There is no cipher: Esmé Boyce’s “Title Comes Last”

Preface: I have been reviewing Esmé Boyce’s dance and choreography for years, and before that I’ve even collaborated with her. For the past two years, however, we have both taken slight detours out of New York to travel and get Master’s degrees. Hers was an MFA at the University of Wisconsin, and it is almost over now. She made a return to the NYC stage this spring with a showcasing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which included her own thesis, two other pieces by Nancy Meehan (a creative predecessor) and Catherine Tharin (a creative contemporary), and finally a Q&A with the audience.

Before the lights dimmed, Esmé ran out onto the stage. She spoke a few words about the program and the creative background for the pieces we were about to see. I can’t remember every detail, but I can remember a few qualitative descriptions such as “deer jumping in front of headlights,” “spying on a person in a window,” “glints of gold,” “dance beyond words,” and “the idea of using the body for spatial massing.” To tell you the truth, I am certain that those are not the exact words, but I use quotation marks anyhow because Esmé had planted those seeds in my head.

Photo credit Julie Lemberger
Photo credit Jessie Levey.

Surely enough, those seeds germinated during the performance of Title Comes Last. It is a continuous, roughly 20-minute quintet, transitioning smoothly between several parts, much like her previous pieces. Each dancer underwent one costume change: from a furry pillowcase covering only the torso to a thin full-length nightgown and colorful wristbands. Three cartoony fragments of a room (a fireplace, a window, and a mirror) made up the set, and the music (composed by Cody Boyce and Eleanor Hovda) buzzed and droned throughout, with a few moments of precise silence. The dancers utilized the whole stage, moving into the space behind the set pieces, or crawling slowly on and off stage (i.e. under the bleacher seats where the audience was).

Photo credit Jessie Levey

Esmé’s choreography has always reminded me of newborn animals learning how to walk. One can easily pick out repeating moves and motifs, the most memorable of which are intentionally abrupt and awkward for a human to perform. They’re not exactly inhuman – but watching the dancers in that moment makes them seem like trained professionals and androids and aliens all at once. One signature move in Title Comes Last goes like this: all of the limbs straighten down to the tips of the digits and spread to just beyond shoulder width, then two arms and one leg flap twice in quick succession like a bird that’s falling asleep and experiencing hypnic jerks (Esmé would explain during the Q&A that her choreographic antennae are always active, receiving inspiration from any possible source. To wit: this move was inspired by the jerky movements of her pet cat).

What was new this time, though, was a unabashed playfulness. Dancers often looked each other in the eyes and smiled. A few small sections were reminiscent of games we all used to play in our childhood, like Red Light Green Light, or when we would dance along to Billboard Top 40 music videos. The combination of the alien, the animal, and the toddler brought to mind The Blue Man group.

Photo credit Julie Lemberger

Meanwhile, the three set pieces pulled my mind to some obscure Upper West Side studio overlooking the Hudson River, the sun going down over it. I thought of many unproductive late afternoons that I had spent lying on my back, staring up at the ceiling, watching the dust dance around. I wondered what my own clothes did in the house while I wasn’t wearing them. I recalled when, as a kindergartner, my friends and I would build stages out of chairs and books and reenact famous movie scenes for each other – and how, in grade school, those shows had been replaced with contentious games of Red Light Green Light on city sidewalks. All of this – the cosmic, the physical, the metaphysical, the natural – is contained in the movements which Esmé has ultimately pulled out of the world.

Photo credit Jessie Levey

The performances were immediately followed by an informal on-stage Q&A with Esmé and Catherine Tharin. There was maturity in that unguardedness. Perhaps it was simply necessitated by the fact that this was a thesis developed in graduate school, but it’s amazing how a change of setting can transform one’s perspective and willingness to change up the format. I had personally always fantasized about breaking the fourth wall with all sorts of choreographed dancer-audience interactions during a performance, but those are always risky. Here, a simple conversation opened the work up even further, by explicitly making interpretation and audience dialogue an active part of the creative process.

Another seed germinated. It was “dance beyond words.” Once, many years ago, I gathered the courage to tell Esmé that she needed a writer. At the time, her dances had always seemed too abstract. Watching them was a constant brain exercise. What cipher would unlock the hidden patterns? I struggled to find out “what was the artist trying to say,” as the adage goes. Instead of effortless stimulation (which is what I thought was the ideal way to experience art), I felt like I was rubbing my eyes, waiting for those electric green shapes to appear on the inside of my eyelids. Why not just give a hint of a story, a place or a person, something more real for the audience to grasp onto?

