Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category

Adam Greenfield is reading about the notion of “military urbanism”. I think this is oversold, and also that like a lot of concepts relating to the social aspects of architecture, it’s overbroad – people chuck in bits and pieces of anything that seems to fit. CCTV? Surveillance, whack it in. Temporary buildings? Logistics and containerisation, got to be in there. The Olympics (and much of modern thinking)? Well, that seems to land up in there as well. And, of course, a lot of border security stuff, Israeli settler town planning.

I’m not convinced that the concept holds together once you squeeze quite so much stuff into it; it starts to look like a list of Stuff I Disagree With, and a lot of it isn’t particularly military. There is a big difference between blowing things and people up and putting a big blue plywood hoarding round the Olympics site. One of them pisses off Iain Sinclair and the other…insert joke here.

Adam Greenfield responds, and anyone who uses the BOAC speedbird as their avatar is probably worth listening to:

“But that becomes a political problem, something almost all geeks seem incapable of understanding, probably because its a social rather than a technical problem.”

Well, “geeks” may be incapable of understanding that, Cian, but that happens to be where we start. I mean, you guys’d know this if you actually bothered to look into what happens at a walkshop instead of taking the lazy way out and slagging it as a “kool kids” thing. The whole point, as far as I’m concerned, is to take a good close materialist look at how communities, institutions and individuals contest public space and the public sphere.

In this case, sure, the lens we’re using is technological. But the concerns predominantly have to do with accountability, agency and control, and the language is everyday. Come join us on a walkshop sometime and contribute your insight, and I think you’d be hard pressed to come away with any other conclusion.

I think what I’m getting at here is that in many ways, the power-relationships in our cities aren’t embedded in architecture some much as in software, as it were. Sometimes it really is software, too – the social services’ disastrous computer system that played a role in the death of Baby P, and did so by imposing a sort of dysfunctional and extreme-Taylorist workplace on the social workers, or the systems that allocate tax-credits and then sometimes demand repayments that essentially amount to the recipients’ entire economic surplus.

But it’s broader than that – it’s about people’s expectations, levels of economic security, and the strategies they adopt to cope with life. After all, everyone adapts in some way, it’s just that some local optimisations cut off more options than others.

It’s also about how institutions adapt to people; one difference between having visible, hardware favelas and having them in software is that it’s easier to think that it’s just another damn fool, or someone who is In Need of Care, although the flip is that it’s also easier just to adopt a hardware fix and build a fucking great wall…

In Victorian England, the poor risked going to debtors prisons. In contemporary America, the poor face a different form of lockup.

Its walls are built out of predatory mortgage loans, rent-to-own contracts, payday lending, instant tax “refunds,” the repo man, the old-fashioned pawn shop, bait-and-switch debt consolidators and a rogues’ gallery of scam artists.

I recently sent off another report through FixMyStreet, pointing at the horrible state of the roads round here. (I am more than a little disappointed with the Android client app, by the way.) Within a week, some of the worse potholes had been tar’n’gravelled. Meanwhile, even more seem to have appeared or worsened. What it needs is someone to have a look down the street and think about resurfacing, or at least for some sort of statistical alert to fire showing an unusually high level of potholes based on the incoming reports.

I’m not aware that any of the councils are doing anything clever with the stats, which is itself disappointing. All the cool kids, meanwhile, are fascinated by people like Adam Greenfield and his “walkshops on networked urbanism”. He likes the idea of using a ticketing paradigm for things like FMS; I’m not so sure. (More here. First, as friend of the blog Duane Griffin pointed out, geeks love trouble-ticketing and nobody else does.

In fact, Duane’s exact words were that every young programmer eventually decides to design their own ticketing system. (What he didn’t say is that once they have wasted their time and failed, they are no longer young.) I suspect that this is simply a case of the face growing to match the mask – a hell of a lot of IT people spend significant chunks of their time in symbiosis with either a ticketing application, a distributed version control system, or both, and as a result they come to imagine that all the world’s problems are soluble in a typical Sourceforge project page.

