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On the received aesthetic of the urban commons, and transcending it

Edmund Sumner's lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa's Moriyama House

Edmund Sumner’s lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House: What the commons could look like, but generally does not

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.

Antecedents of the minimum viable utopia: Cliff Harper’s “Visions” series

Clifford
Clifford Harper, Vision 1: Collectivised Garden, in Radical Technology, 1976.

Twenty-five years ago, just after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I moved into an anarchist co-op in the Upper Haight. (If you know the neighborhood at all well, you’ve almost certainly stood beneath my room: the bay window jutting directly above the ATM on Belvedere Street, at the time and for many years thereafter the only one for over a mile in any direction.) Though its every fiber was saturated with the sad pong of sexually deprived male bitterhippies in early middle age, the flat nevertheless (/therefore?) boasted one of the most impressive specialist libraries I’ve ever encountered.

No doubt because many of the flat’s residents had historically been associated with the Haight’s anarchist bookstore, Bound Together, its shelves had over the years accumulated hundreds of rare and unusual books on squatting, DIY technique, self-housing, revolutionary syndicalism, the politics of everyday life and so on. Among these was a curious 1976 volume called Radical Technology. Something between a British Whole Earth Catalog and an urban Foxfire book, Radical Technology presented its readers with a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for self-reliant, off-the-grid living.

Each of the book’s sections was fronted by an elaborate illustration depicting what typical British spatial arrangements — terraced housing, allotments, council estates, parish churches — might look like after they’d been reclaimed by autonomist collectives, in some not too terribly distant future. Unlike some of the more heroic imaginaries that were floating around in that immediate pre-Web epoch, you could readily imagine yourself living in their simple everydayness, making a life in the communal kitchen and sauna and printmaking workshop they depicted. From the material-economic perspective of someone residing in a shabby flat in the Upper Haight circa 1991, struggling to eke out a living as the city’s worst and clumsiest bike messenger, it would clearly be a good life, too: austere, perhaps, in some ways, but fulfilling and even generous in every register that really counts. (To be sure, this was a sense the illustrations shared with contemporary real-world outcroppings of late hippie technology in both its particularly British and its Bay Area variants, and I’d seen traces of it crop up in squats and urban homesteads back East, wherever someone resident had been infected by the Whole Earth/Shelter/Pattern Language ethos.)

I clean forgot about Radical Technology for a quarter century, but I never did forget those drawings. I had no way of reconsidering them, though, let alone pointing anybody else at them, until the other day, when Nick Durrant recognized my vague handwavings for what they were: a description of the “Visions” series anarchist illustrator Clifford Harper contributed to the mid-70’s British journal Undercurrents. (These issues of Undercurrents were subsequently anthologized as the book I’d come across; here’s scans of Harper’s entire series.) I had to smile when I read the account of “Visions” on Harper’s Wikipedia entry, as it could not possibly have been more on the nose:

These were highly detailed and precise illustrations showing scenes of post-revolutionary self-sufficiency, autonomy and alternative technology in urban and rural settings, becoming almost de rigueur on the kitchen wall of any self-respecting radical’s commune, squat or bedsit during the 1970s.

My memory of Harper’s “Visions” returned with such force not because I’d suddenly developed nostalgia for the lifeways of alternative San Francisco in the first ripples of its death spiral — though those house-feedingly enormous vegetarian stir-fries sure were tasty — but because the way of doing and being they imagined seems relevant again, and possibly more broadly so than ever before.

Something is clearly in the air. The combination of distributed, renewable microgrid power with digital fabrication, against a backdrop of networked organization, urban occupation and direct action, seems to be catalyzing into a coherent, shared conception of a way forward from the mire we find ourselves in. Similar notions crop up in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society (the particular naivety of which I’ll have more to say about in short order), in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, and the same convergence of possibilities animated my own first pass at articulating such a conception, a lashed-up framework I rather cheekily called the “minimum viable utopia.”

These conceptions of the possible are all pretty exciting, at least to those of us who share a certain cast of mind. What they’re all missing, though, to a one, is a Cliff Harper: someone to illustrate them, to populate them with recognizable characters, to make them vivid and real. We need them to feel real, so when we print them out and hang them on the walls of flats where the rent is Too Damn High and the pinboard surfaces of the cubicles where we grind away the mindless hours, we remember what it is we’re working so hard to bring into being.

At the very least, we need them so that those who follow us a quarter century from now understand that they too belong to a lineage of thought, belief and action, just as anyone who’s ever been inspired in their work by the Harper illustrations does. Some days, just knowing that line through time exists is enough to get you through the day.

Making the place of democracy

Compare and contrast:

SHoP Architects, Dunescape, for the 2001 MoMA/P.S.1 courtyard competition.

SHoP Architects, Dunescape, 2001

Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond, 2005 Serpentine Pavilion.

Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond, Serpentine Pavilion, 2005

Zuloark Collective, el Campo de Cebada, Madrid, 2010.

cebada

raumlabor Berlin, The Generator, 2010 (image by Flickr user raumforschung.)

raumlabor Berlin, The Generator, 2010, by Flickr user raumforschung

Two of these projects involve the deployment of digital design and production techniques to create platforms for small-group conviviality, nestled inside larger spaces generally associated with high culture and the flows of capital that support it. The other two involve the use of low-end, commodity material to create platforms for face-to-face deliberation and the practice of democracy (as well as conviviality), deployed in marginal, interstitial or outright occupied spaces.

The appearance of a parallel evolution in these admittedly cherry-picked examples may say more about my wishful thinking than anything else. But it seems to me that there’s clearly something going on here, in the convergence of sophisticated digital design, on-site fabrication and software for the near-real-time user configuration of space in what we might call lightweight placemaking. In all of these projects, we see an emphasis on rapid mountability and demountability, and the mobility and highly sensitive user control they afford. We see high technique brought to bear on utterly commodified, widely available, broadly affordable (even free) materials. And we see these things used to bring people together, both to enjoy one another’s company and to discuss such matters of concern as arise before them.

