This piece expands upon a pithier version of an earlier thought — we’ve built a lot of our cities, and value has increasingly shifted from traditional assets to services and experiences, so where is architecture? But it goes on to outline the case that we desperately need architecture (or some future iteration of it) due to the ‘civic failure’ implied by those shifts; that we need architecture, with its notions of being responsible for for the city (rightly or wrongly, in practice), to step up and engage with how are cities are now being transformed.
The tools, as well as a huge chunk of the value, may be shifting from buildings and hard infrastructure to services and experiences — like Uber, Lyft, Bridj noted here, and this essay focuses more on transport, compared to SQM’s focus on Airbnb — hence at least some part of architectural practice needs to move on from having buildings as the only output. The answer to every urban question cannot always be a building, clearly. Whilst buildings may be part of some solutions, there are broader, deeper questions in play — good architects see this, but the practice (from education up) is still not exploring this implied question broadly enough. That’s what this piece is probing away at, using technology as one way of opening that up.
A shorter version of this essay was published as Urban Parasites, Data-Driven Urbanism, and the Case for Architecture’, in Architecture + Urbanism (A+U), 2014:11, on ‘Data Driven Cities’. A+U is one of the best journals out there; this edition no exception. It contains pieces by Eric Rodenbeck, Léan Doody, John Frazer, Timo Arnall/Jørn Knutsen/Einar Sneve, Usman Haque, Alistair Parvin, Geeta Mehta and several others.
Urban parasites, data-driven urbanism and the case for architecture
Much traditional architecture is no longer necessary. The city is built. The western city, at least. For a country like the UK, arguably 80% of 2050’s built fabric already exists (according to the head of sustainability at InnovateUK). Similar conditions exist in much of the so-called western world. (Consider then, in particular, the absurdity of a country like Italy, with much of its built fabric delivered centuries ago, and with relatively little architecturally-led new-build in comparison, yet which still over-produces architects to the extent that one third of all European architects are Italian; one-tenth of all architects world-wide are Italian.)
If architecture, in the minds of most, is defined by enabling such built fabric–and noting that, in fact, architects generally have had a limited hand in that–then whither architecture?
Moreover, the city actually continues to change, just without the attention of architecture. If one could transport a citizen from a 1980s London street and drop them into today’s equivalent, they’d see little material difference in the built fabric. The basic topography of the street remains largely familiar, its buildings essentially the same; the patterns and conditions of pavements, roads, vehicles and street furniture largely consistent.
Unable to see significant physical changes, our eagle-eyed time-travelling tourist would instead notice that 2014’s citizens are constantly focused on their hands, where they repeatedly peck and paw at small glowing panes of glass. These smartphones are essentially the only visible token of an increasingly pervasive network of connected people, buildings, objects and spaces, but this web of services, overlaid onto the city, is not just changing how people organise and communicate. It is transforming the city itself.
By altering the way the city performs, the way it is experienced, the way it is constructed and enacted, our sense of the city changes, without radically altering its physical built fabric. 20th century architecture was largely concerned with the latter, across numerous philosophical and practical movements. So what happens to architecture when meaningful changes to the city don’t rely on architecture’s traditional vehicle — the building?
The significant cultural cachet associated with that Roark-ian 20th century mode has long lost its lustre either way. The architect, limited by an inability to create and drive new business models or modus operandi beyond eliciting design fees for each building, has ended up in an abusive relationship with the construction industry. It’s a long way from being the master builder. Like some other mid-century modern design trades — such as furniture design, for instance — it is increasingly sidelined by the currently-rampant technology sector, whose propulsive drive is characterised by Marc Andreessen’s statement: “software is eating the world.” As Kazys Varnelis has said “technology is our modernity”; the substitution of trades associated with prior versions of modernity (e.g., architecture, furniture, interiors) with those of contemporary modernity (e.g. code) is nearing completion.
Instead, the city is altered through software. In particular, a kind of parasitical software is ‘retrofitted’–though there’s hardly anything retro about it–over the existing urban fabric. These urban ‘parasites’–often benevolent, though not always–include services like Uber, Lyft and Bridj, which use the dynamics of software and data to re-conceive urban mobility, here exploiting the massively inefficient model of private car ownership, levering new services out of the gaps in-between car use and public transit.
Google’s self-driving cars could further radically change the way we move around cities, without building a single road. Recent research by MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab under Carlo Ratti suggests that take-up of shared autonomous vehicle fleets — effectively, automated taxis on-demand — could reduce the number of private cars required for a city like Singapore by up to 80%. This would facilitate a radical rethinking of urban fabric, freeing up vast amounts of urban space currently given over to wasteful parking. Such parking space could instead be schools, parks, factories, housing etc. Such resource re-allocation is ultimately driven by software. Physical space is being directly affected by code. (An example probably closer to home, and nearer term: many cities are being slowly rewired by software-enabled bike-sharing schemes, which again, require minimal physical infrastructure and zero buildings.)
Advances in mobility may even change our perception of the city’s physical form. In Joan Busquets’ supreme book ‘Barcelona: The Urban Evolution of a Compact City’, there’s a diagram of three successive maps of Europe, in which real distances seem shorter thanks to the high-speed train. The likes of Uber and self-driving cars, and contemporary apps like Citymapper, may enable comparable perceptual transformations.
