Swirling in the cesspool that is Twitter urbanism discourse (I shudder to even string those words together) is a popular genre of content that resembles the above tweet. I wrote about this at length a while back, but keep encountering the “trad urbanism” sentiment, which implies that, as city-and-suburb-dwellers, we only have two choices: long for an impossible return to the past, or don’t think about the built environment at all. I would just ignore these posts, but they seem to resonate quite broadly, revealing that many people are vaguely dissatisfied with the physical landscape they inhabit but can’t quite articulate why. In my original post, I considered that “the ideal cityscape is not necessarily the one that is most photogenic—and even if it was, the optimal urban environment in 2021 should probably look different than it did in 1721.” I am mostly playing devil’s advocate here. I do not think the righthand example in the tweet above is ideal in any sense, but I also don’t think the image comparison on its own conveys much beyond the two settings’ relative aesthetic appeal—and conflating aesthetics with other measures of value is one of the great fallacies of our time.
Architect Albert Pope offers a better explanation in his excellent 1996 book, Ladders: “It is not built form that characterizes the contemporary city, but the immense spaces over which built form has little or no control…The characteristic spaces of the contemporary city are not identifiable entities, but rather are absences, gaps, lacunae, hiatuses, or ellipses that our commodity-bound words are unable to account for.” Much of our frustration with today’s built environment derives from this condition—a profusion of voids (you can see them in the photo!) and a corresponding lack of narrative adhesive binding them together. A large portion of this environment is simply not designed, at least not in the architectural sense—much of it is better described as “engineered”—but it is nonetheless organized according to a coherent, if illegible, logic. However disorienting, we dismiss the voids and amorphous forms at our peril, like a vaporous Chesterton’s Fence. We love to say “ban all cars”—I’ve done it—but what if we suddenly got our wish? The world would quickly become inhospitable for most of us.
We need better theories of the post-city void. Benjamin Bratton’s 2016 book, The Stack, was a valiant effort, reframing the global human settlement pattern as a technologically-mediated megastructure. Pope, meanwhile, recognizes that we still understand the contemporary city as an extension or subset of the conventional prewar urban core (hence the term: sub-urb). But, he continues, “As time passes and the sheer amount of new construction approaches critical mass, it becomes less and less plausible to regard the contemporary city in a subordinate relation to anything. It must finally be recognized that new megapolitan development is less an extension or outgrowth of the core than a unique organism, presently on the brink of overwhelming its host.” Pope wrote this nearly 30 years ago and the mainstream understanding of the built environment—OK, “cities”—has not become more sophisticated since, at least from what I’ve seen. The relics of our trad urbanist past, often hollow shells of their former selves, still litter a landscape that operates according to an entirely different logic and repurposes those relics as content that can circulate on its own channels. Ironically, the technologies that have flattened so much urbanism discourse into a heated exchange of memes and slogans—an increasingly dysfunctional handful of social media platforms—are the connective tissue of the megastructure that Bratton describes, the infrastructure of this vaporous, void-riddled, protocolized urbanism that demands to be better understood. To start, we have to look past the images.
Last week I published an essay in the Dirt newsletter about the rise of watching TV with subtitles on and how our relationship with content (including images) is becoming more literal.
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Josh Citarella on the current state of the internet. “The Platform Wars is a stage of social media where platforms viciously compete for data and users by locking out features and the ability to move between these now distinct spheres. While this somewhat existed before, it will soon massively ramp up.”
The line between tourists and remote workers is blurring. “These two developments—a growing, restless class of remote workers, and a tourism market of people who spend more of their time traveling—are more than related; they’re different facets of the same phenomenon.”
I wonder are there any recent cities where everyone rides bikes or motorcycles?