After the Q&A, we went for food at Gotham Market, and my friend Cat told me about how she had started hiking again, and that staring at nature is scientifically proven to be a healthy kind of stimulation for the brain: not singular like a screen, nor chaotic like a crowd. Healthy stimulation is the difference between constructive and non-constructive observation, and it’s why staring at nature is so good for us. Esmé’s dances, I realized, are like that. They are like fields, or clouds: very homogeneous at first glance, but intricate under closer observation. Most importantly, however, there is no cipher, no deep structures to unlock. They don’t demand one interpretation over another – they assure you that all interpretations are OK.

Six things I learned that night:

  1. Trust your intuition.
  2. Establish a structure and stick to it.
  3. Everything is fair game for inspiration.
  4. Reference without quotes; homage without naming.
  5. Bodies can “mass space,” bodies can make architecture.
  6. Abstraction is not a dead-end street, it is a balancing act.

Oddly enough, at the end of all this, words and figuration played an integral part in Title Comes Last by design. It may have come naturally because the academic environment broadened Esmé’s perspective (education is good, folks). But the results were greater than any dance piece could achieve on its own. If she was ever tentative about using them as creative tools, she can rest assured that words and figuration do not detract from the power of abstraction. On the contrary, they can all blossom in coexistence.

Title Comes Last Q&A. Esme Boyce(L) and Catherine Tharin(R)

OK Google: Urbanism is a word

I wrote someone an email recently, and in it I used the word “urbanism.” To my surprise, Gmail spellcheck underlined that word in red.

I tried other varieties. “Urban” does not get underlined. “Urbanization” is also OK. Even “urbanity” is in Google’s dictionary! So why is “urbanism” left out? “Urban” has been a Latin root word for anything related to cities for centuries. Tufts has a greatly detailed Latin dictionary.

The Odeon of Domitian, Ancient Rome.

What forces are at work here? I have a feeling that the answer is prosaic and disappointing. The answer may lie with how online spellcheckers work. My understanding is this: large online databases store lists of every known English word on their servers. Here’s Oracle’s (and an excerpt below):

urb
urban
urbane
urbanely
urbaner
urbanest
urbanise
urbanism
urbanist
urbanite
urbanity
urbanize
urbia
urbias
urbs

Companies like Google can tap into that text, and use Java or Javascript to check a user’s input text against that list at the speed of the internet.  Google had its own attempt at a dictionary database called Google Dictionary, but it was discontinued in 2011. It was preserved in its unfinished state at this website. I typed in “urbanization” and got a hit. But then I typed in “urbanism” and got nothing!

WordPress also doesn’t recognize “urbanism” as a word, perhaps because it piggybacks its spellcheckers onto Google’s. Could Google have left some words behind when it migrated its database of English words in 2011?

One final note. The great irony is that Google’s parent company Alphabet has an urban planning subsidiary called Sidewalk Labs. Their well-publicized foray into using data to plan better cities already has a pilot project underway in Toronto, partnering with Thomas Heatherwick, Snøhetta, and other huge names in architecture & planning. Maybe it’s time for the leading innovators in urbanism to expand their vocabulary. I mean that in the least sarcastic way possible.

The Ghost of Ebenezer Howard

My gut feeling is that, like me, when you first learned about Ebenezer Howard and The Garden City, you fell in love.

Ebenezer Howard

England at the turn of the 20th century was living a double life. For centuries it had been defined by the characteristic rolling green hills and the shepherds and farmers who populated it. But it was also the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and all the fire, brimstone, grime, and soot that goes with it. How can one reconcile the productivity and squalor of city living with the majesty and health of the countryside?

Ebenezer Howard’s response was The Garden City. It was an abstract, rational plan for a city which segregated country living from urban working. While it makes sense in principle and in diagram, this segregation was The Garden City’s ultimate shortcoming. To say nothing of the impossibility of separating human beings from nature in general, people’s lives cannot be stretched out over such vast distances in order to separate their place of dwelling from their place of working.

But the diagram stuck, and the principles are by now folkloric. The Garden City is the quintessential example of a theory that is proven wrong again and again and yet refuses to disappear. Even as recently as the 1960s, Jane Jacobs observes in the introduction to Death and Life of Great American Cities that the urban planners of the day continued to promote Garden City-esque planning practices despite their obsolescence. I think the main reason for this is that the Garden City thesis is so simple and so diagrammatically clear that it seduces a design-minded individual into believing that it can solve a problem as complex as a city.

It begins by reducing all of the activities and functions within cities down to a handful of generalized categories (such as residence, industry, and commerce), and then these categories are each given a monolithic section of the city plan on which to exist. Intermingling and gerrymandering of these categories is strongly discouraged, and the more geometric the territories, the better.

