City of the Singularity part 3: Hello, Bomb?

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged us into scenes that feel like science fiction films. Downtown streets are eerily deserted, shop staff look at us through shiny face visors, we watch vehicles spraying disinfectant across cities on the other side of a planet, and everywhere, there is an unseen enemy.

One sci-fi scenario that has come nearer is immersion in a digital matrix. Under lockdown, our digital life has deepened. We shop even more online, day-to-day meetings are networked, the screen has replaced buildings from museums to cinemas as the stage for shared diversions, etc. The level of our activity that is traceable and can be monitored has jumped. A new form of individualised and collective surveillance has emerged in contact-tracing apps. New rivers of data have started to flow. Technology can overcome physical isolation, but it also amplifies its effects.

I have previously warned that we are sleepwalking into the digital matrix, and have speculated a future scenario which I have called ‘The City of the Singularity’ — a state where superintelligence micro-manages the city and every citizen in it. Superintelligence is artificial intelligence (AI) which exceeds human intelligence, and is reached at a stage called the Singularity, which is regarded as imminent by some experts and impossible by others. In my hypothetical city, I call the AI that runs it an Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service (USIUS).

Ultimately, a USIUS could make city life indistinguishable from a simulation — at least to us as humans. But we will not be alone in the City of the Singularity, and today’s world already gives a preview of the other characters we will live with. In this blog, I ask:

How do we share society with intelligent digital beings?

paris vFebruary 05, 2017--24

Photograph by Simon Tyszko

Other thinking entities might include trans-humans, who are people upgraded with digital implants which, for example, enhance senses or plug us directly into digital networks. We’re already just a step away with wearable technology, like digital hearing aids or augmented reality glasses. Transhumans and all the issues they raise are yet to come, but synthetic, intelligent workers are already here in the form of onscreen agents and autonomous robots.

When technology does something a human can’t, we benefit. That can range from AI spotting skin cancer in a photographic image, to Collosus, the robot which helped extinguish the Notre Dame fire in 2019. But when technology does merely what humans already do, is there any benefit other than someone’s profit margin? Humans have been replaced by robots on the assembly line. Robots can replicate the lifelong-learnt skills of the artisan. Train drivers, truckers and ship captains are, or soon will be, replaceable. Instead of humans, chatbots already deal with us on commercial websites. Animated computer-generated characters are now surfacing. If a fashion website uses synthesised models to show its garments online, that devalues the human who works as a model. The same goes for virtual assistants created to deal with online customers, such as Soul Machines’ personas. Who needs humans in a call centre or a bank branch when they can do the job? This technology also happens to be just a step away from deep fakes, which go beyond replacing jobs to hijacking identity.

AI is already moving into creative fields. AI can design, sculpt, write, compose, and more. Some artists say AI is merely a tool for them to use, but to a deep-learning set of algorithms, an artist’s output may be merely raw data for them to emulate. In 2016 a computer generated a new Rembrandt painting. If a pop song is written by AI, sung by a synthetic voice and presented by a computer-generated singer, how much human musical talent does it displace from the music market? Where is this going? If AI can do anything and everything a human can, what purpose do we serve? 

We need to challenge the digital devaluation of human work and creativity, because they give us purpose. 

In 1942, Isaac Asimov wrote his ‘Three Laws of Robotics’, starting with: ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’. That needs to be extended from robots to cover virtual characters, all algorithm-driven machines and AI systems themselves, including a USIUS. Harm to a human being includes robbing them of their livelihood. Should we have a basic rule for all new digital agents that they only get to be sanctioned if they are job creation-neutral or -positive? It’s not necessarily straightforward to predict. Until now, technological revolutions have tended to expand economies and create more jobs, although not always for the less educated. In 2019, Kai-Fu Lee, an investor with a portfolio in billion-dollar AI companies, predicted that automation would make 40% of jobs ‘displaceable’ by 2035. Ironically, the only way to evaluate the effect on jobs of new AI will likely be with new AI.

The argument that automation liberates people from menial jobs is good if there is more fulfilling work to migrate to and educational resources to acquire new skills and outlooks. Free time is fine if people have financial resources. That’s a big if. Affluent economies could pay everyone a universal basic income. Commentator Aaron Bastani goes further, arguing that technological progress can produce such a high level of (what are now) luxury commodities that ‘everyone has the means to a good life’, provided that politics reject capitalism. He calls it Fully Automated Luxury Communism. This is clearly a new variation of consumerism, and the Society of the Spectacle described by Guy Debord, and it doesn’t address the human need of a sense of purpose.

It is also one of the scenarios that a City of the Singularity delivers. And if no-one at all was working, a superintelligent agency would be needed just to keep things going.

Whatever sort of technological future we have, humans will co-exist with intelligent artefacts. As the AI in the digital agents we share society with tends towards superintelligence, new questions arise. If embedded AI could give a machine in some way a consciousness, does it have rights? If animal rights are an issue, why not robot rights? Furthermore, is there a threshold of intelligence at which a robot could claim citizenship? If we started thinking of granting rights proportional to machine intelligence levels, that would undermine the egalitarian basis of human rights for all.

These questions arise partially because of commonplace ideas of what a robot is. It’s easy to think of them as cyborgs, basically humanoid in form, but we already know that they take very different forms. Contemporary robots like those on an industrial assembly line or autonomous self-driving vehicles look nothing like humans. They’re pretty dumb, but imagine when they become as smart as the thoughtful bomb in John Carpenter’s 1975 film Dark Star.

When I proposed a the USIUS that micro-managed all aspects of the City of the Singularity, including the lives of its citizens, I imagined that this AI could be across a distributed system. Many species achieve swarm intelligence which is at a far higher level than its individuals. Termite colonies, for example, can collectively build incredibly complex architecture to live in. Swarm intelligence is facilitated by a network of communication across the swarm — in the case of termites, chemical signals in pheromones they secrete. We are already building a communication network for digital devices to talk to each other in ‘The Internet of Things’ — it’s called 5G. Could a future generation network enable devices with built-in AI to a swarm superintelligence? Could the foundations of a USIUS be future-generation telecoms network architecture – even the next one, 6G?

While devices connect on digital networks, we have been disconnecting in the real world — long before COVID-19. Loneliness is on the rise, and the Japanese condition of hikikomori is going global. Meanwhile, whole societies are under digital surveillance and AI is feeding on big data to understand us better than we do ourselves. It may use that data to sell us something, protect us — or control us. Soon, we may not be smart enough to think ahead of AI. That is by definition the case if the Singularity happens.

Now is the time to wake up to the issues, rather than sleepwalk into purposelessness as the digital matrix immerses us.

This post dated May 2020. © Herbert Wright

I am indebted to Simon Tyszko for permission to use his images.

A final part of the City of the Singularity blog series will consider the built environment, raise the issue of the Emotional City, and planning for the ideal with or without AI. 

Posted in artificial intelligence, Life, Uncategorized, Urbanism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Renzo Piano

Renzo Piano explaining the Polcevera bridge. Photo Herbert Wright

By Herbert Wright

A week before Christmas 2019, I met the great architect Renzo Piano in his offices near Genoa. We talked about the new bridge over the Polcevera river that he had designed to replace the Morandi Bridge, which fatally collapsed in 2018. Piano’s slender new bridge design is epic, sustainable, robust, and smart. I visited the fast-track construction site. I also explored the working-class district scarred by the disaster, set to be transformed with trees and red steel in a plan led by Stefano Boeri.

This article was originally published in Blueprint magazine no.368, January 2020


In August 2018, Renzo Piano was in Switzerland when he heard that a bridge had collapsed in his home town Genoa. ‘I thought, my god, which bridge?’, he recalls. Then it emerged that it was the 1,182m-long Morandi Bridge over the valley of the Polcevera river, the key road link between France and Italy since 1967. Piano says ‘the first thought was bad. Sometimes that bridge was full of traffic, it could be hundreds of casualties. The other thing, I know that bridge well. Depending on which part of the bridge collapsed, there are houses’. Thankfully, the 210m-long collapsed section and its support tower was just to the west of residential streets, and fell over railways, warehouses and the Polcevera itself. But there was traffic, and vehicles plunging up to 45m into a void which opened up in an instant. The death toll was 43. The catastrophe made international headlines.

The devastating collapse of the Morandi Bridge in August 2018. Photos (L) Antonello Marangi (R) Mauro Utetto

The Morandi Bridge collapsed in August 2018. Photos (L) Antonello Marangi (R) Mauro Utetto

Since then, a simple but elegant new bridge been designed by Piano, it’s official approval was shooed in, finance approved, and fast-track construction is now underway. In addition, a radical park under the new bridge, the Parco del Polcevera, has been designed by a team led by Studio Boeri (see ‘Under the Bridge’, below).

I always love the idea of the bridge’, Piano says. ‘They connect. That’s why they should never collapse’. He started thinking about the replacement bridge after Genoa’s mayor Marco Bucci called. He is no political crony – Bucci heads a centre-right city alliance which includes Eurosceptic Italian ex-deputy-premier Salvini’s anti-immigrant Liga party, whereas Piano is an independent senator who’s donated his Senate salary since 2013 to projects with a social dimension, the latest in 2019 a house inside the Rebibbia Prison in Rome for jailed mothers to have time with their babies. As the Pritzker-winning architect with projects all around the world ever since the Centre Pompidou (with Richard Rogers, 1977), Piano has always been an internationalist. Some say there should have been an international competition, but with half a million vehicles every week diverting through madly winding smaller roads in Genoa, a new bridge was needed quick. And with national pride at stake, this was to be an Italian job. ‘In an emergency, this country can show capacity to do things’, Piano comments. ‘Unfortunately you need an emergency’.

Wearing a bright green jumper, Piano spoke in December at the Genoa offices of his practice RPBW, where he is based one week every month (instead of at its Paris office). ’To make a bridge is three or four years, it’s a long journey’ he says.‘That’s why we started to think about the column made of concrete, and the bridge [spans] made out of steel’. Concrete and steel were the ingredients of the bridge that collapsed, but it was very different. Structural engineer Riccardo Morandi designed it as a cable-stayed bridge with three 90m-high A-frame towers, and unusually the cables were steel encased in concrete. Piano notes that ‘the traffic it had to support was at least three times what it was designed for’. Libya closed a similar Morandi project in 2017, the Wadi el Kuf bridge (1972), after inspections revealed potential concrete fractures. Piano does not blame Morandi for the collapse — he was ‘one of the two big [Italian] engineers after the war’, he says (the other ‘of course was Pier Luigi Nervi’). What was not understood then was how concrete corrodes. ‘People thought it was a miracle, a liquid that becomes solid. [But] stone is made in a million years, concrete is made in a few hours’, says Piano. He explains that ‘when concrete is covering steel, you have micro-pixellation, the mini-cracks inside, [and] especially in a salty atmosphere like in Genova, you have the start of corrosion inside’. Morandi became aware of these issues, and had urged regular maintenance at Genoa and elsewhere. The cause of the collapse is still unconfirmed and under investigation, but Piano says ‘that bridge needed affection and maintenance and attention… It’s not my job to judge people, but quite clearly that was not done’. Bridge operators Autostrada per Italia, part of a group which the Benneton family has invested heavily in, continue to contest accusations of poor maintenance.

After Bucci’s call, Piano immediately zoomed in on Google Earth to the terrain below the bridge. The Morandi Bridge had spans up to 210m long, but Piano had the idea ‘of maybe taking 50-metre steps, and taking a bold step when you cross the river. You need a bridge that puts its feet in the right place’. He indicates how the bridge tip-toes across the valley by walking his fingers along the edge of the table we sit at, illustrating the line of columns on site. When the road emerges from tunnel on the west side, it will pass onto a new steel deck that crosses seven 50m spans between columns. Then, as Piano says, you have to do double… jump-jump-jump’ — three 100m-spans over industrial land, the Polcevera river and railway lines respectively. On the eastern side, another six 50m spans and a final one of 40.9m to the meet the road before it forks, loops and disappears again into tunnel.

Prospetto generale_1.1000_bluprint

RPBW’s elevation blueprint of the new Polcevera bridge, courtesy RPBW

In all, there are 19 spans over 18 concrete columns section, carrying 1,067m of road on steel decking. It’s a beam bridge, the simplest structural form, with just columns or piers to carry and distribute load. In this case, the columns are 9.5m x 4m ellipses in section, minimal and elegant. There are two existing beam bridges which Piano has designed — the Ushibuka Bridge (1996) in Japan, carrying 900m of two-lane road across the sea, and the 190m-long pedestrian Nichols Bridgeway (2009) which connects Millennium Park with the Modern Wing of the Chicago Institute he designed. Both have a curving underside, like a boat. That’s not just because, as Piano admits, I love boats, all sorts of boats’. First, there is an aesthetic effect from the curve. Because of it, Piano explains, ‘the light is gently touching the underneath. It’s not a bridge with light [and] shadow’. The Chicago bridge is just 4m wide, but in Genoa, it’s 30m wide, so the effect takes on an epic scale. ‘I wanted to do this in such a way that when you are underneath, you look up, and it’s like a long ship crossing the valley’, he explains. ‘Normally you don’t see ships from below, but they are beautiful from below’.

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Polcevera bridge cross section, courtesy RPBW

And there are practical benefits from the shape: ‘The hull makes sense… structurally speaking, it’s perfect. You support in the centre, then you fly on the side’. A hull is also hollow, crucially enabling internal access for maintenance (of which more later). Further, Piano saw the chance of having shipbuilders on board in construction, ‘because they know how to go fast in making the hull of a ship’.

