Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thoughts, critique and references by Kent Barshov

Kent Barshov, an American born physician practicing medicine in Israel bought my eBook The Metropolis Organism and wrote the following thoughtful and thorough response:

Frank, greetings

I eagerly and quickly read through your enhanced e-book on the metropolis organism shortly after it arrived in my in-box.  That was almost a month ago, and since then I've flown to American and back (from my home in Israel) and so I had opportunity once again to look at various cities and cityscapes from the air.

My printer at home doesn't function the best, so it's hard for me to print out a hard copy of your book. Normally in responding to your ideas, I would have underlined things here and there in order to respond point by point. Since I haven't done that, I'm responding with a few notes I jotted down as I was reading your book.

I am a physician and so have had training in biology both as an undergraduate and during medical school (where biology morphs into being looked at as physiology, pathology, etc.).

I loved your gallery of photographs of different cities around the world, and your illustrations and short videos as a whole throughout your work. I, like you, just enjoy looking at such things.

I loved your metaphor of looking at cities as a species of an organism. For me that concept as a metaphor is almost self-evident. For example, journal advertisements in the medical profession, to sell a drug or a new procedure, are often based on how a cell or human body is like a city--- so that idea is rather common, if underutilized.

Also historically there's the idea of how a human body is a microcosm of the greater universe or macrocosm. To my knowledge this metaphor was at it peak during the early days of the scientific revolution in the 1600s. So I see that your city as organism is conceptually close to the historic microcosm-macrocosm idea.

I typed in "body as a city" in Google images and this is one of the things I found. It's not exactly an illustration from a medical advertisement, but it gets the idea across. The image shows how a monitoring system is like the human circulation.

On my gut level I don't literally accept that cities are an organism, but I recognize the power and beauty of the metaphor.  But I realize there are some scientists who are conceptually close to what you're driving at.  For example, there is the idea fostered by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson that an ant colony simply serves to foster its gene pool and the whole colony itself could be looked at as being a single super-organism.  Then there's the idea of the Gaia hypothesis that the whole earth is a single organism.

Also the mathematical concept of fractals as applied to biological phenomena gives beautiful insights into how self-similar structures appear from microscopic to macroscopic levels.  The veins in a leaf are replicated in the tributaries of a river, etc.

Would you apply your same logic to looking at a termite mound or beehive as you do to cities?---- that termites or bees are not the creators of their collective homes?

Ultimately I don't believe in city-as-an-organism, microcosm-macrocosm, Gaia hypothesis or sociobiology. I see their power and beauty as metaphors, but at the end of the day I accept them only as metaphors.

I've studied Marshall McLuhan's thought about how communication-instruments are tools which shape the user, and about his concept of the whole world becoming a "global village."  For me, more than individual cities being separate organisms, I think we are moving into a stage that the whole planet will function like a single city, and thus I see that we're moving closer to the conceptual framework of the Gaia hypothesis--- which again for me functions as a metaphor rather than an external, objective reality.

Also a New Urbanist by the name Michael Arth has put out a documentary film about his urban rehabilitation of a neighborhood in a city in central Florida. Here is part of a review of the film on "Amazon" which combines some of Marshall McLuhan's thought and the transhumanistic ideas with which you end your book "Metropolis Organism."
Quotation from film review:

This finally leads into the subject that the "New Urban Cowboy" is the first in a trilogy of films under production by Arth. The second film is to be about the "Twelve Labors of Hercules" on how to approach some of the world's most pressing problems, and the third film is to be about the ultimate extension of what Arth labels as his own personal philosophy, which is "Secular Transhumanism"--- which is in part the using of technology to transcend current boundaries in human life. In this Arth was preceded by the 1960s media-analyst Marshall McLuhan who was quoted as saying that "the computer holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the 'logos' that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace." The rejoinder by McLuhan's interviewer was that "Isn't this projection of an electronically induced world-consciousness more mystical than technological?" To which McLuhan replied, "Yes--- as mystical as most advanced theories of modern nuclear physics. Mysticism is just tomorrow's science dreamed today."
As I mentioned in my initial previous email to you, I love cities and urban planning, and so I'm very glad to have obtained your enhanced e-book for a case beautifully presented.

