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.

A New Verticality

The first question is: are humans endowed with limits– are we endowed with yokes?

The answer is yes, and there is one specific yoke which I wish to highlight, one of a highly fundamental nature.

It is horizontality. And it’s getting to be a burden.
Our sense of physical reality is shaped almost across the board by a supremacy of horizontals. We first see it in the horizon, and in our own eyes which are parallel to it, the arc of the sun, we grasp things in proportions, in lengths to widths, we feel it in the water, in the wind, and in the pull of gravity. We sleep on our backs. We study it in ourselves, in homo erectus, as the upright upgrade to our tree-dwelling ancestors. We reflect it in, among the earliest things, our written languages. and the subsequent way we’ve developed (most) written languages…..
This supremacy is so strong, in fact, that our experience of its counterpart, verticality, is fundamentally dependent on it. In essence, the only way we have been able to construct the experience of verticality is by stacking small horizontals one on top of another– a yet-to-perfected craft. In other words, not only are we unable to go purely vertical in the underlying structure of things, but we are also still unable to express the best illusion of it!
Old Man of the Lake; Crater Lake, OR. Flat water meets a hanging object pulled by gravity. The first right angle.
Watermill in Braine-le-Chateau, Belgium. Horizontally moving water, pulled downstream by gravity, is converted to any force desirable. Wheels rule.
An anchor screw. Strength in verticality only from wrapping it with a horizontal.
Steam locomotives: horizontal force– and movement– built up from a breakdown of right angles. Pistons in modern-day car engines work in much a similar way. Image via sdrm.org
Mona Lisa’s lateral gaze.
Postcard from Japan. Via armed-guard.com
Ziggurat at Ur. Humans commanding Earth, in those little horizontal treads, to usurp it, and ascend.
Social structures also follow this stacking rule. The social bowels of Blade Runner’s imagined dystopia are a recent example.