Looking at the 1990 sketch Piano made of the Ushibuka Bridge’s cross-section, we pretty well see a draft for the bridge over the Polcevera. There is extra structure at the edge of the deck structure’s cantilevers. In Japan, either side carries a line of angled rectangular baffles which protect the peripheral cycle lanes from wind. In Genoa, there will be no cycle lanes (it’s a motorway), but each side will carry a 2.5m-high glass wall, and beyond it, a line of angled photovoltaic panels. They should generate more energy than the bridge consumes with its lights, plant and smart systems, making its operation carbon positive. Indeed, RPBW has been considering the potential use of an old rusting gasometer by the bridge’s western end — ‘it could be a reservoir of energy’, Piano muses. High-tech systems, which we will come to, will require energy, but the most visible demand will be the road lighting on twenty 28m-high central spires spaced every 50m. An initial concept rendering had light poles on either side, apparently making 43 markers for the dead. ‘It’s a nice idea but it’s a bit rhetorical in some way’, says Piano. ‘This idea of celebrating the dead with 43 candles… I think the celebration of a tragedy is only possible by silence’.

Cutting noise is a key part of the design. The streamlined deck and elliptical columns will reduce wind noise, and as for the traffic, Piano explains that ‘we use a special finish on the asphalt, and also we have the glass barrier’. The Morandi bridge had erupted loudly from each hillside, both visually and acoustically, but Piano says ‘this one is more gentle. It’s a kind of passing across the valley almost like asking permission’. Still, Piano’s bridge is certainly not trying to hide. His bridges in Japan and Chicago are both white, but this will be even whiter, with an optical gloss (the mirror-like reflective quality) of about sixty per cent.

But what about the key issue of maintenance? The new bridge enables it inside and out. ‘That’s a secret about ships’ says Piano. ‘They are maintained because you can reach the structure outside with the dry dock – this is like a ship on dry dock, permanently – and you can go inside’. Like a hull, the deck’s crescent-shaped cross-section is hollow, and with almost 5m depth at its centre, a gangway runs along the spine for the bridge’s full length. A dehumidification system will resist corrosion. Finally, RPBW are also working with the Genoa-based Italian Institute of Technology, which has one of Europe’s largest robotic research centres, on two robots, which will each move along one edge of the bridge. They not only clean the glass and solar panels, but each has a long arm curving under the bridge, which can be extended so that it can reach to the centre when not at a column, to monitor the whole underside.   

Piano presented the initial new bridge concept on 7 September 2018, just 21 days after the collapse. He said his bridge would last a thousand years. And as with another of his three previous bridges — the pedestrian Ars Aevi Bridge (2005) over the river Miljacka in Sarajevo, where snipers had held sway — he offered the design for free. Approval was swift. Two global Italian companies— construction group Salini Impreglio and shipbuilders Fincantieri — formed a consortium called Per Genova (‘For Genoa’), to which the €202 million delivery contract was awarded in December. Work on the modular steel deck sections was allocated to Fincantieri’s shipyards at Sestre Ponente in Genoa and in Naples, and its Verona factory. Naples unveiling the first completed one in February 2019. Two months later, deep piling for the first column started. In June, the last of the Morandi was blown up.

Five columns on the bridge’s western side are spanned with steelwork in this December view looking east. Photo Stefano Goldberg

Five columns on the bridge’s western side are spanned with steelwork in this December view looking east. Photo Stefano Goldberg

How has progress been on the ground? With a workforce numbering around 1,000, it continues round the clock. The steel deck comes in sections, some arriving by barge in Genoa. 50 tonne modules are transported by road in the night. On site, there are cranes with a lifting capacity of around 1,000 tonnes to lift sections assembled on the ground and weighing 600 to 800 tonnes onto the columns. By December, columns on the east side were still under construction, but two completed ones were already spanned by decking. All seven columns on the west side were complete, and three spans in place. The steelwork will amount to 15,000 tonnes, with another 9,000 of steel to reinforce concrete (although not near the surface as in Morandi’s time). The yet-to-be-named bridge’s opening had been targeted for mid-April, but is now expected in early summer.

View of construction work from the west side of the valley, with the Ansaldo factory behind. Photo Stefano Goldberg

Construction work, with Ansaldo factory and Polcevera channel behind. Photo Stefano Goldberg

It used to be that engineers would design bridges, architects designed inhabitable structures, and builders would build them. Piano is fond of reminding people that he comes from a family of builders, and has always felt that ‘architecture, engineering and building, they are the same thing’. That is visibly the case on the Genoa construction sights. He says a bridge is an ‘an architectural job… because it is about geography, it’s about topography, all that’. He adds that ‘it’s also about flying. The bridges fly, from one point to another’. Ever since his first lightweight structures in the 1960s, Piano’s work has been characterised by a sense of lightness and light. The new bridge across the Polcevera is solid and heavy, but it looks slender and light. The flight it makes will be through natural light, even at night when that light is recycled.

191219 1732 Renzo Piano b:w

Renzo Piano at RPBW Genoa. Photo by Herbert Wright


Under the Bridge – Red Steel and Trees for a district of Workers and Industry

In March 2019, Genoa launched an architectural competition to revitalise 23 hectares of the Polcevera valley area under the new Genoa bridge. It was billed as ‘one of the most important urban regeneration projects in Italy’. In October, Milan-based Stefano Boeri Architetti won the competition, with a team that included Amsterdam-based Inside Outside, Milan-based studio Metrogramma and others. The winning entry is called Polcevera Park and the Red Circle and (was due to go on site) this spring.

1_Il Riverfront, il Cerchio Rosso e la Torre del Vento ∏ The Big Picture

Rendering – Polcevera Park and the Red Circle. Courtesy Stefano Boeri Architetti, Metrogramma Milano, Inside Outside | Petra Blaisse

But first, what is the existing territory under the bridge? This is a working-class district, which Boeri describes as an ‘area made of iron, water, cement and asphalt’. The west side of the Polcevera river is industrial, including the massive historic red-brick factory where Ansaldo Energia make turbines. It was in the shadow of the bridge but still stands. On the east side, swathes of railway lines sandwich two residential streets, one of which, Via Walter Fillak, was straddled by one of Morandi’s now-demolished 90m-high A-frame supports. Some of the six-storey residential blocks under the bridge were demolished after the collapse and their residents rehoused. Now, a banner hung on the street proclaims R-ESISTONO, meaning Resist-Exist. On a footbridge just north of the bridge, a line of flowers and wreaths make a poignant contrast to the line of new concrete columns just downstream of them.

191220 1240 R-Esistono

Via Fillak, December 2019. Photo Herbert Wright

Polcevera Park sets out to revitalise the area. Boeri is known for incorporating trees into the studio’s designs such as the Bosco Verticale, Milan (2014), and his Urban Forest manifesto is a call for global action to counter climate change. There are a lot of trees in the Polcevera plan. The parkland is landscaped by Inside Outside with different species planted in strips of land with paths. It produces what Boeri calls ‘vital chromatic and botanical variety’. In the west the park descends from the lower valley slopes and gasometer to the riverside factory zone, and lines of trees continue across the river, in the residential strip, and along the foot of the eastern valley side. They amplify the way the territory has always been a composition of lines parallel to the river. Via Fillak, already lined by trees, will open into a new piazza under the new bridge, and artist Luca Vitone has designed a circle of 43 trees commemorating the dead, which he describes as a ‘forest’. There are zones of contemporary ‘smart’ industry under roofs collecting solar power, and facilities including an exhibition garden, playing fields and a new railway station. 

Most dramatically, the territory will be crossed by the Red Circle, 500 metres in diameter, carrying a 6m-wide pedestrian/cycle path of steel raised some 10m above ground. Boeri says it symbolises ‘the powerful local tradition of blast furnaces, cranes, and overhead cranes’. On its southern side is a 120m-high energy-producing Wind Tower, also painted red. The linear geometry responds to Piano’s flying horizontal line, and the dramatic red seems to recall the visual impact of Bernard Tschumi’s steel installations (1987) dotted around the Parc de la Villette, Paris.

This area was active and far from being rust-belt, so some might say the plan brings gentrification. But there has been consultation with community and stakeholders. The idea of a carbon-neutral quarter full of trees, which creates community facilities and connectivity without cars, could give Genoa a showcase for masterplanning in the time of climate emergency.


Remembering the 43 dead from the Morandi Bridge collapse

Remembering the victims of the Morandi Bridge disaster - flowers on at the Polcevera Photo Herbert Wright

Flowers at the Polcevera, December 2019 Photo Herbert Wright


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City of the Singularity, part 2: Missions Too Important to Jeopardise

In part 1 of the City of the Singularity, I speculated about why a super-intelligent urban administration system is likely to emerge. After the so-called Singularity, when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence, such a Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service would transform cities. How it run things is defined by its underlying goal, or mission.

What would the City of the Singularity be like? Much can be anticipated by extrapolating current trends in technology, urbanism and lifestyles. But we need to also consider the possible agendas or missions of the AI running a city, which I call a Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service or USIUS. Different missions produce different cities.

What do we mean by mission? A mission is the underlying goal or objective of the operation. An algorithm has a mission to perform a set task, DNA has a mission to pass on its genes, an enterprise has a mission to generate profit, etc. Machine intelligence has a mission too, set by its designers. Superintelligence such as a USIUS will be capable of refining or defining its own mission. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the superintelligent computer HAL 9000 controls the Discovery spaceship. It decided that the mission of solving an alien mystery in the solar system superceded the welfare of the astronauts in its care. HAL tells the last astronaut it has not killed: ‘This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it’. Imagine if a USIUS felt the same way about the inhabitants of the urban environment it runs! It seems more likely that the mission would be utopian, but Utopias already have a track-record of becoming Dystopias. Our best path to survival, and to avoid dystopian scenarios offered by science fiction writers, is to identify the right USIUS goal, and create input that will favour its emergence.

A city is its inhabitants, built environments and infrastructure, and all the actions and interactions that take place in it. A USIUS mission will be to optimise its operation, but social, economic and political considerations present different paths for this optimisation. We can see this in the current age where humans are in charge. For example, in classical Stalinist regimes, the mission of regime survival results in a cityscape defined by rigid planning and the imposition of deep control of the life of citizens. In a capitalist society, the mission of freeing enterprise results in a cityscape characterised by prominent development of offices to administer business, shopping zones to facilitate consumer spending, and luxury residences to house the winners in society. In a developing country, where a municipal mission may be undefined, megacities with poor infrastructure grow organically and expand exponentially without planning controls.

Children are given missions, for example to keep clean or do well at school. With the constant expansion and updating of what they know from experience and education (plus the vital ingredients of play and dream), they refine their missions, hopefully finding an eventual sense of purpose in their adult life. There is an analogy in the deep learning that artificial neural networks perform. Superintelligence will be forged in neural networks. It follows that superintelligence will develop its own missions, with roots in those in its original input. So let us look at some possible missions a USIUS may find to operate the City of the Singularity.

First, consider a capitalist mission. A USIUS will most likely emerge from corporate investment. Machine intelligence already dominates transactions in financial markets. Imagine an AI entity that was elected a board member because of the quality of its decisions. It may gradually render other directors superfluous. If the machine becomes the corporation, it is competing in a marketplace, and its mission is profit. In part 1 of this essay, we saw Guy Debord’s idea of capitalism replacing authenticity with a ‘Spectacle’ of representations of commodities. A Corporate USIUS would deepen what is already the digital Spectacle, distracting us with anything commercially exploitable, which is everything that creates desires. In a city where all work is automated, and even creativity has been rendered superfluous by artificial neural networks, citizens may be given a universal income and the main outlet for spending it becomes amusement.

The commercial City of the Singularity could be a vast shopping and leisure park, a hyper-Dubai but with extra offerings, for example Amsterdam-like robotic red light districts (inevitably with gender bias). That’s the physical city — but (as we saw in Part 1) the digital will blur with the real world so much that they may become indistinguishable. 

This has been the future. Under the arch of the Shenzhen Civic Center, tiny humans are reflected on a vast marbled plain and the Ping An Tower rises over skyscraper custer in Futian. It

This has been the Future… Is it still? At Shenzhen Civic Center, tiny humans are reflected on a vast marbled plain while the Ping An Tower rises 599m above Futian. Photo @ Herbert Wright

The obvious mission of a USIUS (which current Smart City designs already pursue) would be to optimise the city for the common good. This Commonwealth USIUS may institute utopian city planning, in an echo of the pre-war ideas of Swiss architect le Corbusier, and deep social services, as socialism promises. The City of the Singularity would become a socialist machine, an analogue of the territorial state in which ministries have been digitally replaced. It is the city of the automated Big Brother.

A Commonwealth USIUS should react to climate issues. Limiting emissions means restricting mobility and diet, material goods may be basic, water may be rationed, etc. The data feed from the city (the ‘eyes of the city’, including personal mobile devices) would ensure strict enforcement. Buildings may become entirely modular, to be dissembled and rapidly relocated to stay ahead of rising sea levels or desertification. Even now, the idea of a building’s permanence is far from universal. For example, Shinto shrines in Ise, Japan, are rebuilt ritualistically every 20 years, and large festivals worldwide build entire ephemeral cities that are dismantled after the event. A temporary, mobile approach may produce a very spartan, uniform city, a sort of 3D-printed or Ikea flat-pack Pyongyang, built with a touch of Jean Prouvé, the mid-twentieth-century French architect who designed robust modular structures for distant locations.