There’s an especially lovely symbolism to the use of such humble materials in making the place of democracy, and if the use of commodity lumber doesn’t involve quite the same material rhetoric as the use of marble in the ennobling public spaces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well, neither is the public being invoked the same.

— SEE ALSO: Francis Cape’s We Sit Together, a history of the wooden bench in the American intentional-community tradition. Image courtesy Murray Guy Gallery.

Francis Cape's Utopian Benches at Murray Guy Gallery, NYC, 2013

On Adaptive Ecologies

Over the weekend I finally got a chance to sit down with Theodore Spyropoulos‘s new book Adaptive Ecologies, which I’ve been looking forward to for a bit now. (Thanks, Steph!) Spyropolous is an instructor at London’s Architectural Association and director of the school’s Design Research Laboratory, and Adaptive Ecologies is his and his students’ attempt to push arguments about the computational generation of form a little further downfield.

The book’s subtitle says it all, sorta: “Correlated systems of living.” Broadly, the argument being made here is that new technologies allow us to fuse architecture’s formal qualities with its functional or performative ones. We can imagine the world populated with entirely new kinds of structures: each an active, adaptive mesh capable of responding to conditions of use, and expressing this response through its macroscopic physical manifestation, at every scale from unit (house) to cluster (building) to collective (megastructure or masterplan). What Spyropolous and his student-collaborators are trying to develop are the strategies or vocabularies one would use to devise structures like this.

Another way of putting things is to say that they’re attempting to link or join the two primary modes in which computation currently informs architecture. On one hand, we have the procedural, iterative, processor-intensive design techniques that have been in vogue for the past decade or so; on the other, we have the potential we’ve discussed so often here, that of networked informatics to endow structures and environments with the ability to sense and respond to varying conditions of occupancy, load or use. Adaptive Ecologies binds these threads together, and what results is a potent intellectual figure: smart city as architecture machine.

This is an intriguing argument, to say the least, and its evocation of urban space as a vast, active, living information system resonates profoundly with certain of my own concerns. Further, Spyropoulos admirably attempts to situate this work in its proper context, adducing a secret history in which his students’ towering blebs and polypy complexes recognizably descend from a lineage of minor heroes that includes Bucky Fuller, Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists, Gordon Pask and Cedric Price.

All of the usual tropes are present in Adaptive Ecologies: DLA and its manifestation in coral and Hele-Shaw cells; genetic algorithms, agent-based models and cellular automata; stigmergy and swarming logics; siphonophores and mangroves; even Frei Otto’s experiments with the self-organizing potential of wet thread.

But troublingly, these organic processes are used to generate designs that are not shown to be “adaptive” at all — at least not in the materials reproduced here. My primary beef with the book turns out to be the same I hold against the contemporary school of parametricists (which runs the entire gamut of seriousness, interest and credibility, from Zaha Hadid herself and her in-house ideologist Patrik Schumacher straight through to charlatans like Mitchell Joachim): that it fetishizes not merely form but the process of structuration. Or really, that it fetishizes the process of structuration to the detriment of usable form.

To make a fetish of these generative processes is to misunderstand their meaning, or to think that they are not already operating in our built environments. I promise you these algorithms of self-organization are always already there in the city — in the distribution of activities, in the dynamics of flow, in every last thing but the optical shape. The beehive’s form is epiphenomenal of its organizing logic, and so is the city’s. To reify such an organizing logic in the shape of a building strikes me as stumbling into a category error. Worse: as magical thinking, as though we’d made the rhizome an emblem of state to be carved in the façades of our buildings, where once we might have inscribed sheaves of wheat or birds of prey.

Consider the contribution of usual-suspect Makoto Sei Watanabe. Watanabe is an architect who believes that architecture must replace unreliable designerly inspiration with a Science valid in all times and places, and I’ve beaten up on him before. He’s represented here by a series of sculptures collectively called WEB FRAME, one version of which adorns the Iidabashi station of Tokyo’s Oedo subway line.

As is usual with Watanabe, he invokes “neural network[s], genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence” to explain the particular disposition of elements you can see in Iidabashi station. But WEB FRAME is best understood as an ornamental appliqué. It’s nicer to look at than a bare ceiling, arguably, but that’s all it is. Despite its creator’s rhetoric, its form at any given moment bears no relationship whatsoever to the flow of passengers through the subway system, the performative capacities of the station itself, or any potential regulation of either. It’s the outer sign of something, entirely detached from its substance. It adapts to nothing. It is, in a word, static.

Although it may be a particularly weak example, Watanabe’s work is marred by the same problems that afflict the more interesting work elsewhere in the volume:

Not one of the projects illustrated uses parameters derived from real-time soundings to generate its form, even notionally. For some projects, the parameters used in an iterative design process appear to have been chosen specifically for the formal properties that result from their selection; for others, the seed values occupy an extremely wide range, producing a family of related design solutions rather than a single iconic form.

There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with either approach. But unless I’m missing something really basic, the whole point of this exercise is to devise structures whose properties change over relatively short spans of time (minutes to months) in response to changing conditions. In turn, that would seem to imply some way of coupling the parameters driving the structures’ form to one or another value extracted from their local environment. And while all of the student work featured in the book draws on the beguilingly stochastic processes of structuration I enumerated above, only one of them claims to have used data gathered in this way as its input or seed state.

This is Team Shampoo‘s exploration of “hair-optimi[z]ed detour networks,” and it’s both wildly problematic in its own right and emblematic of the worrisome tendencies that run throughout the volume. Shampoo’s design for a tower complex uses autonomous computational agents to simulate morning and evening pedestrian flows through a district, and in turn uses these to derive “optimal” linkages and points of attachment for circulation structures hardwired into the urban fabric itself. The results are certainly striking enough, but they are precisely optimized: that is, narrowly perfected for one use case, and one use case only.

