The city is so vast and we have so much to say to each other.

-Francois Perier to Guilietta Masina in Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Ecological Urbanism - is that not an oxymoron in the same way that a hybrid SUV is an oxymoron? How can the city, with all its mechanisms of consumption - its devouring of energy, its insatiable demand for food - ever be ecological? In one sense the “project of urbanism,” if we can call it such, runs counter to that of ecology, with its emphasis on the interrelationship of organisms and the environment - an emphasis that invariably excludes human intervention. And yet it is relatively easy to imagine a city that is more careful in its use of resources than is currently the norm, more energy efficient in its daily operations - like a hybrid car. But is that enough? Is it enough for architects, landscape architects, and urbanists to simply conceive of the future of their various disciplines in terms of engineering and constructing a more energy-efficient environment? As important as the question of energy is today, the emphasis on quantity - on energy reduction - obscures its relationship with the qualitative value of things.

In other words, we need to view the fragility of the planet and its resources as an opportunity for speculative design innovations rather than as a form of technical legitimation for promoting conventional solutions. By extension, the problems confronting our cities and regions would then become opportunities to define a new approach. Imagining an urbanism that is other than the status quo requires a new sensibility - on that has the capacity to incorporate and accommodate the inherent conflictual conditions between ecology and urbanism. This is the territory of ecological urbanism. 


Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village. Downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph. The rhythm the rhythm - and your memory in my head three years after - and read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud - wept, realizing how we suffer.

L’Espace Indicible

To take possession of space is the first gesture of the living; men and beasts, plants and clouds, the fundamental manifestation of equilibrium and permanence. The first proof of existence is to occupy space.

On Games: Part I

Dare to err and dream;
A higher meaning often lies in childish play.
                            -Friedrich Schiller, 1802

The space of play and the space of thought are the two theaters of freedom.
                            -Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy

It has been my good luck to kill every kind of game properly belonging to the United States.
                            -Teddy Roosevelt

Roger Federer is a wonder to behold no matter how often the game is interrupted with a word from the sponsor. The same can be said of every other sport in which a brilliant performance brings joy to Mudville - the dancing on ice at last winter’s Olympics, the fooling around with a soccer ball at this summer’s World Cup - but the glory of it isn’t the winning or losing, the bombastic Rooseveltian beating of the others; it is Einstein’s equation made flesh, the unity of energy and the mass seen in a movement of light.

Michelson acknowledged the beauty of the game to which Mozart was addicted, but then, rolling down his sleeves, putting on his coat, and walking toward the door, he proposed amendments, each of them after a moment of further reflection. Yes, billiards was a good game, but not as good a game as painting, which in turn was not as good a game as music which, when one had a chance to think about it, was not as good a game as physics.

Wild animals never kill for sport. Man is the only one to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures is amusing in itself.
                             -James A. Froude, 1886

These useless men ought to be cut up and served at a banquet. I really believe that athletes have less intelligence than swine.
                             -Dion Chrysostom, c. 95 

Remarkably two forks in the road have opened up for architecture at this millennial moment. One is marked by the difference (as perhaps a culmination of the Modern in the maturity of the Postmodern) between the traditionally authored and automatic, or the (tragic pursuit of the) fixed and the (lazy preference for the the) variable, manifested in the distance interpolated between the author and design, especially by new (digital) technology. The other is the profound divergence today of sense and sensation - between work that appeals traditionally to the intellect and that which appeals only to the senses. In other words, we have seen the emergence of a belief in the possibility of pure effect, pure sensation.

However much of these new possibilities trade on the mythos of the avant-garde, neither can be said to presage any kind of revolution, and in this regard the “road” metaphor is inaccurate. Both of the new directions are post-critical phenomena, uninterested in the barricades and confusing progress with difference. While authorless design might have begun with political aspirations as a means of avoiding the repressive effects of convention, it quickly devolved into an unavoidable digital side effect obsessed with its own possibility. And the discourse of sensation is less a positive rejection of repressive meaning than a plea for the indulgence of excessive form, unmolested by reason or practical consideration.

Nor are the two forks unrelated. In fact, both can be understood as consequences of a shift in the underlying sense of architectural necessity. As an elective enterprise, architecture is constantly in need of self-assurance. The sense of architectural necessity is a kind of faith, exercised at every step of the design process and through each design choice. Traditionally residing in the convictions of the sophisticated subject, the intuition or judgement of what is right in architecture is being pushed toward something objective, external, quantifiable.

This is the real story. It may itself be the last step of a larger process that began when modernity replaced God with the Cartesian cogito as the source of certainty; and architecture may be the last place where the faith in such certainty has survived. After God, it settled deep into the disciplinary DNA, first through the discourse of tectonics and then in the visionary channeling of the Zeitgeist. Eventually this faith succumbed, though, to poststructural sarcasm, which undermined the field’s autonomy, and Postmodern irony, which nullified individuals’ capacity to aspire to anything larger than themselves. What remains is a coolly disinterested trust in numbers that barely masks architecture’s definitional insecurity. 

So although authorlessness and sensualism get the headlines, they are merely symptoms, or even side effects, of the more profound dissolution of the faith in architectural necessity and ascendence of the dry certainty of computation. A reliance on computation unavoidably results in authorless design; that it might also result in sensation-focused work is less clear, if not outright counterintuitive. Yet the capability of computation rapidly leads the object away from comprehensibility and thus as naturally into realms of mind-numbing sensation. More positively it could be understood as a way of laundering out any fugitive meaning in the interest of achieving pure affect.

Two practice models exemplify the range and character of responses to this event and its expression in authorlessness and sensualism. On the one hand, what has come to be known as “Dutch” architecture finds its putative architectural necessity in program-based computation, favoring the authorless pragmatism of statistics and quantifiable cultural research. On the other hand, the ubiquitous “digital” design finds its own certainty in a parametric computation of infinite, non-critical formal variability, with its simultaneous assurance of all possibility and no particularity: necessity not by way of certainty but through infinite accommodation and sensuous delight.

The underlying computational nature of both approaches follows a trajectory originating in the earliest work of Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman, the ultimate progenitors of the Dutch and digital. But while the old men were still in contact with the tradition of faith-based architectural necessity, and shy about the nihilism lurking below, the succeeding generation of combative young architects determinedly pushed on to the unholy logical conclusion of objective measurement. Following those original trajectories, Dutch work came to it by way of sarcastic aloofness and the digital by blind ambition. Both were examples of conscious father-killing one-upmanship by the youth, yet in neither case did the youth realize that they were themselves well within the kill zone.

Continued shortly…

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