The Urban Hyperobject

This short essay is a draft for an upcoming publication of the work of Design Studio 18 at the University of Westminster, discussing some of the ideas we have been and will continue to work with. It begins with three urban vignettes:

  1. In Johannesburg in 2000, politicians came up with the controversial idea of defining an ‘urban edge’ to the city as a cordon to secure its perimeter and contain urban sprawl. This took the form of a line on a map, reactivating a rather ancient idea of the city as a bounded territory, with policy infrastructure (not walls) separating inside from outside, them from us, order from disorder and defining an interior for administration, taxation and servicing purposes. In 2011, Johannesburg rescinded the urban edge as a policy instrument because it exacerbated the problems it set out to solve. It allegedly pushed up land values within the urban perimeter, relegating poor communities to live outside its boundary and the line was simply routinely adjusted year on year to incorporate earlier approved urban developments beyond it. A fixed line urban edge was shown to be unworkable.

    Johannsburg, 2006. Photograph: Lindsay Bremner.

    Johannsburg, 2006. Photograph: Lindsay Bremner.

  2. Graham Shane illustrated his essay, “The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism,” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader2 with Cedric Price’s famous 1982 diagram, ‘The City as an Egg.’3 Price characterised the ancient city as a hard-boiled egg arranged in concentric layers within its shell or walls; the industrial 17 -19C city is portrayed as a fried egg, its perimeter deformed and extended outwards by railway corridors; and the post-industrial city is drawn as a scrambled egg – polycentered, granular, lumpy, uneven, with a morphology of enclaves and isolated building typologies.

  3. This version of the city remains grounded and two dimensional. In 2011, Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon and Clara Wong presented a three dimensional version of the city, in the form of  a brilliant graphic analysis of Hong Kong titled Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook.4 Whereas in most cities of the world, the city is a composition of figure-ground relationships and the ground plane is the datum of urban life, in Hong Kong, they argue, this is not the case. The city is a result of a combination of “top-down planning and bottom up solutions … played out in three dimensional space.”5 A continuous network of elevated or underground pedestrian passageways, stairs, escalators, elevators and footbridges pass through malls, office lobbies, train stations, bus stations, ferry terminals, public parks etc. and replace the ground as the basis of urban life. The city is, quite literally, ungrounded, emerging as a topological continuum, where atmosphere, or “microclimates of temperature, humidity, noise and smell”6 generate urbanity, direct circulation and make place. To make sense of the complexity of this city spatially and politically requires thinking it as and through volume.
  4. Hong Kong, City with No Ground. Source: http://randomwire.com/hong-kong-city-without-ground/

    Hong Kong, City with No Ground. Source: http://randomwire.com/hong-kong-city-without-ground/

In contrast to this, one of the things that has become apparent through the work of Design Studio 18 at the University of Westminster over the past two years is that today’s cities can no longer be thought about as bounded territories or even volumes at all.

John Cook, DS18_2014.

John Cook, DS18_2014.

They are entities massively disaggregated and distributed across space and time that generate profoundly different temporalities and scales than the ones we are used to and do not fit neatly into the nested spatial model of contemporary politics. Cities today leak out of all such enclosures. They are what Timothy Morton describes as “viscous,”8 sticky, oozy; they secrete (toxins, sewage) they belch (pollution), they devour (energy, food, water), they suck in (people, commodities) and spit out (waste) etc.

Jared Baron, Sophie Fuller, Alice Thomson, DS18_2014. Urban Waste Strategies.

Jared Baron, Sophie Fuller, Alice Thomson, DS18_2014. Urban Waste Strategies.

They simply cannot be thought of as distinctive bounded territories any longer. Put another way, cities are punctuated, discontinuous geographies and exchanges that envelop the planet,9 and no longer coincide with notions of bounded territory or sovereignty at all,10 despite the appearance otherwise.

In what could be characterized as a condition of generalized urbanization, increasingly diffuse agglomeration patterns blend with a dense mesh of infrastructural networks and are strongly interwoven with expanding zones of production, supply, and disposal that cover the whole planet.11

This is the premise behind “The City of 7 Billion,” a research project by Joyce Hsiang and Bimal Mendis of Plan B Architecture and Urbanism and the Yale School of Architecture, which aims to “reinvent the world as a single urban entity.” 12 The project has developed a spatial visualisation of population density for a number of cities for the period 1990 – 2015. This data was built as a physical installation at the 2011 Chengdu Biennale, in the form of a 10x10x10ft cube that visitors could walk into. Inverted three dimensional population density maps for North America, Asia and Africa protruded into the cube from the ceiling and two walls. This spikey space, surrounding visitors in three-dimensional data, conveyed a sensual experience of the urban globe inside of which we now live.13 

Our work has gone further and suggests that cities today exceed even planetary boundaries. Their mass warps subterranean strata, animates the ocean, grips and distorts the atmosphere and beyond,14 casting its shadow back and forward across millennia of time.

