A ready-made ideal city

“Since the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, world’s fairs and expositions returned continuously to the concern with creating idealized cities. The Chicago World’s Fair was especially significant in establishing what would later become integral not only to the logic of expositions, but to theme parks like Disneyland and EPCOT and urban destinations like Odaiba that would follow in their wake: in all instances, a ready-made ideal city was created, one that was technologically driven and reliant on commercial imperatives and popular culture. As James Gilbert has explained when discussing early exposition visitors, ‘the visible future they encountered was a carefully engineered vision, a prophecy […] of the coming relationship between work, leisure, and culture’. But unlike the dystopian futures often delineated in science fijiction, in the future visions of the expositions, the inclusion of technological and scientifij ic innovation within the social environment was intended to inspire the creation of utopian spaces.

“Events like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-1934 (also called the Century of Progress International Exposition) and the New York World’s Fair of 1939 took the first important steps not only in forging a relationship between sci- ence, technology, industry, and society, but also integrating these concerns with the visions and consumer pleasures offfered by science fijiction and entertainment. Rydell explains that, in the wake of the Great Depression, ‘1930s scientists, confronted by a “revolt against science”, joined corporate backers of the fairs in trying to pin popular hopes for national recovery on the positive results expected from the fusion of science and business’. Specifically, combining the speculation familiar to science fij iction with the realities of the scientific and technological innovations of the time, these fairs specialized in presenting the public with future utopian realities made possible through technological advancement.

“A look at pre-World War II futuristic utopian thinking, as envisioned by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors. This was designer Bel Geddes masterpiece — the “Futurama” exhibit in GM’s “Highways and Horizons” pavilion at the World’s Fair, that imagined the distant future of a faraway time 1960.”

It was the New York World’s Fair of 1939 that became one of the most famous examples to showcase a new urban landscape, one that featured the utopian possibilities of technology and science. On the opening night, after Albert Einstein switched on the lights that would bring life to the fair’s motto – ‘Designing the World of Tomorrow’ – the fair proceeded to create a vision of a world in which ‘science could become a way of life and utopia would be nigh’. The fair showcased the latest technologies offfered by corporations (such as Rotolactor, an automatic cow-milking machine). Numerous other technological inventions were presented to an eager public as well: Voder, a synthetic human-speech device by AT&T; television sets by RCA, GE, and Westinghouse; and Elektro, a walking and talking robot by Westinghouse. However, it was the representation of a ‘city of the future’ that drew crowds by the millions…”

Text: Angela Ndalianis, Disney’s Utopian Techno-Futures: Tomorrow’s World That We Shall Build Today, in Tourist Utopias: Offshore Islands, Enclave Spaces, and Mobile Imaginaries, ed. Timothy Simpson, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2017.

Lunar space elevator

“The European Space Agency estimates that 128 million objects smaller than 1 centimeter are orbiting Earth, along with another 900,000 objects that measure 1 to 10 centimeters. Any space elevator would be subject to collisions with these objects, so it would have to be capable of withstanding or out-manoeuvring them…”

“The classical space elevator is a really tough problem because the Earth’s gravity field is so great that you need such strong materials that we don’t have right now,” Jerome Pearson, an aerospace engineer who first proposed the lunar elevator in 1977, told NBC News. “On the other hand, you could build a lunar space elevator with existing materials right now.” Unlike a space elevator that rises from Earth, a lunar elevator would not use centrifugal force. Gravity would do all the work…”

Text: A giant elevator could connect Earth to space using current technology, experts say — here’s how that might work

The Slogan is a Lie

“We love it here because we love you here,” read the enormous ad covering the side of a red double-decker New York City tour bus, touting H&M’s new Hudson Yards location. The slogan is a lie. Hudson Yards does not love you. We do not love Hudson Yards. And we especially do not love it here, in a city that is desperately trying to maintain the illusion that we are all something more than props in a metropolis-sized variety show put on for the benefit of bored hedge fund employees.

“Hudson Yards, the biggest private real estate development in US history, may be slightly less offensive to the memory of Jane Jacobs than a freeway running through Greenwich Village, but not by much. As urban planning visions go, it is a familiar one: an ultracapitalist equivalent of the Forbidden City, a Chichen Itza with a better mall and slightly better-concealed human sacrifice. The development has been dubbed a “billionaire’s fantasy city”, but it is something more sinister than that. It is a billionaire’s reality city. The other 8.6 million of us are just character actors in this drama starring the most unbearable people you can imagine…

If someone were to give you a 28-acre blank canvas in the Manhattan metropolis, what might you create? 

