by Drew Austin
The definition of “city” is somewhat elusive, largely because we are rarely pressed to articulate it. We know cities when we see them, and that’s usually good enough. The most basic definition is that cities are permanent, densely populated, non-agricultural human settlements, but even by that broad criteria, exceptions are possible. Nonetheless, there is something undeniably immutable about the idea of what a city is, a recognizable quality that goes back millennia, even as the reasons cities exist seem to be in constant flux.
Since the 20th century, that evolutionary process has accelerated alongside the technology that shapes so much of city life. Only recently industrialized, many cities began deindustrializing, shifting from places of production to hubs of consumption, communication, and cultural creation (roles that had already been present in cities). In his landmark 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the city no longer exists except as a cultural ghost for tourists.” The reason, he continues, derives from the evolution of media itself: “Any highway eatery with its TV set, newspaper, and magazine is as cosmopolitan as New York or Paris.” Urban culture was becoming accessible everywhere, and it would only become more so as technology extended it to every last nook and cranny on earth.
Cities are among the most durable human artifacts, frequently surviving for centuries or millennia and outliving political regimes, cultural epochs, and economic conditions, including those that birthed them in the first place. While the “hardware” of cities is surprisingly (and often frustratingly) slow to change, as are the fundamental biological needs of their inhabitants, those same cities’ “software” changes much more quickly. Yesterday’s military fortress or administrative seat can become today’s tourist destination or Instagram content. Meanwhile, the office buildings of Midtown Manhattan sit half empty, waiting for remote workers to return.
McLuhan may have exaggerated his pronouncement of the city’s demise, but he correctly recognized the city’s fluidity. The syllabus that follows explores the flexibility of cities in the face of technological change—a flexibility that, paradoxically, affirms the city’s eternal nature. Beyond the excerpts highlighted below, the entirety of each text included here is recommended as a guide to the ever-evolving contemporary city.
“Wildness (Prolegomena to a New Urbanism),” Sanford Kwinter (2008)
Kwinter argues that urban space has decoupled from the physical city as we know it, echoing McLuhan’s observation. Cities are not necessarily urban, in other words, and the “urban” can flourish independently of the city.
“The urban may be characterized precisely by this constellation of ‘polygenetic’ qualities; it is a promiscuous, evolving manifold, to be distinguished whenever possible from the term ‘city,’ which, in its saddest form, may consist of nothing more than a stillborn, mechanical, man-made design. The urban, in other words, may and often does exist at the scale of a piece of architecture, and conversely may fail to exist in city-sized agglomerates. Its existence depends only on whether a ‘computational’ threshold has or has not been crossed.”
After the City, Lars Lerup (2000)
Lerup’s analysis of the traditional city’s dissolution into suburban (or post-urban) sprawl adopts an optimistic approach, giving this new form a chance to prove itself. Like McLuhan, he recognizes the role of media in spreading urban culture far beyond city limits themselves, transforming outposts like Marfa, Texas into small pockets of vibrant cosmopolitanism.
“But the terrain of the public realm in Houston and conurbations of a similar kind is no longer well symbolized by the colored squares of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, but far more effectively by the colored drops in a Jackson Pollock drip painting. Public space happens wherever it can land. The underlying grammar of the suburban metropolis is atomization and fragmentation, and it is unproductive to resist this premise. The public realm must follow suit. But even this essentially physical reading is deceptive. ‘Public space’ in the suburban metropolis is not the plaza of the city, but a peculiar blend of soft and hardware, more vapor than pavement, more dynamic than stable, because bound to events rather than manifested by places.”
Supermodernism, Hans Ibelings (2002)
As communication technology has spread urbanism beyond the city, cities themselves have shifted from sites of production to sites of consumption, a change that Ibelings argues is expressed most vividly as tourism. In many cases, the physical form of the city need not change—it is simply recoded to serve a new purpose.
“On top of this, tourism has spawned a mind set whereby buildings, cities, and landscapes are consumed in a touristic manner even when people are not on holiday, and the environment, consciously or unconsciously, is increasingly regarded as a decor for the consumption of experience.”
“(Harvard economists Edward Glaeser, Jed Kolko, and Albert Salz) concluded that nowadays the cities that are doing the best economically are not the places with the highest levels of production, as economists have traditionally assumed, but rather the places with the highest levels of consumption.”
Ladders, Albert Pope (1996)
In Ladders, Pope examines the history of the urban street grid, its role in supporting legible urban growth, and the amorphous infrastructural “ladders” that have replaced it. Pope argues that the grid provided a unifying logic to urban space and that its disappearance disrupted cities’ continuity, producing disconnected pockets of urban fabric that merely simulate the whole they once composed.
“Today, the single overriding ambition of each closed development (meaning the single overriding ambition of urbanism today) is to enhance and refine our ability to simulate the world.”
“The preserved grid and its building stock are no longer linked to a larger spatial continuum, but are enveloped in an invisible dome created by the boundaries of new centripetal development. As the spatial continuity of the gridiron city is compromised, urban centers lose their connection to open, generative urban processes and become historic theme parks for sightseers, festival marketeers, urban theorists, and other tourists.”
“Junkspace,” Rem Koolhaas (2001)
Junkspace, as Koolhaas describes it, is the definitive architecture of the contemporary age: the “endless building” of airports, malls, and, increasingly, everything, made possible by developments like air conditioning and escalators as well as changing economic conditions and the evolving role of space itself. Since Koolhaas coined the term more than twenty years ago, junkspace has only become more prevalent.
“Junkspace seems an aberration, but it is the essence, the main thing…the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning, conceived in an incubator of Sheetrock (all three missing from the history books). Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain…It is always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits; it promotes disorientation by any means (mirror, polish, echo)…Air conditioning has launched the endless building.”
“Junkspace pretends to unite, but it actually splinters. It creates communities not out of shared interest or free association, but out of identical statistics and unavoidable demographics, an opportunistic weave of vested interests.”
Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour (1972)
A key text of architectural postmodernism, Learning from Las Vegas anticipates the idea of junkspace by approaching the Las Vegas Strip as a built environment worth taking seriously. The authors make the critical observation that automobile transportation has remade the informational content of the emergent urban environment, demanding large, illuminated signs that are visible at high speeds. Once again, the physical landscape is downstream of media and technology.
“Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.”
“This architecture of styles and signs is antispatial; it is an architecture of communication over space…But it is for a new scale of landscape.”
“The graphic sign in space has become the architecture of this landscape.”
“Symbol dominates space, architecture is not enough”
Deleuze describes the post-spatial societal order that twentieth-century technology has fostered. Institutions are no longer defined by “enclosure,” which require our physical presence within defined spaces, but rather “free-floating control,” in which our data and institutional relationships follow us everywhere. As this pattern solidifies, the physical city’s role changes accordingly.
“Paul Virilio also is continually analyzing the ultrarapid forms of free-floating control that replaced the old disciplines operating in the time frame of a closed system.”
“Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.”