11 April 2010


I often read a blog ‘the infrastructural city | varnelis.net’, a thought provoking site by Kazys Varnelis, the Director of the Network Architecture Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. I find his writing to be a good test of my thoughts on architecture and urban design, although many times I disagree with its pessimistic outlook.

A recent posting on
’Localism’ took a contrarian view on the phenomenon of ‘slow-food’, local crafts, etcetera:

But localism isn't a return to place. For many of us, the necessities of a highly-specialized job market ... force us to move around too often to develop a lasting connection with a place. Localism is a simulation of the local. We make connections, we became regulars, we have intense but fleeting relationships with others, generally based around consumption (either with the staff at our favorite local restaurant or with the friends we go there with), but for most of us it's temporary. Soon we're on our way again. The ties break, or at best, are held together by the Net. Perhaps this accounts for localism's wistfulness. Place is tragic: a great hope shattered by the Fall. Localism is comic: a temporary reconciliation that everyone knows is momentary, a bit of light laughter that helps us forget the inevitable.”

It's very easy target to identify the desire for a local place as a faddish antidote for perceived threat of globalism, the threat of a folly that propagates an increasingly secular and disenfranchised world. Given that the localism movement is, in some part, a reaction to global sameness, he may have correctly identified the fad. Folks with
reactionary blood in their veins, conspiracy theorist types who ascribe every evil to corporations, and practical people who believe that shipping food halfway around the world is silly, all flock all flock to a desire to return to local economies and networks.

The actual infrastructures of our cities
throughout the globe have been moving for a long time to a common and banal design. We are in a time where an architectural curtain wall is nearly the same in London, São Paulo, Shanghai, or Los Angeles, in defiance to culture or climate, and the same 30 corporate logos show up everywhere. We see that the media and culture has been blending together in every corner of the planet, giving us the candy that deflects us from the real food of our local culture. One can make a case that the enlightened individual, is a self-sustained pod, free to plug and unplug at will. A society of pods, dependent of the cites we are pugged into, but not capable of loving the place we are plugged in to.

So Mr. Varnelis dispatches with all this, as a product of middle-class people with too much time on their hands. But if we accept that he is more then partially correct with this, then the notion of a ‘crafted city’ is impossible, at least in any deep and sustained way.

Some of what resonates with me about the phenomenon that Mr. Varnelis describes, is in his description of a certain decay in the physical infrastructures of our cites, replaced by a network culture that is not of a particular place. He describes an entropy that he believes there is no direct fix for-- his solutions, if they exist, are in the margins and unexpected places of the social networking that is a product of our era. Mr. Varnelis describes a deterioration that is indeed taking place, a manifestation of untold square miles of ill-conceived development, spread out in a way that is cheap to build and difficult to maintain and to improve as time goes by. So much wasted resources and effort, so much of a burden for our generation and the ones to come to sustain, so much of a drag to the health of the planet.

Entropy. It rings true.

Perhaps the answer isn't to just be cynical about it, or create some sort of reactionary movement. Maybe we should stop moving out from the core, and simply turn around and head back. Away from entropy.

I think that there is an instinct and drive towards place is a much deeper thing then simply reacting towards a trend towards global sameness. It is more then Prince Charles wanting to return society back to shires and surfs. It is more then a builder buying local floor-covering to get more LEED points. It is in the very local act of building places that people will live in and love.

I think that making cities that we relate to, ultimately places that we love, places with a supportable ecology, a place where 'local' is understood and well-regarded starts with dusting ourselves off and getting about the physical act of crafting infrastructure. I'm thinking of places that are smart in terms of the use of resources, places that are easy and beautiful to live in, places where the physical infrastructure is carefully measured in feet, not miles. What I'm suggesting takes a long time; it's not a jobs program, or a 5-year plan to improve public moral.

It is simply the careful work of making a great city. The physical place that must exist because while we're alive and kicking here on earth, we're physical beings. Man (or woman) cannot live on networking alone.

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