Dissolving the City
Preliminary Notes on Spatial Ideologies of Information and Communication Technologies

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A partial map of global operational networks © Ali Fard

 

Essay by Ali Fard

 

Communication networks have been influencing the city and urban imagination since the introduction of electrical telegraph in early 19th century. Beginning in the mid-20th century, however, a new wave of technological advances in electronic communication, generated in part by the military efforts of the two world wars, would inject a new enthusiasm in spatial practices concerned with the city and its future. This enthusiasm would lead to the development of an ideology in the 1960s of an urban transcendence within radical architecture. At its core, this ideology believed that the dematerialization of the networks of information and communication would bring about an end to the city as a concentrated form of agglomeration. Echoing the decentralized utopias of 19th century, this ideology would build on an urban/non-urban dichotomy, which still persists in the contemporary “urban age” discourse.

More recently, developments in urban studies and the re-emergence of networks and open systems thinking within design practices have identified a dual explosive/implosive character in global urbanization processes. While city-based agglomeration remains an essential aspect of urbanization, the extended operational urban fabric, emanating from cities and reaching to every corner of the globe, has become an increasingly integral part of global urbanization. And although the urban transcendence of the 1960s utopian schemes has not materialized, information and communication technologies, their organizational logic, and their urban/spatial disposition have remained essential in both concentrated and extended forms of urbanization. The operational relationship between urban hardware and urban software, between form and process, to which most visions in the 60s alluded, remains a productive lens for investigating the hybrid material/immaterial nature of information and communication technologies, and their historical and contemporary spatial ideologies.

 

Garden Cities to Cybercities

Connectivity has been an essential and constitutive aspect of global urban development. Yet it was not until the late 19th century and the diffusion of the telegraph that communication networks began to permeate the spatial ideologies of cities and their future orientation.1 Faced with a problematic urban condition at the turn of the new century, a modernist regime informed by new technological advances in transportation, sanitation and communication took on the task of urban reform. The rise of planning and engineering—with their philosophical belief in science, technology, and standardized infrastructure—coupled with the growth of a consumption society mediated through grids of power, water, transportation, and communication, would eventually lead to the development of what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin have called “the modern infrastructural ideal.” [2] This ideology was itself rooted in the late 19th century amid the prevalent belief that urban problems created by the rapid growth of industrial cities could only be effectively addressed through the application of scientific methods and technological advances, seen as both the source of, and the answer to, the problems of the ever-growing industrial city. Technological developments in roads, rail, sanitation, water, and communication would form key elements of the larger project of modernization and societal progress. [3] By the beginning of the 20th century, and epitomized by the Garden Cities concept of Ebenezer Howard in 1902, there was a profound shift towards decentralization as the ultimate solution to the ills of the industrial city. Foreshadowing ideas that were to be further developed after WWII, this decentralization was in a large part enabled by technological advances in sanitation, transportation, and communication, as ways of connecting and servicing new polycentric networks of inhabitation. In Howard’s vision of a “well-structured and biologically sound urban body,” an emphasis was placed on systems of circulation. Howard “stressed the need for a scientific system of flows within and between his garden cities. These were based around systems of railways, canals and reservoirs that he depicted in the networks and routes crisscrossing his diagram of the Social City.” [4]

 

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Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept from Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902) © Image courtesy of Ali Fard

 

Urban connectivity was taken up as a major factor of modern movement in architecture and planning, characterized by the International Congress of Modern Architecture’s (CIAM) adoption of circulation and traffic as major issues within their charter. CIAM’s interest in the networks of circulation can be directly linked to the reorientation of planning and architecture towards economy and efficiency at the turn of 20th century, which emphasized the scientific and systematic organization of urban flows as one of the main mandates of urban restructuring. [5] With the rise of cybernetics and the study of control systems in the years following WWII, the influence of electronic communication technologies and their networks would begin to permeate the spatial disciplines as major conceptual drivers. Under the heavy influence of the theoretical discourse of Marshal McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, from the 1950s on, architecture saw a pronounced shift towards electronic communication and computers and their potential effect on cities and urban environments. Converging ideologies of communication systems and urban growth would reach their peak in the 1960s at the Delos meetings organized by Constantinos Doxiadis. These meetings and the journal Ekistics were to serve as the ultimate propaganda machines for dissemination of a network culture within architecture. Expanding on the work started by CIAM and the modern movement’s preoccupation with circulation, the Delos meetings and the subsequent journal articles of Ekistics were to redirect CIAM’s agenda towards electronics and electronically mediated communication. [6] The study of patterns in nature and human organizations initiated by cybernetics was to gain a greater prominence within the architectural discourse of the time, prompting a disciplinary concern for connections, especially the invisible connective networks of communication and air travel, to the extent that, as Mark Wigley elaborates, within these discussions “the central role of the architect was no longer just the form of networks, but the connections between them.” [7]

Fascinated with the processing power of computers and the connective fabric of communication networks, radical architectural practices of the 1960s began to imagine the city as a communication system, a giant computer. Not only was the discipline inundated with computer jargon, but the operational aspects of computers were also beginning to pervade how architects saw cities, and even more importantly, how they imagined the future of cities. The Computer City project of Archigram from 1964 is a vivid example of this new attitude towards the city.

