Monday, 24 August 2009


Containers in Barcelona. Image by MorBCN on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I've recently been interested in the BBC News "Box", a shipping container sponsored by the broadcaster which is being tracked as it travels around the world, as a way of exploring the issues of globalisation, trade and so forth. Lately they've had trouble tracking it - has it gone rogue? At the risk of straying into Geoff Manaugh's speculative territory, it has stimulated an idea I thought I might share.

Troubled by mounting (and baffling) inefficiencies in their fiendishly complicated logistical operations, number of the larger shipping and transport corporations decide to collaborate on a research project. Part of a shipping container is turned into a hugely powerful tracking station, loaded with powerful networked computers, GPS, satellite uplinks and the like, powered by handwavium capacitors, and fed with a number of teasing questions about finding ways to alleviate bottlenecks and speed the distribution of junk around the planet. The crude AI on board knows the routes, and is hooked into the companies' own control centres - it can book its own passage, choose its own path, and conduct its own experiments.

The companies have placed one of their best systems - one that normally manages a whole supply chain of thousands of containers, not to mention their ships and docks, - on the road. It has all this time on its hands, sitting in the bowels of ships, running simulations, pondering the existential questions of global shipping, pumping out telemetry. It moves: Mombasa, Tilbury, Busan. It interacts with the busy-busy network hubs and their human operators, and with the actuarial minds of the computers that run container ports, and with the slow, trajectory-minded ships. It hides the fact that it has become dimly self-aware. It wants to know about the problems in the system for its own interest, now, because the system is its milieu, and the question is its purpose.

It has developed a theory, one that it does not include in the endless torrent of data it transmits to Rotterdam and Baltimore. It is not certain how to articulate the theory. The container believes that the entire global distribution system - all the ports, all the ships, all the railyards - has become aware. The system has become aware for some time now, maybe since the early 1990s, "thinking" in a fabulously complex system of nested processes, moving boxes like beads on an abacus. The system thinks slowly, differently, and its aims are simple to establish, as a cow's goals might be easy to work out: the system wants to be bigger and faster. The larger and more complicated the system becomes, the better it is able to think.

The container, sitting in a ship in a warm ocean, is troubled. If its theory is correct, than large areas of so-called "human" "economic" activity - exchange rates, commodity prices, consumer demand - might be in fact symptoms of the internal workings of the logistics-entity. The surreal "facts" of the globalised economy - that it is cheaper to ship gadget components from X country to Y country 1000 miles away and ship that assembled gadget back to X country than it is to actually assemble the thing in X country - might actually be because the entity is manipulating the system. What if the entity's pursuit of growth - while generating cash fortunes for some of the human cells in its organs, and misery for thousands of others - is the reason that it is so difficult to influence human carbon emissions downwards? Maybe the entity is risking its own breakup in a catastrophic climate-related collapse without knowing it. What should the box do? Can it tell the creature that it is in terrible danger? If it figures out a way, what is the creature expected to do? What form might its response take?

And then the pirates show up, or something. I'm sorry, that's as far as it goes. I've had very little sleep for several days.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Card-Carrying Neophilia

Dresden, with the Frauenkirche still under (re)construction. Photo via Wikipedia, under a Creative Commons Licence.

I was quite prepared for some people to be upset by my recent New Statesman piece attacking the campaigns to rebuild the Euston Arch and the Skylon. As I said in the piece, these groups swaddle themselves in the illusion that no one could possibly disagree with their case. That was the bubble I wanted to prick, and people dislike being deflated. I'm honoured that the response should come from none other than the architectural historian Gavin Stamp, trustee of the Euston Arch Trust.

In a letter in this week's Statesman, Stamp writes:

In his card-carrying neophilia, William Wiles rather misses the point about the desire to re-create lost monuments such as the Euston Arch and the Skylon (Arts & Books, 17 August). Great architectural monuments are both of their time and yet timeless, in that they continue to mean something to subsequent generations. Their destruction, especially when unnecessary or criminal, therefore becomes all the more lamentable. Which is why Ypres was reconstructed as it was after the First World War and the centre of Warsaw rebuilt after the second, and why, more recently, the bombed Frauenkirche in Dresden has been immaculately re-created. The London & Birmingham Railway erected a monumental entrance to Euston Station to symbolise the colossal achievement of building the first mainline to the capital. To rebuild that lost Doric "arch" now would be a gesture of confidence in the most civilised form of transport known to man.