Cheryl Choo, distortion of the earth during an electromagnetic event. DS18_2014.

Cheryl Choo, distortion of the earth during an electromagnetic event. DS18_2014.

A baby vomits curdled milk. She learns to distinguish between the vomit and the not-vomit and comes to know the not-vomit as self. Every subject is formed at the expense of some viscous, slightly poisoned substance, possibly teeming with bacteria, rank with stomach acid. The parent scoops up the mucky milk in a tissue and flushes the wadded package down the toilet. Now we know where it goes. For some time we may have thought the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better: instead of the mythical land Away, we know that waste goes to the Pacific Ocean or the wastewater treatment facility. Knowledge of the hyperobject Earth and of the hyperobject biosphere, presents us with viscous surfaces from which nothing can be forcibly peeled. There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there. In effect, the entire Earth is a wadded tissue of vomited milk.15

How can we think and represent such a condition and how does it alter what we think of as (urban) design? I suggest that we turn to three related ideas to explore this: to Timothy Morton’s idea of the hyperobject, to the idea of urban metabolism and to the idea of propositional design.

‘Hyperobject’ is a term invented by Morton to designate entities of such spatial and temporal dimension that they defy traditional ontology and comprehension by traditional means. They are ‘nonlocal,’ a technical term in quantum theory to describe the entanglement of particles at some distance from one another. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.”16 Morton proposes that hyperobjects cofound the idea of the local, as they only exist as “knotty relationships” between gigantic and intimate scales.17 If cities are considered in this way, a blow is dealt to the idea that they, or anything else for that matter, can be considered discrete spatio-temporal objects; instead they are objects massively distributed in space and time with blurred boundaries at scales considerably larger than we used to think. So, for instance, when I turn on a light switch in London, I might tap into the fossilized remains of plants and animals sedimented under the North Sea millions of year ago; the polystyrene cup I drink my morning coffee from is itself a by-product of liquefied dinosaur bones, otherwise known as oil, and will outlive me by 400 years in a distant landfill. Hyperobjects are time-space stretched to such a vast extent that they become almost impossible to hold in mind.18 We are only able to experience bits and pieces of them at any one time, as they phase in and out of our consciousness, at a scale 1 + n dimensions lower than their dimensionality. Hyperobjects are trans-dimensional objects that we can never know in total, but only register or plot as time and space ripple around their edges. We experience them as “little edd(ies) of metastability”19 or haecceities in the mesh of inter-objective spatial and temporal relations in which they embedded.

Particular cities provide knowledge and experience of the urban hyperobject that is otherwise withdrawn from us. They are enmeshed in its vast and long, past and future, history of interconnected, emergent relations. They are both cause and after-effect of these relations. Thought in this way, cities, buildings and infrastructure are opened up to investigation as what Keller Easterling calls “active form”20 – as records of past action and as arrangements that actively do things in the present and into the future. In Smudge Studio’s Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York21 for instance, the geological materials that make up New York’s iconic buildings or sites are identified, traced back to their origins and placed on a geological time scale.

Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York. Source: http://smudgestudio.org/smudge/GeoCity.html

Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York. Source: http://smudgestudio.org/smudge/GeoCity.html

This reveals the city as a “geological hot spot”22 rivaling major geological events. At the same time, the authors realize that the materials and forces they encounter are not inanimate things. They are lively actors, “making things happen in the city and catalyzing events by assembling with the world of humans.”23 Geologic time and human time converge. The city’s infrastructure serves as the equivalent of dinosaur footprints – it sets up a sensuous, inter-objective system that connects earth materials and geological time with the daily life of New Yorkers.

Geologic City Site 8. Source: http://smudgestudio.org/smudge/GeoCity.html

Geologic City Site 8. Source: http://smudgestudio.org/smudge/GeoCity.html

Architecture and urban design need to grasp that cities comprise and operationalize a multitude of distant but socially and ecologically enmeshed territories, processes, materials and timescales. This includes vast zones of food production, subterranean resource extraction sites, quarries, energy production and distribution networks, satellites, landfills, oceans, the logistical spaces of trade and circulation etc.

One way of thinking this is as a “multiplicity of metabolic cycles operating at a series of both spatial and temporal scales, from the building to the planetary, from the daily to the geologic.”24 The concept of urban metabolism becomes a way of weaving together the diverse locations, diverse actors (human and non-human) and diverse social and ecological processes generated by cities, plotting their flows and measuring their geographical imprint to enable design to intervene in them.

