City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Enskede 23 June 2020

The scale of things, and an emphasis on the small details of everyday infrastructures; The incompleteness of cities ensures its making and re-making; An alternative architecture framed at the scale of interaction design.

Formal architecture is barely present in Olalekan Jeyifous’s work, just as the close crop reveals little in the way of expansive landscape. It is all detail, filing the frame with objects rather than buildings, with greenery more than people. This may be important, as it implicitly asks a question of proportion, suggesting a swing towards urban form based around biodiversity first, and all else follows. I’ve often framed our Swedish Street mission as a way of re-foresting Swedish cities. Perhaps we need to get the point whereby we wonder whether we can see the city for the trees.

So with the idea of extending Klinenberg’s social infrastructures, we must open up a broader definition of the ‘infrastructure of everyday life’, recognising that the terms “social infrastructure” or “public life” may still be caught in the trappings of a human-centred epistemology (for all we understand, after Peter Wohllenben, that trees are social beings too.)

Whereas, ‘everyday life’ captures all forms of life, in the sense of a multi-species approach, as well as the quotidian sociological aspects that Klinenberg describes so well. And everyday life, following De Certeau (and Ben Highmore’s ‘everyday life’ readers) implies pulling focus on a certain scale of experience.


Borrowing from Darko Radović and Davisi Boontharm’s Small Tokyo by way of example, the scale of this ‘infrastructure of everyday life’ is the corner, the street, the neighbourhood. Tokyo’s streets, threading through the networks of numerous small neighbourhoods that exemplify its own polka dot pattern, tend to be no more than four metres wide or so, but with on-street parking banned, their openness means that life is packed into every corner, at the scale of plant pots, signs, window displays, seats, small trees, vending machines, bikes, adverts, playgrounds … Biodiversity is somewhat crammed in here, admittedly, yet this does at least reveal a defiant yet respectful, almost animistic desire to enable every single surface, every nook and cranny, to host some greenery. The city is a seed-bed.

Tokyo, July 2019
Small Tokyo’, Darko Radovic and Davisi Boontharm (2012)

But this scale—the plant, the tree, the person, the vending machine—is what may be important, initially. This scale, these objects, and the services and experiences they imply is the starting point of the Incomplete City method, developed by Joseph Grima, Marco Ferrari and me, extended by several others elsewhere, and most recently and excellently by Bryan Boyer at Taubman College, University of Michigan—who produced a wonderful write-up of our collaboration here.

Everyday infrastructure-making, for Incomplete City Michigan Edition, written-up by Bryan Boyer here

Incomplete City is pitched for students as those elements that make a city that are ‘bigger than a cellphone, smaller than a building’. Just like larger, slower building-scale elements like libraries, schools, and parks, these smaller components are also forms of social infrastructure. In the context of pace layers, and compared to other forms of built infrastructure, this scale tends to be faster moving, relatively fluid and malleable.

Crucially, the emphasis in the studio is on ongoing, continual collaboration and engagement over time, rather more like collectively growing something than producing a static drawing. The continual state of things being unfinished, and requiring participation, ensures a vitality and fertility in the work. This perpetual incompleteness of cities, when multiplied by complexity, is what Saskia Sassen sees as driving its ongoing continual making and remaking, and thus its ongoing existence.

Tokyo artfully files its urban objects at the scale of people and small trees

The elements chosen as the building blocks—the faster layers of objects, services, cultures, negotiations, environments, conditions, rather than buildings and heavy infrastructure—are those in constant movement, able to react and adapt. And yet they affect those slower layers either side.

They are the details that make a city, the elements that we actually touch, or use, rather than buildings and spaces which can often remain borrowed scenery.