Of course, we know that conditions of pedestrian flow change over the course of the week, over the seasons of the year, with economic cycles and the particular disposition of services and amenities reflected in the city. A conventional street grid, especially one with short blocks, is already more adaptive to changes in these circumstances than any lattice of walk-tubes in the sky, because it allows people to choose from a far wider variety of alternative paths from origin to destination. In designs like Shampoo’s, we’re still making the same blunder Jane Jacobs accused the High Modernists of making: mistaking the appearance of something for its reality.

And if the point of all this applied parametricism is to permit each building or cluster of buildings to take on the form appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, that I can tell, only a single one of the projects featured appears in states responding to multiple boundary conditions. This is Team CXN-Reaction’s Swarm effort, which proposes housing units that collapse flat when not occupied, stacked in a snaky concertina reaching to the sky. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to put a finger on any particular purpose sufficient to justify this tactic of expansion and contraction, unless they’re arguing that the long-term maintenance of an unused unit is significantly cheaper in the collapsed state, but it does at least show a system that is in principle capable of multiple configurations.) So while Adaptive Ecologies itself acknowledges three registers of iterative design — behavioral, self-organizational and morphogenetic — it appears to be only the latter that is given any serious consideration.

– More seriously, none of the structures featured appear to be provided with any actual mechanism that would permit dynamic adaptation. We can be generous, and assume that these structures are notionally equipped with the sensors, actuators and other infrastructural componentry necessary to the work of transformation — designed, perhaps, by students in other modules of the AA, or left up to hands-on experimental practices like The Living. But nowhere in these renderings is any such thing stipulated (again, that I could tell on a first reading), and that makes the whole outing little more than a formal exercise.

I suppose the feeling is that it’s far too early in the prehistory of adaptive architecture for such details, which would be bound to obsolesce rapidly in any event. But even where there is a specific mechanism identified — notably Team Architecta’s rubber joint, permitting 360-degree rotation and a variety of geometric configurations — it’s never explained how it could possibly function as a component of anything but a model. Is it supposed to work hydraulically? Pneumatically? Through shape-memory myoelectrics? And how is access for maintenance and upgrade supposed to be accomplished? (Scaling even a few panes of one of Chuck Hoberman’s expanding surfaces to room size, and keeping the installation working under conditions of daily use, required constant physical debugging.) It’s hard to imagine, say, Bucky Fuller settling for a sketch of one of his tensegrity structures, and not working questions like these out in detail.

No attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with the way buildings are actually built. I am perfectly willing to believe that, at some point in the diiiiiistant future, self-powering, self-assembling, self-regulating structures will be “built” one molecule at a time. (At that point, the build/inhabit/maintain distinction would be meaningless, actually, as provisions for various kinds of shelter would presumably arise and subside as required.) But until and unless that point is reached, there will always be human fabricators, contractors and construction workers involved in the assembly of macroscale structures, and if what you intend to build is to be anything other than a one-off proof of concept, that means standardized processes at scale. Institutional and disciplinary conventions. Standard components. Generally-accepted practices and procedures. At no point do the structures described in Adaptive Ecologies coincide with any of these provisions of the contemporary praxis of production.

Again, yes: this is “just a design lab.” But where are these details to be worked out, if not in a design lab? Thousands of kids around the planet already know how to use Maya to crank out unbuildably biomorphic abstractions — functioning as a hinge between these “futuristic” visions and plans which might be realized is where the real discipline and the real inspiration now lie. (I won’t comment for now on the obvious irony that maintaining all of these structures as designed would require the most extraordinary specialist interventions in practice, taking them still further from the possibility that residents themselves could usefully modify or adapt them.)

– Finally, no attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with any actual practice of living. In a book stuffed full of the most extravagant imagery, one illustration in particular — the work of Danilo Arsic, Yoshimasa Hagiwara and Hala Sheikh’s Team Architecta — stands out for me as an indication that the discipline is speaking only to itself. It features the by-now-familiar typology of a high-rise service-and-circulation core studded with plug-in living pods, the units of which rather resemble mutant avian skulls. Put aside for a second the certainty that this Kikutake– or Archigram-style typology, first articulated in the late 1950s, would have enveloped the globe by now if there were anything remotely appealing or useful about it. What concerns me here is the frankly malevolent appearance of Architecta’s take on the trope (which just between you and me strikes me as kind of awesome, but which I cannot imagine being built in any city this side of Deadworld).

I know, I know: tastes change over time, just as they vary from place to place. Still, who wants to live in a structure that looks like nothing so much as a ravening gyre of supremely Angry Birds? Unless you can somehow convince me that you could gather enough devotees of True Norwegian Black Metal in one place to populate a shrieking kvlt arcology, I think this one’s an index of parametric design’s weirdly airless inwardness.

I get that this is an aesthetic of the age — “gigaflop Art Nouveau,” I called it a few years back. (1998, to be precise.) But as an aesthetic, it can and should stand on its own, without being married to an entirely separate discourse about responsive urbanism. As a casebook of purely formal studies and strategies, Adaptive Ecologies is by and large reasonably convincing, and here and there very much so. It’s all the rhetoric about biomimetic or physiomimetic processes of structuration somehow leading to more, rather than less, flexible assemblages that’s its weakest point, and unfortunately that’s the very trellis that Spyropolous has used to train his vines on. I welcome and applaud what he’s up to in Adaptive Ecologies, but as far as I can tell the attempt to devise a vocabulary of dynamic form that is capable of change over relatively short time scales still awaits its fundamental pattern language.

And if nothing else, it’s surreal to look up from this book and gaze out the window onto a city where SHoP’s towers are considered architecturally daring, and in which the overwhelmingly fundamental problem isn’t the timidity of its design but the inability to provide all residents with decent, affordable housing.

Henri Lefebvre once asked, “Could it be that the space of the finest cities came into being after the fashion of plants and flowers in a garden?” I myself happen to believe that this is true not merely of the finest cities, but of all cities: that they are given form by generative processes as organic as any of those so beloved of the parametricists, operating at a scale and subtlety beyond the ability of any merely optical apparatus to detect. It is when we finally learn to take the measure of those processes that we will stand ready to author truly adaptive ecologies.

