|Urban design project, Jerusalem City Centre, 1981|
Of Cities and Cyberspace...
Some of you spend a lot of time on the Web. Your friends and families might call this "obsession" - others might call it a way of life.
One of our preoccupations at Magelis is the form that Cyberspace should take, for if the Web is the manifestation of the global village, it should be designed heedfully.
So here's our Cybourgia Manifest, the Magelis approach to making the Web fit for human habitation.
The aim of this document is to explore the notions of what urban design might correspond to in cyberspace. This has to be done before some Web Master with Darth Vadorian ambitions imposes his sinister cyberversion of some grey and restrictive town code!
Let's start with an anecdote...
Many were the architectural students at the end of the seventies who were inspired by a quotation attributed to the architect Leo Krier, concerning the difference - or, more accurately, the resemblance - between a town and a building. At this time, this quotation was used to conjure a spell against the ravages of contemporary housing policy, which recommended that thousands of people should be cooped up in entire quarters of densely populated high-rise apartment blocks. The quotation went more or less as follows : "In a town, the squares and the streets are like the rooms and corridors of a house". Part of an attempt to humanise the town, so badly treated by the so-called modern style...
It was only afterwards that the inherent conflict contained by this statement became apparent. On the inside, we have the rooms and the corridors of the house (or apartment). On the outside, the corridors and the rooms of the town. And between the two, a single facade. And the architect of the building and the urban designer of the town engaged in a ceaseless quarrel in order to appropriate it for himself - in fact, who does the facade belong to, the building or the town? The architect claims that the facade is the essential expression of the internal functionings of his work. And what about the urban designer? He claims that this one and same facade has a greater role of communal expression, it must be designed to guarantee the unique communal experience that is the town.
And who won? The architect, of course, since most so-called urban designers are in reality architects, who, conditioned by their training, consider the town an ill-begotten constraint that their architectural work has no choice but to take into account.
BUT WHO IS RIGHT? The urban designer, of couse, for inside the appartment, the exterior form taken by the facade is only of limited significance to its inhabitants, while everyone inhabits the same urban space, a place where the facades of the buildings have an essentiel role in giving the town its intrinsic form.
And what does all this have to do with cyberspace?
Symbolising the barrier between the building and the town containing it, is the thickness of the wall that separates them. On the inside the individual, the private realm... on the outside, the community, the public domain. One can say the same thing about internet. On the inside, the user with his personal computer, on the other side, cyberspace. Except that the door of this electronic house can open upon a place ten thousand miles away! And that can be transmuted into some far-flung elsewhere with the click of a mouse!
Can one say that any resemblance between cyberspace and real or existing places is purely coincidental?...
Let's take a real town, with its centre and its outlying quarters, its monuments and its institutions. The European town was built up upon an incessant struggle between the church, the town hall, and the market square. In the face of this organic complexity, cyberspace appears, in its actual primitive state, much more primary : there are lots of users coming from everywhere and lots of data servers, scattered all over the place. A state of endemic, global diaspora. If one wanted to be nasty, one would compare this vision of cyberspace to an American-style suburb, blanketing the whole world, amorphous, and having at its heart nothing more exciting than the local shopping mall.
Yet on the contrary, cyberspace is the first veritable manifestation of the concept of global village. It is worldwide and cosmopolitain, and our neighbours from the antipodes live just next door! And despite its formlessness, visiting cyberspace impregnates you with a sense of place. And it's getting bigger. And becoming more specialised, more sophisticated, like a real city...
Here is a subject for discussion:... a while ago Canal+, a French television station, and Cryo, a software developer, demonstrated a project for a web-site for avatar-type virtual encounters. The urbanistic inspiration for this site was a conception of Paris pretty similar to what is being constructed there at the present time. In this vision of the city one could clearly identify the principles of the APUR (l'Atelier Parisien d'Urbanisme, the Parisian City Planning Studio, an official organ of the city, that is to say, very politically correct) as well as the architectural style used by local real estate developers. All this was dosed with a touch of arcadian fantasy.
So, let's compare the towns that we have been living in over the past few thousand years and this new frontier crouched just beyond our modems. Let's see if the experience of the former might apply to the latter, or if the latter may permit itself not to give a damn for the parenthood of the former.
Now for some thoughts (in no paricular order) on the nature of it all :
Cyberspace is not as stringently governed by the laws of physics that impose themselves upon the real world... the force of gravity is optional, the notion of place is a discontinuum in terms of space-time, one can be present someplace without being there and be elsewhere at the same time... The power of immateriality conferred by the computer opens the way to the accomplishment of a whole range of dreams and aspirations so many thousands of years old, things that in our world are impossible, or absurd, or lodged within the sphere of utter fantasy...