 

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Computer City, Axonometric, Dennis Crompton (Detail), © Archigram 1964. Photoprint from original ink line drawing on tracing paper, with added colour film, mounted on board, 850 x 600 mm. Image supplied by the ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVES 2013

 

Imagined as “a synthesized metropolis with electronic changeability,” the scheme was representative of a reciprocal relationship emerging between information and communication technologies (ICT) and ideas of infrastructural flexibility and changeability. Shedding much of the bulk of the group’s other urban schemes, Computer City was purely interested in information, its transmission and potential for generating a flexible urban feedback loop. Information was given material form through cables, transistors, and processing units, provoking “the use of computer technology not as a representational tool, but as an environmental model.” [8] Although partly lost in the techno-speak, the project for the first time hints at the build-up of materiality that would accompany the cybercities of the future. Yet this material buildup was encoded with themes of urban flexibility and the potential ability of cities to respond in an interactive way to change and flux. As Dennis Crompton elaborated in the original printing of the project in the fifth issue of Archigram,“the activities of an organized society occur within a balanced network of forces which naturally interact to form a continuous chain of change.” [9] His Computer City would be “programmed” to physically respond to changes in the activities of the city over time.

While the shift towards urban software was gaining great traction within the architectural discourse of the time, it was precisely its dialectic relationship to the hardware that underlined almost every project of 1960s radical architecture. [10] This dialectic of form and process — rather than form and function — is an essential outcome of the 1960s discussions around cities and communication networks. As Kenzo Tange reflected in 1966, “in modern civilized society, space is a communication field, and it is becoming more and more organic with the development of the communication system… Creating an architecture and a city may be called a process of making the communication network visible in space.” [11] And by the early 1970s, it was generally accepted that even invisible social networks and other non-physical systems require a physical network for their delivery, an “interface” between non-physical processes and physical forms. [12]

 

Urban Transcendence

Around the same time, themes of urban dispersal were emerging from planning, where in a highly influential paper in 1963, Melvin Webber argued that “disparate spatial dispersion” was in fact a “built-in feature of the future” and “the counterpart of a chain of technological developments that permit spatial separation of closely related people.” [13] Webber saw the density and the concentrated form of cities as a direct outcome of the need for closely related, yet specialized, activities of the city to communicate efficiently. In this regard, emerging information and communication technologies and their connective networks would enable an understanding of the spatial city “as a communications system, as a vastly complex switchboard through which messages and goods of various sorts are routed.” [14] Believing that the prevalent understanding of “urban-ness” and cities, as concentrated forms of agglomeration of human activity, was culturally constructed and in need of a reorientation towards a more spatially diversified future, Webber argued for a hybrid urban condition, one both concentric and expansive, a theme that would reemerge at the beginning of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the two gurus of network culture, McLuhan and Fuller, were working hard and seamlessly to generate nothing short of a revolution in the urban spatial ideology of the time. Their ideas, largely based on and inspired by electronic communication and networks of information, were to champion patterns of fluid connection over static urban form. Here there were considerable differences between what Doxiadis imagined as the future of urban settlements and McLuhan and Fuller’s belief in the persistence of the fluid character of emerging patterns of human habitat. While Doxiadis called for a (re)stabilizing of urban environments through visualizing and analyzing patterns of invisible infrastructural networks, Fuller asserted that it was “precisely the stability of unseen infrastructural networks that makes global physical instability possible and desirable. The global village supports a hypermobility of people and architecture. Designers are to aim for ’formless’ systems of unsettlement rather than overcome them.” [15] To Fuller and McLuhan, the stability of cities and their dependence on fixed infrastructures of connectivity — visible or not — was in contrast to the hypermobility of contemporary society, which was increasingly facilitated by new information and communication technologies. In turn, they suggested a totally new spatial ideology driven by dynamic infrastructural elements able to react and respond to the economic, cultural and social flux of the contemporary urban condition. Cities, as concentrated forms of agglomeration — of capital, people, and form — connected by fixed and inflexible infrastructural networks were now to give way to a largely distributed network of connections between increasingly nomadic forms of “unsettlement.” [16]

