“There are repeatable formulas that make up many spaces in the world,” said architect and writer Keller Easterling at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, showing images of nameless, identical cul-de-sac suburbs, residential towers, and shipping yards. “These forms are telling an elaborate story, but really the same one, whether they are in Milwaukee or Mongolia. The story is cities are mobile, monetized technology. Their economic and technical logic is coming into view.” In a mind-expanding talk, Easterling outlined her perception of this strange new phenomenon: the city as a place-less product, resulting from a kind of “spatial software.”
These odd yet common places — replicated, cookie-cutter communities and special economic zones (SEZs) — are all over the world. They often feature the “drumbeat of generic skyscrapers.” Their new order is written in an “architectural matrix space that is outside and additional to the state. It’s an infrastructural space that has another kind of power. It’s like there is an operating system shaping the space. It’s an updating platform unfolding in real time.” Easterling said this software makes “some spaces possible and others impossible. There are active forms, protocols, routines it manifests.”
This operating system has been created by developed economies, the World Bank, “quality assurance specialists,” and “28-year old McKinsey consultants.” For them, “space is just a byproduct.” This bad software results in some inhuman places. But Easterling wonders if designers can’t somehow hack this system, “shifting how we make places.”
The dominant spatial software for creating these global no-wheres is the 3-D tour, the interactive fly-through that stuns viewers into submission. The fly-throughs result in interchangeable special economic zones (SEZs), “perfect islands of corporate control.” Every city now wants an SEZ because “they are a clean-slate entry into a foreign country. Everyone one wants one because they are the nexus of global technology.” This program has swallowed real city-building whole. In fact, Easterling said SEZs aren’t real cities at all. “Dubai is called a city, but it’s really just a collection of zones. It’s a city in a box based on Paris, New York City, or Venice.” The reality is the places programmed by these software are “relatively dumb enclaves, not optimal. The software is kind of like MS-DOS.”
She added that Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is “the capital as a zone.” Astana is a sign that what is popular in one zone soon spreads through all of them. She made fun of “colored lights and fountains,” which have become contagious. “There are also fantasy resorts, palaces, and golf courses.” These places sell an image of “openness and relaxation,” but really “their closed circumstances have a special stupidity.”
Heading back to Easterling’s original question: can we hack this thing? She said mass-produced suburbs are hard to beat. “We can’t just create one home to fight this. We need a multiplier, a contagion.” Basically, there may be better, more human, more custom-designed software out there to use. Easterling pointed to Savannah, Georgia, with its “simple spatial software, a set of instructions for relationships as wards grew.” Learn more about the city’s network of squares.
“The SEZ is a contagious platform. We have to embed something in to this as a carrier. The zone has ambitions to become a city. Perhaps it contains its own antidote.” She showed images of how she would interfere with the protocols, “exchanging, absorbing, reusing, replacing, recasting, and subtracting.”