The Commonwealth USIUS scenarios runs against current trends. Propagating messages and solutions in one direction, to the masses, is a different data flow to what is evolving now, which is two-way between AI and the population, and homing in on the individual. As for the territory, today’s reality is that private developers, not the state, that increasingly shape urban masterplans, and gradually implementing Smart City systems. Private land is presented as public realm, monitored and policed by landlords. But we cannot dismiss a Commonwealth USIUS because the power it has may simply overwhelm data flow trends towards diversity and individualisation. This is seen in the contemporary world, for example when states restrict and control digital media access, and channel propaganda through digital media. It is another aspect of the Spectacle, recognised by Debord in the USSR as well as capitalist societies.

The opposite of a Commonwealth USIUS is the Selfish USIUS, which has set its mission to prioritise its own survival, just like DNA-based lifeforms before it. Humanity becomes a potential threat, because we could pull the plug, deny supplies to its physical supporting infrastructure, or just trash it. The solution need not be humanity’s elimination, but a technological apartheid, where humans are excluded from parts of the city reserved for agents complicit with the USIUS. This could produce a return to the walled city, perhaps populated by a transhuman (technologically enhanced humans) elite. This sounds like an updated version of Plato’s harmonious guardian class in the ideal society of his Republic. Outside the walls is a chaotic urban fringe populated by exiled, unreconstructed humans who are probably poor. This City of the Singularity could be like the (distorted) caricature of Paris — a refined urban paradise surrounded by burning banlieues. Paradoxically, bored transhumans may want try to crash the party of the less predictable, grittier, more authentic human domain.

As we have seen, the ‘eyes of the city’ feeds data to city management systems such as a USIUS. The input sources include citizens’ mobile devices as well as equipment monitoring the urban environment. A phone, for example, sees the USIUS and effects it in a feedback loop. We can imagine that the City of the Singularity’s built environment itself becomes the screen, a tabula rasa for whatever visual messages USIUS targets at the individual. Imagine it generating and inserting virtual people, including avatars or perhaps ‘deepfake’ versions of those you know. A street may seem vibrant and full of friendly faces, attracting you to stay and spend, but someone with no credit may see the same street as dark, its shadows harbouring predators. Demotivated in the city, they may retreat into a state of hikikomori, where they can live in a virtual city anyway.

These are just three of many possible post-Singularity urban scenarios, but in all them, we become like children in the charge of the AI as it continues to race forward. Just like small children, we can be a nuisance, we can scream for attention, disrupt, we can break things. Anyone with a small child knows that you should never leave them out of your sight. The eyes of the city do that. Secondly, all you have to do is sit them in front of a Walt Disney cartoon to keep them absorbed and quiet. The Spectacle that a City of the Singularity delivers would be such an immersive experience, it is effectively the Disney cartoon that never ends. 

How do we stop sleepwalking into it? Perhaps another scenario for cities offers the path. Imagine an Eco-USIUS, with a mission to prioritise nature. This serves the immediate imperative objective of moderating climate change, and a distant objective. On current demographic trends, the Earth’s population will peak around the year 2100, and after this Peak Humanity event, even the largest, most active city will decline. Eventually, as cities drain of people, nature will reclaim territory anyway. Managed urban decline, like care for the elderly, brings a gentler end of human days.

We can fold in a another objective to the Eco-USIUS mission, something that gives purpose to the civilian population. Unlike other USIUS missions, its stance is co-operative. People should be collaborators, not passengers, on the journey to the green City of the Singularity. The fostering of artisan skills from urban farming and food preparation to adapting and building the green city with their own hands gives them a stake in it. Digitally manipulated experience would lose relevance, authenticity would replace representation, the Spectacle would be dissolved. Even as we fade, our city has started to integrate and melt into the forest.


‘Mission Status: Nominal’ (Unionpark, Berlin photo Herbert Wright)

We don’t need to wait for superintelligence. The trend of greening cities is underway today. For example, greening is highly visible in Singapore, where downtown development is mandated to have a planted surface area at least as big the plot and skyscrapers are sprouting trees, or green streets initiatives in cities internationally that address walkability, stormwater and pollution issues with biodiversity in street design. Stefano Boeri’s agenda for Urban Forestry provides a vision where trees transform the urban environment. In the long run, such paths could lead to a re-wilding of the city.

Neural networks are already good at recognising faces and language. That results in fundamental tools for the interplay of machine intelligence with citizens. We should start a deep learning process that addresses nature in the city. A USIUS with an eco-mission to expand, deepen, monitor and protect urban biodiversity may be the best mission for us humans too. Its mission should be co-operative with ours.

Perhaps musician Joni Mitchell summed up our own optimal urban mission, in the 1969 song Woodstock: ‘We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’.

This post January 2020. © Herbert Wright

In part 3 of the City of the Singularity, I survey the issue in our urban future of who we, as humans, share it with.

References – Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Buchet Chastel, 1957)

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The City of the Singularity Part 1: You See Us

EyesoftheCity paper, Herbert Wright - imageWhat if machine intelligence was in complete control of the city and its citizens? This science-fiction scenario could become technically feasible, and clues to its possible modus operandi are already surfacing. Displacing human administration for a ‘Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service’ is far more profound than technical implementation of Smart City systems. This future has political, philosophical and perhaps existential dimensions.

On the eve of the 2020s, Earth hosts 7.7 billion humans, 55% of them living in urban areas. There are also 3.3 billion smartphones. These numbers will increase. Humanity must face the climate emergency, but it also needs to wake up to where its digital urban future is going.

In the 1950s, the American mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann predicted that artificial intelligence would eventually exceed human intelligence, achieving a state called ‘superintelligence’. A superintelligent computer would be capable of self-improvement, leading to further exponential intelligence growth without human input and beyond human control. Von Neumann called the arrival of superintelligence a technological ‘singularity’, and he said that after it, ‘human affairs, as we know them, could not continue’1.

What is popularly called ‘the singularity’ remains hypothetical. Some dismiss singularity narratives as merely our fears or hopes for salvation dubiously projected onto new technology. In a 2019 London talk, media theorist Joanna Zylinska suggested that technology-based predictions such as cyborgs and the singularity offers the male an ‘elevation to god-like status’ in a gender-biased fantasy propagated by Silicon Valley. In 2017, technologists were asked to guess when the singularity will occur. Some said it will never happen, but others guessed that it could come as early as the 2020s.

Superintelligence would be a powerful tool to apply to the management of cities. Cities concentrate not just population, but also power, wealth, culture, education and innovation. Many have an international presence stronger than the nations that host them. In the 2020s, megacities, meaning urban conglomerations of 10 million or more, will increase in number from 33 to 43, and by 2035, eight cities are predicted to have a GDP of $1trillion or more. Cities such as these could be considered as humanity’s most valuable assets. They and almost all other major cities face threats of rising sea-levels, food supply disruption, water security, social unrest and the spread of pandemics. The complexity, value and vulnerability of cities is so great that, even before the singularity, their management will inevitably migrate towards artificial intelligence.

Von Neumann saw the singularity as disruptive, but whatever effects it has on humanity, cities will persist. Let is imagine a system called a Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service, or USIUS. It may be a single entity, or distributed over a network in which different AI centres collaborate or compete. However configured, USIUS runs the city and citizens in it.

USIUS may seem like an advanced version of Smart City, but there is a big difference. The Smart City is a concept now being developed in some neighbourhoods around the world in which infrastructure is designed, monitored and controlled to optimise municipal functions. One of the most advanced Smart City plans in 2019 is the new Canadian city quarter of Sidewalk Toronto. It is planned to be saturated with systems which, for example, monitor and separate your rubbish, or adaptive traffic lights which profile those crossing the road (old people, for example, get more crossing time). Don Doctoroff , the CEO of developer Sidewalk Labs, says the waterside development will ‘fundamentally redefine what urban life can be’.

But technology that fundamentally redefines urban life is already here, and it is in our hands rather than infrastructure. The relationship between citizens and city is being sucked into a palm-sized rectangle — the phone screen — and the gatekeepers of this window between the real and digital are Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iOS. Through the screen, AI monitors us by the choices we swipe and tap (and geolocates us), while we scrutinise city’s possibilities, its people, places and products presented in AI-curated lists.

The theme of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture or UABB 2019 in Shenzhen (opening December 2019) is ‘Eyes of the City’, referring to how ‘architectural space is acquiring the full ability to ‘see’. This phenomenon, with roots in CCTV, will be key in the City of the Singularity. But the most numerous eyes the city has are phone screens, and they look both ways. The basic interface between a USIUS system and the city itself is already here, and it gives USIUS the capacity to read, shape and condition the lives of its citizens.

We seem to be sleepwalking into an immersive digital future. The blurring of reality and virtual reality (VR) plays a vital role in this sleepwalk. Augmented reality (AR) already inserts 2D graphics (such as Pokémon creatures) into the world. Extra visual layers will advance to 3D insertions as the screen view is triangulated and matched to maps. That’s as far as it may go with a phone screen, but wearable technology will enable a deep AR city, with a vanishing dependency on its real element. Those with digitally enhanced vision need not wear anything extra to see and move through it. VR and AR will be amongst the many tools available to USIUS.

In his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle2, French philosopher-activist Guy Debord argued that authenticity had been replaced by representations of commodities, delivered through propaganda and advertising, which effectively makes us slaves to capitalism. He described the Spectacle itself as ‘a social relation among people, mediated by images’. At the very least, the smartphone is the mediator of the contemporary Spectacle. In the common ground of the city, our actions are shaped by digital capitalism. The mission of capitalism is profit.

Alphabet Inc, a holding company whose assets include Google, Sidewalk Labs and AI-development company DeepMind, is an obvious candidate to eventually develop USIUS, but the commercial gains of controlling cities will attract many parties. Nor is profit the only possible mission for USIUS. Non-commercial objectives generated by political and ethical considerations may define the mission. Different missions produce different cities. Our future lives could be entirely shaped by that mission.

USIUS missions will be explored in part two of The City of the Singularity

This post dated November 2019. © Herbert Wright


1. John von Neumann recalled by Stanislaw Ulam, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, vol 64, no.3, part 2, 1958

2. Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Buchet Chastel, 1957)


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Book review: Melancholy and Architecture


Melancholy and Architecture book cover

Melancholy and Architecture: On Aldo Rossi, by Diogo Seixas Lopes, Park Books

Review by Herbert Wright 

(originally published in Blueprint magazine July 2015)



They look rather like scenes painted by de Chirico, but they are not. One is an engraving of isolated objects casting shadows, including coffee pots and chimneys, but the composition is more densely stuffed than those of the great Italian surrealist, and buildings lean and fracture. The other is a view that is solidly imprinted in the collective architectural mind, of a timeless brick cube, each face punched with a grid of dark squares. It is an ossuary in Modena, Italy. Both are the works of the great Italian architect and theorist, Aldo Rossi.

Dieses ist lange her, Aldo Rossi

The 1975 engraving, Dieses ist lange her / Ora questo è perduto (This is long gone) is reproduced at the beginning of Diogo Seixas Lopes’ book Melancholy and Architecture, which probes the relation between the two by examining Rossi’s San Cataldo cemetery in Modena, designed in 1971. The cemetery has been widely compared to the metaphysical landscapes with outcrops of classical buildings from de Chirico, and Rossi himself acknowledged his influence. It is also seen as embodying an essence of Rossi’s seminal book L’architettura della città (1966) and its central idea that the city carries a collective memory in its architecture and resulting artefacts, as if the cemetery’s plan and monumental elements was a demonstration of this premise. San Cataldo’s veritably iconic ossuary cube is instantly recognisable to people who have never been there.


We are taken out on two great trails before we arrive at San Cataldo — first, the history of what we understand as melancholy, from its early associations with black bile, through the Renaissance’s attribution to it of intellect and uncertainty, and via the new urban alienation of the 19th Century to the psychoanalytical view of it by Freud as similar to mourning. An architectural dimension is established with Piranesi’s ruins, the visionary monumentalism of Etienne- Louis Boullée (exalted and translated by Rossi) and Adolf Loos’ contention that architecture arouses moods.

The second trail charts the background and development of Rossi’s thought. He was interested in architecture’s emotional effect, but when the gritty Italian ‘neorealism’ of post-war literature and cinema was applied to architecture, Rossi dismissed it as a superficial veneer. He developed a deeper historic- urbanistic view, encapsulated in the 1966 book. In 1971, Modena held a competition for a vast cemetery extension, which Rossi would enter with Gianni Braghieri. Soon after, Rossi was in a car crash in Croatia. In his hospital bed, he ‘experienced a relation with death that never went away’, he would write, calling it ‘probably the only impossible love’. His body broken like elements in the engraving, he developed his vision for the city of the dead at San Cataldo.

San Cataldo cemetery, Modena. Photo Nuno Rossi

San Cataldo cemetery, Modena. Photo by Nuno Cera

The book includes the original monumental plan and elevations, with their unbuilt rising rows originally intended for the ossuary function and a truncated cone for the communal dead. There’s no photo of the architectural model, but the plans’ draughtsmanship makes stark the three-dimensional aspect by drafting in shadows (which were coincidentally crucial tools for de Chirico). There is also a brief photographic survey of the cemetery elements that were eventually built.