These ideas were to heavily influence the spatial ideology of a younger generation of designers and architects fed up with modernist architecture and planning. The new dynamism embedded in information and communication technologies, coupled with other electro-mechanical advances, would bring about a general shift towards ideas of urban transcendence. Going beyond the city, towards a dynamic decentralized organization enabled by electronics and computers, was a common theme among this new generation. Cedric Price and Archigram of UK, Superstudio and Archizoom of Italy, and the Japanese Metabolists were among the radical voices that believed the new wave of electronically mediated information and communication technologies would bring about a dramatic shift in the concept of the urban. Freed from the fixity and materiality of traditional urbanism, the city, these designers believed, was now able to move, expand, and disperse. The dichotomy of the urban and non-urban, city and nature, would now be mediated and resolved through electronic communication, the full force of which would “make the distinction between urban concentration and exurban sprawl irrelevant.” [17]

The influence of these ideas on architecture and other spatial fields was such that these “fantasies of transcendence”, as Stephen Graham calls them, would be sustained for much of the next three decades. Graham elaborates that the mystique which was attached to digital communication technologies between the 1960s and 1990s was such that “ICT-mediated shifts away from place and city-based lives were often uncritically assumed to automatically also involve shifts towards more democratic, egalitarian, decentralized and ecologically sensitive societies.” [18] It seemed as if finally the ills of the industrial city had been overcome, new technology had conquered old technology, and the agrarian and idyllic utopias of the past were now the future.

 

The City is Dead, Long Live the City

By the end of the 20th century, Antoine Picon suggests, a number of parallel theories had emerged within design disciplines regarding the impacts of digital technologies on the future of the city. [19] Having evolved from the spatial ideologies of cities and technology of 1960s, these theories implied, in some way or another, an end to the city as we know it. William J. Mitchell, for example, hypothesized that advances in digital communication networks and information technologies would eventually replace much of the physical circulation in cities. Advancing the longstanding concept of digital tools as extensions of the human body, Mitchell believed that many of the urban exchanges would eventually become redundant by digital information and communication technologies. [20] It was largely believed that digital culture and dematerialization of information and communication technologies would lead to a radical dispersion of cities, strangely echoing the radical architectural theories of the 1960s and late 19th century.

 

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A partial map of global operational networks © Ali Fard

 

However, beginning with Manuel Castells and Saskia Sassen, and followed by Simon Marvin and Stephen Graham, a new discourse emerged around cities and ICT. Although some urban exchange was replaced by digital communication, processes of metropolitanization had granted a renewed importance to highly concentrated cities such as New York and London. [21] Not only had cities not disappeared, they had in fact grown, and the resultant urban spaces were highly fragmented spaces of unequal infrastructural development and accessibility. In parallel to these findings, there was a move towards a more regional process of urbanization. Citing “the facilitative effects of the revolution in information and communication technologies” as one of the major forces driving this regional process, Edward Soja has identified a “filling in” of the decentralized urban forms and suburban developments of the metropolitan era, in effect expanding the concentrated form of urbanization to a regional scale. [22]

Recent developments in urban studies suggest a more “planetary” perspective. Questioning the urban/non-urban dichotomy widespread in urban studies, Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid have articulated a need to explore new avenues for understanding the contemporary process of global urbanization. The urban can no longer be understood through a study of various settlement types. If, as Webber declared 50 years ago that “all space is urban space,” [23] then the urban/non-urban dichotomy still prevalent among the “urban age” theorists is extremely problematic. While agglomeration remains essential to the process of “planetary urbanization,” Brenner and Schmid believe that “even spaces that lie well beyond the traditional city cores and suburban peripheries — from transoceanic shipping lanes, transcontinental highway and railway networks, and worldwide communications infrastructures to alpine and coastal tourist enclaves, ‘nature’ parks, offshore financial centers, agroindustrial catchment zones and erstwhile ‘natural’ spaces such as the world’s oceans, deserts, jungles, mountain ranges, tundra, and atmosphere — have become integral parts of the worldwide urban fabric.” [24] Echoing the (re)emergence of networks, urban flows and global systems in architecture, landscape architecture and other design disciplines, these ideas reassert the significant role of multi-scalar connections and connective urban fabrics within global processes of urbanization.

