“Invisible City” by Kazys Varnelis is the 6th Chapter of The Infrastructural City. The essay dives right in, setting up archetypes of the city, dissecting them, and then using them to explain why the networks of cities are what is really important now:
The visible is no longer a prime determinant of the urban. Instead, our networked society is increasingly dominated by what Lewis Mumford called the “invisible city,” the unseen world of cables, wires, connections, codes, agreements, and capital. Today more than ever, the role of this invisible city in determining the structure of urban areas is vast. Visible form is merely an irruption of other forces, a graphic user interface for a more powerful command line below.
Holy Jesus! There are so many ecological and technological metaphors in there, and they begin to be stretched so thin, that it is essential to really examine what he’s talking about. In her essay “Shifting Sites“, Kristina Hill talks specifically about the development and adoption of ecological metaphors and the way this process affects our conceptions of sites. Towards the end of the essay she states that her intent is to “try and hold a window open between new and old theories of ecology, encouraging [sic] critical reflection on the theories themselves and the interplay of the metaphors used to conceive them.”
For the window into the old, Varnelis examines the Bonaventure Hotel through Frederic Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” in which the Bonaventure is portrayed an autonomous organism connected to “networks of multinational capital through ramps to neighboring skyscrapers and via adjacent boulevards and freeways.” Varnelis then goes quickly to examine the Disney Concert Hall of Frank Gehry, about which he states “the structure’s unprecedented formal gestures embody the placeless, hyperkinetic flows of late capital affirming that the joyous equation of culture, high technology, and capital produces an irresistible destination point.” Wow! Not at all sure what that means, and it’s a very one-sided reading of that building, but it is said with such zeal!
With this history of Los-Angeles-as-seen-through-a-single-building, Varnelis contradicts his earlier claim that today the invisible city is more important than ever. It seems that it was the absolute essence of these earlier buildings as well. In fact, one could argue that the invisible city has always been absolutely essential to urbanism- flows of people and goods, materials and energy, disease vectors, money, ideas, and language. So Varnelis is specifically talking about information technology- not the invisible city in general- and its newfound importance in the city. And here he has a point. Let’s look into that.
Information technology has been one of the great innovative cultural fields of the last 100 years. You could even argue that its impact is on the level of the widespread adoption of money itself. Because of this, the metaphors that are used to conceptualize this field tend to proliferate throughout society. Varnelis goes on to examine One Wilshire, a building in downtown Los Angeles whose formal architecture is utterly banal but that acts as the most important node in the entire telecommunications network between the western world and Asia. The piece ends with a statement and an exhortation:
What was allegorical at the Bonaventure has become real at One Wilshire… The real operating system, not the graphic user interface are our concern. Only by engaging the code below can we remain relevant to future cities.
What is not clear is why the real operating system is now our concern whereas before it wasn’t. I am left to assume that it is because information technology is somehow different than the myriad other network innovations that have shaped the built environment and influenced the cultures within which it operates. This includes ancient things like money, irrigation, pollution and nation states and modern things like plumbing, automobile highways, and multi-national corporations. Why, exactly, is information technology giving us a stronger imperative than these? I have no idea.
I would agree however that those responsible for designing and building the “graphic interface” or “ossifications” (or whichever other metaphor you’re interested) in should engage the dynamics or “code” that helps to bring them about. But there is something sinister about this essay- it denies some very fundamental human condition with its focus on networks and systems theory and invisible flows and its adamant statements that the material world no longer matters. And that is the human condition of embodiment. Kristina’s essay is again illuminating here:
Metaphors do not exist in a vacuum, of course, but in the richly physical world of embodied experience. Research on human languages, and on cognition, has shown that lived experience affects the fundamental categories people use to describe the world.
and a few sentences later
As ecology enters an era in which the “system” metaphor seems to have won the competition, I argue that the origin of this theoretical debate lies in the human experience of embodiment…
Over on F.A.D, an interesting post called “Embodied Urbanism” popped up in recent months, examining this idea and the implications of the embodied experience on the design of public spaces. While this explicit term is new, it is has roots in earlier inquiry into the phenomenology and materiality of space and experience. The precepts of Embodied Urbanism are always combined with the invisible forces of sites in the significant spaces and experiences in our lives. This is an area that deserves more examination as we rush headlong into re-conceptualizing wi-fi networks and redefining our work to resemble that of The Architect in the Matrix.
As the new metaphors take precedence (and for good reason) we must work to “hold a window open”, for this will provide for the most fertile discussion and enable thoughtful intervention in the environment. Ultimately, “The Invisible City” offers some buildings as caricatures of urbanism and makes some rather rote statements; nothing that is challenging if one has understood much of the ecological, technological, or systems theory work of the last three decades. Moreover, we would argue that instead of discussing the complex phenomenon of urbanism with its chaotic and interrelated mix of invisible forces and embodied experience, Varnelis is merely talking about power. If as a designer you are interested in power, then perhaps it is best to plug directly into the “real operating system”. However, if you are interested in urbanism, it would be best to not forget our historic role as the “generalist craftsman“, the designers of space, while we work to engage with the invisible city.