This is an alternative architecture framed at the scale of interaction design. Examples would include the compendium De Stoep, detailing the endless variations in the few metres of threshold between inside and outside of houses in Dutch towns, alongside Kolbitz’s rather grander Entryways of Milan. Understanding the value of balconies, such as the flower-filled wrap-around stepped terraces of the Athens polikatoiki apartment blocks. Or Juhani Pallasmaa’s sense that “the door handle is the handshake of the building”, which still speaks to us, at a time when handshakes are virtually banned. Or Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York, which reveals the systems and stories behind spray-painted sidewalk markings, manhole covers, and opaque cable boxes. Or Atelier Bow-Wow’s Pet Architecture compendium of pocket ‘pet-size’ buildings in Tokyo, and, yes, Radović and Boontharm’s 100 maps of a single street, Kuhonbutsygawa Ryokudo, Jiyugaoka. Or UK studio muf, who are as practiced in working with an actual community as they are with a physical material, developing a “mutual knowledge” of the public realm, rather than buildings per se.

“As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of [the city] as it is today should contain all [the city’s] past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)

David Sim’s recent book Soft City has an excellent overview of elements at these different scales, from windows and doors up to neighbourhoods, and the different ways that these urban building blocks can produce relationships between social fabric, climate resilience, and health.

Spreads from David Sim’s ‘Soft City’ (2019)

Edwin Heathcote’s essay/poem 128 things about the city, produced during the lockdown, sparkles with examples of these details, sketching the small social places that conjure urban lives, to jumble William H. Whyte.

“Scale is not simply a way to measure the size of the things around us. It is a formidable conceptual framework. We shape scale, but scale shapes us … thought we scarcely pay heed to it. Thinking and acting through scale, in all its strange complexity, may be our best strategy for thriving in a dynamically changing world.” — Jamer Hunt

As well as street corner cafés and pubs, Eric Klinenberg’s social infrastructure tends towards larger entities: streets and squares, libraries and museums, piazza and markets, schools, public swimming pools, playgrounds, parks, and so on. Such spaces and systems are both eternal and ubiquitous, and yet also often under threat and highly undervalued by systems that tend to focus on economic output and the simplistic easy-to-measure.

Scale itself is key, however. It is in the multiplicity of small pieces that we have the potential for diversity. Klinenberg is good on this too. For example, in assessing the cost ($2.5m), scale (21,000 sq ft) and productivity (20,000 plants, reducing roof temperature by 50 degrees on hot days) of the green roof on Chicago City Hall (possibly the largest in the world), he subtly makes the point that, while a wonderful thing, its scale hampers what it does for the city. Despite its public ownership, he says:

“It is not, however, a work of social infrastructure. It does nothing to help people in Chicago neighbourhoods connect with one another on a regular basis.It doesn’t give people who are surrounded by asphalt better access to parkland or clean air. It doesn’t make those who are vulnerable to extreme weather any safer, nor does it make the places they live healthier. To do all that Chicago would have to invest in less glamorous but far more accessible green spaces: community gardens and urban farms.”—Eric Klinenberg

As we will see later, a ‘small pieces loosely joined’ strategy for green spaces does all this, and more. And in Chicago too, as it happens.

Green roof on Chicago City Hal

Small islands of coherence

The scale of the unit itself is fundamental, which means a particular way of thinking about everyday infrastructures and technologies, and the design practices that help produce them.

“In an unstable complex system, small islands of coherence have the potential to change the whole system.” — Ilya Prigogine

Following Lewis Fry Richardson’s mathematical theories, and the ‘coastline paradox’ that follows from them, we know that smaller units of measurement mean that greater distances are measured. Similarly perhaps, breaking structures into smaller units increases their addressable surface area, opening up the possibility of greater diversity. With greater diversity comes increased resilience. And after Prigogine, “small islands of coherence” can nonetheless change entire systems, the located ‘Terrestrial’ that Latour writes about in Down to Earth.

“(This) exact and peculiar Japanese ability to live small can prove to be an invaluable cultural asset, and that it creates an internalised knowledge and key survival skills in a time of crisis and scarcity which environmental degradation seem to be bringing about.”—Darko Radovic, introduction to ‘Small Tokyo’ (2012), described here

Victor Papanek knew this importance of the smaller scale, and yet conversely, how an overly large sense of scale had come to utterly define American urbanism by the time he wrote Design for the Real World in 1971. In describing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City (1935), Papanek actually twists the usual critiques of Broadacre (blueprint planning of car-oriented suburban sprawl, eventually over-scaled to cover the USA), by focusing instead on Wright’s sensibility for the intimate scale, demonstrated in his Sun Top Homes prototype.