Services like AirBnB use software to enable an entirely new model for accommodating travelers. They now list more rooms than the Hilton hotel chain, all extracted from the existing urban fabric; hotel rooms we didn’t know were hotel rooms, wheedled out of previously inert space. It took Hilton 110 years to build their empire, hotel by hotel, brick by brick; AirBnB have enabled more rooms in roughly six years, without building anything except code. (Imagine how annoying that is for the Hilton chain.)
Crowdfunding services like Kickstarter, In Our Backyard, Neighborland, Spacehive and others enable iterations and self-improvements for neighbourhoods, through a scalable and distributed funding model and collaborative citizen participation — at least for some citizens. Whilst they rarely consider the true complexities of decision-making about shared urban spaces and amenities, crowdfunding services are also changing how cities are produced.
All these ‘urban parasites’ revolve around a clear and often consistent set of ideas, centred on uncovering and exploiting resource inefficiency via data, allied to an individualistic ‘user pays’ funding principle, hyper-convenience and quality user experiences. Software turns urban inefficiencies (i.e., the ‘redundancy’ of unused parked cars, unoccupied rooms, waiting bus queues, etc) into the basis of new services–ones that change our perception of the city, its responsiveness and malleability.
While there are few distinctly urban philosophies at the heart of these services–they work in cities, because that’s where inefficiencies can be most profitably scaled–there are, nonetheless, distinct ideologies. They often exemplify what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron called ‘The Californian Ideology’ (1995).
As such, there is rarely a wider civic responsibility at play in these services. The sense that the city is a public good is missing in action. Such services target a niche, and widen from there, through so-called ‘disruptive innovations’, but don’t possess the dynamics of a civic service predicated on a wider sense of inclusive public good. They scale as far as there are convenient customers or regulation on their terms.
This is not market failure, but civic failure.
Uber has encountered serious resistance in almost every city it has expanded to, owing to an apparent strategy of attempting to ignore as many local regulations as possible. Avoiding such regulation, and perhaps local taxation, as per Amazon et al, will also destabilise the funding base for public services. Yet Uber does not try to scale into a full public transport service, with all the ‘unpopular’ but nonetheless mandated routes that would entail. Uber appears to be concerned with, as George Packer memorably put it, “solving all the problems of being 20 years-old, with cash in hand”. Yet its success could end up destabilising public transport for everyone else. Such services are rarely designed to scale to serve citizens as well as customers; its targets are those with a credit card and a Twitter account.
Similarly, civic crowdfunding platforms might enable a shift from public funding coordinated by representative democracy to small pools of private funding, only delivering what market dynamics dictate popular; without careful design, crowdfunding could undercut local taxation.
Writers like Adam Greenfield have powerfully warned against these often veiled ideologies, as well as the political and ethical shortcomings underpinning the wide variety of services bundled under the ‘smart city’ banner. Alexandra Lange has written convincingly “against civic crowd funding”, noting that “making something big happen at an urban scale is more than a popularity contest.” Bryan Boyer notes that “the big innovations of Silicon Valley are not technical but social (and) as Uber and others who are developing social innovations wrapped in technology have discovered, the technical challenges of building an app are either matched or dwarfed by the social, political, and legal issues.”
And perhaps here is an opening for architects. Architects can possess a strategic form of design sensibility. They can be oriented towards systemic thinking as well as the details of execution, a relatively rich understanding of the idea of the city as public good, of the value of the civic, and of the social, political and legal frameworks that affect that. While many data-driven services are struggling with issues of privacy, identity and anonymity in the city, as well as the cultural specificity that causes problems for Uber, for example, the further it strays from the Valley, architecture has long articulated subtle shades of meaning through the interplay of culture and space.
Technically, legally and philosophically adept, architecture could usefully inform this play-off between ‘Californian Ideology vs civic space’, presenting a richer understanding of urban processes and politics, of making complex decisions with real trade-offs and long-term consequences, of baking the idea of ‘city as public good’ into the DNA of structures and platforms that affect the city.
Further, there is of course specific expertise in articulating the way that spatial dynamics and built fabric continue to affect urban conditions, despite software’s power. As Boyer says, ‘matter matters’ after all, and a great deal of the great promise of Internet of Things is in its very thingness. There, architecture has much to offer.
Not only would engaging with these issues be a way out of the the aforementioned abusive relationship with the construction industry, and the concomitant self-pitying navel-gazing, but it would position the architect at the heart of contemporary decision-making about the city once again, rather than being shunted to the margins of building.
Yet this involves repositioning architecture, locating a productive new voice within a data-driven urbanism, a useful and necessary counterpoint to the crystalline yet ephemeral architectures of software. Those software architectures, when applied to decisions about new urban services like Uber and AirBnB, or when enabling new platforms for decision-making such as crowdfunding services, could use the perspective of architecture and urbanism to prevent that ‘civic failure’.
But is architecture up to that repositioning? Le Corbusier once defined architecture as “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” If that is all architecture is now, it has little future in a world largely already built — and elsewhere built largely without architects. Bernard Rudofsky’s thesis “architecture without architects” concerned vernacular architecture; yet much of the contemporary city is being shaped without architects. So architecture has to fight for its right to remain at the table; it’s not clear yet, judging by both academia and practice, that this is understood.
An edited version of this essay was published in print as:
- ‘Urban Parasites, Data-Driven Urbanism, and the Case for Architecture’, in Architecture + Urbanism (A+U), 2014:11
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