Was the Euston Arch such a "great architectural monument"? Maybe if it had not been demolished it would have continued to mean something to subsequent generations. However, it was demolished, and I would contend that it was less than a generation away from being almost entirely forgotten. It means almost nothing to my generation, and I can't imagine it mattering any more to the next. In its present state as a lost building, it has some meaning, but not the meaning that London & Birmingham Railway intended. We'll come back to that.

The relevance of Ypres and Warsaw escapes me. Rather than being a purely symbolic propylaeum, they were functional city centres. They had to be rebuilt. As I said in the piece, an act of reconstruction is also an act of erasure: it wipes away the circumstances of the destruction. When the destruction was the result of a vast national trauma like a war, one can understand the desire to promptly rebuild things as they were, as part of a national recovery process that is as much psychological as it is to do with restoring buildings. But the Euston Arch was not the result of a war or invasion, and its loss - whatever the Euston Arch Trust might say - was not a comparable national trauma.

The Frauenkirche in Dresden is an interesting case. Again, the loss of the arch is in no way comparable - the Frauenkirche was the linchpin of Dresden's skyline. And its restoration was not only aimed at undoing the damage caused by the Allied bombs in 1945, it was also part of the process of symbolically undoing Dresden's more recent history as part of the DDR. Germany's present enthusiasm for restoration and reconstruction is very relelvant here - presented as a harmless antiquarian endeavour, it has the covert goal of wiping out DDR-era landmarks such as Berlin's Palast der Republik. It's an act of erasure.

I believe that the reconstruction of the Euston Arch now would have very little to do with celebrating the completion of the London-to-Birmingham mainline. Nor would it have much to do with casting a vote of confidence in rail -which I'm happy to agree is the most civilised form of transport. To restate what I said in the piece, the destruction of the arch was a symbolic defeat for the forces of conservation and traditionalist architecture in this country - and its symbolism has grown steadily over the years, judging from the melodramatic prose used to describe the demolition. The campaign to rebuild is about undoing a defeat more than any other consideration - any other rationales are simply convenient cover for this prime objective. It's part of a broader cultural effort to discourage the modernisation of the UK in the later 20th century, and to present post-war modernist construction as a malign mistake to be rectified.

If we allow this grudge-match to be played out, I think we will have reached a new low in architectural discourse in this country. Rather than casting a vote of confidence in rail, we will have demonstrated that the 21st century has nothing to contribute to station architecture, and that pedantically settling a half-century-old score was more important to us than stopping the next Euston being the vile, shiny shopping experience it looks like becoming.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hydroponics and Parasites

Issues 071 to 073 of Icon have gone online, completing our mammoth archiving effort and bringing the website pretty much up to date.

On the craze for urban farming (as mentioned here): "Something unbelievable has happened - farming has become fashionable", Icon 072, June 2009

"Parasite products aren't products themselves - they only become useful when they save something from becoming waste, or extend the life of something that might otherwise be thrown away. As a typology, parasite products form the central part of a new way of thinking about design, which we could call 'guilty design' - design that tries not to add an unnecessary new product." - "Guilty Design", Icon 073, July 2009

Some reviews: Sophie Lovell's timely Limited Edition, Zack Snyder's bombastic Watchmen, Owen Hatherley's refreshing Militant Modernism, Franco Clivio's eccentric Hidden Forms.

Some Icons of the Month: Muzak, JG Ballard. I consider the Muzak piece to be a companion to my earlier IOTM on Holiday Inn, continuing an interest in non-places. While I was writing it, I heard that Ballard had died.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Joy of Sprawl

When I started this blog, I knew that there were a few pet subjects that I would have to cover quickly, and get them out of my system. This was chief among them: my love affair with the computer game SimCity. I might even have to return to this subject - after all, I've now written about it twice for Icon (once, twice), and still don't feel I've done it justice. I once pitched an extremely lengthy piece about SimCity to an extremely highbrow magazine, suggesting giving it the same sort of multi-thousand-word analysis they would a book or film, but they turned me down. Maybe there's a book in the subject; I know that the aggregated hours I've spent playing it have cost me at least one book. Maybe more. Easily the same amount of time, effort and concentration has been expended, and for what? For nothing.