Seixas Lopes, as co-designer of the remodelled Teatro Thalia in Lisbon (Blueprint November 2012), is well qualified to talk about architecture and memory. There’s a potentially dubious conflation of ideas in mapping Rossi’s idea of the city carrying collective memory on to a city of the dead, functioning to house their memory in physical bones and mourners’ minds. Aren’t they different things? But Seixas Lopes deftly binds San Cataldo to Rossi’s ideas of city and architecture together in a dense, thorough and absorbing critical analysis. Rafael Moneo did the same in a 1973 essay, but this is no retread. From Seixas Lopes’ pleasing dismissal of similarities between the ossuary and the fascist-era Palace of Italian Civilisation in Rome’s EUR quarter, to examining Rossi’s contemporaneous housing block at Gallaratese (which has an echo in San Cataldo’s perimeter block), the book lays out a new map. It is coloured with rationalism… and melancholy.

Unlike Moneo, Seixas Lopes has the benefit of looking over Rossi’s subsequent work, when he became something of a proto-starchitect. Commissions proliferated and he received the 1990 Pritzker. He was slapped with the label postmodernist. (Curiously, the book gives Italy’s architectural movement La Tendenza, which presaged postmodernism and to which Rossi was pivotal, just a fleeting paragraph).

It would have been good to see a picture of Rossi’s big, fantastic floating Theatre of the World deployed in Venice in 1980, which Seixas Lopes describes, but instead we get an unexplained picture of a small structure steered by two gondoliers. It may have been interesting to ask if Rossi’s colourful Schützenstrasse block (1998) in Berlin was a counterpoint to his melancholy. And an index sure would have been handy. But these are passing criticisms.

As a study of melancholy and architecture that researches and probes deep into its chosen case studies of San Cataldo and Rossi’s mind, the book is illuminating and substantial. It seems set to become indispensable.


This book review was originally published in Blueprint magazine no341, July 2015. This version is edited. A tribute to the book’s late author Diogo Seixas Lopes is here


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A spotlight on Shenzhen’s Urban Villages… and the future of cities

Beyond China, Shenzhen is probably best-known for two things. It’s where iPhones and other gadgets that have transformed everyday life are made, and it’s the place which grew from a fishing village in 1980 into today’s futuristic megacity of 11 million — or at least, that’s the urbanist legend. For urbanists — those interested in how cities build up — few places are more fascinating. No other country has urbanised as rapidly or extensively as China, and it’s been Shenzhen that has blazed the new trail for all others in China. Those seeking clues to future cities find a vast dynamic laboratory there.

Between December 2017 and 15th March 2018, Shenzhen hosts an event called the Urbanist/Architecture Bi-City Biennale 2017, or UABB (not to be confused with the parallel but separate UABB Hong Kong). 

Meng Yan of Urbanus at UABB

Meng Yan of Urbanus. Photo Herbert Wright

‘In most of the city you see towers, shopping malls, theme parks, boulevards’ says Meng Yan, co-founder of Urbanus, an architectural practice based in Beijing and Shenzhen.‘But all of a sudden you see [what is] almost like a walled city, which contains smaller streets and is a very intimate scale and very vibrant’. He’s talking about urban villages — the central subject of UABB’s theme, Cities Grow in Difference. Its main exhibition is embedded within an urban village that is literally a walled city, called Nantou.


Meng contends that the urban village ‘reveals an alternative model of urban development [which] is self-sponsored, self-motivated, diverse’. That’s a big message not just for Shenzhen, but for a rapidly urbanising planet. 



Nantou Old Town with the new Baode Plaza and its two new two-storey buildings by Urbanus. Courtesy UABB Organizing Committee (7)

Nantou Old Town, looking down on new Baode Plaza. Courtesy UABB Organizing Committee

Shenzhen is full of urban villages. From above, they are easy to spot by their jumble of small-plot buildings. But from a main street, they are virtually invisible. They lurk behind great cliffs of high-rise housing or else a Blade Runner-like scenography of towers and facades alive with LED animation. Step off the big street and you can easily enter these hidden neighbourhoods. They are packed with eateries and small businesses, and the air is full of voices, smells and the honks of scooters. Warrens of alleys branch off, lined with ‘handshake buildings,’ so-called because in the tenements above, they are narrow enough for people to shake hands across the gap. The chasms they make can close off so much light that the street level is dark even by day.

Shenzhen’s urban villages tend to follow a similar history. Situated on the Pearl River Delta, the area has long supported agriculture and fishing, and settlements accumulated over centuries. In 1980, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping designated Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone, to draw investment from Hong Kong, situated immediately to the south. Shenzhen offered land to build factories and waterside to ship goods, and China offered a virtually limitless cheap workforce. Within five years, the population had reached a million, and by 2000, seven million.

Indigenous villagers cashed in by embarking on a frenzy of unplanned construction on their small plots of land. They rented the rapidly-built new blocks to the influx of migrants flooding into the metropolis. Even when the rate of population growth slowed this century, Shenzhen continued to attract millions, and they all needed accommodation. This intense development to supply it made many original villagers rich enough to move out to Hong Kong or abroad.

In China, neighbourhoods can seem timeless, for example in the hutongs of Beijing. But others can age fast. Shenzhen’s newly urbanised villages soon became synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, prostitution and crime. Meng reports that they were ‘almost unanimously thought of as a cancer and that it has to be dealt with’. In 2005, Shenzhen Municipality decided to demolish them all. Like planners and architects everywhere, from le Corbusier with his modernist Utopian city visions dreamt up in the 1920s and even earlier planners like Haussmann in Paris, their approach was to impose order on the environment and rebuild it big, with all its implications for social oder. Planners have long failed to respect or even recognise the dynamism that arises in the chaotic jumble of unplanned settlement. And in Shenzhen, the municipality has backed developers whose plans have been to buy out the villagers, many happy to take the undreamt-of incentives to move, bulldoze the urban villages they built, and ‘regenerate’ the land with schemes of high-rise apartments, landmark commercial skyscrapers, and glitzy malls. The logic was to provide what millions of new arrivals need from a city – modern housing, amenities and jobs — and simultaneously eliminate poverty.

UABB first suggested that there was more to urban villages than mere slums as early as 2005. Urbanus took their cause to the world stage at Shanghai Expo 2010, at which they curated the Shenzhen Pavilion. Its subject was Dafen, Shenzhen’s village famous for copying oil paintings. It showed ‘how a cancer was cured’, recalls Meng. ‘It was a very brave and very daring effort at that time’. Nowadays, Dafen is clean, colourful and popular with tourists.

Attitudes to Shenzhen’s urban villages may be changing but development pressures still threaten them with demolition by bulldozer. And recently, as Shenzhen has transitioned from manufacturing to an affluent services economy, a new phenomenon has emerged in the village — gentrification. 

The Secrets of a Walled City Revealed 

Nantou’s recent history is like that of many urban villages, but it has a unique asset — official protection. In 2002, it was designated a historical city. It is one of several villages in Shenzhen that has a far longer past than the modern metropolis.

Nantou pre-dates Deng with at least sixteen centuries of continuous habitation. In 331AD, it was made the capital of the vast Dongguan Province covering much of the Pearl River Delta. That lasted just 81 years, but it remained an administrative centre. In 1573 it became the capital of the new Xin’an County (later Boa’an County), and its territory again extended as far as what is now Hong Kong. After the Communists came to power in 1949, they transferred power away. For a while it became a quiet village, until the Deng-era of the 1980s when its population boomed again. In that decade, a factory complex was built on its northern side, making clothes. Its workforce was on its doorstep. 

Zhongshan East Street, Nantou Photo © Joanna Kaweski 2017

Zhongshan East Street, Nantou. Photo © Monique Kawecki 2017

On the surface, Nantou may not look that old. The urban village is a super-dense car-free neighbourhood with about 30,000 inhabitants in a grid of just 34 hectares. It is entered through grand fortress gates which were once set in a medieval defensive wall, little of which remains. There are a few relics of pre-modernity. Outside the South Gate is the Taoist Guanyu Temple, thought to date from the sixteenth century. There are a few old houses, temples and ancestral halls within the walled city. You can see Chinese roof eaves that maintain traditional forms, some with moulded face motifs capping their sloping ribs. They overhang twentieth century shop fronts on crowded Zhongshan East Road.

Aspects of the Past in Nantou - Guan Yu Temple, South Gate, roof eaves. Photographs © Herbert Wright 2017

Aspects of past Nantou – Guan Yu Temple, South Gate, roof eaves. Photos © Herbert Wright 2017

But Nantou is mostly as old as the megacity that has engulfed it. Buildings on small plots that haven’t changed in centuries reach as high as nine storeys, often clad in tiles or mosaics that rain would wash clean. In the shady alleys between them, people sit on their front doors. On one walk, I passed a family burning a rat alive. Then, a mere minute’s walk away, I encountered Wu Ming, a young architect who studied in Turin. He may a harbinger of a new sort of arrival. He has rented a house and converted the ground floor into a trendy work/live space, which he was proudly showing during UABB. Referring to the traditional game that men gamble on, Wu explains that ‘the owner didn’t want it to be a mahjong room’. He reports that some of the neighbours are original, others have been here for 20 years. The national language Putonghua (Mandarin) is spoken in Shenzhen, but here, Ming reports, ‘the languages are different’.

Meanwhile, restaurants on Zhongshan Street South, the main path into Nantou from the South Gate, have been spruced up. The backlit word ‘Villa’ in Western letters is mounted on a posh-looking five-storey building. The inevitable outcome of gentrification is to price out local residents. Still, some consider other problems more urgent —  Zhou Baomin, Director-General of Culture and Sports Bureau of Nanshan District, the local authority, brings up issues like fire safety and plumbing — in Nantou, he says, ‘everything is under pressure’.

How to Help an Urban Village

Nantou gave the UABB chief curators Meng and Urbanus co-founder Xiadou Liu, along with the third chief curator Hou Hanrun, artistic director of MAXXI, Rome, a chance to show what positive intervention in an urban village can do. It helped that there was a base for them there — that factory, now abandoned. Conversations started with the locals, initially for research and documentation purposes. But it was also consultation on UABB’s plans, including local cultural initiatives, for example with dance. Then UABB began changing the built environment — with an absolute minimum of demolition.

When the show leaves town, it leaves legacy. Murals brighten walls, historic buildings have been renovated (an opium den has become a visitor attraction), and public spaces created. All interventions were made in the urban fabric without disrupting it. The best of these are at the very geographical centre of Nantou. UABB leaves two new angular community buildings, each striking yet discrete, with mosaics and terraces which face Boade Plaza, which is a new public space that has been opened up. It is like a breathing space in the dense urban fabric. In UABB’s opening month, it was already as full of civic activity as if it had been the central plaza for centuries.

Urbanus created Baode Plaza for the Nantou community. Cortesy UABB Organizing Committee (4)

Boade Plaza in Nantou is a legacy of UABB. Photo courtesy UABB Organising Committee, 2017

Within the factory, further public realm has been opened up, and facilities including a new auditorium and an open bamboo pavilion inspired by traditional vernacular. The factory itself is temporarily the main UABB exhibition venue, where a cornucopia of research, analysis, art, installations and photography is presented. One of the key exhibitions is by Juan Du, director of Urban Ecologies Design Lab at Hong Kong University — a documentation of Shenzhen’s urban villages that have deep history. Nantou is not the only one to pre-date the megacity.

Ancient Before Birth – Shenzhen’s Deep History

Shenzhen’s historic urban villages include Baishizhou, established in 1830, and now home to 150,000. Its very size and vibrancy has attracted international attention before. Like Nantou, it lies in Nanshen, one of Shenzhen’s three core districts (the equivalent of boroughs). On the other side of middle district Futian is the third one, Luohu. There, history connects with the metropolis whose proximity and riches kick-started modern Shenzhen — Hong Kong.

In October 1911, Imperial soldiers of the Qing Dynasty stood in line on a platform as a steam locomotive festooned with flags pulled into the newly-opened station of Shum-Chun. This was the first stop on the Chinese side of the Kowloon-Cantoon Railway (KCR), and it stood amongst tranquil fields beside the river that separated British and Chinese territory. Now, the station is modern, vast, and called Shenzhen.

But it is the next stop on the KCR that again exposes the legend of Shenzhen’s explosion from a fishing village as less than the truth. Its name, Shum-Chun Market, referred to the 700-year old market town of Caiwuwei nearby. It became famous in 2007 for its ‘nailhouse’, a term used to describe Chinese houses that persist when a site has been cleared for redevelopment, because the owner has refused to sell or be intimidated.

Islands of super-dense housing in Caiwuwei, from KK100. Photo Herbert Wright 2011

Islands of super-dense housing in Caiwuwei, from KK100. Photo Herbert Wright 2011

 Now it is the site of the 442m-high KK100, Shenzhen’s tallest skyscraper when it opened in 2011. From its breath-taking top-level skylounge pavilion floating under the great gothically arching glass roof, you can look down on Cauwuwei’s street patterns and the fine urban grain of rectangular roofs crowded together like a not-quite straight mosaic. Their pattern suggests a palimpsest of what was there before.

On the other side of the KCR tracks lay Hubei. Juan Du’s research suggests there are still 1,500 indigenous villagers amongst the population of 20,000, and streets of original one-storey housing remain. I walked through the small, ancient gate into these lanes. Smoke from burning offerings in the old temple hangs in the air and messy electric wiring trails across scruffy processions of closed brick facades. In these alleys, a timeless poverty seems to linger, but an adjacent alley is the timeless activity of traders working in open-fronted stores. To the north, Hubei has modest, tidy twentieth century socialist housing blocks where planners found a patch to build, but then they give way to some of the deepest, darkest alleys in Shenzhen. All of Hubei is surrounded by skyscrapers, including the sheer bling that is Golden Business Center’s 220m-high tower. Urbanus proposed preservation in 2014, but the Luohu Urban District Renewal Bureau recently updated its Hubei redevelopment plans.