“There are the mandatory celebrity chef-branded food caverns, where BlackRock financiers can sit with Thomas Keller-approved wagyu steaks and contemplate the democratic civic spirit of the Big Apple, or slurp David Chang-branded noodles without having to venture to any of the messy places where noodles are usually consumed. And there will be ample apartments for sale, in tower after tower, posh glass cages for those whose definition of a starter home begins with a seven-figure price tag. Indeed, it will be a neighborhood-sized version of another Ross project, the Time Warner Center – not the rarefied luxury of Central Park West, but the luxury of buying a $40m apartment next to a Russian oligarch, with a Whole Foods in the basement, a restaurant with an $1,100 tasting menu above that, and a quantum foam of tourists stretching out around you in all directions.

“But let it not be said that Hudson Yards does not promote the arts. It will be centered around “The Vessel”, a 15-story high answer to the question: “How much money could a rich man waste building a climbable version of an MC Escher drawing?” (The answer is $200m.) As a work of public art, it will reach its full form as Related Co security forces roust the city’s 63,000 homeless people from its welcoming stairs and landings, a powerful creative statement on the fundamental righteousness and nobility of structuring complex real estate transactions for a living.”

Text: Hamilton Nowlan, Hudson Yards is an ultra-capitalist Forbidden City

Image: Upside Down.


An Eerie Dystopia

“To walk through certain parts of London today is to enter an eerie dystopia of late capitalism run amok. All over town, from Battersea to Stratford, vast welters of towers are in the throes of construction, invariably encircled by billboards depicting attractive white people at rest and play. But longtime Londoners know from experience that these towers are not really homes to be lived in but bricks-and-mortar commodities, investment opportunities that until recently were seen as safer than any government bond. If you ever find yourself walking through developments that have been recently finished and sold, you’ll discover street-level plazas devoid of people or even much evidence that many people are ever here…

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“In her 2017 book Big Capital, Anna Minton described this scramble for prime London real estate as the catalyst of a “domino effect,” whose effects ripple outwards across the capital and beyond.

“The super-prime market displaces established communities to new areas, driving up property and rental prices elsewhere,” she writes. “And as current policies are geared to attracting foreign investment and building luxurious apartments rather than affordable homes, there is nothing to act as a counterweight.”

“The sense of apartness precipitated by these developments is in large part architectural. London used to be a low-slung city, but many of these luxury towers are vertiginous and imposing, dwarfing the besieged remnants of what came before. But arguably more significant than this aesthetic discordance is the social upheaval it augurs. As more and more towers have gone up, so too have socio-demographic lines that once felt blurred become abrupt and partite, as the runaway cost of housing manoeuvres people into economic enclaves, and poverty is pushed outwards into peripheries and ghettoes of disadvantage. Traditional places of commonality, where shoulders rubbed, have been replaced by pockets of consumption. High-streets that once displayed a multifarious range of shopfronts and establishments have evolved to reflect more stratified times: the poorer areas with their betting shops and pawnsters, the wealthier ones lined with estate agents, restaurants, and prim cafes. Our civic spaces and landmarks have been commodified as cash-strapped councils look to make up budget shortfalls by monetizing their assets or repurposing public libraries into private gyms. Boundaries, both physical and social, have started to rise across the city…”

Text: Henry Wismayer, How London Became a Playground for the Rich, Medium.

Pic: London’s proposed Tulip Tower

Curiosity and Bewilderment

Digital Grotesque II – a full-scale 3D printed grotto – has premiered at Centre Pompidou’s ‘Imprimer le monde‘ exhibition. This highly ornamental grotto is entirely designed by algorithm and materialized out of 7 tons of printed sandstone. It heralds a highly immersive architecture with a hitherto unseen richness of detail.

“The angles and perspectives by which the spectator can observe the grotto were simulated during the design process, and the form was then optimized to present highly differentiated and diverse geometries that forge a rich and stimulating spatial experience for the observer.

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“A subdivision algorithm was devised to exploit the 3D printer’s full potential by creating topologically complex, porous, multi-layered structures with spatial depth. A single volume spawns millions of branches, growing and folding again and again. Hundreds of square meters are compressed into a 3.5m high block that forms an organic landscape between the man-made and the natural.

“Digital Grotesque II is a testament to and celebration of a new kind of architecture that leaves behind traditional paradigms of rationalization and standardization and instead emphasizes the viewer’s perception, evoking curiosity and bewilderment.”