Secondly, there is a more fundamental problem with this – it requires problems to be discrete, atomic, and transactional. In fact, as our keen and agile minds will no doubt have noticed, these characteristics are also intrinsic to the MySQL or SQLite databases that underpin these applications. You open a ticket, it gets assigned, it gets updated, it gets closed. But how do you model a persistent or repeating task, or one that involves a relationship rather than a truck-roll? I don’t, in fact, want potholes patching; I would like the road surface to be maintained, which implies changes in Islington Council’s budgeting and management procedures.

And I suspect that an unintended consequence of ticket-based support in general is that it trains everyone involved to prioritise cancelling the noise. Do the minimum necessary to outprocess the ticket. It requires a further, meta-level of analysis to recognise any root causes – there’s a kind of old fashioned Taylorist view of organisation embedded here. If change is needed, it has to come from some sort of management layer analysing the stats. Further, and more subtly, it models the user, customer, or citizen as an entity that is either silent, or whining. You are expected to shut up, until your environment becomes intolerable, at which point you squawk.

Now, Daniel Davies would probably say that negativity is useful. It is harder to contribute positively than it is to oppose stupidity, so you’re more likely to do some good to society by flinging poo than by drafting a manifesto on the future of the Left. He has a point. And Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn actually worked on this principle – enterprises were silent while they could deal with their own problems, and only escalated issues in the system when they encountered something they couldn’t fix themselves. But I can’t help being sceptical that this is any way of organising a city. By the time you get significant numbers of tickets for cracks in a viaduct, your problems are well advanced.

OK, so we took the piss out of the Policy Exchange crowd for seeing reds under the seats on the bendy buses. The group rights agenda. But the interesting thing about the Borisbus is that in a sense, it bears Dean Godson and Andy Gilligan out – design and architecture are, of course, deeply political activities. We shape the things we build, and thereafter they shape us, as Winston Churchill said to RIBA (twice – he believed in making aphorisms earn their corn).

Essentially, the new bus – pics here and here– is a bog standard Wrightbus double decker with some fibreglass styling features, meant to evoke the look of the Routemaster; there’s a funny asymmetric front end, a staircase, and an open platform that isn’t actually open, because it is behind a door which will be locked while the bus is in motion. This stuff is pure ornament – it is utterly without function. Neither is there actually going to be a conductor; the existing revenue protection patrols will occasionally be on board, and that’s it.

Now, the thing about adding a lot of nonfunctional stuff for the sake of style is that it has costs. The Postmodernist architects were fascinated by the way Las Vegas casinos and the like were basically huge industrial sheds, covered with playful flourishes of style, plush carpets, neon signs; but the reason why they could get away with this is that a huge clear-span shed is a pretty efficient solution for housing a business process of some kind, whether it’s a semiconductor fabrication line, a giant distribution warehouse, a brewery, or a giant exercise in legalised fraud controlled by Lucky Luciano. The huge plaster likeness of Nefertiti draped in purple neon canted over the entrance at 27 degrees from the vertical isn’t getting in the way of anything.

But this doesn’t work in a setting of engineering rather than architecture. Changing the internal layout of a bus affects its primary function directly; one of the key limiting factors in the capacity of a bus route is how long it takes to load and unload the bus, which determines how long it waits at each stop and therefore how fast it travels. Making people climb the stairs to get in and out has real performance consequences. As pointed out here, when the rear door is shut, anyone trying to get off the bus will have to push past people getting on to use the middle door.

Also, carrying around a platform and a staircase takes up space that could otherwise be used for…well, that could otherwise be used rather than pissed away on content-free curlicues. As pointed out here, the new bus has fewer seats downstairs than a Routemaster despite being 3 metres longer. I thought we were trying to take up less space on the street and improve the turning circle?