A section of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. Image via interculturalurbanism.com
A rendering of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision. Image via the documentary “Urbanized”

This is the basic idea of Zoning. While the typical city zoning regulation is more complex and nuanced than this (for example, it doesn’t care about how geometric a zone is, or how whether multiple zones overlap or intermingle), it is only so by a degree or two of magnitude.

Color-coded zoning map of Brooklyn. Image via toursmaps.com

But, to fully appreciate the influence that The Garden City has had on planning, look no further than one of the last half-century’s most successful computer game franchises: Sim City. Will Wright, the game’s creator, must have jumped for joy when he first read about Ebenezer Howard. The Garden City, in its deceptive simplicity, practically anticipated city simulation video games. The two are mere steps apart.

Screenshot of Sim City 2000. A mayor has laid out zones and infrastructure and is awaiting their development. Image via vgmpf.com

Throughout its many versions, Sim City remains the same: the player is the Mayor of a city, and needs to grow it. How to grow it? He or she lays out designated “zones” (one of three: green residential, blue commercial, or yellow industrial), connects infrastructure (water, electricity), provides public services (schools, police stations), protects from natural disasters, and manages the city’s finances. I can’t praise this game enough for its merits AS A GAME– it forces the player to manage many moving parts at once, and the fact that it has no real “levels” to “beat” makes for endless gameplay hours. That being said, as a template for actual city planning, it falls into the same trap that Jane Jacobs accuses her contemporary planners of falling into: oversimplification.

The city develops. Image via nickpan.com

The simple truth we may have to admit is that city planning conducted by an individual designer (or for that matter even a superteam team of designers) is futile.

The superteam of architects and planners developing the United Nations headquarters in New York. Too many cooks in one kitchen? Or one misguided supercook? Image via wallpaper.com

Cities have long ago grown so complex that no single person can accurately plan their growth. There’s a clear paradox: how can something which is a part of a much larger system properly comprehend that system? How can a cog be expected to run a factory? How can an ant be expected to build an anthill? It’s unreasonable, and should not be expected.

Could this same claim be made, parenthetically, for individual buildings even? Are they also too complex to be fully comprehended by a single person? Perhaps, only if that person is meant to be the sole inhabitant and user of the building. Otherwise, they are bound to fail as readily as if they were redesigning from scratch the master plan of the City of Los Angeles.

I spent a childhood confronting this problem in front of a screen while playing Sim City. I was led to believe that the problems of a city are graspable, summarizable, comprehesible.

Or was that the point of Sim City?

Perhaps I’m thinking about this backwards. Perhaps the lesson there was that citymaking is an endless endeavor– hence, no levels or bosses. I’ve always been drawn to games about exploration, worldbuilding, and inventing your own fun. Put that in the context of a city huffing and puffing before your eyes in isometric birdseye, you begin to understand that you never can MAKE a city– you can only set yourself TO MAKING it.

MolleIndustria has a great write-up with exactly the same takeaway: let’s enjoy the game and its success, but let’s not forget that cities are too complex for one mayor to control. We may be able to nudge, we may be able to react, but we will probably never be able to control.

Jane Jacobs acknowledges this difficulty in Death and Life, and treads carefully and with great detail into her recommendations for city planning. She advocates for things like “diversity,” which at first seems too abstract to yield anything concrete. But that may be the point– city planning, as well as worldbuilding, may need guidelines that sit at the edge of concreteness, that require us, the inhabitants, to define them and make them real.

Image via milleindustria.org. Article link above.

Restoration Hardware on trial

99% Invisible, one of my generation’s obligatory podcasts, released an episode about design, mass production, and authenticity– called 77 Steps. In it, the Emeco chair takes center stage as the industrial-product-turned-design-object par excellence, and Emeco’s legal fight to protect the intellectual property of their signature Naval Chair, using something called Trade Dress Protection.

Trade dress protection is designed to protect consumers from the lookalike imitations of name brand products.

Emeco’s dispute with Restoration Hardware (and IKEA and Target) has been documented by the New York Times. While it’s sensible for a company to protect its design from copying, the plot thickens when the show considers the impact of this protectionism on average consumers. Says lawyer Christopher Sprigman:

[When] consumers in the marketplace look at this chair, unless they’re real furniture aficionados, they don’t think ‘Oh, this is Emeco,’ they think ‘Oh, that’s a chair.’ I don’t think the shape of this chair is distinctive. To the extent that [Emeco using Trade Dress Protection] succeeds, these designs become the territory of the rich, and no one else can access them.

If the original idea of a chair like Emeco’s is mass-production and affordability, then tightening the market and putting a legal fence around the intellectual property of its design is completely counterproductive. This reveals the economic and philosophical push-and-pull inherent to a world of copy+paste:

[Knock-offs] bring the rest of us into the world of the artist … they allow us to participate in the fashion world, even if we can’t afford the stuff on the runway … they allow us to participate … [and] that’s democratizing.

