the next level up...

When a scholar studies cities, he or she quickly learns that urban problems are rarely solved on the level at which they were created. He or she also learns that the greater the problem, the further removed its solution.

For example, problems that plague the urban environment often cannot be resolved by intervening at the level of architecture. It goes without saying that you cannot solve the many ills of suburbia by redesigning a tract house. I might be moping about the house feeling horribly alienated—nowhere to go, nothing to do—but redesigning a house is not going to help that problem despite the fact that the house itself feels very much like a prison. It's a problem that is instead played out at the base level of urban organization. What this means is that the problem has less to do with the house and more to do with the cul-de-sac development in which it sits.

By the same token, you cannot solve climate change at the level of changing light bulbs, making green roofs or buying a Prius. Even if we all did it, climate science has shown that it is not an adequate response to the problem. The problem of the Prius, then, is a false one: climate change cannot be addressed by questioning the choice of a car but by questioning the existence of the car in the first place. What the humanities can bring to the climate problem is the ability to broaden the temporal, scalar, and conceptual bandwidth within which we define our common problems. In addressing climate change, "humanists" can go farther backward or forward in time; they can consider ever larger scales than the those at which climate change is manifest. They can pare back our concepts to their root form. They can find the simplest form of the argument.

We should not ask whether we use electricity or gas, but ask, what is energy? We should not ask if we should buy an electric car, but ask what is a city? We should not ask if we should vote for the democratic or republican politician, but we should ask, what is a politician? We should not ask how we should save energy, but we should ask how should we live? The list has no end.

These are the most basic questions: "what is energy?, what is a city?, what is a politician? How should we live? Their clear formulation opens up a space for synthetic activity or, to use another term, an ontological revaluation of the present society. A broad "conceptual bandwidth" makes possible synthetic speculation such as we find, for example, in fiction. Good Science Fiction (the The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi) reimagines an entirely integrated world based on extrapolations of existing circumstances— reimagining what is energy, what is a city, how should we live? Insodoing, it does not merely reproduce answers to those most basic questions of energy, of dwelling, of politics, of being, it synthesizes them. Much like other generalists—anthropologists, film directors, urban designers — fiction writers synthesize (a world of particulars into) an integrated world.

Addressing climate change often feels like trying to get a drink from a firehouse. Overwhelmed by the complexity of the world and the raft of specialized information with which we routinely confront it, we are often blind to the need to reimagine and reproduce a larger, integrated picture of it. In our present situation, the tyranny of the specialized, the circumstantial and the particular are as deadly to climate action as the Heritage Foundation.  What the humanities offers is synthetic activity, activity that is capable of regulating an all but debilitating torrent of information by integrating its force. It is not a matter of how much (specialized) information or knowledge we can throw at the problem, but how much of it we are able to synthesize. Only by asking the right questions and integrating the answers into a comprehensive framework can an meaningful response emerge.


an urban visage ....

Keith Krumwiede, Freedomland, Township Range and Town Plan.

Anthropologists claim that societies are reflected in the things that they make, as if objects themselves function as irrefutable material evidence of both the outer-most ambitions and our inner-most fears of the cultures that they study. They claim that the way buildings are constructed, and the manner in which they are arranged in space, encode a legible social order, regardless of whether that construction be a primitive village, a factory town or an outpost of imperial Rome. Now, if this reciprocity between the social and the material is even partially accurate then it follows that we too should be able to see ourselves writ large in the cities that we produce today. We should literally see our own visage whenever we look at a shopping mall or a prison, or a tract of mass housing. We should see our own visage when we look at Freedomland. Shouldn't we? 

My answer to this question is that we are perhaps not such good anthropologists, at least when it comes to turning the anthropological gaze upon ourselves. I would argue that we are indeed reflected in the things that we make but that we fail to recognize ourselves in our own production. I would further argue that our most serious and intractable urban problems stem from this failure—an inability to actually acknowledge our own reflection in the urbanism that we make. When we look to our cities today we do not see twentieth century urbanism—the macmansions, the malls or the airports—the subdivisions and the New Towns that have grown like weeds over the last fifty years. What we choose to recognize as "the city" is the nineteenth century city—the pre-modern gridded core of anthropomorphically scaled blocks and streets. What we see are Manhattan or Brooklyn, slightly remodeled with curtain walls, parking garages and a few annoying freeways (that we should anyway hide underground). 