Of course, the reason why giant motorway-side warehouses and casinos can be like they are is that they are usually built in places where land is cheap and there is lots of space…like central London, right?

So what does this tell us about the design politics involved? The first, and obvious, point is that design has consequences. As a result of the whole daft crusade, for years to come, bus users will be putting up with a worse quality of service. Frequencies will be lower, because dwell times will be higher. Alternatively, London will just have to buy more buses to maintain frequency, and fares will go up. Using the buses will be a more exasperating and unpleasant experience than it is now (and that’s saying something). Further, people who for whatever reason find the stairs difficult are going to be punished.

Second, it’s the victory of form over content. It’s not a Routemaster; it certainly hasn’t had the years of kaizen that went into the original design and specifically into the hard engineering of it, the engine and drivetrain and running gear. It doesn’t even look much like one, but the key stylistic tropes are there in order to pretend it does. I’m surprised they didn’t stitch a Lacoste croc on it. And, of course, the costs of this shameless fuckery will endure.

Third, the past must have been better. There is really no reason at all to try to make a modern bus look vaguely Routemasteresque other than kitsch and nostalgia, and it’s no better for being Gill Sans/Keep Calm and Carry On kitsch rather than the Laura Ashley version. You bet there’s going to be a lot of this crap in the next few years. (Fortunately, it also looks like the official aesthetic of David Cameron is going to be achingly unfashionable, like an official aesthetic damn well should be.) But if there is any reason to be nostalgic for Routemasters, it should surely be for the unrivalled engineering record of high reliability; being nostalgic for slower boarding times is like being nostalgic for the good old days of rickets. Come to think of it, Tories do that as well.

In conclusion, this is modern conservatism, implemented in hardware, with your taxes. The obsession with PR, spin, and guff in general? Check. The heel-grinding contempt for the poor? Check. The pride in technical and scientific ignorance? Doublecheck. The low, ugly, spiteful obsession with getting one over on political enemies? (It’s of a piece with behaviour like this.) Check.

Key quotes:
(via Boriswatch): “Never underestimate our masters’ obsession with outward form, as opposed to function and content.” That’s Gilligan, of course.

Via Adam Bienkov, “When there is no extra staff to mind them, the platforms will be closed with what Boris called a “shower curtain type jobby.”

There’s a point where his risible little village idiot act crosses over into a demonstration of overt contempt for the public, and this is it. I propose to refer to him as Shower Jobby from now on, and I would like to see this elsewhere.

I briefly touched on South Sudan’s new instant brewery yesterday. A associated, rather than strictly related, development is this startlingly weird Reuters AlertNet story; OK, so there’s been a riot in a refugee camp in Darfur. Right. People have been killed. Not good. But a riot by people who lost money in an investment fraud? In the wilds of western Sudan?

Seriously. It seems that someone in El Fasher ran a classic Ponzi burn on a large number of people. They paid in money or goods and received “certificates”; to begin with some of them actually received payouts; then, as always, the curve went exponential, the inevitable crash arrived, and they lost it all. And then they went looking for the guy who burned them, with a view to burning him.

The weirdest bit of this is that you can actually promote a Ponzi fraud there; Charles Ponzi invented his eponymous scam in the hyperurban world of Italian Boston in the 1920s. How many people would you expect to be even vaguely familiar with the concept of investing money in securities in a Darfuri refugee camp? A few years ago, there would have been no chance.

The Sudanese government’s own peculiarly vicious take on counter-insurgency, which bears a similarity to the Soviet strategy in mid-80s Afghanistan, was to bomb and raid them until they flee to the big city (in relative terms), where they are thought to be easier to keep an eye on. Samuel Huntington – for it is he! – thought something similar was happening in South Vietnam in the 1960s. In an odd symmetry, the logistics of international humanitarian aid reinforced this – aid is delivered to the refugee camp, because it’s where refugees are, and it’s near an airfield.

