arguing that we need to “prioritize STEM education” above everything else, whatever that is, or god forbid that “everyone should learn to code.” But we need to get a whole lot closer to a paradigm of development by people rather than for them, or on their behalf. It’s not like this is by any means fully resolved inside urban planning, by the way — it’s a tension that’s been plainly evident since at least the mid-1960’s, and here I’m thinking of some of the more thoughtful critical responses to Paul Davidoff’s 1965 paper on advocacy planning. Not even the most skilled advocate will ever be able to fully evoke someone else’s lived experience of the world in all of the ways that are salient to a design challenge of this order, no matter how diligent or well-intentioned or empathic they may happen to be. So the task that lays before us is figuring out how ordinary people everywhere can meaningfully claim a voice in the development of the information-technical systems that now do so much to condition their life choices and chances.
Let’s be crystal-clear that the struggles of May left us with a legacy that is by no means uncomplicated. More than a few of those who threw their bodies on the barricades then and in the months that followed shamefully spearheaded the turn to neoliberalism just a few years down the road, as the intellectual winds started to blow from a different quarter. The language and symbols of the moment have often been coöpted in the decades since, used to advance political and commercial agendas that would surely have struck the demonstrators at the Sorbonne (and their counterparts in Chicago, Prague, Mexico City and elsewhere) as obscene. Adding insult to injury, images of May are more than occasionally invoked by sentimental veterans of the left as a stick to beat younger activists with — taking them to task for not somehow bringing society to its knees in a matter of weeks every time there’s a new wave of dissent, as though the entire economic/sociotechnical/media milieu hadn’t changed a whit in the half-century since Danny the Red leapt the CRS fences.
And yet, and yet. We (OK: I) return time and again to those indelible, iconic Atelier Populaire posters, and the images of Paris ripped up, barricaded, shrouded in a fog of war gas they so reliably conjure, for the pure hit of Situationist verve and sheer insurgent insouciance they offer, even at such a long remove. If there’s a task before us, it’s to ensure that those images live as channels of power from their moment to ours: that we avoid turning them into fetish, shrine for a dead and irretrievable vector of possibility, or worst of all, decor. If we use them properly, in fact, they’re a goad, a potent reminder that the impossible is still a thing that lays before us to demand, and to achieve.
Happy May Day, beloved.
A few days back, my friend and colleague John Bingham-Hall gave a great talk at the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, as part of a series on the urban commons organized by the wonderful Torange Khonsari. John’s talk was called “Common(s) Materials,” and it took up a question that’s central to many of my own concerns: is there some necessary relationship between the social or political qualities of a space claimed for the commons, and the materials used in articulating and furnishing that space?
What I want to do here is expand on some of John’s thoughts, and perhaps develop them further. What follows is more of a free association than anything else, and certainly not a well-formed argument; while I apologize if it’s not particularly structured, hopefully you’ll find some utility in it regardless.
What do you mean when you talk about “the commons”?
Let me first clarify what I mean by “the commons,” which, for present purposes, we can simply define as territory not governed by either the market or the state, and that is in principle available and accessible to all. (I’ve previously written about why I prefer the gerund form commoning, but we can set that to the side for now.)
Sites organized as commons have been in short supply in conurbations of the developed world ever since the so-called “urban renaissance,” or rediscovery and revalorization of the central city by the middle class, which started gathering steam around 1990. This reversal in the outward flow of population that had characterized the previous few decades sent land value in urban cores worldwide to vertiginous heights, and guaranteed that the worth of such parcels would henceforth be determined by their speculative exchange value, rather than any utility they might have as a dwelling-place for human beings. At the culmination of this process, a clear consensus regarding “the highest and best use” for land emerged worldwide, in the form of luxury condominiums whose units are traded as “sky bullion” among the members of a fairly shady global investor class consisting of oligarchs, autocrats, hedge-fund traders, private-equity managers and their children.
Under such circumstances, the only sites that were by and large left to popular control were waste and interstitial spaces, sacrifice zones too steep, difficult or prone to subsidence to develop profitably, or tracts where the projects of finance capital had failed, gone into receivership or otherwise been abandoned.
In the global South, for the most part, any such site is impossible to distinguish from the broader and thoroughly informal built fabric that may constitute the absolute majority of a city’s developed land area. It’s only in the metropolitan core of the developed world that sites occupied and maintained as commons tend to stand apart, not simply in terms of their political organizing principles but of their visual identity as well.
Is there any such thing as a “commons aesthetic”?
So can we establish that there is a coherent aesthetic associated with such spaces?