Let's take as an example the earth's field of gravity. What bears heavy consequences here is of no matter at all over there. One can keep one's feet on the ground in a virtual place, as one would in a real one, but just imagine two cyberlovers so transported with delight that they lift off to make aerial pirouettes around the Eiffel Tower! The only actual and relative constraint to making such a fantasy come true is that of limited bandwidth, and we can count on good old know-how and entrepreneurship to take care of that.
In a slightly more profound register, one must account for another difference between Realspace and Cyberspace, and that is the relative level of reality of the two. If we are really really here (despite declarations to the contrary by certain sects!), we are nonetheless more than virtually present there, in one or other virtual world! Our perception, our psychological being, really take the voyage there. The proof ? The money that we spend there is debited from our flesh and blood bank accounts at this end.
There is something totally subversive in this irreality experienced as real. We await with impatience the objections that good old traditionalist (or reactionary) citizens will invent to demonstrate how pernicious this all is - what will be the light-sensible epilepsy of cyberspace? On the other hand, our political brethren have seldom really objected (to the point of legislation) to something that keep the people docilely at home in front of a screen. One can guess that things will change when the web becomes a veritable vehicule for counter movements, touching a vaster population than the Mexican Zapatists, for example.
Still, there is a limit to virtuality's reality. We do not inhabit Cyberspace in the same manner. Here we endure, there we sojourn. And it is not as sweet and innocent as we'd have it be... in the Cybercafés, we eat and drink on this side of the screen, paying attention, of course, not to fill the keyboard with crumbs. And an untimely "gameover" in some parallel universe peopled with ghastly androids compares in no way to our ultimate, terminal voyage to the cemetery.
Thus the fatality of our existence does not find its echo there, the leitmotif of cyberspace does not appear, on the contrary, to be entirely devoid of a discrete frivolity... and that's probably why we like it so much.
Finally, if we must compare between the essential nature of urban space and that of cyberspace, one must conclude that cyberspace is entirely fabricated from metaphors. It is a wholly cerebral construct. The state of cyberspace manifests itself via a formal code of representation in its purest and most absolute sense. The conceptual choice of one or other metaphor may be a deliberate act or fortuitous, depending on the intellectual capacity of the designer making those choices.
The city, on the other hand, can only in agony transcend its brick and its stone, the asphalt of its roadways. We have just seen, there is no possible comparison between the suffering over here and that over there : here we can perish of hunger, of cold, a violent end, dramatic consequences denied the most spectacular of "system errors"! The level of implication shared by both spaces is that of personal fulfilment, that of emotional relationships...
Now it is of the greatest importance to note that the veritable city carries its own charge of metaphor. Metaphor is present at every level of urban expression, whether it is to symbolise a social or cultural context, to signify the functioning of a place, or more profoundly, to represent the progression of the human condition. But these formal codes of representation always remain subject to the fundamental physical constraints that underlie real reality.
Thus, ultimately, the concepts invented to represent cyberspace find their place within the long line of human creative thought, and they correspond to the next step of our exploration of our deepest nature through the places that we appropriate as our own...
Any discussion on architecture or urban design will lead us, sooner or later, to questions of style and composition. Between Classicists, Modernists, Neoclassicists, different shades of Postmodernists, debate has always been as lively as antagonism and intolerance have been rife! So, what style is appropriate for the Cybercity?
By its very nature, its scientific and technological origins, the ways invented to signify cyberspace have been inspired by the techniques popularised in science-fiction novels, such as teleportation and parallel universes. One can wonder if any science-fiction author genuinely dared believe that these things might really exist oneday... even as a virtual construct! It is thus predictable, when it comes to style, that the desires and models for cyberspace be inspired by the realm of fantasy high-tech, a style which predominates in video games. One can readily imagine the type of place where Sonic the hedgehog would feel at home - but where grandma might feel a bit out of place.
There have been, on the contrary, investigations made in the direction of more familiar reférences... As an example, the defunct "eWorld" of Apple Computer with its "American small-town" interface - a watered-down pastiche where one must click on the post-office, the drugstore, or the bank. In the same way, the cyberParis relooked by Cryo, in its spaces and architecture, evoke certain recent residential quarters of Paris (like the Quartier des Halles), themselves a watered-down pastiche of historical parts of the city.
What other references might inspire the Cybercity?
The initial architectural project intended for the hole of Les Halles, by Ricardo Bofill (much more intriguing, baroque and really troglodyte, compared to what has finally been built there)?
"Sun City", the fantastically fanciful hotel complex in the Kalahari Desert (which in its exuberance - not to mention decadence - leaves Las Vegas gaping!), built by the South African magnate Sol Kerstner?
"Biosphere 2" in the desert of the American Far West, a high-tech decor for scientific hanky-panky?
In fact, anything can be invented! The designers of cyberspaces dispose of the vastest liberty imaginable. They are limited only by the breadth of expression of computer language and the depth of their own talent. Why on earth make any reference to existing places when one disposes of a stage so chaste, so pregnant with possibilities, bounded only by the imagination of its director?