The result has been a form of instant urbanisation; interestingly, however, there is little evidence that the strategy was successful in its own terms. The population has become an urban one, but that doesn’t mean its opinions are any different, and the problems of policing an instant city are hardly any easier than those of patrolling a vast wilderness; the guerrilla base area still exists, but rather than being the desert, now it’s the urban wall of silence – a fortification in software.

In other news, you may consider this a contribution to Daniel Davies’ ongoing international symposium on “The Geneva Conventions – Actually Pretty Good When You Really Think About It”.

I’ve been reading Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of Technology, a postmodernist account of the failure of a massive French project to develop a Personal Rapid Transit system. Latour’s book contains chunks of fiction, interviews, historical documents, and authorial comment, broken out by the typography – the experience is more like reading a long blog post containing blockquotes from different sources and snarky comments on them than anything else.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the politics of the project, the nature of projects themselves, and the sources of project failure; running from 1969 to 1987, the scheme went from conceptual paper studies to a major prototype by 1973, and eventually built a large-scale test implementation in the mid-80s, before being suddenly cancelled while an intensive test campaign intended to qualify it for deployment was under way. Latour is primarily interested in how the overall concept and much of the technology stayed the same, although its objectives, planned deployment, and resources changed constantly throughout the project.

He argues that, eventually, the crucial issue was that a project is a fundamentally political concept – it has to recruit the support of people and of interest groups in order to progress, and Aramis was a side-project for nearly everyone involved except for two groups – the engineers working on it, and the French Communist Party. Unfortunately for the first group, the contract for large-scale tests was signed as the last act in office of the Communist transport minister before the party pulled out of the Mitterrand government.

This is of course true; a project needs to create its own tribe and its own culture. However, I’m quite ambivalent about the whole concept; not really about its technical or economic aspects, but rather about the idea of urbanness that was built into its core assumptions. PRT emerged in the 1960s as a technological fix to what its American proponents thought was the steady decline of cities – the big idea was a form of high-capacity public transport that would provide point-to-point service without intermediate stops, in a private environment, rather like a car, but without traffic jams or exhaust fumes or road accidents.

The flip side of this comes up again and again in Latour’s interviews with Matra and RATP executives, regarding their assumptions about the passengers and the user-experience studies that were carried out later in the project. Passengers, apparently, wanted more than anything else to be transported from point to point, “without transfers, without thinking“, without other people. Not that any passengers had actually been asked what they thought at this point. Clearly, the political assumptions built into Aramis from the beginning were that moving around a city was basically unpleasant, and specifically because of the presence of other people. Huge amounts of effort were expended on the contradictory task of building a vehicle and a broader networked system that was both user-controlled and designed to keep the user from engaging with it in any way.

Very significantly, when user studies were actually carried out, the public was notably cool on the idea and found the cabins (patterned, on the inside, on the Renault Espace) unnerving and uncanny – rather than being protected from a sinister and menacing urban jungle, they felt isolated in sealed capsules controlled by automated systems, in which they could still be confronted with strangers. The paranoia and declinism that originally motivated the PRT concept was accurately preserved in its architecture and communicated to its potential passengers.

Of course, if you were to ask me about this on the Northern Line or the 271 bus tomorrow evening, I’d probably be significantly more sympathetic to the idea; it’s much easier to enjoy public transport when it isn’t operating at overload-plus. This was also a criticism of Aramis – the RATP managers found it hard to imagine a system working that didn’t use standing passengers as a buffer for peak demand, which is telling in itself. And the PCF’s interest was presumably in the idea of a communal and high-modernist rival to the car that would also be a major technical boost for French industry.

Another interesting but under-discussed angle is that of failed consilience.

