'City Come A-Walkin'

"...During the day I have only the power of those who sleep in the day - far fewer, so I am limited. Though I'm bolstered by people watching TV, since that's a form of sleeping. I'm the sum total of the unconscious cognition of every brain in the city. And I'm Rufe Roscoe [the mob's CEO] too - I'm his self-hatred."

In John Shirley's 1980 (cyberpunk) novel "City Come A-Walkin," the City is an avatar, or avatars, for all its inhabitants; it is at once the dreamed body-built-fabric as well as the medium that these inhabitants build and drive together. City - the character - is as concrete a body as a human but is in fact the materialized consciousness of the city of San Francisco - in real-time.

"City," the novel and the character, might rarely utter the word 'technology' by itself. Instead, "City" insists on sweating out linkages and feedbacks across bodies, mixing cultural, physiological and environmental processes in one bag of speedy breathing. If 'technology' exists in an exchange, it often becomes invisible as a process - a stepping-stone from where to look avidly and obsessively at a new obstacle to smooth out. "City" also dissipates distances between an urban fabric and its inhabitants, stepping (literally) into the vertigo that its confused identity of spatial/political organization would generate as political, social, economic and cultural scenarios.

Among questions on how technology will increasingly transform our lives, there are some questions that particularly stand out regarding how the concept of technology affects architectural/design/urban thinking today. For those of us who teach design - here specifically architecture and urban design - the intensity of the debates around final students' projects in April/May is a clear mirror of a generation's state of mind regarding desires and anxieties of the promises of design and its relationship to technology and the fabrication and mediation of environments. Additionally, in the span of three months there has been, and continues to be, a relentless feed in regards to this question and its implications. Several recent events - conferences, symposia, exhibitions - in the New York area stand out for their debate on the relationship and expectations of design exploring changing definitions, interrelations, varying and global perspectives on nature, technology, the body of the city, environment and the human body and mind(s).

'City Come A-Walkin': 5 Events on the Future of Design, Technology and Space

One of the questions that is continually at the forefront of this discourse is how we continue to define technology. Contemporary technology is often equated with the development of gadgets: high-performance objects that concentrate several functions which have previously constituted processes separated in time and space. There is an implicit economy in the creation of a gadget, given the way in which it collapses the need for a series of other elements. However, as we know from a long history behind and before us, as well as through general and current examples, such as the real environmental implications of chip fabrication and recycling processes, as well as a commercial profit-driven development that creates great obsolescence. There is a great component of waste in those same objects in which many expectations are deposited.

Technology is not a neutral, nor an a-cultural/political concept; it implies that there is a consciousness, some sort of collective mind, that validates inventions as meaningful for a certain type of progress within a society. In a sense, technology is continuously a metaphor and an avatar for a regime of desires and necessities, dreamed and haunting a collective.

Another question is how our actions, individual and collective, can and will affect others, people and/or places.

Increasingly networked spaces collapse time and bring places together. This means that not only our actions have larger ranges of influence - cultural, political, economical, social - but also many more of us are more aware of those influences and linkages across different places. Real-time actions can speed up in scope when they receive feedback of themselves and their spatial territory - as can be seen by the recent middle east protests and their changing territorializing strategies. We are now also more easily aware and able to measure the environmental results or prognostics of our actions. This has consequences in the way in which we practice the development of future space and objects, the way by which we think about linkages between people, places and the gestures they will create.

Last but not least, we are increasingly haunted by the possible lack of awareness of how all actions can have potential impact in the continuing definition of the individual and of the subjective.

Never before have we been so seduced by the immersion in the collective, the sharing of thoughts, work, and dreams as we are currently. And never before as today have we been so aware of our lack of unawareness - of how, daily, we might be failing to grasp all the ways in which multiple invisible hands harvest strengths and vulnerabilities from our exchanges, executing identity sections of our preferences. The data we voluntarily and involuntarily produce, about and around our actions, is mined to create new personas for our individual and collective ones - data that is actively used to create new hallmarks of thought and production of knowledge, as well as new models of products for which consumption-drive will render us bound to economic, cultural and political cycles, which we might have not voluntarily adhered to.

The challenging of the nature of identity in Shirley's "City" alerts us to the ground our virtual feet can stand on: the ways in which our individuality is co-created from cultural contexts, and the ways in which we collectively build new entity-bodies that create political and social organization.

These questions are especially relevant for their implication in spatial and political organization. The urgency and apparent rising interest in engaging them comes from their intensified pervasiveness in all tools and materials with which architects, urbanists, and designers conceive the larger frameworks and infinite details of their projects.

The following events mentioned below - two of which I was a participant in - have happened or are happening mainly in NYC, while one of them will take place in a couple of weeks in San Diego, California.