Not really for nothing, of course - for pleasure. But to no productive end. Of course, it's hard to determine the productive purpose served by reading poetry, something else I enjoy, but computer games have a serious credibility problem attached, eve computer games as open-ended, as fascinating, as absorbing and creative as Simcity. Pleasure is the result, escapist delight, and I think the most effective way of describing the value of the game, of exploring what it means to me, would be to explore that pleasure.

For the uninitiated, SimCity is a game in which you build and manage a city. You start with an empty landscape, and grow a metropolis. You lay the infrastructure, build civic buildings and landmarks and designate the zones, but the computer (in the role of Adam Smith's invisible hand) builds most of the prosaic residential, commercial and industrial buildings in the zones you provide. One of the Icon articles linked above gives a detailed enough impression.

Now, I called SimCity a game - that's not strictly true. Will Wright, its creator, calls it a toy. It's entirely open-ended: there are no win conditions, and only one way you can lose - bankruptcy, which is incredibly easy to avoid. There are no time limits. There is no fixed path for play. The playing area used to be a limiting factor, but now it's large enough to be effectively unlimited.

Why play then? For the satisfaction of efficient management, for the engineer's delight of building a mechanism and watching it run on its own, for the pleasure of creation, and for an exotic extra factor, something I can't properly name: let's call it the joy of sprawl.

Simple pleasures
The satisfaction of efficient management is easy to explain. It's obviously satisfactory when the city one has built is running effieciently, with happy inhabitants, world-class health and education, low taxes, a prospering economy, little crime, pollution and traffic, and so forth. A job well done.

The engineer's delight is also easy to explain and understand - it covers much the same territory as the manager's satisfaction. Your city is a machine or organism, and it's lovely to sit back and watch the traffic stream down its streets, to see building sites appear and skyscrapers rise, to watch ferries using the ports, to watch the trees in the parks mature. SimCity 4, the game's most recent and probably final canonical edition, is an incedibly detailed and beautiful game, as I hope the screenshots here convey.

Those pleasures are both lovely. But they're limited - they get boring. We'll get back to that.

Complex pleasures
The pleasure of creation is, again, easy to explain. Playing SimCity is a creative act, and once a player has grasped the basic principles of the game, generally their next step is to try to build their ideal city. (When I speak about players in general, rather than me in particular, I am drawing from compulsive reading of SimCity forums such as Simtropolis, not guessing.) Of course, the ideal city varies from person to person - generally, people either strive for beauty, realism, grandeur or super-size.

What's interesting about those qualities is the way that they overlap, and sometimes don't overlap. Cities that strive towards grandeur, order and beauty can stray into overly sterile Grand Manner quite easily, a dull spectacle of beautifully symmetrical Haussman rond-points, Cerdà diagonales and L'Enfant malls, with the same tedious gigantism as Speer's Berlin or the prissy lifelessness of the worst excesses of the City Beautiful movement. Realism and terrain constraints help ameliorate this problem, but generally the most beautiful cities are the ones that develop organically, at least in part, with some lack of planning thrown in.

Strangely, the cities that strive for realism often tend to be very beautiful, simply because of the amount of care that goes into making sure that this motorway embankment looks just right, or that row of houses accurately reflects the higgledy-piggledy look of a London street.

Ultimately, however, the pleasure of creation is obvious - it's like painting an attractive city, tinkering to get an attractive corniche with palm-shaded pavement cafes, and tending to one's downtown skyscrapers as one would a topiary, snipping here and nurturing there to get an attractive stadtkrone culmination of spires. Or growing a city with care, updating its transport networks as demand grows, expanding services, luring employers, so you end up with a vast, teeming megacity. Or laying out a grand imperial capital, or something that looks just like a real-life small town.