While the most active phase of Aramis development was on, other groups of engineers were solving the problems of routing discrete packets around a dense scalefree network, preventing them from colliding, and providing congestion control, load-balancing, and controllable routing metrics. They were, of course, the IEEE-802 and IETF work groups building the Internet. The engineers down the road at Alcatel working on GSM could probably have told them a thing or two, as well. The analogies between the longest prefix match/shortest path wins logic of BGP and the problems of routing Aramis cars are very close, although one problem that doesn’t come up in internetworking is how to return the empties and make sure there is a sufficient free float of vehicles to maintain the service. (You regularly see small vans redistributing the Velib bikes around Paris in order to deal with just this problem.)

Part of the explanation, and another interesting angle, is that there was clearly a massive culture clash between the Matra defence-electronics managers, the RATP railwaymen, and the software developers subcontracted in to eventually write the routing and speed-control systems. Matra representatives repeatedly mention that there was a need for a revolution in microprocessors, although that is precisely what happened every 18 months throughout the project.

Apparently, a related system is under test around Heathrow Terminal 5, due to go live in “spring 2010”. Anyone taking bets?

Here’s a case study in unpopular populism: ‘The ravers should have more respect for Mr Blobby. He was a hero to a lot of kids and the thought of them taking drugs and having all-night raves in his house is completely disrespectful.’.

The photographs are truly eerie. Like this one:
don't make me go to the polka dot place

Of course, it was never popular in the first place, as evidenced by the fact the whole enterprise crashed within two years, with one of the projects only lasting three months. Strangely, the Mail doesn’t mention that Noel Edmunds and the local council together managed to burn a sizeable amount of Morecambe taxpayers’ money, in what should in hindsight have been a kind of cautionary preview of the whole strength-through-casinos project. (They later moved onto leaping into bed with Urban Splash, just in time for the property crash.)

I’m also, however, surprised that it was so late into the 90s; I’d associated it with the rainy era of early John Major. Now, of course, the medium density fibreboard, gypsum, glue, and pink paint has gone the way of the hype, after 13 years of exposure to successive North-West European winters without maintenance; once the roof leaks, any light structure has had it, “ravers” or no “ravers”.

This deserves to be iconic

That one could be titled “Spiritual Britain”, I think. There’s also one of two pink spheres described as “mushroom-type objects”. Unfortunately they’ve removed one that showed the old health & safety at work violation on opening day, grinning over the heads of three visibly unenthusiastic kids.

A special point; behold the benefits of openness. Since the Daily Hell got a proper Web site, I’ve actually linked to two articles on it; one on ACPO, and this one. In the absence of their Web presence, I wouldn’t have even imagined that anything of any interest might come from that quarter; but the ACPO one demonstrated that they do, sometimes, carry out solid reporting, and this is at least funny. And the photo caption “Ghostly: a destroyed miniature Blobby lies abandoned, while filth lines the inside of the house” is a minor classic all to itself.

(Hat tip to History is made at night; you don’t think I spend my time actually reading that fucking rag, do you?)

Brilliant post from Dan Lockton on the design problems of making smart meters usable and useful.

In a sense, it relates to this post at the RSA’s Social Brain about “the dark side of “nudge””; of course, the downside of all these neat ideas about adjusting people’s decision processes into ones that are more rational, or at least less harmful, isn’t a sinisterly hyperefficient world where all troublesome individuality has been, blah, blah, but instead a world of undermaintained, malfunctioning good intentions.

In science-fiction terms, rather than a space-opera dystopia, it’s a New Wave one we’ve got to watch; all greasy handrails, important safety devices rigged to stop them making a noise, and infinite reserves of bitterness and resentment. From Dan’s scenario-planning:

The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.

Quite; like the indefinitely deferred maintenance that tends to kill modern buildings. In fact, what that snippet reminded me of was democracy.

A lot of The Accidental Guerrilla concerns ideas of terrain, space, and time. In fact, quite a bit of it could be considered an architectural approach to counter-insurgency. This is not surprising; a major theme is the idea that the conflict environment – the state of being at war or potentially at war, the disrupted social and political structure, the faltering infrastructure, the global black market – is the enemy. After all, it is one of the reasons people seek survival through certainty by calling on the deliberate guerrillas to influence their other political relationships.