Design conceptualised in this way becomes a geographic or metabolic agent, unlocking geologic, thermodynamic or oceanographic imaginaries and their infrastructural potential. Designing infrastructure,” says Easterling, “is designing action.”25

The ecologies of cities flow across border-lines, continents and oceans in ways that confound discourses of territoriality, sovereignty and governance.26

It is impossible to look at the city as a kind of discrete entity any more given the way financial networks, ecological networks, or social networks work. These systems have much larger footprints that the actual physical or political boundaries of cities.27

Thinking (and visualising) the ways cities mobilise resources, alter weather patterns and serve as attractors of people and things makes it clear that they operate as interconnected entities in an all-encompassing, though discontinuous and uneven, urban system. Cities can no longer be thought of as fixed or static, but are complex, flowing, topological eco (-nomic and -logical) systems that ‘slice’ across geopolitical boundaries, invade bodies, disrupt weather and send real estate prices rocketing. The agents and practices that still define cities as entities (administration, city government, city planning etc.) rely on outside inputs, in the form of foreign investment, aid, multinational corporations, distant energy supplies, migrant labour and so on to sustain them. At the same time, the toxins or pollutants they release into the earth, atmosphere, rivers and oceans, disperse around the globe according to any number of planetary logics. Take, for instance, the Fukushima-Daichii nuclear power plant in Japan that began operation in 1971 and was damaged beyond repair by the 2011 tsunami. Its design, construction and operation mobilized an extensive international network of state and non-state actors – it was designed by American multi-national, General Electric, with reactors supplied by General Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi. Construction was by Japanese construction company, Kajima and it was run for 40 years by the Tokyo Electric Power Company.28 After the tsunami of 11 March 2011, air- and ocean-borne radionuclides released from its damaged reactors were shown in computer simulations (here) to have dispersed in vast sweeping circles eastwards across the Pacific till they breached the west coast of the USA and spread over the north American continent.29

Stills from CEREA's simulation of cesium - 137 dispersion from Fukushima Daiichi from March 11- April 6, 2011. Source: E. Ellsworth and J. Kruze eds. (2013). Making the Geologic Now, 242.

Stills from CEREA’s simulation of cesium – 137 dispersion from Fukushima Daiichi from March 11- April 6, 2011. Source: E. Ellsworth and J. Kruze eds. (2013). Making the Geologic Now, 242.

The world, as a bounded entity, all but disappeared.

Cities and their infrastructures today are elements of a porous, leaky hyperobject, being continually de- and re-territorialised by the polymorphous relations and networks that constitute it. Design can no longer afford to ignore this. This requires firstly, a new global sensibility. By this I do not mean ramping design up to a global scale, as in the ‘City of 7 Billion’ project, which remains committed to a modernist design paradigm. It claims that with enough data and computing power, it will “give agency to the architect to confront the global crisis of urban growth,”30  in my view a somewhat futile technocratic exercise that cannot but fail to direct the complexity of the global urban hyperobject. No, by global sensibility, I mean the awareness that what we do at a local level is impacted by and impacts on other entities at multiple scales in complex ways. Design is always local, but embedded in relational networks that span the globe and beyond and extend backwards and forwards in time. These networks are incredibly diffuse, while being particularly local. I am arguing for design as a contextual, situated practice that takes into account its consequences at multiple scales and temporalities, many of which can be tracked and imaginatively engaged.

Lawrence Carlos, Institute of Environmental Ornithology, Poole Harbour. DS18_2013.

Lawrence Carlos, Institute of Environmental Ornithology, Poole Harbour. DS18_2013.

The second thing the urban hyperobject requires of design is an ecological awareness that extinguishes the very idea that we exist in an environment.

Ecological awareness is a detailed and increasing sense, in science and outside of it, of the innumerable interrelationships among life forms and between life and non-life … [This] ends the idea that we are living in an environment. … What it means is that the more we know about the interconnections, the more it becomes impossible to posit some entity existing beyond or behind the interrelated beings. When we look for the environment, what we find are discrete life forms, non-life and their relationships. But no matter how hard we look, we won’t find a container in which they all fit; in particular we won’t find an umbrella that unifies them, such as the world, environment, ecosystem or even, astonishingly, earth.31

Lawrence Carlos, map of the changing migration patterns of ospreys using micro sensors and satellite tracking by the RSPB. DS18_2013.

Lawrence Carlos, map of the changing migration patterns of ospreys using micro sensors and satellite tracking by the RSPB. DS18_2013.