What came to my mind first was The Why Factory’s publication of a book called Copy Paste, which researches and discusses our changing attitudes toward originality. Like most things Winy Maas makes, the book’s tone is decidedly optimistic: it doesn’t bemoan the end of originality, rather celebrates a new sense of freedom from it.

But then I remembered: back in 2011, I noticed the trend in design & fashion stores decorating their storefronts with fake books. In a way, Restoration Hardware’s style (rustic, old-school, throwback-y) is particularly prone to sneaky copying such as the kind they got in trouble in with Emeco. So shouldn’t we all have seen this coming?

A Recipe In Three Chapters

I: Data, Cities

When we analyze cities through the lens of data and maps, how and when do people enter the picture?

Data City, our data analysis and mapping seminar in the Master in City & Technology, was meant to explore the production, transport, consumption, and disposal of food at an urban scale, through the lens of data analytics. Our professors, Pablo Martinez and Mar Santamaria of 300,000km/s, believe very strongly in this method of analysis, and to drive their philosophy they felt it necessary to steer us away from a natural tendency for architects: to design things, to manifest things physically. Several times, including on day one and during the final review, they said that the course strives to remain in a formless state because there is no single way to physically describe a city. Any attempt to do so is inevitably oversimplified. This fact has haunted architecture and urbanism for at least the last century and a half. As Jane Jacobs says: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” This statement reminds architects that their influence is far smaller than they imagine; that cities are highly complex ecosystems manifesting the lives of millions of individuals. The Situationists of the 60s also helped to de-formalize the image of the city. Matteo Casaburi, discusses their impact in Architecture + Urbanism: “The Naked City [map]… expresses the incompatibility of Cartesian logic with the real experience of the city.” Even in the important postwar fields of traffic & mobility, the standard method of measuring vehicular flow at intersections with a simple sensor or counter is too minuscule to have a strong impact alone. Researchers at MIT have found real-life applications for traffic flow analysis, but those applications have to remain specific and event-based (responding to citywide emergencies such as natural disasters). Even into the 80s, when big data started playing an influential role, analysts found it necessary to simplify and distill numbers into something digestible. The “Big Mac Index”, for example, uses the cost of a fast food staple as an economic benchmark.

A traffic flow counting device. Via Jamartech.

The Big Mac Index. Bar chart by Statista.

Mapping, on the other hand, can comfortably overlap both the physical and the invisible realms. A strong map can bring together processes, vectors, statistics, territories, buildings, and traffic patterns in one image. It comes closer to painting the full picture because it is more densely packed with information. The Data City seminar took this philosophy to heart. Coming, for the most part, from architecture, we took on the challenge of representing phenomena whose language we didn’t speak. We became willing to admit what we didn’t know.

Geographies of Innovation. Mapping centers of innovative activity in Barcelona. Map by 300.000 Km/s. Image via urbannext.

Photo credit Luciana Teodozio. Via her Instagram page.

During the final review, however, the guest jurors inevitably became confused by the multitude of maps and charts on the wall and said, “This is a class about food, but I don’t even see any images of food!” But, as I just mentioned, trying to hopscotch from urban patterns to food items will inevitably frustrate. However, this critique slowly sharpened over the course of the discussion, as naturally happens when people have some time to think about the present work, and by the third time it was brought up, it had matured.

One of the few images of food that were included in the presentation.

II: Codes, Recipes

Troy Innocent, visiting UI/UX resident at IAAC, spoke. “Why not focus on something specific in the human-scale food experience, like a hamburger or a pork bun, take the recipe for that food, and see how you could affect the food experience by adjusting the variables of that recipe?

Troy had made a profound connection without realizing it. When most people learn about coding, the first analogy that teachers use to demystify coding is cooking. Imagine a code as a recipe, they say, it’s just a set of instructions, and anyone who can read the recipe can reproduce more or less the same food.

The other point in the analogy is that of ingredients. One can adjust individual ingredients and customize the food as they desire. Add salt to taste. Substitute coconut oil for vegetable oil. Don’t have tomatoes? Use mushrooms instead…. Slowly, by adjusting enough ingredients, one can arrive at a different food entirely. That is the approach that Pablo and Mar use in their practice. They use a collection of indicators (like median income, cost of a loaf of bread, distance to transport, average age…) to identify unique regions in a city. One region is distinct from another because at least one of the indicators changes significantly. Then, by the same logic, one can see how changing that same indicator in one region could transform its identity. An “innovation district” could become a “cultural magnet,” or a “cultural magnet” could become an “academic enclave” with subtle changes.

The Matrix code was inspired by sushi recipes? Read the story at foodandwine.