As I’ve noted here before, there is a distinct mode in which urban sites claimed for the commons present themselves to their users and the world. It’s present in most of the participatory spaces I’ve been so interested in over the past decade: you can see it deployed at Grand Voisins in Paris, el Campo de Cebada in Madrid, perhaps to a lesser extent at Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin, and it’s all over the projects of collective practices like Campo designer-builders Zuloark or the intriguing spatial provocateurs raumlabor Berlin. These spaces are characterized by the use of ultra-low-cost, widely accessible commodity materials readily manipulable by the untrained: shipping pallets and the wood reclaimed from them, CMUs of various types, construction tarps and rebar.
Cheap, lightweight components of this sort emphasize the mobile, participatory and rapidly reconfigurable qualities of common space — though perhaps at the cost of inadvertently underlining just how contingent such space generally is in the global North, just how vulnerable it is to clearance by the state and recuperation by the market. As John pointed out, there is a certain invitational character to them as well. You don’t require much in the way of training or prior experience to build surprisingly durable structures with these materials, which is the same reason you’ll find them at the heart of various self-build schemes of the past half-century. (Ken Isaacs’ visionary 1974 How To Build Your Own Living Structures is exemplary in this regard, though Walter Segal’s method has to be singled out for the longevity of its influence on actually-existing lifeways.)
Together, these elements comprise what I think of as the Received Commons Aesthetic, and as the name implies, it’s fair to say that it has by now become something of a mannerism. Further, its achievement on a given site may require outlays of capital or labor that the community claiming it for the commons cannot well tolerate. For example, raumlabor Berlin’s rather clever chairs, albeit using salvaged wood, are nevertheless purpose-built and labor-intensive. (Despite my own long-nurtured hopes for an eventual alignment of the informational commons with the spatial commons, at present I think it’s clear that the use of digitally-fabricated furniture in this context, like the designs licensed by Opendesk, can only be understood as hopelessly fetishistic, and the same thing probably goes for most appearances of open hardware.)
By contrast, the overwhelming majority of actual squats and social centers I’ve ever spent time in were furnished in an eclectic style that could best be described as “adaptive reuse,” with much of the interior furnishing either inherited from the building’s former occupants, or trashpicked and therefore freegan. In my experience, anyway, such avowedly anarchist spaces tend to be cozy with rugs, spavined La-Z-Boys and thick, insulating wall-hangings, if not outright gemütlich; the idea that their inhabitants would dedicate any effort at all to the design and construction of new furniture, especially amid the profound global surplus of manufactured objects available more or less for the taking, strikes me as, uh, questionable. (John ended his talk with the provocation that the most appropriate seating for spaces of participatory democracy would be the £5 folding chair from Ikea, rather than anything intended to function as a visual signifier of the commons; the equivalent, for most of the emerging world, would of course be the ubiquitous knockoff Monobloc.)
Why does any of this matter?
In his comments, John raised the question of performative transparency, as epitomized by Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome. At the Reichstag, glass is both denotative and connotative. You can literally see through it, of course, from the observer galleries to the workings of the chamber below, and it’s therefore supposed not merely to signify but actually enact the idea that democracy is something that takes place in public: the implication is that in present-day Germany, the deliberative process itself is as accessible, available and accountable as its image.
We can certainly wonder whether this is now the case, or ever has been. But as John pointed out, these performative qualities of glass do raise the question of what is implied when we choose to use other materials in our constructions of democratic space. In particular, he asked, “Does wood symbolically trap politics in the realm of the intimate?” In other words, does the very humility of the materials that together comprise the Received Commons Aesthetic consign the active practice of democracy to the strictly local, or suggest that there are no larger scales at which participatory praxis is appropriate?
In my own flavor of politics (which, as you may have noticed here and elsewhere, I’m increasingly comfortable characterizing as “neo-Bookchinian”), this may not matter so much. My feeling is that participatory deliberative processes work best in assemblies of about the Dunbar number — not at all coincidentally, the size of a New England-style town meeting — and that effective governance in both municipalities and larger territories can be achieved by networked federations thereof. Nevertheless, it’s a question worth taking seriously.