 

Hardware/Software

Information and communication technologies, and their networks of dissemination, hold an especially critical position within this increasingly global perspective. Not only have these technologies been instrumental in the ideological death and reincarnation of the city and the emergence of a planetary scope, but they have also generated their own complex physical network and a highly articulated organizational logic. Yet, the seemingly immaterial characteristics associated with ICT, and the shadowy effects of a technological determinism embedded in them since their conception, have hampered a deeper study of their spatial disposition. It would perhaps be constructive to reexamine the dynamism of ICT that injected so much enthusiasm into the design theories of the 1960s. Stemming from a dialectical relationship between hardware and software, this dynamism provoked a radical architecture movement that would influence the discipline for years to come. Hence, in retrospect, the cannibalistic tendencies of design to go beyond cities, beyond architecture, beyond hardware, and beyond form, are perhaps not as fruitful as efforts spent on better understanding the operational relationships between form and process, between urban hardware and urban software, and between concentrated and extended forms of urbanization. The operational hardware/software dialectic rooted in the urban disposition of information and communication technologies remains an essential concern of contemporary design.

 

Endnotes

1. The emphasis had historically been placed on transportation, power and water, rather than communication. This was particularly due to the fact that before the invention of telegraph, transportation and communication infrastructures where synonymous, as post, newspapers, and other communication technologies of the time depended on roads and rail for their delivery.

2. Graham and Marvin (2001:43-81)

3. Ibid (41)

4. Pinder (2005:48)

5. Foglesong (1986:199-232)

6. For an engaging account of the Delos meetings and a detailed historical perspective on networks and their adoption in architecture, see: Wigley (2001)

7. Wigley (2001:94)

8. Steiner (2009:205)

9. Crompton (1964) Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid.“Planetary Urbanisation.” Urban Constellations. Ed. Matthew Gandy. Berlin: Jovis, 2011. 10-13. Castells, Manuel. The Informational City : Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989. Crompton, Dennis, “Computor City”, Archigram 5 (1964), Unpaginated Foglesong, Richard. Planning the Capitalist City : The Colonial Era to the 1920s. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Fuller, Buckminster. “Accommodating Human Unsettlement.” Town Planning Review 49 (January 1978): 51-60. Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. Splintering Urbanism : Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London; New York: Routledge, 2001. Graham, Stephen. The Cybercities Reader. London; New York: Routledge, 2004. Mitchell, William J. City of Bits : Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995. Mitchell, William J. Me++ : The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

10. By urban software I refer to the visible or invisible processes and forces that influence, and emanate from, cities and other urban formations. Urban hardware can be understood as the operational architecture and material forms that mediate, and are in turn generated by, these urban processes.

11. Tange (1970, 240)

12. Wigley (2001:91)

13. Webber (1963:23)

14. Ibid (42)

15. Wigley (2001:114)

16. See Buckminster Fuller’s Report on the United Nation’s Conference on Human Settlements: Fuller (1978)

17. Wigley (2002:112)

18. Graham (2004:8)

19. Picon (2010:172)

20. Mitchell (1995)

21. See: Castells (1989), Sassen (1991), Graham and Marvin (2001)

22. Soja (2011)

23. Webber (1963:53)

24. Brenner and Schmid (2011)

 

Sources

Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. “Planetary Urbanisation.” Urban Constellations. Ed. Matthew Gandy. Berlin: Jovis, 2011. 10-13.

Castells, Manuel. The Informational City : Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process. Oxford, UK ;Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989.

Crompton, Dennis, “Computor City”, Archigram 5 (1964), Unpaginated

Foglesong, Richard. Planning the Capitalist City : The Colonial Era to the 1920s. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Fuller, Buckminster. “Accommodating Human Unsettlement.” Town Planning Review 49 (January 1978): 51-60.

Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London ;New York: Routledge, 2001.

Graham, Stephen. The Cybercities Reader. London ;New York: Routledge, 2004.

Mitchell, William J. City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Picon, Antoine. Digital Culture in Architecture an Introduction for the Design Professions. Basel: Birkhauser, 2010.

Pinder, David. Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth-Century Urbanism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Soja, Edward W. “Regional Urbanization and the End of the Metropolis Era.” The New Blackwell Companion to the City. Eds. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 679-689.

Steiner, Hadas A. Beyond Archigram: The Structure of Circulation. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Tange, Kenzo. “Function, Structure and Symbol.” Kenzo Tange, 1946-1969; Architecture and Urban Design. Ed. Udo Kultermann. New York: Praeger, 1970. 240-45.

Webber, Melvin M. “Order in Diversity: Community Without Propinquity.” Cities and Space: The Future Use of Urban Land. Ed. Lowdon Wingo. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1963. 23-54.

Wigley, Mark. “Network Fever.” Grey Room 04 (Summer 2001): 82-122.

 

Ali Fard is a designer, researcher, and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Design. His current research deals with operational networks of connectivity, socio-environmental dynamics of networked urban conditions, and multiscalar opportunities and agencies afforded to design practices within this expanded field. Ali is a co-founder of Op.N, a research and design office based in Cambridge and Toronto.
www.op-n.net@aliffard

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