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 11.34.18

Three alleys in Hubei urban village. Photos © Herbert Wright 2017

Let A Thousand Urban Villages Bloom

Shenzhen may be churning its organic, unplanned neighbourhoods into super-sized commercial developments faster than most cities, but it’s a global phenomenon and the result looks increasingly the same the world over. Meng thinks that ‘it’s really important to rethink and reflect the modernist ideal of uniformity, [the] monumental kind of model of future’. The unplanned urban village suggests a different path. 

Planned and unplanned - Futian from Shenzhen Civic Center, and a typical Nanshen neighbourhood. Photos © Herbert Wright 2017

Planned and Unplanned – Futian from Shenzhen Civic Center, and a typical Nanshen neighbourhood. Photos © Herbert Wright 2017

Worldwide, we can see unplanned urbanism go through the stages that Shenzhen’s urban villages have. In developing nations, from vast slums to constrained ghettoes, their poverty seems intractable, but sheer industry and the bonds of community can raise them up into thriving neighbourhoods (Dharavi in Mumbai with its million people is often cited as an example). If an urban village thrives, it may become middle class, and gentrification may set in. Ultimately, as you often see in great developed cities in the West, the very village character is lost to a completely commercialised or even disneyfied pretence of an urban village — it becomes a shopping, dining or entertainment ‘lifestyle’ experience just for visitors.

Intervention can sustain and safeguard the precious vitality of the urban village, but it must differ according to location, as well as which stage in its evolution the neighbourhood has reached. Sanitation may be a life-and-death issue in one place, keeping chain retailers at bay may matter in another. The UABB lesson is that whatever the situation of an urban village, the starting point is to engage with the villagers. UABB crafted a tailored response to Nantou, but it had satellite locations in other urban villages as well. For example, in a semi-rural village at the edge of Guangming in the far north of the Shenzhen, with very different challenges to inner-city villages, UABB’s intervention was about equipping an ageing community with confidence and facilities to endure as change comes with a new metro line. 

There’s a lot to learn from urban villages. Big-time developments follow a global blueprint, but the urban villages had no blueprint. They are sustainable and vibrant while staying local – and each is different. In Shenzhen, every time an urban village is lost, another chapter of its true history is deleted — not just of the breakneck, unconstrained Deng-era growth, but often, the ghosts and traces of far earlier times. And just as in any city, when an urban village goes, its host city loses part of its soul.


More of the interview with Meng Yan on CoBo Social, January 2018. Blueprint publishes my review of UABB Shenzhen March 2018 

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Our Proposal to Curate the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019: NO WAY BACK from the FUBuLoUS Team

In October 2017, I led a team to respond to an Open Call for Curator of Oslo Architecture Triennale (OAT) 2019. We called ourselves FUBuLoUS and our proposal was titled NO WAY BACK.

OAT received 71 curatorial proposals from across the world. In November, they announced their shortlist. Our NO WAY BACK proposal was in the final five. 

In December, OAT announced the winner: think tank director Phineas Harper and urban researcher Cecilie Sachs Olsen, with a team including Maria Smith and Matthew Dalziel of architecture practice Interrobang. With the rest of my team, I offer them heartiest congratulations and I look forward to seeing the results of their work in 2019.  

Our NO WAY BACK proposal follows…


NO WAY BACK, a proposal by FUBuLoUS

171018 No Way Back artwork 72 @ Christopher Rainbow (final)

Artwork by Christopher Rainbow @ Christopher Rainbow 2017


We are a team of non-architects who will work as a curatorial collective under the name of FUBuLoUS. This stands for Future Users of Buildings, Locations and Urban Scenarios.

Our theme takes the Curator Call’s baseline, ’the role and relevance of architecture in the future’, and goes further. We say, let’s assume the future has happened, and we are already in a ‘new reality’. To do this, we have to specify future scenarios. We then ask: What should the architecture of the future be — the buildings themselves, individually and together?

The scenarios we ask architects, as well as artists, designers and academics, to respond to are:
(1) an Artificial Intelligence-led future with robots active in everyday environments, and a trans-human population (humans enhanced technologically)
(2) a world beyond the ’tipping point’ of climate change (where temperature and sea-level will be substantially higher and the biosphere is catastrophically disrupted)
(3) an outreach into space (whether for survival or not)

These scenarios will be refined. They are serious, but we will remember that joy and fun things are inherent to human nature and we will not exclude them.

Our title for OAT 2019 is NO WAY BACK

Conceptual and thematical curatorial proposal

Architecture, technology, and human ways of living are inextricably linked; our lives are in part shaped by our technology and how we design the spaces in which we live; which architectures help us flourish depends on the technological underpinning and the lives we wish to lead. Our ever-increasing technological power, then, will likely lead us down new, unlikely paths: demanding new ways of living, and thus new architecture. We will challenge architects to imagine the spaces of the future by exploring three possible scenarios of where our tech may take us. Our team is—purposefully—composed of non-architects.

How non-architects can help reach the audience

Events like architectural triennales face a problem that never seems to get entirely resolved: there is a fundamental disconnect between the general public and architectural circles. The public and architects often have different concerns and interests, and this is often reinforced by public perception that architecture is contained within ‘ivory towers’ complete with its own exclusionary language and practices. Architects themselves can sometimes miss the truly human elements of their craft: individuals become pawns to move around within utopian narratives. When the architectural world reaches out to the public with, say, a triennale, they may well engage an educated, young—metropolitan—population, but even that audience then has to battle through a high density of displays and information, and the ‘take-away’ messages on offer may well remain opaque.

What is needed, then, is a way of bridging the gap between the truly imaginative, useful and creative aspects of architecture, and the truly human: we take this as the one purpose of a triennale.
The subject of the triennale must be big, easily understood, and the content must have a ‘wow factor’. The future has intrinsic ‘wow factor’, but how can we ensure that it is not dissipated in the content? This will be partly down to presentation (which previous triennales, such as OAT 2016, have excelled). But also down to ensuring that the content itself is not ‘by architects, for architects’: generating this content is our aim.

That’s why the architect-free composition of the FUBuLoUS curatorial team is crucial — although we shall collaborate closely with architects, we will not be thinking within the architectural ‘box’. We contend that this will result in a tangibly different sort of offering to the public.

But we will not being merely populist in our appeal. Professionals and academics should be open to new ideas, or seeing existing ideas from a different viewpoint. With our diverse pool of talent, knowledge and experience, we aim to be disruptive, but also constructive and in conversation with the architectural
word. Our future scenarios open substantial fields of discussion, and with respect, we ask the architectural world to respond imaginatively and clearly, so that not just us, but the public as well, will understand.

The Big Ideas

Vitruvius image licensed from Alamy

Vitruvius (image licensed from Alamy)

Just over 2,000 years ago, the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius defined three fundamental principle attributes of good architecture — robustness, utility and beauty. We will consider and refine three future scenarios which we will present to architects, asking them to visualise projects for each of them that specifically meet all these criteria.

These projects will be the basis of the two major exhibitions of OAT 2019. The issues on which they are based, the particular ideas that emerge, and their relevance to today will be the basis of the OAT conference, events, and artistic interventions. We will ensure that the architects themselves come from a diverse range of backgrounds and career-stages: the future could turn out in many ways, and imagining the future requires a diversity of perspectives.

The future scenarios are as follows:

(1) The Technologically Extrapolated Society
Technological advances change our built environment — for example, the industrial revolution introduced new typologies such as the factory, and the internal combustion engine led to freeway-dominated urbanism. The technological phenomena already transforming twenty-first century life — deeper digital penetration in almost all field of human activity, generating and harvesting Big Data, the rise of the algorithm, dynamic distributed networks, the development of work-robots, etc — are not going to slow any time soon. Architects and urbanists have already started modelling neo-utopias: the Smart City. Meanwhile, yet other technologies are emerging that may substantially impact society — quantum computing, nano-technology, geo- engineering, human gene hacking, and so forth.
What kinds of futures will these technologies lead us to? We should be wary of easy narratives: the killer robots of technological dystopia or the luxury space-communism of technological utopia) Our futures should be imaginative then, but feasible. Specifically, we assume Artificial Intelligence is already the prime agency of influence or control in society, and that we share our world with robots big and small. Further, we imagine that human enhancement— the integration of technological add-ons into the body, and/or the editing of human genes — as well as a converging integration of biological elements into cyborgs, results in trans- humans being part of the population. We ask architects to respond. Our questions may include:
What does the ultimately digital home look like?
What new typologies will arise?
What will the boundary be between the virtual and physical (built) environment?
What does a city look like that is shared with ubiquitous robots, and even trans-humans?
How might architecture respond to a post-scarcity society?

(2) The Human Habitat in a Disrupted Biosphere
Dramatic increases in anthropogenic effects at a global level, particularly prodigious CO2 increases in the atmosphere, will likely result in increased global temperatures, themselves bringing phenomena such as sea-level rise, desertification and the increased frequency of extreme weather events. The Paris Agreement seeks to limit this to 1.5C, above which ‘tipping points’ are likely, resulting in irreversible, catastrophic change. Architecture is already considering and implementing how buildings may play a part in avoiding catastrophe (sustainable sourcing, energy performance, environmental building regulations, green rating systems etc). We ask how architecture could respond in the catastrophic scenario
To what kind of architecture of landscape, housing, energy and indeed mankind itself will considerable climate change lead?
We will ask architects to respond to issues like:
What designs for coastal cities or island nations that have already been flooded could prevent them from being abandoned?
Could ideas like biospheres be further developed so that large populations could remain in places that have been rendered barren by climate change?
Since climate change potentially drives mass migration, are there viable mobile architectures to accommodate non-rooted populations?

(3) Outreach into Space
In 2013, Foster + Partners designed a 3-D printed habitat for the lunar surface. In 2016, the ESA (European Space Agency)’s director general, Jan Woerner, announced a vision of a ‘Moon Village’, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk outlined a rocket he is developing to take 100 or more to Mars, with the aim of populating the planet with one million people within a century. Some, such as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, say that humanity has no choice but to colonise space in order to survive.
We invite architectural concepts for living sustainably beyond the Earth.

We may also consider the question of moving beyond the Solar System by launching robots that build habitable environments, and the means to recreate and nurture humanity and supporting ecosystems from local materials with genetic data transmitted across space.

We propose splitting the future themes between the two venues, DOGA, and the National Museum- Architecture, with (1) ‘The Technologically Extrapolated Society’ in one. In the other ‘The Human Habitat in a Disrupted Biosphere’ and ‘Outreach into Space’ are zones in the same space, because they are complimentary opposites.
We also invite the Oslo Business Region, as a Core Partner in OAT, to mount an exhibition about the foreseeable future of Oslo as an incubator for tech and a Smart City for its population and visitors, to demonstrates the assertion that ‘Nordic tech has become hot, and for a relatively compact city, Oslo punches far above its weight’. The magnificent Rådhus is our dream venue suggestion!

We also envision the construction of a temporary installation in an open area where a pavilion will reflect the future scenarios in its design and operation (digital interfaces etc). It will be a stage for live events, in a programme yet to be developed. It will reach out into the cultural life of the city itself. The capacity to host film is crucial — one idea we may pursue is a science-fiction film programme where screenings are followed by public discussion of the future architectures in the film.

We have a deep skill base regarding publication— every FUBuLoUS member is a writer. Our collective portfolio includes several published books and webzines.
We recognise the need to organise a big conference and an international academic forum. While the FUBuLoUS team includes one full-time academic, and all have varying degrees of experience and participation in conferences, we call on our own networks and OAT Core Partners to assist and provide expertise to deliver this conference.

Structure of the curatorial team

(in alphabetical order)

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 16.49.43

Adrian Currie, philosopher with Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, Cambridge ile/adrian-currie



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Andre Dekker, artist and founder of Observatorium Rotterdam
(Andre specifies his position in the team as ‘Place-Maker’)


Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 16.52.35.pngChristiane Bürklein, journalist and consultant, Montemarzino / Berlin


Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 16.54.29.pngDominique Chouchani, creative consultant and event designer, Beirut / Dubai




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Herbert Wright, writer and contributing editor to Blueprint magazine, London


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Zuzanna Skalska, design trend analyst and strategist, Eindhoven




No single member of the FUBuLoUS has the experience of curating an event comparable with OAT. However, it is all there, distributed across the team, including architectural curation, complex exhibition management, event programming, academic conferencing and digital publications.


Detailed Team Member Summaries:

Adrian Currie

AOS: Philosophy of Science, particularly Biology & the Historical Sciences.
AOC: Environmental Philosophy, Philosophy of Psychology, Metaphysics.
CSER, University of Cambridge The David Attenborough Building Cambridge CB2 3QZ UK

Adrian is a philosopher of science who is interested in how science works when the going gets tough: when resources are limited, knowledge is thin and targets are obscure and obstinate. He emphasizes the importance of scientists adopting opportunistic, speculative and pluralistic strategies. At the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, he is interested in the interaction between the culture of science and emerging technologies. He has also worked with the Centre for the Future of Intelligence and the Royal Society considering how narratives about artificial intelligence affects the science’s development.

His interest in narrative and speculation, and the knowledge he brings about the latest thinking on Existential and Catastrophic Risk is invaluable for considering the architecture of these possible futures.