One final note: it’s only fair to point out that much of the work on view in Adaptive Ecologies is on the order of eight years old, and that a great deal can change in that kind of time. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be held to every position I advanced in 2005.

Stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery redux: On design interventions intended to make space inhospitable

From Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk, 1999. The context is a discussion of various physical interventions that have been made in the fabric of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station:

On a walk through the station with [director of “homeless outreach” Richard] Rubel and the photographer Ovie Carter one summer day in 1997…I found it essentially bare of unhoused people. I told Rubel of my interest in the station as a place that had once sustained the lives of unhoused people, and asked if he could point out changes that had been made so that it would be less inviting as a habitat where subsistence elements could be found in one place. He pointed out a variety of design elements of the station which had been transformed, helping to illustrate aspects of the physical structure that had formerly enabled it to serve as a habitat.

He took us to a closet near the Seventh Avenue entrance. “We routinely had panhandlers gathering here, and you could see this closet area where that heavy bracket is, that was a niche.”

“What do you mean by ‘a niche’?”

“This spot right over here was where a panhandler would stand. So my philosophy is, you don’t create nooks and corners. You draw people out into the open, so that your police officers and your cameras have a clean line of sight [emphasis added], so people can’t hide either to sleep or to panhandle.”

Next he brought us to a retail operation with a square corner. “Someone here can sleep and be protected by this line of sight. A space like this serves nobody’s purpose [emphasis added]. So if their gate closes, and somebody sleeps on the floor over here, they are lying undetected. So what you try to do is have people construct their building lines straight out, so you have a straight line of sight with no areas that people can hide behind.”

Next he brought us to what he called a “dead area.” “I find this staircase provides limited use to the station. Amtrak does not physically own this lobby area. We own the staircase and the ledge here. One of the problems that we have in the station is a multi-agency situation where people know what the fringe areas are, the gray areas, that are less than policed. So they serve as focal points for the homeless population. We used to see people sleeping on this brick ledge every night. I told them I wanted a barrier that would prevent people from sleeping on both sides of this ledge. This is an example fo turning something around to get the desired effect.”

“Another situation we had was around the fringes of the taxi roadway. We had these niches that were open. The Madison Square Garden customers that come down from the games would look down and see a community of people living there, as well as refuse that they leave behind.” He installed a fencing project to keep the homeless from going behind corners, drawing them out into the open [emphasis added]. “And again,” said Rubel, “the problem has gone away.”

This logic, of course, is immanent in the design of a great deal of contemporary public urban space, but you rarely find it expressed quite as explicitly as it is here. Compare, as well, Jacobs (1961) on the importance to vibrant street life (and particularly of children’s opportunities for play) of an irregular building line at the sidewalk edge.

How to bring a Systems/Layers walkshop to your town

Crossposted with Do projects.

The response to the Systems/Layers walkshop we held in Wellington a few months back was tremendously gratifying, and given how much people seem to have gotten out of it we’ve been determined to set up similar events, in cities around the planet, ever since. (Previously on Do, and see participant CJ Wells’s writeup here.)

We’re fairly far along with plans to bring Systems/Layers to Barcelona in June (thanks Chris and Enric!), have just started getting into how we might do it in Taipei (thanks Sophie and TH!), and understand from e-mail inquiries that there’s interest in walkshops in Vancouver and Toronto as well. This is, of course, wonderfully exciting to us, and we’re hoping to learn as much from each of these as we did from Wellington.

What we’ve discovered is that the initial planning stages are significantly smoother if potential sponsors and other partners understand a little bit more about what Systems/Layers is, what it’s for and what people get out of it. The following is a brief summary designed to answer just these questions, and you are more than welcome to use it to raise interest in your part of the world. We’d love to hold walkshops in as many cities as are interested in having them.

What.
Systems/Layers is a half-day “walkshop,” held in two parts. The first portion of the activity is dedicated to a slow and considered walk through a reasonably dense and built-up section of the city at hand. What we’re looking for are appearances of the networked digital in the physical, and vice versa: apertures through which the things that happen in the real world drive the “network weather,” and contexts in which that weather affects what people see, confront and are able to do.

Participants are asked to pay particular attention to:

– Places where information is being collected by the network.
– Places where networked information is being displayed.
– Places where networked information is being acted upon, either by people directly, or by physical systems that affect the choices people have available to them.

You’ll want to bring seasonally-appropriate clothing, good comfortable shoes, and a camera. We’ll provide maps of “the box,” the area through which we’ll be walking.

This portion of the day will take around 90 minutes, after which we gather in a convenient “command post” to map, review and discuss the things we’ve encountered. We allot an hour for this, but since we’re inclined to choose a command post offering reasonably-priced food and drink, discussion can go on as long as participants feel like hanging out.

Who.
Do projects’ Nurri Kim and Adam Greenfield plan and run the workshop, with the assistance of a qualified local expert/maven/mayor. (In Wellington, Tom Beard did a splendid job of this, for which we remain grateful.)

We feel the walkshop works best if it’s limited to roughly 30 participants in total, split into two teams for the walking segment and reunited for the discussion.

How.
In order for us to bring Systems/Layers to your town, we need the sponsorship of a local arts, architecture or urbanist organization — generally, but not necessarily, a non-profit. They’ll cover the cost of our travel and accommodation, and defray these expenses by charging for participation in the walkshop. In turn, we’ll ensure both that the registration fee remains reasonable, and that one or two scholarship places are available for those who absolutely cannot afford to participate otherwise.

If you’re a representative of such an organization, and you’re interested in us putting on a Systems/Layers walkshop in your area, please get in touch. If you’re not, but you still want us to come, you could try to put together enough participants who are willing to register and pay ahead of time, so we could book flights and hotels. But really, we’ve found that the best way to do things is to approach a local gallery, community group or NGO and ask them to sponsor the event.

At least as we have it set up now, you should know that we’re not financially compensated in any way for our organization of these walkshops, beyond having our travel, accommodation and transfer expenses covered.