We pride ourselves, not in our own prodigious urban production, but in projects like the Highline which, for all the world, is like installing a new plasma screen in grandma's living room. So modest our ambitions have become that tourist-driven gentrification has become our highest if not our only urban ambition... But it doesn't have to be this way. Every architect here knows this because we know our own history. Modern urbanism, like Freedomland, was nothing if not an exercise of seeing ourselves in the cities that we make.


inaugurating a future projected a half-century ago

Le Corbusier, Unité d'habitation, Berlin, Spandau, 1959.

We tend to think that sticking with something is a calmer and steadier way to go than jettisoning it, even though that rule obviously doesn't apply to sinking ships. Sometimes, after the iceberg or the explosion, the lifeboat is safer than the luxury liner, though getting on it requires an urgent rearrangement of your body and your expectations. - Rebecca Solnit

Today's climate crisis inaugurates a future projected over a half-century ago, yet still legible today in the spalled concrete and yellowed pages which document the dream of a Radiant City. This recent photograph of the Unité d'habitation in Berlin enhances Le Corbusier's portrayal of the basic unit of urban inhabitation as an analogous ocean liner. With all the astonishment of a long lost ship suddenly, miraculously, pulling into port, the Unité is seen here arriving at the site of a climate disaster—arriving in time as much as in place—to fulfill its intended purpose. Finally redeemed from a brutal misunderstanding, modern urbanism comes into its own as an “explication” of contemporary dwelling in a moment of technical crisis.


life in a low resolution world

Alexander Gronsky PASTORAL

MOSCOW SUBURBS. The recent photos of Alexander Gronsky address one of the principal challenges of contemporary urbanism — scale. The images arguably recuperate the crude scale of the housing estate at its natural edges, even if those edges possess the same large scale as the estates.  Are there legitimate subject positions here? Can these resilient, mega-density "houses" be defended on the basis of their landscape relationships? Who would say that living among the effects of the crane and the bulldozer is less valid than living among the effects of the hammer and the hoe?


the indignity of speaking for others

Zaha Hadid, Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2012.

As a "modernistic" monument in the traditional center of Baku, Azerbaijan,  Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center attempts to rehabilitate Baku's outmoded urbanism of blocks and streets through the insertion of a biomorphic, hyper-modern architectural figure.  While Hadid’s architecture may appear hyper-modern, it is anything but. The project instead subscribes to an urbanism that is Neo-Traditional if not outright reactionary. 

No matter how technically advanced they may seem to be, monumental interventions trade on an ancient hierarchy which reproduces the dominance of an architectural figure over a secondary or subordinate urban field. Hadid's postmodern rehabilitation of this ancient paradigm in Baku supports an atavistic urban strategy that produces the subject of Azerbaijan’s oligarchic rule. (Hadid's monument commemorates Heydar Aliyev who effectively ruled Azerbaijan through the Soviet Era up to his death in 2003. It was commissioned by his son who has succeeded him.) While the project exploits an understandable desire of Baku's citizens for traditional urbanism, it completely ignores their actual urban interests. These interests lie with the suburb or "subclass" city that those citizens have been constructing and inhabiting for the past half century — a city that is decidedly not built on a hierarchical arrangement of monuments and streets. 

With all eyes on Hadid's spectacle, this sub urban city is all but forgotten. The unambiguous praise that the building has received indicates the prevalence of a stylish mode of urban, if not political, oblivion. This oblivion will shortly run its course and give way to a unified project comprised of both a modern architecture and a modern urbanism that is capable of taking on the prevailing forms of the contemporary city, forms that exceed monumental expression. Going beyond symbolic concerns, these forms directly engage the material culture (life-world) of the city that actually defines, and is defined by, the majority population of Baku — a population that doubtlessly aspires to being more than the subjects of an atavistic regime. 


an airquake in China

the following photos were taken in the city of Haerbin in the Heilongjiang Province of China on 21 October, 2013.