2016-Present. Postdoctoral Researcher, CSER, Cambridge University
2016-Present: Research Associate, Trinity Hall
2014-2016 “Eyes High” Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Calgary
2010-2014 Phd Thesis, Australian National University (awarded June 2014) Rock, Bone & Ruin: an optimist’s guide to historical science (supervisor: Kim Sterelny)

2009-2010 MA in Philosophy Victoria University of Wellington
2003-2008 BA(Hons) in Philosophy 1st Class, Victoria University of Wellington

Publications (a selection)
Monograph (forthcoming) Rock, Bone & Ruin: an optimist’s guide to the historical sciences. MIT University Press.
2017. Accelerating the carbon cycle: the ethics of enhanced weathering. Biology Letters, 13(4), 20160859. (with Holly Lawford-Smith)
2017. Gouldian Arguments & the Sources of Contingency. Biology & Philosophy 32 (2) pp 243–261 (with Alison McConwell).
2016. Introduction: Scientific Knowledge of the Deep Past. Studies in History & Philosophy of Science A. 55:43-46 (with Derek Turner).
2016. Ethnographic Analogy, the Comparative Method & Archaeological Special Pleading. Studies of the History & Philosophy of Science A. 55, 84-94.

Professional services (a selection):
Organizer, Rocks, Bones & Ruins, Workshop. Sydney 2014
Organizer, Simplification & Distortion as Scientific Strategy. Workshop, IRH Bucharest 2015 Organizer, An Afternoon of Philosophy & Ecology. Workshop, University of Calgary 2016 Organizer, Risk & The Culture of Science. Workshop, Cambridge University 2017
Co-Founder and Regular Contributor to Extinct (
Organizer, Philosophy meets Paleontology in the Badlands. Workshop, Dinosaur Provincial Park.


Andre Dekker

Andre Dekker (Delft, 1956, living in Rotterdam and Arnhem, educated as a primary school teacher) is an artist/writer and founding partner of Observatorium. Within Observatorium he is responsible for contextual research and concepts of artworks in relation to history, landscape and communities. He is a regular guest at universities and art academies throughout Europe in order to test and practice with students and young professionals the philosophy and methods of Observatorium.

Andre is author and editor of: Big Pieces of Time, Observatorium’s monograph (010 Publishers, Rotterdam), Warten auf den Fluss, on a travelling artwork for Triennale Emscherkunst and The Green Shadow, an artist book for Urbane Ku nste Ruhr. In 2017 his booksZollverein Park (Walther Ko nig Verlag) andVerborgen Landschap (Jap Sam Books) were published. Currently he is researching the relationships between 20th century public art, classical garden art and cultural astronomic sites.

Artist group Observatorium, founded 1997 by Geert van de Camp, Andre Dekker and Ruud Reutelingsperger in Rotterdam – The Netherlands, creates sculptures to give new meaning and use to environments that are in transit. Waste lands, urban wilderness and suburbia is where artists together with the owners of the site introduce a investigative and pioneering use of the public realm, using sculpture, (landscape) architecture and participatory placemaking.

From 2008-2014 Andre Dekker worked on two urban parks in abandoned industrial sites in collaboration with landscape architects: Halde Norddeutschland and Zollverein Park, both in the Ruhr Valley, Germany. The spaghetti junction Kleinpolderplein in Rotterdam is being developed as a city park by Observatorium and partners. Since 2016 a large scale trail of artworks in the Dutch delta area between Rotterdam and Dordrecht is in preparation. In 2017 the artists will create a flood mound and an open-air swimming pool beyond the dikes of the Netherlands.

From 2014-2017 Andre was part of a multidisciplinary team of five artists, creating Nomanslanding, a floating sculpture including a music performance for Sydney Harbor, Ruhrtriennale in Duisburg and Tramway in Glasgow.

The description of highlights of Observatorium indicates the nature of the artworks: Observatorium Nieuw- Terbregge, (2001) an enclosed asphalt garden with a view on the highway in Rotterdam, including a war memorial. Growing Street (2003), a do-it-yourself-street for a juveniles prison in Vught.

Haenhaus (2006) a steel frame barn on a spoil-tip for performances and meditation. Pausa (2008) exterior museum gallery for the Architecture Biennale Venice. Waiting for the River (2010-2017), covered bridge for spending the night on the site of a future river bed, part of Emscherkunst triennale.

Pe age Sauvage(2014), a large permanent public sculpture connecting the city with a nature preserve as part of the collection of the art-trail Estuaire in Nantes. Zandwacht (2016), large permanent sculpture, crowning the last land reclamation of the Netherlands, in the process of being covered by sand dunes, also used for performances.

Additional notes: From 2014-2017 Andre was part of a multidisciplinary team of five artists, creating Nomanslanding, a floating sculpture including a music performance for Sydney Harbor, Ruhrtriennale in Duisburg and Tramway in Glasgow.


Christiane Bürklein

German, degree in languages and literature at University of Genoa, Italy.
Living in Italy since 31 years with 24 years experience as linguistic consultant, translator and mediator.
Since 2011 editor of Floornature (an international architectural website where she curates a blog on sustainable architecture and regularly contributes to the Photography section. She is involved in the organisation of the website’s annual international architectural contest Next Landmark and the related events and exhibitions.
Christiane is PR and Communications Manager of German photographer Ken Schluchtmann. In 2015 and 2016, she organised his exhibition “Architecture and Landscape in Norway” in different places in Germany (Rudolstadt, Stuttgart – with the patronage of the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin), in Italy (Milan – with the patronage of the Norwegian Embassy in Rome, in presence of the architects from Snøhetta and Mantey Kula) and Beirut, Lebanon.
Consultant of University of Pisa, DESTeC, for the International Summer School “The City and the Water” 2015, 2016, 2017, assisting the organisation of the workshop, communication and fundraising.
Since 2015, Christiane has also taught communication strategies to architects, with a focus on personal branding and the use of social media, during conferences and architecture-related workshops in Italy. Christiane collaborates with EXPOWALL Gallery, Milan, specialists in architectural photography, as consultant and networker.
Fluent in German, Italian and English. Creative networking and connecting people is her core business and sometimes she does it with the help of her chocolate cake as she loves baking and making people happy

Ken Schluchtmann, Architektur und Landschaft in Norwegen, edited by Hatje Cantz (2014);
Architecture on the Web. A critical approach to communication, edited by Paolo Schianchi, libreria universitaria, Essay “Who do you want to be. Designing your own communication strategy” and curatorship of the external contributions (2014)
TYIN tegnestue: In Detail, edited by Kristine Guzman, published by MUSAC/By Architects, Essay “Details Matter. Beyond Materials” (2015).

Additional notes:

Organisation of complex exhibitions with communication concept (Ken Schluchtmann “Architecture and Landscape in Norway”).
Daily contributions as member of the editorial staff of international architectural website and webzine since 2012, including social media management
Postface in “Webcreativity – Creatività e Visual Marketing Post-Web” by Paolo Schianchi, Dario Flaccovio editore (2016)

Christiane’s statement: “OAT 2019 for me is a unique chance to connect architects with real people, their desires, needs and worries. I’d love to create a positive and bi-directional exchange of ideas and inspirations”


Dominique Chouchani
Creative Consultant & Event Designer

Danish & Lebanese (1986), Curator of Innovation Enhancer of Experience Explorer & Traveler Leader & Hunter for Challenges Solopreneur Passionate for Life // Family // Friendship & Happiness
Fluent in English, French & Arabic, good level of German & Danish
Master in Visual Communication – Danish Design School, Copenhagen, Denmark

Actually Dominique is working as Creative Consultant & Event Designer – Freelancer. She has been Creative Director of Matisse Events Boutique event agency, Beirut-Lebanon from 2013 to 2016.
Besides launching, organising, planning and designing a huge number of events, web designs and visual communications from Berlin to Munich and Paris since 2009 she performs as a Visual Jockey in several venues around Europe and the Middle East.

Dominque is founder & managing partner of DAS SCHARF Visual Communication (2010, ongoing).


Develop, design & execute concepts for corporate events, festivals and exhibitions, engagement strategies and presentations for clients following brand guidelines and internal organization usage.
Deline a peripheral vision for each project & a deep understanding of design practices & set design. Oversee the creative process & ensure implementation of creative concepts on field, in line with initial concept and required image.

Engage & manage a team of freelance designers/artists and constantly develops new ideas and methods to improve eficiency and creative process.
Produce expressive & creative ideas with professionals and translates those ideas into visual representations in form of renderings and schematic design documents.

Proficient with a variety of software, including Adobe Creative Suite.

Additional notes: Event Concept, Design & Planning for five editions of What’s Zap! Open Air Cinema International Talent Showcase in Film & Animation. Berlin, Germany [2011,2012,2013] & Beirut, Lebanon [2014,2015]

Dominique’s statement: Urban Utopia
“People Want To Be Bowled Over By Something Special. Nine Times Out Of Ten You Can Forget, But That Tenth Time,That Peak Experience, Is What People Want. That’s What Can Move The World. That’s Art.” Murakami (South of the Border, West of the Sun)
At a time when all of humanity’s differences are taking center stage, there’s one thing that unites us all: Earth. In protecting it and enriching it, it is vital that we manifest and change our attitudes and behavior especially when the result of the effort may only be seen years from now.
There’s no way back! We are living proof that can breathe new life into the city.


Herbert Wright


Herbert is a leading architectural and urbanist writer, familiar with events, trends and people in architecture internationally. He has profiled practises and projects around the world and interviewed some of the greatest architects of our age, from Charles Correa to Zaha Hadid. He gives occasional talks and chairs discussions. Herbert also has an extensive portfolio of published writing on art and other subjects.


2012 to present: Contributing Editor, Blueprint magazine
Cover stories, features, reviews, comment (including interviews with over five Pritzker prize winners and coverage of biennales/triennales in Venice, Chicago, Shenzhen, Lisbon and Oslo). Previously, contributor since 2006

2006-present: Freelance Architecture and Urbanism Journalist 2006-present
Various publications including Guardian Online (example), C3 (Korea), Abitare (Italy), The Global Urbanist (example), l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (France), Uncube

2006-present: Art Critic and Reporter: Various publications including FADmagazine (London), CoBo Social (HK) — 2007-10 art show reporter Le cool London

2014-16 :editor-at-large Journal of Wild Culture — 2013-14 Residency as ‘Le Flaneur’ columnist for RIBA Journal (example) — 2009-11 Wired contributor on future technology and design

2011-12: Curator, Lisbon Open House 2012
proposal, planning, programme, presentation, publicity and co-authorship of the guide book for the opening edition of the city-wide architectural public-access programme, working with the Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa team

Previous experience includes technical journalism; press clipping (news agglomeration); various positions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and more…

– Wolfgang Buttress, Herbert Wright et al, ed. Herbert Wright (2015): Be Hive – UK Pavilion Milan Expo. Wolfgang Buttress Studio, Nottingham, 134pp
– Preface essay by Herbert Wright in People, Place, Purpose – Mecanoo Architecten by Francine Houben (2015)
– Herbert Wright et al, ed. Herbert Wright (2008): Instant Cities. Black Dog Publishing, London, 196pp
– Herbert Wright (2008): Skyscrapers: Fabulous Buildings That Reach for the Sky. Parragon, London 192pp – Herbert Wright (2006): London High. Frances Lincoln, London, 227pp.

Some additional notes
2017 Juror, SCI-Arc Graduate Thesis Weekend, Los Angeles
2014 Consultant and appearance in Anna-Karin Grönroos’ documentary Ecopolis
2013 Second most quoted commentator in Rotor’s book Behind the Green Door, Oslo Architecture Triennial

Education BSc (with Hons) Physics and Astrophysics, University of London


Zuzanna Skalska

Founding Partner, 360Inspiration

Zuzanna Skalska is the driving force behind 360inspiration. Skalska’s rich experience together with her shrewd understanding of what is going on in the world of design lead to inspiring ideas for new business. She observes the developments in society from a socio-economic and technological perspective and discovers the latest insights by annually visiting the most influential, international fairs, seminars and conferences. Her no-nonsense approach gives you the insights you need for your business. Zuzanna Skalska brings trends to life in a clear, distinctive and passionate way!


Zuzanna Skalska has been working for almost 20 years as a trend analyst and strategist in the field of creative industry. At the end of the 1990s, she began her career as a Sensorial Trend Analyst at Philips Design and from 2001 she worked for 14 years as a Head of Trend Research at design agency VanBerlo in The Netherlands. In 2007, Skalska founded the 360Inspiration label and in 2014 she started her independent, trans-disciplinary advisory platform for business, industry, government and education. Skalska is an author of the 360oTrend Reports – winner of the Red Dot Award 2009.

Skalska was a member of the Board of Directors of the Dutch Design Week Eindhoven (DDW) for a period of 7 years. As from 2010, she is now a member of the Advisory Board. Since 2006, Skalska has been a lecturer at the Department of Industrial Design of the TU/e Technical University Eindhoven and Parsons The New School of Design in New York. In 2011, she founded together with Li Edelkoort and Piotr Voelkel the new design academy – School of Form in Poznan, Poland.

This versatile background and her expertise in the area of trend research are building blocks for projects in the area of trend, vision and strategy and for inspiring trend lectures to companies, government agencies and educational institutions all over the world.

According to the Top50 ranking of the magazine Frits, Zuzanna Skalska is No. 6 of 50 of the most influential women in the city and region of Eindhoven. She was chosen as the Expat TOP-10-selection of persons of foreign origin that have made a special contribution to the city in the area of technology, knowledge and design.

Additional notes: Zuzanna has been in the organisation of the annual Dutch Design Week since 2003. Curator of the Made in Brainport exhibition during Munich Creative Business Week 2012.