You've probably come across the movie "Baraka" (from 1992) which is a "non-narrative" film. There are a few scenes of urban life which are looked at abstractly.These scenes in "Baraka" are to me are almost hypnotically beautiful. If you haven't seen the film, I think you would really enjoy seeing the urban scenes.

Also, there's a TV documentary series which is available to be seen for free on the internet. The TV series on "How Buildings Learn" was made by Steward Brand.  I think you would enjoy watching the series.  Stewart Brand's first claim to fame was putting out the "Whole Earth Catalogue" back in the early days of the ecology movement.

A statement you made on page 128 of your book is the closest area where I come into agreement with you. You wrote: "There is a force animating germination and growth of cities. It is the same unknown force that breathed life into the lifeless inorganic molecules swirling in the primordial sea four billion years ago. I have no idea what that force is, but I know it exists. I call that force the biological imperative."

I leave you with two extensive collections of information. The first is a write-up with links to watch the TV series by Stewart Brand, and the second is a write-up about transhumanism by Michael Arth.

I hope you enjoy this material.  Sincerely, Kent Bar-Shov

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built
By Stewart Brand

The following was written by Steward Brand:

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno. The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They're Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that's part of why I wrote the book. Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don't bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project. Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital--- shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That's why the sound is a little sketchy, but there's also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual. __________________________________________________________________

Part 1:  "Flow"

Part 2: "The Low Road"


Part 3: "Built for Change"  (Includes the line: "a building is not something you finish; a building is something you start." )

Part 4: "Unreal Estate"

Part 5: "The Romance of Maintenance"

Part 6: "Shearing Layers"

(Book Review)

How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. 1994. New York: Viking Penguin.

All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong. There's no escape from this grim syllogism, but it can be softened.

From these words, Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has crafted a book that calls forth memo-ries of several other writers (e.g., J. B. Jackson's Dis-covering the Vernacular Landscape and Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House), while still being an im-portant new addition to architectural theory. Writing in a hip, management-theory style filled with acronyms and alliteration, Brand banters his way into real insights about the nature of change in buildings that so often seem permanent.

Brand presents his basic argument in an early chapter, "Shearing Layers," which argues that any building is actually a hierarchy of pieces, each of which inherently changes at different rates. In his business-consulting manner, he calls these the "Six S's" (borrowed in part from British architect and historian F. Duffy's "Four S's" of capital investment in build-ings).

The Site is eternal; the Structure is good for 30 to 300 years ("but few buildings make it past 60, for other reasons"); the Skin now changes every 15 to 20 years due to both weathering and fashion; the Services (wiring, plumbing, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling) change every seven to 15 years, perhaps faster in more technological settings; Space Planning, the inte-rior partitioning and pedestrian flow, changes every two or three years in offices and lasts perhaps 30 years in the most stable homes; and the innermost layers of Stuff (furnishings) change continually.

Brand is still an ecologist at heart, and he draws on what is called an hierarchical concept of ecosystems to surmise that the slow-to-change elements of the build-ing drive the quick-to-change--the site is a determinant of structure, the structure drives the skin, and so on down to the level of furniture:

A design imperative emerges: An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff. Otherwise the slow sys-tems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the oppo-site, and destructive as well. Thus, pouring concrete on the ground for an instant foundation ("slab-on-grade") is maladaptive--pipes are foolishly buried, and there's no basement space for stor-age, expansion, maintenance, and Services access. Timber-frame buildings, on the other hand, conveniently separate Structure, Skin, and Services, while balloon-frame (standard stud construc-tion) over-connects them (p. 20).

Over-connection is only one flaw Brand notes in the difficulty of modifying modern (and particularly Modern) buildings. In a central series of chapters, Brand takes great glee in blasting 20th-century archi-tects from Wright to Pei for their pictorial over-emphasis on the central layers of the model--Structure, Skin and Services, and primarily the central of these three--and a willingness to divorce these from the lay-ers before and after.

These buildings have been designed as sculptural (and eminently photographable) objects, unable to move or adapt, perfect in their moment of pre-habitation. In criticizing this practice, Brand uses the very tool that the "magazine architects" have used for justification: the still photograph. But Brand subverts the formal purity of the designs by photographing these buildings with people using them, by stacking up photos taken over time, and by comparing these pho-tos with similar images of other buildings less hindered by the immaculate moment of their creation.