When.
Our schedule tends to fill up 4-6 months ahead of time, so we’re already talking about events in the (Northern Hemisphere) spring of 2011. And of course, it’s generally cheapest to book flights and hotels well in advance. If you think Systems/Layers would be a good fit for your city, please do get in touch as soon as you possibly can. As we’ve mentioned, we’d be thrilled to work with you, and look forward to hearing from you with genuine anticipation and excitement. Wellington was amazing, Barcelona is shaping up to be pretty special, and Taipei, if we can pull it off, will be awesome. It’d mean a lot to us to add your city to this list. Thanks!

Street, invented; mind, blown; cowpaths, traced

So I’m sprawled across my bed last night, reading Spiro Kostof’s The City Shaped, alternately being irritated by its unwieldy size and reveling in the huge, detailed illustrations that size affords, when I trip over this passage:

Khirokitia in Cyprus had a street, the first I know of, and the unwalled settlement stretched along its length in a pattern of growth that was potentially open-ended.

Had a street. The implication here won’t have escaped you, any more than it did me: As if any such thing was a novelty. As if all the human settlements that came before lacked linear path elements. As if the very idea had had to be invented. By someone.

How grateful am I that at the age of forty-one, I can still have my mind well and truly blown, by a sentence thirty pages into a book I could have picked up at any point in the last nineteen years? And because that is what one does these days when one’s mind is blown, I tweeted it.

Obligatory GMTA: a few hours after I hit post, David Smith mailed to remind me of this Matt Webb gem from 2006. (Rereading Matt’s comments, it’s just remotely conceivable that if my copy of The City Shaped sported heat maps of frequently highlighted passages, I wouldn’t have found the coincidence so startling.)

But back on topic: If something so fundamental to our conception of the world as a street had to be proposed by some specific human or group of humans, what measures that our posterity will regard as equally staggeringly obvious and self-evident remain to be invented?

Transmobility, part II

Part II of our exploration of transmobility. I want to caution you, again, that this is very much a probe.

Perhaps it’s best to start by backing up a few steps and explaining a little better what I’m trying to do here. What I’m arguing is that the simple act of getting around the city is in the process of changing — as how could it not, when both paths themselves and the vehicles that travel them are becoming endowed with the power to sense and adapt?

Accordingly, I believe we need to conceive of a networked mobility, a transmobility: one that inherently encompasses different modes, that conceptualizes urban space as a field to be traversed and provides for the maximum number of pathways through that field, that gathers up and utilizes whatever resources are available, and that delivers this potential to people in terms they understand.

Yesterday, I posed the question as to how we might devise a transmobility that met all of these conditions, while at the same time acknowledging two additional, all-but-contradictory desiderata. These were the desire, on the one hand, to smoothen out our interactions with transit infrastructure until vehicular transportation becomes as natural as putting one foot in front of another, and on the other to fracture journeys along their length such that any arbitrary point can become a node of experience and appreciation in and of itself. Any system capable of meeting these objectives would clearly present us with a limit case…but then, I believe that limits are there to be approached.

Finally, I’m addressing all of these questions from a relatively unusual disciplinary perspective, which is that of the service, interaction or experience designer. The downside of this is that I’m all but certainly disinterring matters a professional transit planner or mobility designer would regard as settled questions, while missing the terms of art or clever hacks they would call upon as second nature. But there’s a significant upside, too, which is that I’m natively conversant with the interactive systems that will increasingly condition any discussion of mobility, both respectful of their power and professionally wary of the representations of reality that reach us through them.

So petrified, the landscape grows

In addressing the questions I posed yesterday, then, I’m inclined to start by holding up for examination some of the ways in which trips, routes and journeys are currently represented by networked artifacts. Maybe there’s something that can be gleaned from these practices, whether as useful insights or musts-to-avoid.

I would start by suggesting that the proper unit of analysis for any consideration of movement through urban space has to be the whole journey. This means grasping the seemingly obvious fact that from the user’s perspective, all movement from origin to destination comprises a single, coherent journey, no matter how many times a change from mode to mode is required.

I say “seemingly obvious,” because the interactive artifacts I’m familiar with generally haven’t represented circumstances this way.

Take a simple example: a trip that involves walking to the nearest bus stop, riding the bus downtown, and finally walking from the point you alight from the bus to your ultimate destination. Some of the more supple route-planning applications already capture this kind of utterly normal experience — HopStop, for example, is quite good, at least in New York City — but you’d be surprised how many still do not. To date, they’ve tended to treat journeys in terms solely of their discrete component segments: an in-car GPS system plots automotive routes, a transit route-planner provides for trips from station to station, and so on.

But people think about movements through the city in terms that are simultaneously more personal and more holistic. We think of getting to work, stopping off to pick up a few things for dinner on the way home, or heading crosstown to meet friends for drinks.

So contemporary representations already seem well-suited to one of our criteria, in that the seams between methods of getting around are stark and clear, and perhaps even stark and clear enough to imply the self-directed moments of experience that attend a journey on either side. As far as a GPS display is generally concerned, what happens in the car stays in the car, and what happens next is up to you.

Certainly as compared to some overweening, totalizing system that aimed at doing everything and wound up doing none of it well, there’s something refreshing about this humility of ambition. On the other hand, though, such systems manifestly do not lend themselves well to depicting an important variety of end-to-end trips through the city, which are those trips that involve one or more changes of conveyance.

Think back to our rudimentary example, above. It would be useful if, for the portion of the journey on which you take the bus, that bus “understood” that it was essentially functioning as a connector, a linkage between one segment traversed on foot and another.

And this is still truer of journeys involving intermodal junctures where both traffic and the systemic requirements of timetables and schedules permit you less freedom in planning than walking or cycling might. Such journey plans need to be adjusted on the fly, drawing in data from other sources to accurately account for unfolding events as they happen, with signaling carried through to the infrastructure itself so that some delay, misrouting or rupture in the original plan results in the traveler being offered a panoply of appropriate alternatives.