There’s our in. To take this class to the next level, we should look at something like a hamburger or a pork bun, break it down into its ingredients, then see how we could adjust the the recipe by adjusting one of the ingredients. For example: if Shanghai really wants to promote food sustainability, then it needs to reduce the carbon output of its agriculture, and if one were to reduce the carbon output of its rice fields, then the taste or cost of a bowl of rice might change. This would connect the city-scale mapping-scale analysis that we did with the personal, cultural dimension that was missing in the final presentation. It would also force us to acknowledge that like in most closed systems, there is always a loss to balance every gain, and we must be conscious of those impacts.

Our group’s proposal for turning Shanghai’s metro system into a food logistics infrastructure. ProMetro.

III: Low Heat, Long Time

I went home that day a little under the cava and made it to Lidl just in time to buy groceries, including more cava. As I entered the apartment, with its crusty walls and bathroom tiles aglow in leftover sunset beams, I remembered Ashraf.

He is tall and lanky– his limbs are in constant motion, from his oscillating head down to his goosestep. When he speaks his hands unfurl like kelp stalks, or clumps of earthworms, or as if he’s about to pull an ace out of his sleeve. I had never seen anyone so clumsy move so smoothly. Even when he first walked into my apartment two hours after being scammed by an Airbnb host, and six hours after setting foot outside India for the first time, he was smiling. As he told me his story, as he asked me if he could pray in the living room until he found a mosque, he was smiling. It began as a nervous, uncertain smile. We bonded over football, our admiration for both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (something I found easier than expected given that we were in Barcelona), the transfer gossip, the managerial drama, and the coming World Cup. He was doing his best at pulling off the magic trick of adulthood– it was almost as if he were mocking it, mocking the care with which we all handle our bodies, the gravity with which we carry ourselves, and the burdensome mortaring, like cooking and cleaning, that we toil over every day.

For the first week of our cohabitation, he kept surprising me. One day he asked “So, Ivan, can you teach me how to cook?”

I stared at him. “But what about all that masala your mother brought you? I thought you knew.”

“No, she just packed that. I don’t know how to use it.”

So I showed him. From the beginning. I filled a pot with water, and set it on the stove. High heat, short time. When it started to boil I threw in some soft grains and turned the power down to minimum. Low heat, long time. Those are the basic variables of cooking. Heat and time. And they are usually in balance, like any closed system. More of one means less of the other. We fried eggs– heat the oil, which gets really hot, then throw the egg on. Short time. We made rice– throw everything in and heat, cover, and let sit. Long time.

I had never taught cooking before. Normally one starts with ingredients, tools, techniques, and recipes. But for Ashraf– for us– even that was too much to begin with. We broke the process down even further. I hope my newfound affinity for coding helped.

In the end Ashraf never quite “took up” cooking like one would expect, accepting its indispensability like one does when one moves out to go to college. It’d be more accurate to say he tried it, like skydiving. But his beard grew out, he started wearing contacts, his smile became knowing and mischievous, he started teasing and messing with people. One time he pretended to be hypnotized by Francois at a party, and everyone believed it, because they saw Ashraf as gullible. Only I knew he was mocking his former self. After the party, Ashraf sent me a text message: “You were the only one who was totally unconvinced. I should get more professional I guess. But don’t tell anyone Francois wants to fool everyone longer.” If I could describe his sense of humor now, I would say low heat, long time.

Wine-Dark Sea, revisited

I’m going to show a photograph I took. Hundred bucks if you can guess what I saw that blew my mind.

On Black Friday weekend (pure coincidence), my parents and I took a day trip out of Barcelona to the wine region of Penedes, just to the west. The valley is stunted, the sun is bright, and the entire region looks like a quilt from space.

Vilafranca de Penedes’ highlight is the town square (Placa de Jaume I), which, aside from the obligatory gothic-dressed-in-romanesque cathedral, has a place called the Vinseum– both a museum of the region’s wine industry and a wine bar and tasting room. Where do you think we gravitated?

At the table, my parents and I were chatting about the differences between Catalan and Castillian Spanish, when the waitress asked us what we wanted. I blurted out in Castillian Spanish “vino tinto” because that’s what I had become accustomed to. But as I looked down I saw no obvious equivalent on the Catalan menu. All I saw was “vi negre.”

Hang on. Back up a moment.

One of my favorite books is Through The Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, and the fascinating story about descriptions of color in language. William Gladstone, a 19th century British politician and Homer fanatic, famously discovered that the way the Greek poet used color in his epics was strange. The emblematic example is the “wine-dark sea,” an image that will change how you read the Iliad. Guy Deutscher himself was inspired to try an experiment on his young daughter, and avoid telling her that the sky was blue for many years, then asking her the question out of the blue (boom) well after she had acquired language. Apparently, the girl fell speechless as she searched for a color match, and eventually settled on “black.” Radiolab features this same story in their Colors episode. Red seas and black skies have stayed with me for years.