These events are part of the problematic of sectioning these bodies - the human body and the city body - and questions and the new ways in which they can potentially reassemble to build new ones. Several of these belong to the ever-growing set of events that are worth continuing to revisit for their density of content and for crossover and continuity of thematic. More than being reviewed, they provide a cross-section of the different entry points that expertise can collaborate around regarding future 'scenarios' extrapolations on intersections of design, nature and technology, as well as the inquiries into the new presence and agency of individual and collective bodies in society. Some of these events also belong to an ever-growing project of knowledge production that can be revisited through a collective memory we increasingly nurture and cultivate, be it through memorized highlights and their diverse press review, or through their readily available online live-broadcast and recording which can continue to be played and diversely mined by all.

The slideshow above provides for examples of speakers and work presented and produced at these events.

1. NEAR Conference: "At the Intersection of Architecture, Nature, Technology", March 24&25th, 2011

The Network for Emerging Architectural Research at Pratt Institute Graduate School of Architecture (Pratt GAUD), has been conceived by PRATT GAUD's chair William Mc Donald and is "...Intended to be an entirely new platform for experimentation in architecture and urban design, NEAR seeks to expand beyond the traditional limitations of academic research and establish a space for experimentation and development in-between academia, industries, and public institutions. Commensurate with the complexities of the 21st century, the goal of NEAR is to reach across disciplines to extend architectural knowledge and its modes of practice."

In the words of the NEAR director and conference organizer, the event objectives are to discuss "..new freedoms in synthetic regimes...", specifically architectural discourse and practice in the face of new possible intersections - "Architecture - which aspires to the difficult convergence of cultural value and built form - seems caught between ecology and technology."

The first day introduced the theme "Are the ecological and the computational movements interconnected?"
with presentations and a conversation between Catherine Ingraham (Architecture Theory, Professor at Pratt Institute GAUD) who presented the dichotomy between the ontological and the ecological , Karl Chu (Professor at Pratt Institute GAUD) who proposed the foundations for a future of genetic architecture, Edward Eigen (architecture historian, Professor at Princeton University) who reframed ways in which the body of nature has been represented and considered across history, and Sanford Kwinter (Professor of Theory and Criticism at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design) who reframed the ways in which we are considering relationships between ecology and computation.

The second day produced a showcase of different research and projects, both academic and practice based. Under the theme "Experiments at the Intersection", work from three academic option studios at Pratt GAUD were presented. The studios - led by Mitchell Joachim/Maria Aiolova, David Ruy, and myself - had worked under the umbrella of the NEAR program pursuing different agendas of exploration. As well, research work presented included exploration of critical architectural representation, mapping and interactivity with Future Cities Lab (Jason Kelly Johnson), material sciences and building envelope research developed at CASE RPI/SOM (Ted Ngai), exploratory work regarding aesthetics and the senses in design done by Cmmwlth (Zoe Coombes), new brick technology by Verge Labs (Ginger Krieg Dosier), and new exquisite ceramic and porcelain techniques explorations by Rhett Russo during an EKWC residency.
Under the theme "Biomatter" and "What is organicism today?" several practices presented work which reflected ongoing interrogations of the conference's thematics. Respondents Lydia Kallipoliti and William Myers, and moderator David Ruy articulated discussions with practices that included: Genspace (Dr. Ellen Joergensen, Daniel Grushkin & Sung won Lim, Nurit Bar-Shai, Dr. Oliver Medvedik), Bioworks Institute (Dr. Oliver Medvedik) & Terreform One (Mitchell Joachim, Maria Aiolova), The Living (David Benjamin), William Mac Donald (from Kolatan/McDonald) and Jesse Reiser (from Reiser+Umemoto), among others.

The conference HR videos will soon be uploaded into the school's website, and the presentations can in the meantime be seen here:

Pratt's NEAR blog can be found here:

2. "The Networked City" - Panel Discussion in Festival of Ideas for the New City, May 5th, 2011

The Festival of Ideas for the New City presented a rich and overarching set of events that included exhibitions, workshops, shows, lectures and panel discussions. The event was an opportunity to think about modes of participating at different scales in the construction of the city's cultural fabric while actually debating the very current practices of being an agent in that context.
The overall panel series tried to dissect the "city" through current paradigms and paradoxes of its character.
The "Networked City" panel specifically addressed the potentials, the gaps, and as well the fears of the developed and developing world city which is increasingly connected to others while it also increasingly connects its inhabitants to each other and to the cultural elements they produce.
Moderated by Joseph Grima (former Director of Storefront for Art and Architecture and currently editor-in-chief of Domus Magazine) the panel was a discussion among artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko (Environmental Health Clinic), writer and designer Adam Greenfield (previously Nokia's head of interface design), Anthony Townsend (Director of Research and Technology at the "Institute for the Future", head of NYCwireless), McKenzie Wark (Media and Critical Theory, The New School. Author of "A Hacker Manifesto").