Text and Pics: Michael Hansmeyer with Benjamin Dillenburger, Digital Grotto 2, 2017

“That was kind of weird”

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“The harsh winter storm had passed. In its aftermath, parts of the airport were overloaded, jammed with planes that had been kept on the ground during the storm. But screens showed bright yellow airplane icons — incoming flights — approaching, with many more on the way.

“One by one they landed. Unused runways became parking lots, with planes waiting for gates.

“And still they kept coming. Hours and hours passed.

It was the failure to stop them, experts said, that turned a chaotic but manageable winter-storm episode into an airport delay for the ages.

“It was the international terminals that were hit hardest, forcing the Port Authority to finally shut down two of them to incoming flights until their occupants could undo the messy knot outside and within.

“A rolling cascade of emergencies brought about by human error and winter weather led to the nightmarish long weekend, as thousands of travelers from around the world found themselves trapped. And that was before frigid water from a burst pipe began raining from a ceiling in Terminal 4, pooling amid the luggage of the stranded.

“Virtually no foreign airline canceled any flights into J.F.K.” on Thursday, said Jason Rabinowitz, a freelance aviation blogger who tracked the cascading pileup as it played out. “They all launched their aircraft, but by the time they got halfway over the Atlantic, they found out they couldn’t land at J.F.K.”

“[…] Iberia Flight 6253,  got halfway to New York from Madrid before making a U-turn and going back to Spain: an eight-hour fight to nowhere. Norwegian Air Flight 7019 made a similar journey Thursday night en route to New York from France. “That was kind of weird,” said Mona Bismuth, 27, a passenger. “We turned around at the southern tip of Greenland.” A passenger on a different flight was sent back to Moscow — twice — because of what was happening in New York.

Inside Terminal 4, a line of hungry men, women and children like something from a Depression-era newsreel formed outside a Dunkin’ Donuts stand.

“There were queues and queues of people going nowhere,” said Mike Bedigan, 22, of Britain. “People didn’t know what it was they were queuing for.”

“Outside was no different, as arriving flights were forced to sit idle on the runways. “We were, like, in a weird little no-go zone,” said Ms. Bismuth, after her Norwegian flight from France eventually arrived in New York after having made a U-turn back to Paris. “The crew was exhausted. We were exhausted.”

“Another passenger, Eliott Ozeel, 25, landed at Kennedy from France at 10:30 p.m. on Friday. He fell asleep while his plane sat on the tarmac, only to wake with the dawn more than six hours later, still there…”

Text: At J.F.K. Airport, the Planes Just Wouldn’t Stop Coming, New York Times 

Pic: Warm Bodies, 2013.

The Production of Space

“[Agree To All] offers an immersive but unsettling glimpse of how the future urban experience might look like for some, with smooth, frictionless landscapes, smart technologies in control and elite access to differentiated services. […] Whether a city will look like this or not, it will invariably be a part of a very unequal ‘winner-takes-all’ societies, which ‘thrive on debt and cheap money and the quick and massive burning of fossil fuels’. It’s in this kind of society that half of our cities will still have to be built […] We wonder however – what if these ‘alternative urban configurations’ don’t materialize? What if the dystopian imagination in the opening installation becomes reality? Let’s imagine what that city would look like.”

“Hajer writes that ‘real estate has given rise to an ever more speculative economy, especially during the last couple of decades. Instead of social need, it focused on the opportunity to make money on offices, shopping malls and housing for the upper class’. It did indeed, and cities of the future will see an even more powerful real estate sector and the increasing influence of the corporate sector on the production of space in general. This also means that decisions made democratically will gradually be replaced by decisions taken in corporate board rooms. Likewise urban interventions with a social or cultural dimension will increasingly be replaced by projects that produce the highest possible financial return.

“Money made in the real estate sector, but also elsewhere in the city, will quickly leave and end up in the hands of a few, and most likely in some tax havens as well. The urban economy will rapidly become an ‘extractive economy’, as Hajer calls them. Cities will increasingly open themselves up for extraction, competing for global flows of money through city-marketing campaigns aimed at foreign investors and visitors. This will result in a race to the bottom, and erode social and cultural capital at the local level. A crucial development allowing this extractive economy to expand is the continuing flexibilisation of the housing market. State-owned or rent-controlled housing is being rapidly sold off, providing investors with a host of new opportunities. The simultaneous elimination of housing rights allows for a quicker succession of rent hikes and will further consolidate the position of large real estate owners.”

Text: What the city of the future looks like if we don’t change course, Failed Architecture.

Pic: Eliel Saarinen’s Munkkiniemi–Haaga town plan. Aerial view from the north.