He notes that Wright spoke of Little farms, little homes for industry, little factories, little schools, a little university going to the people mostly by way of their interest … little laboratories” (Wright’s emphasis.)

Yet urban development and infrastructure projects have a tendency to scale up rather than down, and to become more expensive rather than less. Bent Flyvberg’s research famously makes this clear with infrastructure projects (“the projects that are made to look best on paper are the projects that amass the highest cost overruns and benefit shortfalls in reality”, with nine out of ten ‘megaprojects’ going over budget).

From my personal experience on urban development projects over the last couple of decades, I know there’s a tendency for the client, and contractors, to scale up. This applies whether public or private, though the incentives are perhaps clearer on the private side. These incentives may include the questionable rationale of prestige, or more simply, to obtain a larger budget (as more costs from greater size generally equals more profit, for the contractors in urban development projects.) A friend remarked to me once that, this way, by making the project bigger, “Everyone’s mortgage gets paid.”

Of course, in the end, not everyone’s mortgage gets paid at all, as the requirement to recoup greater project costs leads to less affordable space, and greater inequality. But given the huge offset between design project and lived experience, that issue is simply shuttled out of sight, way down stream, simply ‘somebody else’s problem’.

Even in the arid terrain of innovation policy discourse, the usual rhetoric gravitates around the large scale, or the incessant drive for ‘scale-ups’, due to the in-built bias for big that governments tend towards. So it’s heartening to hear UNDP Accelerator Labs pursuing the virtues of the small, and the informal, in this context.

“This shift is required because formal development processes are simply not low-cost or agile enough to respond to emerging new requirements as rapidly as in the informal sector. As in the case of the Industrial Revolution, individual innovations found by the UNDP Accelerator Labs are likely to be small. There are many very specific innovations in the informal sector that individually recycle different waste products for valuable new products, ranging from floor tiles to roads to roofing. Collectively, these small innovations have a large impact on the important social and economic problem of waste management.” — Eric von Hippel, MIT Sloan School of Management, reviewing UNDP Accelerator Labs

Small is beautiful hospitals, police, and schools

In recent years, the same scale dynamics have driven the design and operation of hospitals (In the near future Denmark will have fewer, larger and more specialised hospitals”; “Around the world, many hospitals are consolidating services to increase volumes in specialised services. The result is larger regional hubs.”)

Schools, too, have had a tendency to scale up (“The Victorian Government has announced a merger of four Shepparton public schools into one new ‘super school’; “A new wave of huge schools is planned to add places without new buildings.”)

Yet with schools at least, there is much evidence for small being beautiful. Numerous research reports support smaller schools. Although scale is not enough in itself—the Gates Foundation spent £1bn funding 1,500 small schools before concluding that “curriculum and instruction may be as important as school size”—a small scale may be a fundamental precursor to being able to resolve key factors, such as governance, curriculum, engagement, sustainability, culture. Additionally, this scale, aligned with the Slowdown dynamics described in this series, would more easily enable genuinely integrated approaches to learning, in and around the school.

Klinenberg again, from ‘Palaces for the People’:

“Reducing a school’s physical size does not solve all its problems, but it has proven to make a tremendous impact on student attention, achievement, and college matriculation as well as teacher satisfaction and positive feelings about the school climate … There’s no magic bullet for improving school performance in difficult environments, but designing campuses that students, teachers, and administrators can collectively control is among the most effective techniques we’ve found.”—Eric Klinenberg

It may be that the lockdown/slowdown’s hastening of distance learning can support this shift. By redistributing learning around the neighbourhood, space, value, ownership and participation can be redistributed too.

Ed. This approach was the subject of a piece I wrote for the recent Routledge textbook on Urban Schools: Designing for High Density. I'll share a version of the essay later.

The shift in education is as radical as the others here, and again, the virus has acted as an accelerant. “It’s as if we’ve gone from 2020 to 2030 in one weekend,” Dutch educational innovator Christien Bok told De Volkskrant newspaper.