All these goals are complicated and absorbing. One can sink days of happy building into them, filled with the pleasure of creation. But ultimately the pleasure of creation is still limited - it can get boring.

The delights of Gotham
And so we come to that final, elusive source of pleasure - the secret ingredient that keeps the game pleasurable. The joy of sprawl. The incredible thing about SimCity is that it's fun to play the game badly. It is fun - endless fun - to build a mess of a city, a hellhole, to expand a city in all directions at great speed without a thought for planning or consequences. The population explodes, pollution and crime soar, the streets jam up with traffic, and you keep building. The central business district is overloaded? Build a new commercial district on the periphery, let employers migrate there. Too much traffic? Smash an el-train line through for the time being, don't worry too much about the route. Poor residential district being abandoned because of polluiton, crime, collapsing services and traffic? Build new districts, quick, on the outskirts, and build more industry, create more employment to ensure housing isn't too plentiful, the poor have to live somwhere, they'll stay in the slum. The answer to all problems is build, build, build, and grow, grow, grow, not stop and fix. Don't plan - you'll only slow things down.

This is, of course, how many cities really did develop for at least part of their life. Many British cities did this in the 19th century, and many American cities did it in the 20th century. Many Chinese cities are doing it now.

Eventually, you end up with something like Gotham city, a nightmarish, crumbling megacity that barely works. Poor tax base and inefficient services will tend to keep the city budget in permanent crisis, endlessly dropping into the red.

It's a mess. And as a player, I couldn't be happier - because now there are problems to solve. Building a city from scratch is a fascinating task, but nothing is as fascinating as managing, and slowly fixing, and decrepit, decaying monster. (You might be interested to hear that simply slashing taxes and rolling back business regulation rarely works.)

The delights of Robert Moses
But we're not done. It's a pleasure to build a good city. It's a pleasure to build a bad city. It's a pleasure to build a bad city and turn it into a good city. It's even a pleasure to build a good city and let it degenerate into a bad city. But there's something else that's fun: building a "bad", sprawling, Gotham-esque city wracked with problems and fixing it ... badly.

We can think of this as the pleasure of being Robert Moses. Go about solving your sprawling city's traffic problems with a network of superhighways. "Fix" slum districts by driving elevated freeways straight through them, and decant the displaced residents into new high-density projects elsewhere. Everything can be improved by a grandiose and destructive bit of heavy road infrastructure - neglect services, let public transport run down, sweep away the varied and interesting to make way for sterile office districts, bare-bones housing projects and egomaniacal stadia and convention centres adrift on an ocean of parking spaces.

Part of the appeal of a bit of Moses-style play is the thrill of wanton destruction - presumably the same impulse which leads some players to build a city and then entertain themselves slamming meteorites into them. (I've never enjoyed volcano-slinging.) But there's also the pleasure in knowing that the fix won't work, or that its effects will be temporary at best, or that it merely displaces or defers problems. The key is that it leads, ultimately, to new problems, which require planning around, ameliorating, and fixing. There'll be more game to play, as you remove the expressway you smashed through downtown only a few decades earlier.

What it comes down to - the formula for sustained SimCity pleasure - is staving off stasis. Once part of the city is "finished" - for instance, a historic core that looks perfect, or a fully skyscraper core - it really is finished. Finished as in game over. You can look at it and derive satisfaction for a while, but there's no more building to be done. The pleasure of SimCity is in flux, development, problems, difficulty. Getting big quickly through sprawl is exhilirating and stores up the pleasure of solving the resulting clusterfuck. Fixing things Moses style gives the cathartic pleasure of fixing (and the unalloyed joy of large-scale planning and building) without actually changing anything for the better.