What if, instead of living with the vehicle, the representational system lived with the traveler, and could move with them across and between modes? On this count, we’re obviously most of the way there already: with turn-by-turn directions provided by Google Maps, the iPhone and its Android-equipped competitors spell howling doom for the single-purpose devices offered by Garmin and TomTom. The emergence of truly ambient approaches to informatic provisioning would guarantee that a traveler never lacked for situational awareness, whether or not they had access to personal devices at any given moment.

What if we could provide these systems with enough local intelligence to “know” that a specified endpoint offers n possibilities for onward travel? What if this intelligence was informed by a city’s mesh of active public objects, so that travel times and schedules and real-time conditions could all be taken into account? And finally, instead of presenting journey segments as self-contained, what if we treated them as if they enjoyed magnet physics?

Then, should you want (or be forced by exigencies beyond your control) to alter your travel plans, you could snap out the mode you’re currently using, and swap in another that met whatever bounding constraints you specified, whether those had to do with speed or accessibility or privacy or shelter from the weather. The RATP‘s head of Prospective and Innovative Design, Georges Amar, speaks of enabling transmodality, and this is just what we begin to approach here.

The distinction I’m trying to capture is essentially the same as that Lucy Suchman drew between global, a priori plans on the one hand and situated actions on the other. The result would be a more responsive journey-planning system that, given any set of coordinates in space and time, is capable of popping its head up, having a look around and helping you determine what your best options are.

Moments in modal culture

This isn’t to say that we don’t also conceive of mobility in terms of particular modes of travel, and all the allegiances and affinities they give rise to. As Ivan Illich put it, “Tell me how fast you go, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

It’s not simply the coarser distinctions that tell, either. These shades of meaning and interpretation are crucial even among and between people who share a mode of transport: a fixie rider self-evidently has a different conception of the human-bicycle mesh than a Brompton fan does, while New Yorkers will know perfectly well what I mean if I distinguish two friends by describing them respectively as a 6 train rider and a 7 type. (Though not directly analogous, you can summon up similar images by evoking the L Taraval versus the J Church, the Yamanote-sen against the Hibiya-sen, or the 73 bus against the 15.)

Those of us who ride public transit form personal connections with our stops, our stations and even with particular linkages between lines, and I can only imagine that both our cities and our lives would be impoverished if we gave that up. But there’s no particular reason we need to; all I’m suggesting here is that the total journey needs to be represented as such by all the networked systems traversed in the course of a given outing.

Neither, in devising our transmobility system, can we afford to neglect the specificities and particularities of the component systems that furnish us with its articulated linkages. If one train line isn’t interchangeable with another in the hearts and minds of their riders, the same is true of other kinds of frameworks.

For example, we can’t merely plug some abstract shared bicycle service into the mesh of modal enablers and call it a day. Consider the differing fates of two apparently similar bike-share networks, the Parisian Vélib and Barcelona’s Bicing. In their diverging histories, we can see how differences in business model wind up percolating upward to impact level of service. By limiting the right to use Bicing to residents, by requiring that users open accounts, and having those accounts tied in to the usual variety of identification data, the system provides would-be bad actors with a strong disincentive. You’re personally liable, accountable…responsible.

There are real and problematic downsides to this approach, but the difference this set of decisions makes on the street is immediate and obvious. A rank of Vélib bikes, even in a posh neighborhood, looks like a bicyclical charnelhouse, with maybe three or four out of every five saddles reversed, in what has become Parisians’ folk indicator to one another that a particular bike is damaged to the point that it’s unavailable for use. The Bicing installations that I saw, including ones seeing very heavy use in core commercial districts, aren’t nearly as degraded.

This goes to the point I was trying to make, earlier, by contrasting the older conception of a vehicle as an object to the emergent way of understanding it as a service. Even though they may be physically identical — may draw current from the same grid, may be housed in the same lot, may present the driver with the selfsame control interface — a ZipCar Prius doesn’t function in just exactly the same way as a City CarShare Prius does. You could design a transmobility system so it accounted for either or (preferably) both…but not interchangeably.

Smooth sailing

Again, though I want to enable smooth transitions, I’m not arguing for perfect seamlessness in transit, or anything like it. Kevin Lynch reminds us, in The Image of the City, that “[a]ny breaks in transportation — nodes, decision points — are places of intensified perception.” We ought to welcome some of this heightened awareness, as a counterpoint to the automaticity that can all too easily accompany the rhythms of transit ridership, especially when experienced on a daily or twice-daily basis. On the other hand, it’s true that some of this “intensified perception” is almost certainly down to the anxiety that attends any such decision under circumstances of time pressure, human density and the urgent necessity to perform modal transitions correctly — and this is the fraction I’d argue we’d be better off designing out of transmobility.

At most, I mean for transmobility systems to bolster, not replace, human intuition. Where alternative modes or routings exist, we’re already generally pretty good at using them tactically to optimize against one or another criterion. Sometimes you know the subway’s the only way you can possibly beat the gridlock and get to your appointment on time; other times you choose a taxi instead, because you need to arrive at a meeting looking fresh and composed. One day you have the time to take the bus and daydream your way downtown, and the next it doesn’t get you nearly close enough to where you need to be.

You know this, I know this. So if we’re going to propose any technical intervention at all, it had better be something that builds on our native nous for the city, not overwrites it with autistic AI.

And before we can even begin to speak credibly of integrated mobility services, we’d need to see existing systems display some awareness of the plenitude of alternatives travelers have available to them, some understanding of all the different real-time factors likely to influence journey planning.

To take the most basic example, journey planning for walkers requires a different kind of thinking about the city than, particularly, turn-by-turn directions for drivers. This isn’t simply for the obvious reasons, like car-centric routings that represent a neighborhood as a an impenetrable thicket, a maze of one-way streets all alike, that a walker would stroll on through placidly and unconcernedly.

It’s because, as thinkers from Reyner Banham to Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch to Ivan Illich have reminded us — and as anyone who’s ever ridden in a car already understands quite perfectly well — velocity is something like destiny. You simply attend to different cues as a walker than you do as a driver, you notice textures of a different gauge, different things matter. And of course the same thing is true for cyclists vis à vis both walkers and drivers.