Sitting there at the bar, I realized that “tinto” in Castillian means “ink.” And “negre” obviously means “black.” The connection was clearer with Catalan, which it turns out is linguistically descended from Latin and NOT from Castillian Spanish (of which it is more like a sibling). Did the Roman settlers of this land, those profligate consumers of wine, also describe their wine as black? Is it possible that the peculiar texture of wine, its slight viscosity, its iridescence, its manifestation of growth and decay in nature, all of the things it embodies as an object (shout out Timothy Morton and OOO), all give it a depth of meaning which in ancient times could not be simplified to a color more associated with blood?

Is it possible that wine was ORIGINALLY black?

ProproiSTEPtion follow-up: Barba

I was overcome with the quiet pride of a writer finishing her first novel when I packaged my thoughts on propriosteption. And then, in the kickoff session to our Robotic City seminar at IAAC, the concept reappeared before me, and I felt like the same writer learning that her novel got greenlit for a movie production.

The Why Factory have a project called Barba. There it was, the propriosteption bubble, wobbling and morphing in a black void. The thing I was trying so hard to carefully explain was captured and explained in a matter of seconds with The Why Factory’s crude but thorough animation.

Originality does not exist. Even the most prolific thinker in the world will only think  of a small fraction of truly “never-before-thoughts”– and of that small fraction, yet another small fraction will be realized. Add it to the list of ideas that I’ve had, which I thought were original, which ended up being authored and stamped-and-sealed by another. You can add THIS collection to my larger thesis (still in the womb) about how, epistemologically speaking, we have long ago reached a “creative singularity,” since which it is quantum-physically/mathematically impossible to invent something 100% original.

But more on that later. In the meantime, enjoy this awesome video.

Modes of Nature

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the Fab City Design Strategies Seminar, at the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, Barcelona, in October 2017.

Thoughts on Atlas for the End of the World[1] & Fab City Whitepaper[2]

“Nature” and “artifice” are not as separate as we think.

This revelation has probably been in the margins of every major paradigm shift in human history since agriculture. The steam that powered humans’ locomotives had been propelling oceanic currents for eons. As aerodynamic design improves, it returns again and again to ornithological biomimicry. Farms, factories, endless work? Ants have been doing the same a thousand times longer. The polar bear may soon be extinct, yes, but we forget we have been wiping out large mammals since we invaded the Australian continent 45,000 years ago. It is no less relevant today.

All of these examples indicate that modern globalization (something we all consider “outward”) will force a paradigm shift that is more of an inward nature, especially in a time when the thing most urgently needed is a collective narrative about our identity as a species. Where are we going? What are our choices? Are we prepared to take full biological responsibility for these choices? I am fascinated by this new engagement humankind is going to have to have with its “insides.” We cannot afford to simply hide our inner workings (our own bodies, our infrastructure) and live inside clean, white, orthogonal spaces. We will have to get our hands dirty if we want to clean up after ourselves (dystopias like the “real world” of The Matrix or the harsh landscapes of Dune and Mad Max imagine the consequences of choosing not to). Additionally, how will this collective inwardness fit into the principles behind the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR),[3] which envisions the planet as a network of individual makers who are free from dependence on centralized governments or corporations?

I, as an educated city-dweller, can go on with examples and welcome the future with open arms. However, I am not in the majority. How do we, as the people at the TIR frontier, encourage or allow the rest of the world to participate? After all, the decentralized globe is at its most optimal when every human being is included. There is a mental barrier in the average person without a doubt, and it is related to this perceived separation between the nature and machine. Nature = irregular, machine = rational. Nature = dirty, manmade = clean. Nature = harmony, artifice = destruction. Nature = good, humankind = bad. How do we bring these two back out of the opposing ethical corners that we’ve spent centuries painting them into?

Nature is a lot more machine-like than it appears (sometimes even robotic), and our machines and cities behave more like organisms than we imagine. [4] If we have indeed become intrinsically tied to nature, the new paradigm will have to be one of adaptation with, rather than segregation from, nature. Why? Because the latter is an impossible task. Imagine asking everyone who has tasted clean drinking water to go back to semi-filtered, or forcing a Norwegian who has eaten a banana to never touch one again, or telling someone who has flown in an airplane across the Pacific Ocean in 10 hours to take a rowboat from then on. This is the curse of consumption and convenience: returning to less is psychologically a harder task than adapting our energy production systems.