Letters of recommendation (1)

October 2017

Herbert Wright is a leading critic, an observer of our time, wise and sensitive. He combines rigour and imagination. This is doubtless because he has been nourished (in his education) by physical science, and has become an observer and critic of architecture and of urbanism, pondering skyscrapers and the evolution of cities.

These experiences have given Herbert a sort of retreat, he understands urban and architectural facts in terms of transformation of the planet and at the same time as new anthropology in the making.

I am confident in the proposal he leads for Oslo, and if it is successful, I anticipate that it will create an appeal to attract and gather a large revelation of ideas and works about imagining the role and relevance of architecture in the future.

Christian de Portzamparc (signature)
Pritzker Laureate 1994
Rue La Bruyère 38, 75009 Paris

Letters of recommendation (2)

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I was a Juror at SCI-Arc’s Graduate Thesis Weekend

There seems to be something about the name SCI-Arc that invites wordplays. Maybe it implies reaching out into the blue like a ‘sky-arc’, or a vessel for minds that is floating into the unknown like a ‘psy-ark’. And is it just coincidence that ‘sci’ is usually followed by ‘-fi’, and all its voyages of imagination? The name actually stands for Southern California Institute of Architecture, but there’s some truth in all of those flights of fancy — when it was founded as a non-profit school in 1972 with a faculty that including Thom Mayne (who’d win the 2005 Pritzker Prize), it was with a radical pedagogy, a ‘college without walls’ to nurture free thinking and challenge the system. Since then, alumni include another Pritzker-winner, Shigeru Ban, and its undergraduate and graduate programmes are still ranking top five in DesignIntelligence’s 2017 surveys. But does it still have that radical edge of its past? Every September, SCI-Arc stage a Graduate Thesis Weekend, and this year, I was a juror. That gave me achance to see for myself.

SCI-ArcSince 2001, SCI-Arc has occupied an extraordinary building just a block from the Los Angeles River in an industrial area now regenerated as the Art District. Its converted 1907 rail warehouse premises was one of California’s pioneering reinforced structures, designed by Harrison Albright. It stretches almost 400m along Santa Fe Avenue, a linear box on a vast scale enclosing industrial volume well-lit by a long stretch of clerestory windows, and it proclaims its name boldly in steel letters mounted on the roof, just like a lot of pre-war American downtown buildings did. The Graduate Thesis Weekend jurors consisted of faculty and invited distinguished academics, architects, and wild cards. I was one of the wild cards, a journalist who had not studied architecture but writes about it, and initially, that made me almost as nervous as some of the youngsters presenting their projects. Anyone offering live ‘crit’ side-by-side with some the best in American architecture had better make their words matter.

Still, the welcome from SCI-Arc faculty was informal and warm when we gathered for coffee at SCI-Arc just before the first jury sessions. It’s strange that architects and mourners are the two types that gather wearing black, and there was no shortage of that amongst my fellow jurors — but this was far from a funeral. It was about the future — of architecture and its would-be practitioners. Their models and visualisations seemed to fill half the ground floor. Separated into teams of five or six jurors, we took our front row seats before each project’s display as the graduates, notes in hands and rehearsal time over, each talked them through before being grilled and judged. 

The first two presentations I saw were puzzling. They centred on harvesting urban data, but there was no clear idea about what the data would be. The second student, Ivy Chan, presented Happily Similar, with a cartoon inner-city Baltimore neighbourhood. The animation of neighbourhood characters was strong, and animation could be where her future lie, I suggested — that’s not necessarily a put-down, especially considering that SCI-Arc has distinguished alumni who made their name beyond architecture, such as designer Tom Farrage, or artist Abinada Meza. A third presentation, The Transparency Paradox by Anna Gringer, was also about data, or at least playing with facade transparency in a proposed New York data centre — at last, I was seeing architecture. Next, Vincent Ho showed his design for a Music Centre at the Museum of London site by the Barbican. It visibly expressed its 3D-printed construction  — it looked like a case of form following fabrication rather than function, but it was imaginative.

After the first day, jurors were driven out into the setting Sun along the Santa Monica Freeway, a luminous experience with conjured up the exhilaration that British critic Rayner Banham found driving in Los Angeles in the 1970s, when he coined the name Autopia to apply to what Lewis Mumford had called the ‘anti-city’. 

170908 1913 drinks in Santa Monica

Some faculty and guest jurors in Santa Monica

We were headed to the house of SCI-Arc’s vice director John Enright, a modernist concrete volume glazed big and clear with a higher, connected pavilion, all on a slope from which the vista of trees and houses stretched to the Pacific. It was a beautiful evening. With darkness fallen, a philosophical mood had descended on Thom Mayne when I talked with him. He mused on what had become of the political energy of students since SCI-Arc’s early days.

A jury mulls over Omar Baqazi's Facade Gestures

A jury mulls over Omar Baqazi’s Facade Gestures

The next day, my first juries were led by Peter Trummer, Amsterdam-based architect, head of the Urban Design Institute at University of Innsbruck, Austria and visiting faculty at SCI-Arc. Omar Baqazi presented a seductive, lyrical project in which Facade Gestures intervene in Georgian buildings in London, which in reality of course would be ‘listed’, meaning protected by law from the slightest alteration.

Rebecca Wiscombe's Typological Organs

Rebecca Wiscombe’s Typological Organs

Rebecca Wiscombe  presented furniture juxtapositions as big dark sculptures, all with übercool Swedish names- certainly original, and the meticulousness of her drawings and modes was exceptional. Javier Cardiel shows us his intervention in a Downtown LA site. It looked good- but his building was a car park, and that carries baggage. City centres around the world are on the rebound, but it’s people, not cars, that are bringing back life – and Downtown LA is a brilliant example. In London, we build massive buildings (examples- the Shard, the new Bloomberg London HQ) with five or less parking spaces! Jan Gehl should be priority recommended urbanist reading at SCI-Arci. Despite the spell Banham had cast on me, I’m the only juror who spells out the new reality: ‘cars are the enemy of the city’, I tell Javier.

Javier Cardiel's elevation for Downtown LA car park. Photo courtesy SCI-Arc

Javier Cardiel’s elevation for Downtown LA car park. Photo courtesy SCI-Arc

For me at least, the star of the morning juries is Po-Hsien, who in Stages had imagined a block cut with a tight, slightly disrupted 4×16 grid of alleys and courtyards, in which events from a manga-like comic-book story animate its surfaces. When I ask if the spaces relate to hutongs, Trummer shakes his head like it shouldn’t be asked. Maybe not, but clearly the model he presented had roots in a traditional urban vernacular, and in interplay with a contemporary graphic culture, it felt reborn in a new millennium, and super-charged.

That afternoon’s juries were with John Enright’s team and we considered memorable projects.

Jacob Waas presents Eh, That_ll Do

Jacob Waas with Eh, That’ll Do

There was a devil-may-care confidence to Jacob Waas and the title of his project, Eh, That’ll Do. He had created a vast structure of modules like building blocks in columns, all knocked askew and splaying out in lines across the water’s edge, suggesting the figure of a slumped man. Somehow this was meant to be architecture. Striking and original, it provoked much analytical discussion. Waas had set himself a starting point of ‘cartoon physics’, but my common sense rebelled. I needed to speak my mind: ‘We live in an age of buildings trying to be sculptures, but this is a sculpture that’s not even trying to be a building’.… Another confident young man Conor Covey presented The Promiscuous Line, in which a thick black circulation passage wandering madly around the envelope of a partially deconstructed modernist volume. This looked fun, and engineerable, but imagine wandering through windowless tubes to reach anywhere – why not clad them in dark, Miesian glass? Meenakshi Dravid’s Borderline Madness visualised a fascinating multilevel quarter that put me in mind of the Metabolists, but with day-glo colours. Zeinap Cinar had let blue organic patches infiltrate inside and out of a Hollywood vernacular block, an attractive idea though hard to relate to her inspiration, Ed Ruscha’s 1966 photographic work Every Building on Sunset Strip. The last of the day’s projects gave a very different respect to local LA vernacular and changed the mood in an extraordinary way. At the heart of Keith Marks’ work were three large photos of suburban houses, banal yet uncanny. I could feel the silence of standing there in the street before them, and a sense of mystery about what was behind those facades. That mood is something architectural representations never creates — it explicates the visual intent of the architect, rather than implicate the lives of the users of architecture.

The Sunday morning saw the last round of juries. Mine was headed by Andrew Zago, LA architect and head of the faculty’s Design Studio. The following week in Chicago I would be dazzled by his own project, exhibited at the Chicago Architecture Biennial —  huge overlapping grid panels with a sort of digital sheen made by physically separating metallic layers of colour. 

Jiali Carrie Li_s New Dagwood

Jiali Carrie Li’s New Dagwood

At SCI-Arc, we considered projects that included a couple of art centres that referenced sandwiches. A floating box volume mounted on random materials including velvet lived up to its ‘Sloppy’ title, but there was lot to say about the next one, a stacked composition of building sections differentiated by colour and function, then distorted to super-Gehry extremes. Jiali Carrie Li called it New Dagwood.

Saba Samiel’s urban plan of an entire quarter of Milan, Democratic Cohesion, was so seriously designed and executed, that it felt un-necessary to include the landmark element of a volume curving up from the horizontal with the energy of a horse rearing up on its back legs. Another meticulous effort was Palak Mandhana’s The Added Dimension, with a model of a mid-rise block that was a lot of podium and not much tower, but its PoMO facades had something of Michael Graves, and that may be timely…

170910 1302 presentation from above

A view from above SCI-Arc’s Graduate Thesis Weekend

I had several take-aways from the Graduate Thesis Weekend. The first was that there was a lot of talent being nurtured here— whether or not projects had grounding in basic issues of structure, function or context, by intent or otherwise. The juries reminded me that academic language or concerns can be obtuse and arcane. If that was also the case when guiding students, some straight talk could have cut to the flaws in some projects before they became dominant. Getting real is not the antithesis of free-thinking.

What I didn’t see was much political agenda. The radical spirit of architecture schools was alive worldwide in the 1970s, from the shake-up of the AA in London under Alvin Boyarsky to the professorial style (as well as the architecture) of Vilanova Artigas at FAU, São Paulo… and to SCI-Arc’s foundation. It followed from the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, but times have changed. Today’s American agenda includes trashing the EPA and the Paris Agreement and walling off Mexico. My biggest message to SCI-Arc and its students is this: there is plenty of politics for a would-be architect to respond to, right now.

SCI-Arc demands imagination at the undergraduate level, and clearly, the graduates delivered it — diverse and vibrant, sometimes naive but almost always free-spririted. That gives hope, and it chimes with the founding principles of the college.

All photos © Herbert Wright 2018, except ‘Javier Cardiel’s elevation for Downtown LA car park’- photo courtesy SCI-Arc

This blog was subsequently edited and re-published in November 2017 on as ‘California Dreaming: Exploring the Visions of SCI-Arc Graduates‘ 

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California at London’s Design Museum

Tools — that’s what Justin McGuirk, co-curator of California: Designing Freedom (at London’s Design Museum until 15 October 2017), says the show is all about. ‘Our theme is tools of personal liberation’, he says. ‘California has specialised in democratising tools, from the 1970s onwards’. That proposition seems straightforward, but it also raises questions.

The wall blurb as you enter offers another proposition: ‘Designed in California is not a style but an attitude’. That attitude has long been can-do — optimistic, individualist, un-hung up on authority or convention, and often ‘stoked’ to be outdoors. The show presents bright California icons such as skateboards going back to 1951 (a chunk of wood with nailed-on wheels), surfboards, a first Barbie Doll (1959) and the Wham-O Regular  


A replica of Hardy and Vaughn’s Captain America Chopper with the driverless Waymo car. Photo Herbert Wright

Frisbee (1968). A star item is a replica of the Captain America Chopper from seminal drop-out-dudes-on-bikes film Easy Rider (1969). Unlike the film company, this show credits the African-American motorcycle masters who built it, Ben Hardy and Clifford Vaughan


There’s a lot more rooted in the counter-culture revolution — some parts feel like a reprise of the V&A’s recent show about the 1960s, You Say You Want a Revolution (reviewed here). 

Emory Douglas, Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed people of the world

Emory Douglas poster from 1969.
Collection of the Oakland Museum of California 

In a zone called Tools of Self-Expression and Rebellion, we see socio-political revolution voiced in design, such as Emery Douglas’s militant Black Panther artwork (1968-71), and the original Rainbow Flag (1978) by Gilbert Baker which would soon morph into the globally-recognised gay banner. Psychedelic gig posters by Victor Moscoso from San Francisco are way-out trippy (and resonate exactly with those of Hapshash and the Coloured Coats in the Summer of Love’s parallel capital London). Graphic design is applied to an ultimate psychic liberation tool, LSD, in the grid-repeating tiny icons of acid blotters from the 1970s. It pushes beyond the edge in the 1990s when Ray-Gun magazine’s David Carson, who started on surf titles, once put a Bryan Ferry interview he found boring into the Zapf Dingbats font. It replaces letters with symbols.

The show homes in on the off-grid commune movement and the electronic nerd-driven dawn of personal computing, in both of which Stewart Brand played a key role. A copy of Brandt’s Whole Earth Catalog, the thick product guide-come-environmentalist manual published 1968-72, sits next to a geodesic dome frame. Inside it, you can settle on beanbags to watch an instant inflatable dome commune being set up in the Santa Cruz Mountains desert. The hippies who built it frolic on their newly-inflated roof, while a Grateful Dead soundtrack plays. This frontiers lifestyle alternative to settled society still calls today’s city types into the desert – but in a conveniently packaged kind of way. The week-long Burning Man Festival started on a San Francisco beach in 1986 but we see a more recent ariel view of the ephemeral city that hosts its 65,000-odd participants — in next-door state Nevada.

