The image that comes to mind is a banquet, a long table piled high with food, at which the guests are equipped only with toothpicks. That’s how it feels lately to read about the ongoing megamerger between urban theory and big data. Dramatic changes are happening all around us: the barriers between the tech industry and government bureaucracies, between the world of networked electronics and of brick and mortar, are crumbling. But for all the hype, there are few writers who have managed to tell more than a fraction of the story. At least, that was my conclusion after reading Nicholas de Monchaux’s Local Code: 3,659 Proposals about Data, Design & The Nature of Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), a collection of dense essays and data-driven urban concepts, and Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York (Melville House, 2016), a slender volume that decodes the infrastructure of the city’s information networks.
I don’t mean to accuse de Monchaux of being a toothpick wielder. An associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, he’s the author of a previous book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press, 2011), which treats the title object as a cultural mille-feuille. In Local Code, de Monchaux sets out to “address the question of how information, cities, and resilience can be considered together.” It’s an immense topic, but this is a relatively modest book, one that attacks its subject matter obliquely, selectively, and idiosyncratically. In particular, de Monchaux is entranced by the power of geographic information system (GIS) mapping to identify unclaimed and underutilized urban places. He sees a city’s leftovers as crucial ingredients in creating resilience.
The 3,659 proposals of the title, distributed at intervals throughout the book, mostly take the form of tiny GIS maps of these urban fragments, little geotechnical canapés. In San Francisco, for instance, he’s located 1,500 “unaccepted streets,” stretches of pavement or dirt that have been designated as rights-of-way but are not maintained by the city. He doesn’t exactly propose a use for each one, but suggests that, outfitted with bioswales, permeable pavers, and gardens, they could economically solve the city’s stormwater management problems. He implies a similar approach for making New York City’s vacant lots into a “network of physical resilience.” Los Angeles, no surprise, has myriad disused sites underneath billboards that could be parklets. And the 212 square miles of the Venice Lagoon, intriguingly, contain more than 60 out-islands, some abandoned and many less than half an acre in size, that de Monchaux proposes as the sites of “cultural and ecological catalysts.” The idea, apparently, is that this land would allow for more contemporary developments than can be built in the city’s historic core.
De Monchaux’s proposals are tantalizing—I love the idea of harnessing urban leftovers for the greater good—but also frustratingly vague. Each city’s proposal gets a page or two of description followed by many pages of data graphics (designed by Catalogtree) that say more about computer mapping as an aesthetic than they do about cities. They leave me desperate to know more about how these leftovers might become, as the book jacket copy puts it, “a social and ecological resource.”
A Digital History Lesson
Local Code also contains three substantial, satisfying, and wonderfully loopy essays that illuminate the prehistory of digital mapping by probing the lives of historical figures: the architect-turned-artist Gordon Matta-Clark, the mother-of-all-urbanists Jane Jacobs, and the lesser-known Howard T. Fisher, an architect who developed an early marriage of computer mapping and data collection called SYMAP. De Monchaux’s essays are as rich as his proposals are thin. They trace obscure pathways through the lives of these figures and lead, slowly and indirectly, to the point where each subject’s work dovetails with digital mapping or computerized quantification of urban conditions.
The essay on Matta-Clark, “Fake Estates and Reality Properties,” is alone worth the price of admission. The artist purchased 15 oddly shaped, unbuildable slivers of land in New York City real estate auctions, but before his plans for the parcels became clear, he died, in 1978, at the age of 35. In the early 1990s, the paperwork for the transactions were rediscovered, and it has since been exhibited widely, regarded as an important work of conceptual art. It’s a “speculation on real estate, property, ownership, and territory,” writes de Monchaux, whose land use proposals were clearly inspired by Matta-Clark’s project.
De Monchaux traces the artist’s career, highlighting his most famous works, derelict buildings cut up in ways that transformed them into sculpture, or houses sawn in two, like Splitting (1974), a two-story structure in Englewood, N.J., that is sliced down the middle with the front and back halves canting outward in opposite directions. Then Matta-Clark began to realize that there might be another way to accomplish his “interventions.” In 1976, he wrote a letter to Bill Mitchell, who was then teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Mitchell later became the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.) Matta-Clark explained his work, and said he wanted to “catalog a set of more idealized spacial [sic] variation by using computer graphic techniques.” He also attempted to get access to computer systems developed for the military at MIT. The implication is that the artist had, by the time he died, begun to understand the power that computer simulations might have in manipulating structure—or, at least, depictions of structure—more than a decade before the architectural profession embraced the same idea.
De Monchaux’s Jane Jacobs essay, “Life Attracts Life,” tells fascinating stories about her education at the nontraditional Columbia University School of General Studies and her early trips to East Harlem to watch as tenement blocks gave way to housing projects. Eventually he alights on the intersection between the final chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “The Kind of Problem a City Is,” and the work of a scientist named Warren Weaver. Weaver helped develop a robotic system that was very effective in shooting down Germany’s unmanned V-1 rockets in World War II, and he inspired Jacobs to view cities as examples of “organized complexity.” De Monchaux concludes that a city (like the human brain) is too complex to interpret using any single model.
In his third essay, “The Map and the Territory,” de Monchaux introduces us to the first punch card reader, an electro mechanical gizmo called the Hollerith Census Tabulator. The earliest product made by the company that eventually became IBM, it was invented to do the counting for the 1890 U.S. Census. De Monchaux’s take on the invention of data mapping reads like a prehistory of the 21st century—as does most of Local Code, for that matter.
If I were de Monchaux’s editor, however, I would have urged him to consolidate his four urban proposals for L.A., New York, San Francisco, and Venice into an essay and to write about them at greater length, to envision the future with the same fluidity and inventiveness with which he investigates the past. (I might also have kept an eye out for factual errors. Jane Jacobs, for instance, was not born in “Scranton, New Jersey,” and Fortune magazine was never in the “Hearst stable.”)
The Ruskin of Today’s Infrastructure
While Local Code is heady and abstract, Networks of New York, by contrast, is grounded and beautifully concrete. It’s billed as a “Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure,” and that’s precisely what it is. Burrington, a writer, artist, and gifted observer, is the John Ruskin of 21st-century infrastructure. She studies the places where the internet manifests itself on the streets of New York, draws what she sees, and teaches us to see, too. An “f/o” painted on the asphalt, for instance, indicates underground fiber-optic cable. Each company that provides internet service in the city, meanwhile, has its own distinctive manhole cover. She describes and explains traffic signal controller boxes, the mobile license plate readers you sometimes see mounted on the trunk of police cars, and rooftop cell tower farms.
My favorite section of the book contains illustrations of five carrier hotels and data centers, the actual buildings in lower Manhattan that house the vast arrays of switching equipment necessary for the functioning of the internet. These facilities include a 1932 Art Deco building on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca that was built as an AT&T office, as well as the universally loathed and windowless Verizon tower on Pearl Street, which has been billed as “the world’s tallest data center.”
What I loved about reading the two books back to back is that they are telling two different chapters of the same story. The wispy traces of the digital city that de Monchaux discerns from our past come of age and manifest themselves as the mundane objects that Burrington compels us to notice and understand. For all the succulent tidbits they offer up, neither book serves up the full banquet, however: a complete picture of how innovation is driving change in our cities and vice versa, and what our world is about to become