In order to adapt, we have to readjust how we see nature. It is not a single, contained system outside of us. Instead, with our adaptation and integration, there will emerge different modes of nature depending on its relation to human activity. There will be a spectrum of modes, ranging from huge undisturbed regions all the way to tiny home gardens or samples in laboratories. Oostvarderplassen in The Netherlands, as mentioned in The Atlas for the End of the World, is one example of a mode of nature that we haven’t gotten used to yet. On the surface, it appears to be a common wildlife sanctuary, but upon closer inspection, there may be man-made elements like floodwater retention swales, anaerobic waste-to-energy plants, sensors monitoring threatened species, or hiking trails. The entire area may be serving as a corridor for the migration of certain animals. This is a much more nuanced and complex mode of existence between nature and humankind. Furthermore, the potential range of modes will continue to grow as we learn more about how we are affecting the planet (such as the mass decline in bee population[5]) and what we can do about it.

Similarly, there is no reason that cities won’t also start to adapt more complex modes. As The Fab City Network becomes more of a reality, cities will become much more fluid and mutable in their function. For instance, to meet the demands of a shortage of electricity caused by a flood 100km away, a city can temporarily coordinate the flow of electricity to that area, and the average citizen will only experience a miniscule change in the electricity available in their homes (perhaps all of the lights will dim by 5%). In that short time, the city will have transformed itself into a power plant. In this way, categorization will no longer be rigid, and a new activity of humans will be to monitor, model, and manage these transformations.

Cities can then start to evolve on their own in a Darwinian manner. Then it could be possible to classify cities with binomial nomenclature, building a taxonomy, and identifying important historical events where a new branch of city (or a new mode of city) came into existence. Arcticus Industrius? Mediterranea Turistica? Subterranea Ride-Sharea?

[1] Richard Weller, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com/.

[2] Tomas Diez, Fab City White Paper, http://fab.city/whitepaper.pdf.

[3] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2011.

[4] It is worth observing that nature is also incredibly violent and unforgiving to organisms unfit for survival, almost like neoliberal capitalism is to individuals in the market who are already disadvantaged. I think ecologists and conservationists do not see the whole picture in this regard.

[5] See Benjamin P. Oldroyd,What’s Killing American Honey Bees?, PLoS Biology. 5 (6): e168, 2007; and Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al, Colony Collapse Disorder Preliminary Report, Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) – CCD Working Group. p. 22, 5 January 2006.

The Aspiration Index

Image source: https://newyorkyimby.com/2014/12/future-view-manhattan-skyline-2023.html

Skylines are a speculator’s dream. Strictly speaking, they are not real things. In the same way that edges are not really there, but merely the points at which an object leaves a beholder’s eye, a city’s skyline is an imagined contour. If I ask you to imagine New York City’s skyline, you will most likely picture a silhouette with the few telltale icons bristling among generic rectangles. Whenever Related Companies’ CEO Jeff Blau promotes Hudson Yards on the news, he is sure to mention is the development’s contribution to the skyline. The image can also change depending on where you live—whether you look east from Hoboken, north from Ellis Island, or west from the Long Island Expressway.

This imagined state is also what makes it a useful measuring tool. Since it is capable of accommodating many different viewpoints, and since it changes constantly in response to citymakers’ speculations, a skyline is what I like to call the Aspiration Index of a city. It is a summation of all of the city’s past and future ambitions, an agglomeration of jostling voices into a coherent whole.

So the question arises: who controls the fluxes of this Aspiration Index? Who are the big influencers in that market? In the case of New York City, the answer has been clear for over a century: wealthy players in real estate. Since the skyscraper boom at the end of the 19th century, it has always been up to the oil tycoons and media magnates to determine the shape and color of the city canopy. Ironically, those players rarely leave the city themselves, and the skyline they mold is viewed predominantly by the working classes who live on the outskirts. This contrast is especially striking at night, when the city’s tallest buildings illuminate the dark with an array of colors.

NYC skyline , 1904s. Image via http://www.oldstratforduponavon.com/nyc4.html

The Empire State Building, a mainstay of the New York City skyline for almost 90 years now, has been outfitted with colorful lights on its crown since the 1960s; and since a lighting upgrade in 1976 has started the tradition of being lit up in different colors every night in reference to holidays or other city-wide events. It has become a pastime for some to look up at the lights after dark and guess what the day’s reference is. Over the years, it has expanded into a reservation system, in which various non-profits can apply to choose a commemorative lighting display for a single night. The spire on One Bryant Park even has its own Twitter feed which advertises the commemorations. However, these commemorations only occur once every several days, meaning that for most days the city lights remain firmly in the hands of the property owners, The Durst Organization.