As with everything else here, the choices we make about navigating education from lockdown to slowdown will tell us much about whether we’re in the last vestiges of Acceleration mode, with its inherent inequality, extraction, and social justice issues—see the ‘home pods’ furore breaking out in wealthier parts of New York—or genuinely moving into Slowdown mode.

In the article on Norwegian prisons mentioned earlier, Rutger Bregman made an aside on the form and scale of police departments.

“Back in the 1970s, Elinor Ostrom — the economist who researched the commons — conducted the largest study ever into police departments in the United States. She and her team discovered that smaller forces invariably outperform bigger ones. They’re faster on the scene, solve more crimes, have better ties with the neighbourhood, and all at a lower cost. Better, more humane, less expensive.”—Rutger Bregman, ‘Here’s a radical idea that will change policing, transform prisons and reduce crime: treat criminals like human beings’, The Correspondent (emphasis added)

We can resist the pull to the larger scale, instead looking for ways to start small and stay small. Importantly, this requires systems thinking (or ‘complex assemblage thinking’, perhaps)—or more simply, recognising that everything is connected, that small effects combine to produce large impact (best articulated by John Thackara.) Working the small scale is effective, yet only if the work recognises that it is intrinsically implicated in all larger scales too.

Shifting perspective and scale, veering “between the spoon and the city” as Ernesto Nathan Rogers had it, is standard practice in design—at least, when given the chance. This way of thinking, and making, applies whether understanding how platforms and pixels interrelate in an iPhone, or how the doorhandle is simultaneously part of the urban plan.

Jamer Hunt’s ‘scalar framing’ method takes a ‘Powers of 10’-like approach to progressively unpacking a widening ambit, indicating how “every local problem is also likely a global one,” and the insights that can be derived from moving one’s thinking across different scales. (I wrote previously about how articulating these connected scales and spheres of responsibility are fundamental to contemporary strategic design practice, and how we may need to rebuild governance around layers of pace and scale.)

“Our capacity to orient and ground ourselves against the surround (of scale) is one of the anchors that keeps us in the here and now; it structures and organises the spaces we inhabit, establishing a platform of predictability in an otherwise chaotic sea of sensations and experiences.” — Jamer Hunt, Not To Scale (2020)

So this deliberately complex relationship between scale, pattern, dynamic and condition means that a design practice for these infrastructures of everyday life would not organise around the arbitrary separations of existing disciplines —architecture, landscape, urban design, urban planning, service design, interaction design etc.—but pulls focus instead on the nouns and verbs with which the world is articulated—streets, schools, stations, factories, forests etc.— into which these disciplines can be variously infused.

Ed. I’m using this place-based approach at Vinnova, as a way of taking abstract concepts like systems and platforms and ensuring that they are tangible, located, ‘down to earth’ and participative—whilst enabling systemic change via mission-oriented innovation. More anon.

Yet other disciplines and practices are embedded in these nouns and verbs too, of course — sociology, economics, service design, health, software, artistic practices, participative practices, and others.

This infrastructure of everyday life becomes a new organising principle, suitably holistic and interdependent, yet without getting caught in the cybernetic allusions that can plague systems thinking and practice. Places provide a platform for this work, at least when understood as everyday complex, located yet adaptable, meaningful and malleable. They enable a focus on small scale—working with a store, or a school—yet can these elements can be understood as types, from which aspects can be translated.

“Places … are best thought of not so much as enduring sites but as moments of encounter, not so much as ‘presents’, fixed in space and time, but as variable events; twists and fluxes of interrelation.” — Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (2002)

Given its easy facility with place, architecture can remain a fulcrum for this work. However, it must use its inherent relational capabilities, extended just as Jeremy Till suggests, to finally obliterate any sense of mansplaining Roarkian control-freakery. This means architecture as ‘glue’, architect as discrete playmaker and engaged team-player. As Sarah Treadwell writes in ‘Architecture in an Expanded Field’:

“The edges of architecture are productively shaped, or frayed, by such engagement with other, other people, other points of view and other practices.”

Next: 36. Slowdown landscapes: One-Minute City—Fifteen-Minute City
Previous: 34. Intermediate technologies and everyday infrastructure
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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