Over the past eighteen months, I’ve finally seen some first sentinel signs of this recognition trickle into consumer-grade interactive systems, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

Musique concrète

A final step would be to design the built environment itself, the ground against which all journeys transpire, to accommodate transmobility. Why wouldn’t you, at least, plan and design buildings, street furniture and other hard infrastructure so they account for the fact of networked mobility services — both in terms of the hardware that underwrites their provision, and of the potential for variability, dynamism, and open-endedness they bring to the built landscape?

In other words: why shouldn’t a bus shelter be designed with a mobile application in mind, and vice versa? Why shouldn’t both be planned so as to take into account the vehicles and embedded sensors connected to the same network? When are we finally going to take this word “network” at face value?

Of course these technologies change — over time they get lighter, more powerful, cheaper. That’s why you design things to be easy-access, easily extensible, as modular as can be: so you can swap out the CAT5 cable and spool in CAT6 (or replace it with a WiMax transponder, or whatever). Nobody’s recommending that we ought to be hard-wiring the precise state of the art as it existed last Tuesday morning into our urban infrastructure. But anyone in a position of power who, going forward, greenlights the development of such infrastructures without ensuring their ability to accommodate networked digital interaction ought to be called to account by constituents at the very next opportunity.

You know I believe that we used to call “ubiquitous computing” is now, simply, real life. Anybody who cares about cities and the people who live in them can no longer afford to treat pervasively networked informatic systems as a novelty, or even a point of municipal distinction. It’s always hard to estimate and account for, let alone attach precise dollar figures to, missed opportunities, to count the spectral fruits of paths not taken. But given how intimate the relationship between an individual’s ability to get around and a region’s economic competitiveness is known to be, there is no excuse for not pursuing advantage through the adroit use of networked systems to enhance individual and collective mobility.

What we ought to be designing are systems that allow people to compose coherent journeys, working from whatever parameters make most sense to them. We need to be asking ourselves how movement through urban space will express itself (and be experienced as travelers as a cohesive experience) across the various modes, nodes and couplings that will necessarily be involved.

The challenge before us remains integrating this tangle of pressures, constraints, opportunities and affordances into coherent user-facing propositions, ones that would offer people smoother, more flexible, more graceful and more finely-grained control over their movements through urban space. Then we could, perhaps, begin to speak of a true transmobility.

Transmobility, part I

This is a quickish post on a big and important topic, so I’d caution you against taking any of the following too terribly seriously. Blogging is generally how I best think things through, though, so I’d be grateful if you’d bear with me as I work out just what it is I mean to say.

In the Elements talk I’ve been giving for the past year or so, I make a series of concatenated assertions about the near-future evolution of urban mobility in the presence of networked informatics. What I see happening is that as the prominence in our lives of vehicles as objects is for most of us eclipsed by an understanding of them as networked services, as the necessity of vehicular ownership as a way to guarantee access yields to on-demand use, our whole conception of modal transportation will tend to soften into a more general field condition I think of as transmobility.

As I imagine it, transmobility would offer us a quality of lightness and effortlessness that’s manifestly missing from most contemporary urban journeys, without sacrificing opportunities for serendipity, unpressured exploration or the simple enjoyment of journey-as-destination. You’d be freer to focus on the things you actually wanted to spend your time, energy and attention on, in other words, while concerns about the constraints of particular modes of travel would tend to drop away.

When I think of how best to evoke these qualities in less abstract terms, two memories come to mind: a simple coincidence in timing I noticed here in Helsinki not two weeks ago, and a more richly braided interaction I watched unfold over a slightly longer interval during a trip to Barcelona last year.

The first was something that happened as I was saying goodbye to a friend after meeting up for an afterwork beer the other day. It was really just a nicely giftwrapped version of something I’m sure happens ten thousand times a day, in cities across the planet: we shook hands and went our separate ways at the precise moment a tram glided to a stop in front of the bar, and I had to laugh as he stepped onto it without missing a beat and was borne smoothly away.

A whole lot of factors in space and time needed to come into momentary alignment for this to happen, from the dwell time and low step-up height of the tram itself to the rudimentary physical denotation of the tram stop and the precise angle at which the bar’s doorway confronted the street. Admittedly, service and interaction designers will generally only be able to speak to some of these issues. But what if we could design mobility systems, and our interfaces to them, to afford more sequences like this, more of the time?

The second image I keep in mind speaks more to the opportunities presented by travel through a densely-textured urban fabric, and how we might imagine a transmobility that allowed us to grasp more of them.

This time, I was lucky enough to capture the moment in a snapshot: the woman on the bicycle casually rode up to the doorway, casually engaged a friend in conversation, casually kissed her on the cheek and casually pedaled away. The entire interaction, from start to end, may have taken two minutes, and the whole encounter was wrapped with an ineffable quality of grace, as if we’d stumbled across some Gibsonian team of stealth imagineers framing a high-gloss advertisement for the Mediterranean lifestyle.

Again, the quality I so admired was enabled by the subtle synchromesh of many specific and otherwise unrelated design decisions: decisions about the width of the street and its edge condition, about the placement of the doorway and the size of the bike wheels. But it also had a great deal to do with the inherent strengths of the individual bicycle as a mode of conveyance, strengths shared with skateboards, scooters and one’s own feet — among them that the rider has an relatively fine degree of control over micro-positioning and -routing, and that she alone decides when to punctuate a trip with stops and starts.

Watching what happened spontaneously when people were afforded this degree of flexibility made it clear to me that this, too, was a quality you’d want to capture in any prospective urban mobility system. And that to whatever extent we possibly could, we ought to be conceiving of such systems so they would afford their users just such moments of grace.

So on the one hand, we have just-in-time provisioning of mobility, via whatever mode happens to be closest at hand (or is otherwise most congenial, given the demands of the moment). On the other, a sense that any given journey can be unfolded fractally, unlocking an infinitude of potential experiences strung along its length like pearls. It’s not hard to see that these desires produce, at the very least, a strong tension between them, and that we’ll have to be particularly artful in providing for both simultaneously.