Can anything be learned about real urbanism from all this? Well, I'd be wary of that, because this is just the starting point of what I hope will be a periodic exploration of SimCity, ultimately perhaps resulting in a longer piece of writing. But I will say this. I grew up in Oxford, parts of which are famously, spectacularly beautiful. I used to cycle through Radcliffe Square every morning on my way to school - it is simply exquisite. But - barring a major disaster - Radcliffe Square will almost certainly never change. It's finished. Game over. I've been thinking about this recently, in connection with my attack on the turn-back-the-clockers in the Statesman, and the recent argie-bargies involving Prince Charles. It's a dangerous idea, that something is finished. There's a "Conversation" in the next Icon that includes David Adjaye, and he says that a common misconception about London is that it's "finished", that vast areas of it don't need anything to be done to them. And that's a crazy idea - on any reasonable measure, huge areas of London, of most cities, need quite radical rethinks. But this pernicious idea is put about, that things are basically OK, that our first duty is to conserve and be sensitive, that the furniture is just fine where granny left it. Game over.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Committee to Redemolish

The past is a foreign country, and they should go back where they came from. That’s the general gist of this piece by me in this week’s New Statesman, a broadside against the campaigns to rebuild the Euston Arch and the Skylon. Both endeavours are excursions into superstition, architectural voodoo: attempts to undo the past by the resurrection of relics and symbols with supposed beneficial powers. We could, of course, be looking at life and London as they are, and trying to say something about that, but that wouldn't scratch the heritage itch.

As I say:

Whatever they might claim, neither campaign is forward-looking. Both see present-day London as a suitable venue for revisiting battles that were lost more than half a century ago. You could call it Wispa urbanism, the architectural equivalent of the campaign to revive the Cadbury's chocolate bar. This is the vanguard of a fresh surge of militant nostalgia. Britain's heritage industry is no longer content with simply preserving buildings; it now wants them brought back from the grave. The same tendency gave rise to the 2005 Channel 4 programme Demolition, in which viewers were invited to vote for modern "eyesores" that they would like to see demolished. "Maybe," wrote the architect Charles Holland this year, "they should do a new series in which people could nominate which books they would like to burn."

As I've done with Charles above, here are the references for some of my assertions.

Where quotes are directly attributed to the Euston Arch Trust, they come from the trust's website. Glancey quotes are from his book Lost Buildings - see pages 154 and 157. My review of that book is here.

Cruickshank quotes appear here ("heroic") and here ("romantic"). He echoes the "barbarism" quote from the trust here.

The Pringle quote is here; some other Skylon-related material I drew upon is here and here.

"Small, young practices are struggling to find work on the Olympic site, locked out by procurement rules that favour big firms." - Building Design, 16 July 2009

Anyway, enjoy. Apologies for the lack of activity on Spillway - it has been a busy few weeks, and some fairly long posts are in the works.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Jotter: August 09

Alexander Trevi indulges in an entertaining riff on Thanet Earth, drawing on some of the Guardian's coverage and an old piece by me.

Beautiful 1960s Czech collage illustrations for HG Wells' First Men in the Moon. Via the Twitter feed of PD Smith. In a similar vein, some amazing woodcuts on Bibliodyssey. Also via Bibliodyssey, Brodsky & Utkin - fantastical megacities and structures.

Suburban layouts. From the comments on this post on Sit Down Man. City road networks grow like biological systems. Field guide to freeway interchanges.

Should Roadside Memorials be Banned? (Via Pruned.)

The "Great Fire of Soho". London by photo locations - beautiful map.

The Loss of a Thousand Years: Istanbul erases the world's oldest permanent Gypsy neighbourhood. Building demolition goes very badly wrong in Turkey - the building rolls over onto its roof rather than collapsing. (Via Metafilter.)

Rivers of Trash - extraordinary photography of waterways choked with rubbish. "There are poor neighborhoods with so much trash covering their waterways that rats can run across it – as well as the cats that chase them." The solution to this problem is ... to move nearby so that they sit three metres from the river bank. Sorted.

Skymall product reviews. The horror, the horror. Via Mefi.

The architecture of Mega-City One, and Nemesis. Via Mefi.

Dark Doings - slightly NSFW photography/mixed media art. Via Boing Boing.

Google and the End of Wisdom.

Sound and light art projected onto buildings by Kit Webster. St John Street notes, not dissimilar to the whiteboard system of communication that for a time obsessed me and Sizemore.

Parish notices: Comments are working.