Cass Gilbert; The Woolworth Building; 1916. Stacked horizontals, given away in the floor slabs, but also the building’s sculpted cap.
Mies Van Der Rohe; Seagram Building; 1958. Stacked horizontals Mark II: what came close to a pure expression of verticals, in retrospect, is even more constrained by that harsh, arbitrary cut-off.
The second question is: are we capable of breaking free of these limitations unto which we are born?
We still find inspiration in nature of things achieving a purer verticality, or otherwise undermining the supremacy of horizontals. Can you imagine how hard a plant’s sense of the world must be shaken if its pot falls on its side?
Successive images of a growing Arabidopsis thaliana plant straightening out after being placed horizontally. Copyright INRA / R. Bastien; S. Douady; B. Moulia. 
Another contemporary indicator could be found in data. Data, in all of its definitions, skirts these very issues. I am of course most interested in its youngest definition: information [pl] that is used or stored by a computer.
Computers store and access information using binary, which in itself is an astoundingly simple system with astoundingly broad applications. It’s a system using rules as simple as possible in immensely complex iterations: a system that maximizes the difference in size between its rules and its output. I will return to this idea later.
While we may live our lives now with the irreplaceable aid of computers, most of us remain blissfully unaware that all that virtual information we pass through our machines must have a physical counterpart. Every letter we type, every picture we take, every song we stream, every query we search is going to be stored within a chunk of stuff sitting somewhere on planet Earth. And their amount has gotten so immense, that they are now called farms. They are systematic takeovers of space in the service of the production, distribution, and retention of data.
Google server farm. Here the proper inhabitants of the space, the data storage units, are blurring the line between up/down and left/right.
Google server farm.
Our interaction & navigation of data’s virtual space is also unique. A website can occupy an almost infinite field, spreading out in all directions. Or, it doesn’t even have to do that– it can simply be a vertically scrolling webpage. Hey! This is how we navigate most of our websites– especially the text-based ones– so much so that the scrolling wheel has become a fixture in mice, as well as in devices like the iPod. This is reminiscent of the first watermills and locomotives– turning circular motion, via a constant tangent point, into a vertical vector.
All of the websites below are designed with vertical scrolling as the primary movement. Some of them don’t even express that movement outright, employing it solely as the underlying structure.
If we are to make significant progress in the building of a purer verticailty, I feel it will be related to this virtual verticality. It isn’t farfetched to foresee a future when the primary inhabitant of Earth will be data. And while it may sound frightening on the one hand, there are architects that could pee their pants in excitement– to design a server farm– a house for information.
Information and its physical traces aren’t subject to the same laws of horizontality that humans are. The primary concerns are electric and mechanical– that is, providing them with electricity, and conditioning the air around them. They are unafraid of heights, do not need stairs to climb or views to take in. The constraints seem so minimal that the design of a server farm tower will likely be completely revolutionary.
My own sketches, imagining a tower for servers which treats vertical movement as its main axis.
Some of my early sketches arrived at a tower like a beanstalk– a vertical line first and foremost which pauses, takes detours, and incorporates into itself horizontal forms or formulae (formulae as in: mathematical functions, those equations which would change the path of a straight line on a graph) in order to gain the thickness and interiority it needs to contain the volume of servers and wiring. Whatever ‘rooms’ result from these detours might more closely resemble organelles in a cytoplasm, seeds in a hypanthium, or embryos in an endosperm… man, that’s a ton of biology references.
Interesting to note how boring the plan becomes, almost automatically.
Onion cross-section via oldschool.com
Solanum seed via brighthubeducation.com
One of Anastasiya’s first thesis ideas was the design of a city for angels. It had behind it the same motivation for representing and encountering verticality in a purer sense, not as constrained by ground. Throughout history, the divine has always been understood to move up and down (Gods in a mountain; laws passed down; Lucifer the fallen angel; the depths of Inferno; totems…). Angels do not experience gravity and are more intimately betrothed to a sectional representation of their universe. Imagine a building elevation turned on its side, its elements indicating stratified zones rather than veiling experiences behind it.
Calvino could have been a great architect– aside from the obvious, the real reason is that he has an excellent sense of sections: he builds worlds from the side, with a full view of it from top to bottom. Compared to left/right and front/back, top/bottom has always been a more challenging arrangement to accept since it forces us to acknowledge our mediocre size– the plan holds a supremacy very much related to that of the horizon: it flattens the world, and assumes that the human eye is highest, looking down on it all.
Cover art for Invisible Cities, the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition.
From the above examples, it would appear that we are eternally bound to this condition, and can only fabricate counteracting illusions. That said, I do not wish to belittle this achievement in itself, the underlying principle of which is brilliant. 
In our quest to surpass everything earthly (which has become the human mission), we’ve become experts at fabricating illusions. But we don’t do it from scratch. We pick apart the world around us, until it is beyond recognition, then go into sandbox mode. We stack. We zoom in. We reshuffle. We flatten. We break things down in order to rebuild them in our own image. This is the crux of the above examples, simultaneously the reason they are effective representations of verticality, AND why they operate chiefly as fictions.
IF it is truly impossible to separate our existence from the laws of horizontality, then we will settle with the infinite subdivision and stacking/reshuffling of space we’ve been doing thus far. Its scale is expanding and will soon be a monumental micro-division of the very laws of physics, down to the movement of atoms, in order to generate a structurally pure verticality via an indecipherable illusion of it.
But if fiction had been defined from its nascence by illusion, the slow, overarching trend throughout history has been our attempt to bring fiction into existence alongside us, to blend illusion with the real, using the same method of breaking-down. Many of the 20th century’s discoveries and advances have augmented this trend without a shadow of a doubt. What may seem like the construction of a more and more elaborate illusion may turn out to be a fusion between underlying structures and the facades that represent them. The effort to achieve pure verticality– a transformation of horizontality– would spearhead that quantum leap.