How might we balance all of these contradictory demands, in designing networked mobility systems that represent urban space and the challenge of getting through it in terms human beings can relate to? This question brings us to something we’ve discussed here before — the classically Weiserian notion of “beautiful seams” — and it’s a topic we’ll take up in Part II of our series on transmobility.

Frameworks for citizen responsiveness, enhanced: Toward a read/write urbanism

We’ve been talking a little bit about what we might gain if we begin to conceive of cities, for some limited purposes anyway, as software under active development. So far, we’ve largely positioned such tools as a backstop against the inevitable defaults, breakdowns and ruptures that municipal services are heir to: a way to ensure that when failures arise, they’ll get identified as quickly as possible, assessed as to severity, brought to the attention of the relevant agencies, and flagged for follow-up.

And as useful, and even inspiring, as this might be, to my mind it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s essentially the lamination together of some entirely conventional systems, provisions and practices — something that already exists in its component pieces, something, as Bruce points out here, that’s “not even impossible.”

But what if we did take a single step further out? What if we imagined that the citizen-responsiveness system we’ve designed lives in a dense mesh of active, communicating public objects? Then the framework we’ve already deployed becomes something very different. To use another metaphor from the world of information technology, it begins to look a whole lot like an operating system for cities.

Provided that, we can treat the things we encounter in urban environments as system resources, rather than a mute collection of disarticulated buildings, vehicles, sewers and sidewalks. One prospect that seems fairly straightforward is letting these resources report on their own status. Information about failures would propagate not merely to other objects on the network but reach you and me as well, in terms we can relate to, via the provisions we’ve made for issue-tracking.

And because our own human senses are still so much better at spotting emergent situations than their machinic counterparts, and will probably be for quite some time yet to come, there’s no reason to leave this all up to automation. The interface would have to be thoughtfully and carefully designed to account for the inevitable bored teenagers, drunks, and randomly questing fingers of four-year-olds, but what I have in mind is something like, “Tap here to report a problem with this bus shelter.”

In order for anything like this scheme to work, public objects would need to have a few core qualities, qualities I’ve often described as making them “addressable, queryable, and even potentially scriptable.” What does this mean?

Addressability. In order to bring urban environments fully into the networked fold, we would first need to endow each of the discrete things we’ve defined as public objects with its own unique identifier, or address. It’s an ideal application for IPv6, the next-generation Internet Protocol, which I described in Everyware as opening up truly abyssal reaches of address space. Despite the necessity of reserving nigh-endless blocks of potentially valid addresses for housekeeping, IPv6 still offers us a ludicrous freedom in this regard; we could quite literally assign every cobblestone, traffic light and street sign on the planet a few million addresses.

It’s true that this is overkill if all you need is a unique identifier. If all you’re looking to do is specify the east-facing traffic signal at the northeast corner of 34th Street and Lexington Avenue, you can do that right now, with barcodes or RFID tags or what-have-you. You only need to resort to IPv6 addressability if your intention is to turn such objects into active network nodes. But as I’ve argued in other contexts, the cost of doing this is so low that any potential future ROI whatsoever justifies the effort.

Queryability. Once you’ve got some method of reliably identifying things and distinguishing them from others, a sensitively-designed API allows us to pull information off of them in a meaningful, structured way, either making use of that information ourselves or passing it on to other systems and services.

We’ve so far confined our discussion to things in the public domain, but by defining open interoperability standards (and mandating the creation of a critical mass of compliant objects), the hope is that people will add resources they own and control to the network, too. This would offer incredibly finely-grained, near-realtime reads on the state of a city and the events unfolding there. Not merely, in other words, to report that this restaurant is open, but which seats at which tables are occupied, and for how long this has been the case; not merely where a private vehicle charging station is, but how long the current waits are.

Mark my words: given only the proper tools, and especially a well-designed software development kit, people will build the most incredible ecology of bespoke services on data like this. If you’re impressed by the sudden blossoming of iPhone apps, wait until you see what people come up with when they can query stadium parking lots and weather stations and bike racks and reservoir levels and wait times at the TKTS stand. You get the idea. (Some of these tools already exist: take a look at Pachube, for example.)

– And finally scriptability, by which I mean the ability to push instructions back to connected resources. This is obviously a delicate matter: depending on the object in question, it’s not always going to be appropriate or desirable to offer open scriptability. You probably want to give emergency-services vehicles the ability to override traffic signals, in other words, but not the spotty kid in the riced-out WRX. It’s also undeniable that connecting pieces of critical infrastructure to an open network increases the system’s overall vulnerability — what hackers call its “attack surface” — many, many times. If every exit is an entrance somewhere else, every aperture through which the network speaks itself is also a way in.

We should all be very clear, right up front, that this is a nontrivial risk. I’ll make it explicit: any such scheme as the one sketched out here presents the specter of warfare by cybersabotage, stealthy infrastructure attrition or subversion, and the depredations of random Saturday-night griefers. It’s also true that connected systems are vulnerable to cascading failures in ways non-coupled systems cannot ever be. Yes, yes and yes. It’s my argument that over anything but the very shortest term, the advantages to be derived from so doing will outweigh the drawbacks and occasional catastrophes — even fatal ones. But as my architect friends say, this is above all something that must be “verified in field,” validated empirically and held up to the most rigorous standards.

What do we get in return for embracing this nontrivial risk? We get a supple, adaptive interface to the urban fabric itself, something that allows us not just to nail down problems, but to identify and exploit opportunities. Armed with that, I can see no upward limit on how creative, vibrant, imaginative and productive twenty-first century urban life can be, even under the horrendous constraints I believe we’re going to face, and are perhaps already beginning to get a taste of.

Stolidly useful, “sustainable,” justifiable on the most gimlet-eyed considerations of ROI, environmental benefit and TCO? Sure. But I think we should be buckling ourselves in, because first and foremost, read/write urbanism is going to be a blast.