AFP-Getty photo

Airquake: the explication of air, climate, and atmospheric situations calls into question the basic presumption of beings concerning their primary media of existence, and convicts it of naïveté. If, in their history to date, humans could step out at will under any given stretch of sky, in or out of doors, and take for granted the unquestioned idea of the the possibility of breathing in the surrounding atmosphere, then, as we see in retrospect, they enjoy a privilege of naïveté which was withdrawn with the caesura of the 20th century. Anyone who lives after this caesura and moves within a culture zone in step with modernity is already bound, whether in rudimentary or elaborated forms, to a formal concern for climate and atmosphere design. To show one's willingness to participate in modernity one is compelled to let oneself be seized by its power of explication over what once discretely underlay everything, that which encompassed and enveloped to form an environment. - Peter Sloterdijk, Terror From the Air.

AFP-Getty photo

Can "explication," as defined above by Peter Sloterdijk, ever become a force sufficient to overcome political inertia? Can a set of ontological rights — such as breathing — actually challenge or even displace economic hegemony? Looking at recent photos of air pollution taken in Haerbin, one might well ask at what point does brute survival overtake "the price of doing business." 

Our individual and collective existence depends on functions that largely occur in the background of our routine awareness. The background status of these functions do not suggest their unimportance, indeed, the opposite is more likely to be true. These background functions constitute our life-world — the "primary media of our existence." They exist in the background not because they are unimportant but because, historically, they have simply taken care of themselves. In the modern world, however, Sloterdijk suggests that such assumptions are naive, if not lethal. Throughout the twentieth century, these functions have come under attack by the development of increasingly potent technologies, threatening human existence at the most fundamental level. To use Sloterdijk's celebrated example,  the mustard gas attacks of the First World War first brought "air" out of the background becoming the object of an explicit (environmental) discourse. This wholly new, wholly modernist discourse ultimately gave rise to both the science and the industry of "air conditioning." 

AFP-Getty photo

For Sloterdijk, this movement from background to foreground is not limited to the explication of the air, toxic or otherwise, but is wholly characteristic of the modern project. He repositions or revalues the modern project as the explication of modern techniques, accepting their existence while revealing their threats to the life-world. In this light, the function of modernism is not to propagate, but to mitigate the effects of modernization upon the life-world. Explication, like the unbreathable air of Haerbin, brings the elements of our life-world out of a background of neglect and foregrounds them as the ontological preconditions of human existence. 

Central to these elements of the life-world are, of course, the objects of the built environment. Their present uncertainty, as well as the prospects of the newly foregrounded objects of explication, force us to redirect the discourse of architecture and urbanism. The spectacular objects that drive discourse today — extravagant museums, opera houses, stadia — exist in Haerbin and other major Chinese cities. They do so, however, to little effect — little at least in regards to the legacy of modern architecture and urbanism. As reformulated by Sloterdijk, explication grants to modernism the capacity to disrupt the imperatives of the neo-liberal economy and, in their place, foreground the objects of the life world as inalienable rights. The recent Chinese airquakes (along with other atmospheric disturbances such as climate change) remind us that modernism has always been an ontological project. Modernism is not about the invention of spectacular forms or the uncritical promotion of advanced technique; it is instead about the construction of a viable if not vibrant life-world in the face of unprecedented challenges including those to the air that we breathe. 

AFP-Getty photo



redistribution of the Fifth Ward

 redistribution of equal square footage in the Fifth Ward (click to enlarge)

The GIF above plays a game of whack-a-mole with existing square footages in a small section of the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas. Using a simple vocabulary consisting of three multi-family building types, a script was written that redistributes the existing density (5 DUPA) within drastically shrunken environmental footprints projected for the year 2050. The resulting voids contribute to a Ward-wide, open space network that "glues" new construction together in a distributed whole. The Fifth Ward 2050 Project is funded by the Shell Center for Sustainability. (Drawing by Tsvetelina Zdraveva.)