The panel's diverse presentations ranged across the current paradigmatic elements of desire and anxiety regarding connectivity, the still existing discontinuities of connectivity across social classes and countries (Townsend) and the need to create new intelligent networks that extend all-inclusive concepts of "public space" to the present and future regimes of connectivity. As well, the panel covered the empowerment of individuals through knowledge obtained through networks about networks of production and therefore their pro-active role as pressure points onto those same cycles (Jeremijenko). Also covered: the need to make visible processes that are evidence of a potential morality or character of objects and/or media exchanges (Adam Greenfield), reflecting on the ways in which surveillance technologies evolve tracking modalities and their stepping on individual rights to privacy. The still seemingly different morphologies of architecture and design form and the virtual networks these create - a difference Wark notes Constant's New Babylon concept has possibly disregarded or erred on forecasting.

Main links to general Festival and mentioned discussion panel:

3. Conference "Transhumanism and Design: Humanity+ @ Parsons NYC", May 14/15th, 2011

The Transhumanism and Design conference brought, first and foremost, a wide breadth of different expertise together: "...futurists, cyberneticists, life extensionists, singularity advocates, A[G]I and robotics experts, human enhancement specialists, inventors, ethicists, philosophers, and theorists..."

The conference was a joint venture between Humanity+ and Parsons School of Design, co-chaired by Natasha Vita-More (Founder and Director of the Transhumanist Arts and Cultural World Center and Vice-Chair of Humanity+) and Ed Keller (Associate Dean for Distributed Learning and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design), and included 30+ speakers including Ben Goertzel (Artificial Intelligence research and Chair of Humanity+), François Roche (Architecture), Benjamin Bratton (Cultural Studies), Peter Watts (Sci Fi Writer and Marine Biologist), James Hughes (Bioethicist and Sociologist), Adam Zaretsky (Bioartist) and Mitchell Joachim (Architecture) among others.

The panels were organized around different themes across the Transhumanist diverse school of thought, comprising discussions on distinct definitions of human and transhuman bodies, complexity and life, life extension, human body transformation and augmentation, innovative design regarding the body and intelligence augmentation, intersections of design, nature and technology, and possible futures of virtual and augmented realities.

General structure, participants names, links and abstracts can be found here:

4. GLOBAL [Global Local Open Border Architecture and Landscape] Design speaker series and exhibition entitled, "Elsewhere Envisioned". May 25th (Exhibition: 6-9pm), May 26th, June 10th (Symposiums 1&2: 9.30am-6pm)
NYU Gallatin Labowitz Main Gallery, One Washington Place.

This series is organized by GDNYU: Global Design New York University, for innovative architecture, urban design and architecture, a Working Research Group, founded by NYU faculty Peder Anker, Mitchell Joachim and Louise Harpman.
Counting 40+ participants, the exhibition and speaker series showcases and debates the current role and promise of the synthesis of Design as a practice vis-à-vis the increasing awareness of global issues and the possibility of increasingly more responsive and informed practices, which can operate at new scales.

Global Design stands here for a pro-active suspicion with common pre-conditioned borders - of places, of discipline - and creates a new place for design innovation that departs from an all-encompassing attitude towards analysis and synthesis that is able to refresh thinking about landscapes, environments, ecologies, buildings, urban spaces, populations, individuals, cultures.

Participants include Rachel Armstrong, Evan Douglis, Jeffrey Inaba, Bjarke Ingels, Sanford Kwinter, Terreform, Specht Harpman, AUM studio, pneumastudio, Philip Beesley and Decker&Yeadon, among others.

Main page of GDNYU, with links to the events pages, full participants list and links:

5. "Designing Geopolitics". An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Computational Jurisdictions, Emergent Governance, Public Ecologies. June 2-3, 2011
Atkinson Hall Auditorium, Calit2, UC-San Diego

D:GP (The Center for Design and Geopolitics) - director Benjamin Bratton - is "...an interdisciplinary think-tank based at Calit2 and the University of California, San Diego that works to articulate and prototype speculative responses to emergent geopolitical complexities posed by planetary-scale computation and ecological governance."

The Symposium has a promising thematic: "How does a digital Earth govern itself?", taking on the large scale design of not-yet-defined and seriously emergent digital entities and geographies that regulate, distribute, manipulate and shift the spaces of political, cultural, social and economic organization.

The event brings us an appealing line up - with participants that include Vernor Vinge (Sci-Fi Author, Professor of Mathematics), René Daalder (filmmaker), Kelly Gates (surveillance and Information Networks), Manuel Delanda (philosopher and science writer), Naomi Oresekes (Professor of History and Science Studies), Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG), Lev Manovich (Director of the Software Studies Initiative at California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology - CALIT2), and Adam Bly (SEED Media Group) among others.

Main link to Symposium page:

Carla Leitão is an architect, designer and writer currently living, working and teaching Architecture in New York. Practice and academic works interests in ubiquity and intersection of new media and architecture.
Research Assistant: Benjamin Rice