Perhaps it was this detail of the empty, uncommemorated days which gave Mark Domino, son-in-law of The Durst Organization’s Chairman, an idea. He developed an app called Spireworks which allows users to log in and, for a few minutes, control the lights of One Bryant Park in real time. The app was distributed to several thousand users as a test, and it quickly exploded in popularity as users jostled for their chance to send secret messages, impress friends, and seduce dates. For the first time, a landowner had to give up control, and the inhabitants of New York seized the chance to make the skyline theirs. Mark Domino told Metro News in 2017 about his own aspiration to “transform Spireworks into something that has a greater social benefit.”

Admirable as it is, however, it is difficult to imagine what Mark Domino means exactly by “greater social benefit,” beyond reverting One Bryant Park’s spire to an organized, regulated reservation system like the Empire State Building. Meanwhile, since new technology evolves at a pace all its own, Spireworks has taken on a reputation of white-collar exclusivity quite contrary to its original intent. This is partially determined by design: digital queues have maximum wait times so as not to eat up bandwidth, and in order to gain access to the app, you have to be invited by an existing user. Spireworks now gives access to the lights of Four Times Square (also a Durst Organization property) and Domino has stated plans to expand, but that front has quieted.

Less than two years ago I visited my friend in Brooklyn Heights. She took me out on her balcony which faces the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan, and said, “Watch this.” She pulled out her phone and began pressing buttons, and in the distance, I watched open-mouthed as the crystal spire changed color within seconds. She sent me the invitation the next morning, but I never touched it. Like the hijacked innocence of the app itself, I never thought of it as more than an exclusive toy. I remembered that day on the balcony when I began putting this piece together, and I called my friend to get a live image. I logged into Spireworks in Barcelona and we opened a Skype call. For five minutes we fidgeted with camera angles and headphones and session timeouts, never quite getting the results we wanted. Maybe there was a concurrent user showing off in Midtown. Maybe the app just doesn’t work from Europe. But there I sat anyway, 3,800 miles away from my hometown, fighting for my momentary lease on the New York City skyline.

The 9-Square Grid returns

To all my Cooper Union vets: what do you think of when you think of “9-square grid?”

http://cooper.edu/projects/evolution-form

Well, what about this? This is a promotional sign for the Superilla, in Barcelona’s Poblenou neighborhood.

Superilla notice in Poblenou.

Though I had seen propaganda about it for many months since arriving last September, the Superilla remained rather isolated in my head. Which is only natural, since a) The Cooper Union is now in my past, and b) everything that happens in Barcelona nowadays is contested to the last political penny and the last bit of data– in other words, not aesthetically or pedagogically. But when I passed that sign in Poblenou, the parallels finally struck me. This was the 9-square grid reborn. This time, wearing the clothing of smart cities.

http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/superilles/ca/presentacio

The Superilla is an urban planning concept which takes a chunk of city blocks, bans vehicular traffic from them, and opens the roads into pedestrian-only zones, creating a new mini-neighborhood. There are numerous examples of this popping up around the world, from Hong Kong to New York City, but Barcelona’s efforts have gone further.

Times Square, NYC, with updated pedestrian plaza, as designed by snøhetta. image via designboom.

Barcelona’s Eixample district. via Google Earth.

The Eixample district, a sprawling grid of 100-meter square blocks, was conceived in the mid 19th century, when cars were being born. Their design took these fledgling new modes of transport into account. 150 years later, however, the Ajuntament de Barcelona took the advice of several BFD urban planners and started scaling back the presence of cars.

https://www.plataformaarquitectura.cl/cl/794868/barcelona-abre-la-primera-supermanzana-para-devolverle-las-calles-a-los-peatones-y-ciclistas

It made a lot of practical sense. One of the main benefits of the Superilla is its comfortable scale: at 300 meters a side, walking around it might feel like a medium-sized park. 12 corners per cross-street, and that yields enough opportunity to loaf, bump into strangers, or pass a small business. Mobility experts also tout the 3-street module for its minimal impact on vehicular traffic: since opposite streets on the Superilla perimeter will still go in opposite directions, as few cars as possible will need to take detours. Heavier vehicles like buses or trucks must be rerouted, but at least only one bus stop would supposedly be needed for the entire Superilla.

http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/superilles/es/superilla/sant-marti

https://www.elperiodico.cat/ca/opinio/20170919/una-superilla-amb-clarobscurs-per-olgaguday-6296488

The diagram of the 9-square grid could take on yet another symbol (as the Superilla promotional Twitter handle demonstrates):

Was this versatility what excited the Cooper Union denizens about the 9-square grid as a teaching tool? Once you set it up, it becomes like a scaffold that could contain a satisfactory number of possible operations (not too many, like chess, nor too few, like tic-tac-toe). You get 4 and you get 3 at the same time. You get enclosure. You get the suggestion of expansion. In the end, the 9-square grid is a resilient and fertile space.