But there’s a more troubling implication raised by the Received Commons Aesthetic, which is that is so easily recognizable, so straightforwardly characterizable and so readily replicable that it can not merely stand for participatory politics but replace it entirely. If we see the RCA in admittedly interesting hybrid spaces like the Institut for (x) in Aarhus or the R-Urban project just northwest of Paris, there is however no suggestion that these sites are owned and managed collectively, for the benefit of all. And needless to say, anything so readily reducible to pastiche can also be encountered in watered-down form, at commercial sites like Seoul’s Ssamziegil — the latter places that do not remotely constitute a commons in any way, but clearly wish to convey the sense of openness, adaptivity, porosity and invitationality we associate with liberated spaces. What such sites imply is that the presence of architecture based on pallets, CMUs, tarps and other mobile elements may perform radical inclusion and participation where they do happen to be present, but also suggest them where they are not.
Indeed, at places like Boxpark and the truly vile Artworks, the aesthetic isn’t merely emptied of meaning but actually inverted: Boxpark is nothing more than a way of turning an otherwise marginal interstitial site into a buzz- and revenue-generating minimall, while the similar Artworks is deployed where the Heygate Estate housing complex once stood, camouflaging developer Lend Lease’s deep complicity in the council’s own program of social cleansing. (Apartments at the new Elephant Park were marketed, and evidently sold, exclusively to overseas investors, while the developers failed to actually provide any of the notionally affordable units they’d committed to.)
What all this says to me is that there is great value in establishing radically participatory spatial situations that do not greatly resemble the Received Commons Aesthetic, or at the very least pushing outward our notions of what common space can look like. Here my model has always been the microurbanism of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, a gorgeously-conceived and carefully detailed cluster of dwelling units surrounding shared service, conviviality and circulation spaces. As private property owned by a single individual, the thicket of buildings that constitutes Moriyama House is clearly in no way a commons as we’ve defined it. But in edging away from the atomized nature of life in discrete apart-ments, it points toward what it might mean to dwell in common, and perhaps suggests something about the ways in which space can help individual tenants modulate public and private as need be.
Like raumlabor’s chairs, such proposals certainly run afoul of that tendency Kurt Vonnegut once perceptively identified as one of the primary flaws in the human character: that “everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” There’s no doubt a great deal of justice in the idea that by the metric of sustainability, at least, the most radical thing one could possibly do is to reclaim existing spaces, leverage the material-energetic investments already sunk in them, and perhaps retrain them if necessary. By this ethic, the grandeur comes to live with the otherwise unglamorous practices of maintenance and long-term stewardship.
But there’s also something to be said for the idea that beauty, craft and rigor in design ought to be reclaimed from the market — that spaces by, of and for the people need not read as or be ad-hoc, that they might instead be marked by certain aesthetics we more often associate with luxury and the commercial high end. Dating back at least as far as Ruskin, Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, this is not, of course, a novel suggestion. It acquires new relevance, though, in a period of increasingly democratic and high-resolution control over the distribution of matter.
Organized as housing cooperatives or community land trusts or their equivalents, there’s no reason emergent spaces in common need to partake of the Received Commons Aesthetic — especially if it is more than occasionally dishonest in what it implies about the nature of the sites marked by it. With new digital design and construction techniques becoming relatively accessible, and powerful ways of building and dwelling together becoming available to learn from, it would be disappointing if the participatory and collectively managed spaces of the future failed to transcend the visual language of those few examples that exist at present.
I personally enjoy the Received Commons Aesthetic, just as I kinda dig the funky Ken Isaacs/early Whole Earth Catalog vibe of the various, deeply clever mobile assemblies Zuloark and their collaborators have built at el Campo. But what I enjoy more is the sense I have whenever I’m lucky enough to be on that parcel of land, which at that is not so different from what I remember about Kunsthaus Tacheles, or the various squats in which I’ve ever laid my head for the night: that here is freedom, and what’s more, freedom of a kind the market cannot offer at any rate or price. And because freedom is only another word for privilege unless it’s truly shared by all, it feels necessary, now, to begin peeling away that experience of freedom from the material undercarriage that implies but only occasionally actually supports its becoming.
My sense is that the Aesthetic, and the use of the materials it’s based on to construct and articulate spaces in common, will persist for some time yet to come, for all the reasons of low cost, accessibility and invitationality we’ve discussed. I hope, though, that we can imagine a time when such spaces aren’t limited to those that can be established on the scraps from late capitalism’s table, using offcuts from its voracious machinery. We should be thinking about what the urban commons might look like in triumph, when it can truly leverage all of the organizing, funding and building capabilities this moment in history offers us — when we dare to demand something reaching beyond a minimum viable utopia, and settle for nothing less than the entire city held in common, for the use and enjoyment of all who dwell in it and bring it to life.
My thanks to John Bingham-Hall, to his co-panelists Adam Kaasa and Nicolas Fonty for their insightful presentations, and to Torange Khonsari for her generosity in putting it all together.