Monday, April 28, 2008

Still urban?

A guest post from Mark Collins, co-founder of Proxy, a computation-focused architecture practice interested in the highly complex, highly adaptable and highly performative.

What is urbanism? Etymologically, it is grounded in that now-so-titillatingly word urban, of or having to do with cities (from urbis, meaning city), and therefore not with suburban (less than urban, or better yet "next to" urban) or even rural ("open").

Such divisions are of course abstract and apply a binary inside/outside to any discussions of proximity and density, which seem to me as being the primary factors. Needless to say, any measurement of these factors would reveal a continuous gradient, and enclaves of low and high density in unexpected places. Yet another case where linguistics have failed to communicate the texture of a highly complex and articulated scenario.

What I want to talk about is the confusion we have now in relationship to density, or more appropriately worded as all of the things that "have been brought into close proximity to ourselves". Thomas Friedman is evangelizing a newly 'flattened' world (a global network of shipping containers and fiber optic lines), social networking sites have collapsed spatial relationships, augmented reality technologies that have created virtual worm-holes between disparate locations. Adjacency still matters, but technologies, standards and increasing efficiencies are finding new ways to bring us all into a workable proximity, sometimes uncomfortably so. The next age is shaping up to be a battle to keep some degree of space to ourselves, even if it is only our mind space.

A few broad questions, which might bracket my own contributions:

Is spatial density still the primary factor in urbanism? In our consumption and management of resources? In our attitudes towards others and inclusiveness towards other viewpoints? In creating critical masses for innovation?

Do technologies benefit and find more traction to the degree that they correlate to and extend existing spatial practices (augmented reality, GPS) or to the degree that they collapse or replace those distinctions (social networking's own version of proximity, degrees of separation through contacts)

How does a language of mathematics, via scripting, agents, mapping, or parametric design work to both modify, structure or otherwise reveal a more diverse and textured condition of urbanity, rather than course linguistic divisions that too easily slips into self-satisfaction, marketing or boosterism?

Clearly, urbanism is on the rise. The questions is how the values of previous forms continue into the new flavors, especialy those that are highly structured along the lines of global capital (talked about too much), technological innovation, communication technologies (not talked about enough within architecture) and modern construction technologies (both software and hardware). To be continued!

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