All there is an open ended, rhyzomatic mesh of interrelating, co-existing, entities, a complex system of dynamic exchanges and distributed agencies. Deleuze and Guattari describe it thus:

Here there are no longer any forms or development of forms; nor are there subjects or the formation of subjects. There is no structure, any more than there is genesis. There are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed elements, or at least between elements that are relatively unformed, molecules, and particles of all kinds. There are only haecceities, affects, subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages. Nothing develops, but things arrive late or early, and form this or that assemblage depending on their compositions of speed. Nothing subjectifies, but haecceities form according to compositions of nonsubjectified powers or affects. We call this plane, which knows only longitudes and latitudes, speeds and haecceities, the plane of consistency or composition (as opposed to the plan(e) of organization or development). It is necessarily a plane of immanence and univocality.32

Andy Baker Falkner, visualisation of polluted air particles. DS14_2014.

Andy Baker Falkner, visualisation of polluted air particles. DS14_2014.

This opens up a very different problematic for design than the modernist one, where design was a conceptually driven operation a designer performed on some externality – a problem, an environment, a site etc. If there are no externalities outside of entities and their interrelationships, this means that design is no longer sovereign, but embedded within complex, relational systems; it interacts reflexively with and from inside these dynamic systems. This means admitting the agency of things as diverse as data, computational software, non-designers, earth materials, energy fields, politics etc. into design and re-conceptualising it as a complex, emergent system itself. Latour would call this, I think, a propositional approach to design. “Propositions,” a term he borrows from Alfred North Whitehead, “are not positions, things, substances or essences … but occasions given to different entities to enter into contact.”33 Propositions are associations of entities that, through contact over the course of an event, perform in certain ways, their definitions are modified and their attributes and competencies in relation to one another are played out. This seems to me to be a working definition for design at the time of hyperobjects, opening the door for all sort of entities, “strange strangers,”34 scales and times to enter the arena of design and for design itself to be reformulated.

References and Endnotes:

  1. Gauteng Growth and Development Agency. (2011). The Gauteng Spatial Development Framework.
  2. Shane, G. (2006). “The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism.” The Landscape Urbanism Reader, C. Waldheim (ed.), 55-67. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  3. Price, C. (1982). Three Eggs Diagram. Centre Canadien d`Architecture, Montreal.
  4. Frampton, A., Solomon, J. D. and Wong, C. (2012). Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook. ORO Editions.
  5. Ibid., 6.
  6. Ibid., 100.
  7. Elden, S. (2013). “Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power.” Political Geography. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2012.12.009
  8. Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, 27. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  9. Brenner, N. and Schmidt, C. (2012). “Planetary Urbanization.” Urban Constellations, M. Gandy (ed.), 10-13. London: UCL Urban Theory Lab.
  10. Bridge, G, (2009). “The Hole World. Scales and Spaces of Extraction.” New Geographies 02: 43-49.
  11. Ibanez, D. and Katsikis, N. (eds.). (2014). Grounding Metabolism, 3. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  12. Hsiang, J. and Mendis, B. (2013). “The City of 7 Billion: An Index.” New Constellations New Ecologies. Proceedings of the 101st ACSA Conference, 21-24 March, San Francisco, 596-606. http://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/AIA/aa21f56a-baa6-4d44-a308-a08ffbc272db/UploadedImages/ACSA.AM.101.81.pdf
  13. Badger, E. (2013). “What if the Entire World Lived in 1 City.” CityLab, 07 March http://www.citylab.com/design/2013/03/what-if-entire-world-lived-1-city/4897/
  14. The SOHO solar observation satellite for instance orbits the earth at the Langrain L1 point about 1,5 million kms from the earth at a stable point where the earth’s and the sun’s gravity balance (http://www.thenakedscientists.com).
  15. Morton, ibid., 31.
  16. Ibid., 45.
  17. Ibid., 47.
  18. Ibid., 58.
  19. Ibid., 85.
  20. Easterling, K. (2011). “The Action is the Form.” Sentient City. M. Shepard (ed.), 154-158. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
  21. Smudge Studio. (2011). Geologic City: A Field guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York. http://smudgestudio.org/smudge/GeoCity.html
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibanez, and Katsikis, Ibid., 06.
  25. Easterling, Ibid., 155.
  26. Kuehls, T. (1996). Beyond Sovereign Territory: The Space of Ecopolitics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
  27. Badger, ibid.
  28. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster
  29. CEREA. (last updated 9 Jan 2014). “Atmospheric dispersion of radionuclides from the Fukkushima-Daichii nuclear power plant.” http://cerea.enpc.fr/en/fukushima.html
  30. Badger, ibid.
  31. Morton, ibid., 129.
  32. Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2003). A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. B. Massumi, 266. London: Continuum.
  33. Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, 141. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
  34. Morton, ibid, 130.

 

 

 

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