In short, Brand replaces the narrative of created form with a more humane narrative of habitation. This is the central and existential theme of the book--that we have narrative rather than static connections with places, and that habitation is always active and pur-poseful. "Age plus adaptivity," says Brand (p. 23), "is what makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it."

The final chapters offers Brand's way out of this mess, which is to offer a more fluid version of what architects have conventionally called programming. Brand calls his approach "scenario planning":

The product of skilled scenario work is not a plan but a strategy. Where a plan is based on prediction, a strategy is designed to encompass unforeseeably changing conditions. A good strategy ensures that, no matter what happens, you always have maneuver-ing room (p. 178).

The way to soften the inevitable need for building revi-sion, Brand argues, is to fully understand that revisions are inevitable in buildings from highest Monticello to the lowest gas station, that our relationships with places are as inherently fluid as our relationships with people.

Brand's book playfully humanizes the shifting landscape through photos and captions that offer the reader a temporal, narrative connection with these al-tered places. In this way, Brand offers the environ-mental design professions a vital glimpse of what the past hundred years of magazine architecture has almost taken away--an understanding of habitation.

Overall, How Buildings Learn is an "almost-great" book. Certainly, it does what Brand set out to do: to humanize and temporalize the world of buildings and help remove them from the limbo of the perfect object. But what he misses, somehow, is a sense of affection for the places he shows us. He writes, glibly and with detachment, about a phenomenon that obviously has human--and not simply functional--origins. He helps us see but not feel these places. Luckily, the photographs give us more than Brand himself intends they should, and they save him.

--Herb Childress

          UNICE - Abstract
    Definition of UNICE

    Pronunciation: you-niss
    Function: noun
      1. UNICE: Etymology: An acronym for Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities, the hive-like consciousness that is theorized to emerge from the interpenetration of computers, humans and advanced forms of the Internet. UNICE will be composed of a collective consciousness, or group mind, and numberless individuals. It will also be capable of producing any number of protean, non-biological entities.

      Also a homonym with Eunice, a woman's name ("Good Victory" in Greek), and: uni- (meaning "whole", or "all of") + us, or you + us. UNICE looks like U-NICE, which as "you nice" could be a hopeful description of UNICE in pidgin English.

      Alternative spelling: sometimes written as EUNICE, but only when referring specifically to the Earth's portion of UNICE. (I.E. Earth's Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities).

      2. UNICE: Forthcoming feature documentary about UNICE.

      3. UNICE: (obsolete usage) formerly an acronym for Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederation of Europe. Now known as BusinessEurope.

    What is UNICE? UNICE is an acronym for Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities, a term coined by artist and futurist Michael E. Arth in the 1990s to describe a new form of intelligent life that he and many others theorize will soon emerge on Earth from a hive-like interaction of computers, humans, and future forms of the Internet. Arth believes that a local form of UNICE will envelope Earth and then, unbounded by biological substrate, will propagate outward into the wider universe. If there is an existing, self-aware Cosmic Internet beyond this planet, our local UNICE could eventually join up with and merge with the greater UNICE. The acronym EUNICE is sometimes used to differentiate Earth's Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities from a truly universal UNICE.

    Thus, the term UNICE refers to what will probably happen on Earth and what will or perhaps has already happened throughout the universe or multiverse. UNICE is what will result from accelerating technological change that appears to be leading to a computational or technological singularity. The term Singularity, usually capitalized to differentiate it from a black hole or mathematical singularity, has been described by Ray Kurzweil as "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history". Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, a description and prediction about this accelerating pace of technological change, is a further elaboration of Moore's law.

    The first published use of the term Singularity in this context has been credited to mathematician John Von Neumann in 1958, while I.J. Good wrote of an intelligence explosion in 1965. Verner Vinge popularized the term beginning in the 1980s and wrote an essay in 1993 titled The Coming Technological Singularity. Inside the singularity surrounding a black hole, gravitation is so strong that not even light cannot escape. Applying this metaphorically to the evolution of technologies such as genetics, robotics, computation, and nanotechnology, the Singularity refers a point in the future beyond which it is impossible from our current perspective to shed light on the impending technological changes. This modern transhumanist myth of an emergent UNICE is an attempt to peer over the event horizon to give us a peek at a possible future.

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