Thus one might declare that cyberspace owes nothing to the city, that one should start by making "tabula rasa" (note in passing that "tabula rasa" is something that architects are fond of reverting to!), and so instead of copying the towns that we know, we should profit from the occasion and elaborate new forms of habitation for a new space form and a fundamentally different social organisation.
Or, on the contrary, the arguments developed here having demonstrated the pertinence of the common heritage of the traditional city and cyberspace, let's not let ourselves die stupid! In our research for the urbane essence of cyberspace, its phenomorphology, let's use the knowledge offered by ten thousand years of urban conceptualisation to help us find the most ideal way to populate cyberspace...
So, what analysis can one make of the phenomorphology of cyberspace, so as to be able to design the Ideal CyberCity (which is, after all, the favourite exercise of urban designers)?
Analysis is necessary, since without it the result risks being nonsensical : beyond such trivial constraints such as bandwidth, etc., our ideal cybercity can be conceptualised absolutely any way one wishes. Each conceptual decision taken forecloses an infinity of other possibilities. Thus analysis counts, for it is the catalytic agent that drives conceptual creativity towards ideas that without it would remain forever undiscovered.
Concerning the city: from Paris to the antipodes, one finds every type of town imaginable. Between Paris, Peking, the suburbs of Los Angeles, an Africain village or an Eskimo encampment, one bears witness to the most unbelieveable variety. Yet, there is a primordial likeness between all thes places of human habitation, a cardinal unity, for people everywhere encounter the same needs, are privy to the same desires, have the same body and soul...
Thus we speak of an urban archetype, that which is fundamentally alike, transcending the social and cultural differences between societies. A town will always have its private and communal places, its rooms and its squares. Remove all that is specific, particular, or eccentric from each and every town and this profound similitude will reveal itself.
And cyberspace, which does not have the same strait-jacket of constraints as the town? Is there an archetype behind the screens, the modems, the inforoutes... here the physical part, which one might logically assume to be the most restricting, is paradoxically the least present, and almost totally insignificant when it comes to the veritable nature of cyberspace.
Finding the underlying archetype implies its definition according to a single essential scheme, that can be reduced no further. A priori, cyberspace, with its infinite variety and its amorphous spatiality, its apparent anarchy and its disdain for law and order, escapes such classifications... Nonetheless, as the fruit of scientific ingeniousness and the most precise technologies, cyberspace, as we have just seen, is built upon a physical structure - always hidden - that is fundamentally archetyped. We have at the tip of our fingers networks and a flux of data so resemblant - standardised to such a point - that one can go around the world without even noticing that one has switched continents or time zones! More, all this is as invisible (and not even laid claim to, it being so "natural"!) as the infrastructure of a city, its water piping, electrical cabling, its sewers...
Lets climb up and take a look at the superstructure... here one can identify a whole series of conventions, that even in their primitive present state signify the constitution of an archetyped structure. The interface invented by the Xerox researchers at Palo Alto forms a model that for the moment has been almost universally adopted. Take note, in cyberspace, of the premonitory signs of a nascent urbanity. Thus the homepages of the World Wide Web. And netiquette, which institutes good neighbourly relations.
Let's take a more detailed look at one of the typological elements that compose the virtual world : buttons. Clicking on a button is the equivalent of turning a handle, opening the door, going through the opening to enter into cities absolutely unknown of until this moment. Why this fashion, in so many interfaces, to give them the appearance of marble, of chrome, or of leather, as would do some parvenu interior decorator sprucing up a hairdresser's? Have we already forgotten what a button might signify? Imagine that one might reveal knowledge by disclothing the ignorance that drapes it!
Let us not abandon the mastery of cyberspace to uncultivated technicians who hasten to blindly"find solutions for projects", profaning in parody the meanings of things!
Finally, what about the pertinence of infusing cyberspace with a notion such as a sense of (urban) place?
Ever since the first glimmers of human spirit, man has always wanted to structure the places of his existence in his own image, to project towards the outside, through his own representation, the enclosure of his cranial abode. In this way we domesticated caverns, edifying our deepest aspirations on their walls... If today cyberspace proposes us to explore places as yet unknown - perhaps the greatest revolution concerning inhabited space since the invention of the town - this will occur according to the same eternal rules of human nature.
The act of creation, from before antiquity and on all continents, has always taken place according to a series of immutable principles, that have persisted through successive epochs and transcended all revolutions of style. This is notably true concerning architecture and urban design, and these principles are so profoundly anchored within ourselves that they could be reproclaimed in modern times as if they were a modern and innovative discovery.
In the need to organise space, there has always existed the exigence to respect the commodity of use and the economy of means, but also the ideal of aesthetic beauty, for artistic creation, though devoid of utilitarian utility, consecrates the work within the territory of the spirit.
These same impulsions will be necessary to allow cyberspace its rightful claim to immortality.
So, down to work!