One example of this is the one I’ve already written up – the armoured patrol vehicle as urban submarine, a self-defeating machine that itself divides the counter-insurgents from the people in an ironic reversal of their own thinking.

Kilcullen goes almost New Urbanist on this; discussing the Iraq experience, he argues that a huge flaw in the US strategy was that they had to commute to the battle, travelling in monster armoured vehicles, without contact with the civilian population, but still vulnerable to IEDs and ambushes on the over-predictable road routes between their camps and their areas of operation. The answer was to redeploy into the cities and move into positions that let them walk to work; I tell you, Richard Florida got nothing on him.

Similarly, a major aim of his campaign plan was to control access to Baghdad, counterattacking the NOIA encirclement strategy and preventing insurgent “commuters” from the Sunni semi-urban belt getting into the city. You could almost call it a critique of suburban warfare.

This concern with space is also a major theme of the case study on Kunar and road building. The construction of a road was intended to get access and control of the narrow flood plain at the bottom of the valley, which is where everyone lives, rather than up on the mountains. Nothing much grows on the tops and it’s tough to get up there or back down, so the only important places up there are a few tactically important hilltops.

Road access meant that it was easier to force the Taliban to go quiet, either by climbing into the mountains or by going underground. More importantly, it made it possible to keep them there, and to deliver economic benefits. But perhaps the biggest changes it provided were as follows:

Firstly, it changed the topography so that the government side were in the villages, looking out, and the Taliban were outside, looking in. The US or Afghan government fire was outgoing; the Taliban’s, incoming.

Second, it made it worth arguing where different groups’ authority ended; without the road, it was bounded by the difficulty of travel. Once they had to argue about it, the government or the traditional authorities could be called in to arbitrate the dispute, boosting their authority and making them useful. In a sense, the Kunar case study is all about creating a demand for government, or at least competing with the Taliban to supply it.

An interesting question, though; the whole paradigm of The Accidental Guerrilla is based on experience in places where the state is absent, illegitimate, or never established. But many of the same phenomena happen in places where the state, or the structure of traditional authority, once existed but has broken down.

Further, the international jihadis are trying to move (as Kilcullen says) from expeditionary terrorism, where their operations are set up in the home base and carried out remotely, to a guerrilla model where they are set up by sympathisers recruited in the target state. This implies that the process will have to take place in an environment where the state exists here and now.

I’m less convinced by his arguments regarding this; obviously, the naked city has as many possible base-areas as it has people, but as Daniel Davies pointed out, the current European takfiris seem to have less access to firearms than a typical criminal gang, and one of the most worrying possibilities in this line is indeed that they cross-fertilise with ordinary decent criminals. Kilcullen’s practical recommendations in this line are mostly commonsensical, although he is very keen on Cold War analogies with efforts to start non-communist unions and the like, and the other activities of the Blearsministerium.

However, despite the technological implications of auto-immune warfare, he also believes that “biometric reconnaissance” is a strategically important capability. I rather suspect that we’ve already been seeing the effects of this advocacy without knowing what was behind it.

Great rant at Kosmograd against Kirstie Allsopp and much more economic-aesthetic crappery. I recall her grinning chops advertising some sort of Sink Your Life Savings And More In Bulgarian Property for Riches! fest on Tube hoardings in the winter of 2007-2008, which must take some sort of award for televisual irresponsibility. Swinging from branch to branch, what do I find but this?

Prince Charles made a fire station It appears that the heir to the throne has been playing with AutoCAD, and he made a fire station. I haven’t yet decided which bits of this I find most horrible, but I think the fact that the actual fire station sticking out of the back looks like any other one in Britain is a candidate. The black guttering is pretty bad, and is that a CCTV camera on the corner of the building? I rather think it is.

You realise he’s going to be king when Dave from PR is prime minister?