Los Angeles, of course, has a very different sort of urbanism, and this show spotlights it well. Southern California’s post-war freeway system was built as if Robert Moses had been beamed from the inconvenient neighbourhoods of New York into a sun-drenched paradise fully signed up to America’s love affaire with the automobile. Amongst others, it seduced British architectural critic Reyner Banham, who appropriated the word Autopia for the anti-city he saw. We see a clip from the 1972 documentary he made for the BBC, cruising past the Mattel toy factory, as a dashboard cartridge tape tells him is that Barbie Dolls and Hot Wheel toys are made there. He was not the first to identify a new urbanism out West. In 1968, Robert Venuri, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour had seen it in Las Vegas, from which came Learning from Las Vegas (1972) — but again, that’s Nevada and this time not in the show. What we do get is the film Environmental Communications Looks at Los Angeles (1977), shown as the creative collective designed it to be seen — on a big screen wth monitors either side. That references Tom Wolfe, who said that LA is seen through windscreen and side-mirrors. It is a collide-a-scope of the city, its crazy billboards and suburban sprawl,  glimpses of Hispanic street culture and ariel film of the new outsize Century Plaza City tower (designed by Twin Towers architect Minoru Yamasaki), all to a soundtrack spanning from Handel to the Beach Boys.


The film Environmental Communications Looks at Los Angeles runs in a 3-screen configuration that references Tom Wolfe. Photo: Herbert Wright

Pasadena-based artist Syd Mead saw the city differently. Some of his 1980s sci-fi fantasy gouache works defined the urban look of Blade Runner, and his LA street of 2019 is no longer a New World city but a moody, neon-jazzed extrapolation of older urbanisms – New York meets Tokyo, the LA of film noir. Although the Design Museum show doesn’t make the point, it’s interesting that the reality of LA in 2017 is less and less Autopia. The vast city without a centre now has a vibrant downtown, it is densifying, a metro system is spreading ever deeper across it. People are winning against cars. Those freeways weren’t tools of liberation, they just became traffic jams.

Right after he directed Blade Runner, Ridley Scott directed the ad for Apple for its 1984 Mac launch, which we see in this show. He brilliantly flips the change-the-world vision of Steve Jobs into a neo-noir smash-the-system rallying call, all in one minute. It was actually shot in England, but the personal computing revolution and all that’s followed largely belongs to California. 

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 02.27.10

An original Google office neon. Photo Luke Hayes


The same year, cyberculture was mapped out by a conference that Brand organised in the state, attended by the likes off Steve Wozniak. This show is full of gizmos, from early Apples (including an unreleased one) to a Waymo self-driving car and the latest in VR. McGuirk says that companies like Apple and Google ‘don’t look back’ – but he pressured them to get exhibits like an elegant, original, colourful 1998 neon Google sign. 

But what about that earlier California techno-cultural innovation that swept the world – Hollywood? A single item falling right outside the exhibition time-frame is doubly relevant. In 1924, Walt Disney made his first movie Alice’s Day at the Sea, montaging film of a girl onto cartoon. He made it in a garage in North Hollywood. A lot later, garage start-ups would include Hewlett Packard, Apple, and Google. Not all the California tech players are here — where, for example, is Elon Musk, whose Tesla electric cars are made in Fremont and SpaceX HQ is by LAX airport?

The elephant in the room with this show is that digital ‘personal liberation tools’ also turn us into manipulatable shadows — subject to anti-democratic social media forces, grist in the mill of Big Data. Algorithms rule and AI looms. In a Waymo, we won’t even physically be in the driving seat. Californian design has indeed cruised a freeway to the future, but at some multi-level interchange, it may have left the road marked freedom.

(This review by Herbert Wright originally appeared in Blueprint magazine 353, July 2017)

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For the Record: Professor Paweł Machcewicz’s last interview as director of the Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk, Poland, 31/3/2017

When I visited the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland, to research an article about its architecture for Blueprint magazine, I was granted time to talk with Professor Paweł Machcewicz, then the museum’s director, appointed in 2008. This proved to be Machcewicz’s last interview in the position. It is published here, for the record. 

He spoke frankly about the political and personal problems he experienced with the ruling Law and Justice party and its Culture Minister, Piotr Gliński.  

The interview transcription is presented here, followed by a brief exchange with ex-deputy director Dr Piotr M. Majewski, and response from current director Karol Nawocki, who was appointed 6 April 2017.

The Blueprint magazine article about the museum was published in May 2017 (issue 352) and should be posted online this summer.  

The Interview with Paweł Machcewicz, 31 March 2017

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 02.09.15

Paweł Machcewicz in his museum office, March 2017 – photo Herbert Wright

HW: You invited representatives of the Law & Justice party – Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) – to the Museum opening (on 23rd March 2017), they did not come. How did you feel about that?

PM: Not very well, of course. The Minister of Culture (Piotr Gliński) should be here at the opening. This is the biggest historical museum in Poland. This government and this minister keep saying they care so much about Polish history, and he didn’t come. I can also comment on the way which I learned that he would not come. He did not respond [to] my letter, I didn’t even get any response. I read in his interview with the Polish Press Agency the day before the opening that he was not going to come. Very impolite, I would say.

HW: Have you spoken to Gliński in the past? Is there a personal relationship?

PM: I have spoken to him, yes. Several times, face-to-face, but only once he invited me to his office in Warsaw, just two days after this announcement was made in April (2016) that our museum would be liquidated. There was such a public storm, a wave of indignation, over the weekend, that he invited me for a talk, and it was polite. But it didn’t change anything. And then I talked to him but it was rather a sort of public confrontation. Twice, we were both invited to the parliament, once for the session of the Committee of Culture in the lower chamber, the Sejm – the session was devoted to our museum. The second time, it was the Culture Committee of the Senate, the higher chamber. The second meeting lasted for four hours, but it was a confrontation, you couldn’t call it a discussion.

HW: Was it like an argument?

PM: No. He accused us, me and the museum, of things which are not real, like we’re devoting not enough attention to the Polish history and more on international history. Also he accused me of some irregularities in the construction works, he accused me that it lasted longer than it was planned [at] first. He also accused me that I have been staging for months an anti-government campaign, a campaign to discredit this government and himself, and that I want to become the new Minister of Culture, once his government collapses. So it was a little bit ridiculous.

HW: Is this (position) representative of the Law and Justice Party generally?

PM: No, this is quite cautious and evolving…  I can only say that in the case of Mr Gliński, he’s rather a new man in this Law and Justice party. 10 years ago, he was a liberal scholar, he was a sociologist, a professor of sociology, leading a non-governmental civic organisation, something that would be very far from this mindset of Law and Justice party. In my opinion, he’s a sort of neophyte, trying to convince [party chairman] Jarosław Kaczyński that he’s a hard fighter, that he can also destroy and use innocent people if necessary… for the sake of the party. In my opinion, he’s doing that, he’s using such accusations in order to prove that he’s one of them, in a way.

HW: It seems to be part of the rise of nationalism, Brexit and Trump, would you agree? And this is very relevant, because the exhibition starts with the rise of nationalisms [in the 1930s].

PM: Yes, in a way you are right. This is not only Trump, not only Brexit, but also [prime minister] Mr Oban in Hungary, which was the overt inspiration for our Law and Justice party. Gliński said many times before he took over power, that Poland should somehow follow the Hungarian example. But also le Pen [in France], a whole wave of such populist nationalist movements. In a way in Poland, it is more difficult to explain why it happened so abruptly, because most people in Poland believed that we are modernising our country, our economy, our society. Poland did not suffer the recession in the last economic crisis. On paper, apparently, everything looked wonderful – economic growth, the decreasing rate of unemployment. But there was some discomfort below the surface. People got frustrated that salaries were low, and also to overcome this financial crisis, our government  loosened the labour market, so very many people, especially young people, worked on a flexible, unsafe basis. My son worked in that way, and he was unhappy…

This populist movement in Poland somehow exploited the real discontent… Simply, some growing frustration which was not, perhaps, which was not seen by those people who [were] successful, well-to-do, and so on. This government is nationalistic but has real support in the countryside.

By the way, the countryside benefitted so much from European funds, but still the countryside supports this party. Perhaps because the Catholic church has [a] very strong position… Well, this is a very general picture.

HW: Was [EU Commission President, former prime minister and instigator of the Museum] Donald Tusk also invited to the opening?

PM: No, because this would be against the diplomatic protocol. He’s a European statesman, he can be invited by the prime minister [or] the president of Poland. As director, I couldn’t do it.

HW: Perhaps it would have been seen as confrontational.

PM: I was not going to do it. I organised way the opening without politicians. The only one I invited was the minister of culture, because he’s my supervisor in a way, and I did not invite any other politicians. It was very unofficial – veterans, and those who donated objects or articles to the museum. It was very touching in a way – the first person who entered the exhibition was Joanna Penson who is now 95 years old, and who was during the war a member of the Home Army [the Union of Armed Struggle]. She was arrested in 1941 and she spent four years in Ravensbrück concentration camp. I opened this museum in the company of people who really deserved to be there

HW: Museums now are becoming entertainment, and have to compete for time and attention with the internet. Do you recognise that problem, and how does this museum respond to that?

PM: In a way we have to face all these challenges, but creating this exhibition, we’re trying to find our own way, and somehow confront the fashion which somehow was created in Poland that a good museum, a modern museum would mean a museum with lots of multimedia. This was the understanding after the opening [in 2004] and due to the great success of the Warsaw Rising Museum [about the Warsaw Uprising 1944]. People got very excited about that. Of course, we have lots of multimedia – 250 installation screens, a lot. But we deliberately focused on finding and integrating into the exhibition artefacts. We have around 2,000 artefacts in the permanent exhibition. For example, just to make a comparison for you, this newly opened  [POLIN] Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw is almost purely [a] multimedia museum. They have only 150 original objects. The people who created this museum admit that is a shame, but this Jewish Museum is a child of the 90s. The project was shaped mainly in the 90s and it was the era of the greatest excitement about multimedia.

We try somehow to go beyond this horizon and we are very proud of collecting some first-class original objects. Many of them were donated and out of these 2,000 objects, more or less half are gifts or deposits. I would emphasise that this was a sort of a grass-root movement which formed itself around the museum, of people who donated objects, supported us last year… Many people who donated family objects said that if our museum was liquidated, they would withdraw these objects. It was a very touching example and I  would say an encouraging example of people at large who cared about history. they are also [the] creators of this museum, [it’s] not only the historians and curators.

HW: The architecture by (Gdynia-based architects) Kwadrat is very dramatic, very contemporary. Where you on Daniel Libeskind’s (architectural competition) jury (which selected the design)?

PM: No I was not on the jury. The choice was made by architects and urban development experts. We got more or less 130 entries for this competition. Almost everyone was excited about this particular entry, so there was not much hesitation.

HW: Are you happy with it?

PM: This is very impressive, very original. This is a benchmark for Gdansk, I would say. My only concern, even at the very beginning, was [for] the construction works to not exceed the budget. Usually, with such original, extravagant architecture, the costs go up, and indeed we exceeded the budget. This was due to the very sophisticated and challenging architecture. The most expensive part was digging 14m below the level of ground. Now, looking at this building, I think this is very worthwhile. Many visitors say the architecture fits very well into the exhibition… It should be understood together the architecture, the design of our exhibition and our narrative. But actually it cost more and took more time to build, this is the price you pay for this world-class architecture. 

HW: It seems that in the last 20 years, museums have to stand out, they can’t look like a nineteenth century building…

PM: … or an IKEA building! It’s worthwhile, although it was a very painful and difficult process to get it all completed. Perhaps with a more banal building, we would have done it one year earlier and it wouldn’t have had all these problems with this new government.

HW: Was the intention to be a catalyst for local development?

PM: It was not the number one reason, but once we were donated this plot by the Mayor of Gdansk, he understood it was a great opportunity to revitalise this part of the city. You now that it was destroyed in 1945 but for many centuries it was a very animated, very vivid part of Gdansk. It had a symbolic meaning to rebuild this part of the city. I understood straight away that this was a great chance for the city, so close to the heart of the Old Town, but at the same time it was a run-down area with just a bus stop and concrete surface. When we removed this surface, we saw the outlines of streets and sidewalks, it was really moving to see the traces of a city which disappeared here.

HW (returning to the politics of the museum): Is it basically that the Law and Justice party just want to talk about Poland and the museum addresses the whole war?

PM: Basically yes. They wanted mostly a Polish history museum, which to me seems really absurd because you cannot tell the story of the Second World War only

HW: … in isolation…

PM: Poland is not isolated. It had enemies, but also allies like Great Britain and the United States. The most important accusation was that we somehow we marginalised Poland. Polish uniqueness is not seen, not underlined enough. They formulated such accusations even before the exhibition was created. It was a sort of ritual accusation.

The second accusation that they kept repeating was that we focus on the fate of civilians and that it should be mostly military history. I find this a little bizarre because this war was different from any other wars because it mostly affected civilians. In the Polish case, the vast majority of people who died were civilians. We owe them recognition.

HW: Has the Catholic church said anything about this cultural dispute between the party and the musuem?

PM: As far as I know, no bishop has ever addressed this issue. The Catholic press is also polarised. There are right-wing newspapers very close to the Catholic church, and they condemn our exhibition. There is a liberal [publication], Więź  – they published an interview with me and an editorial with great praise for the museum.

(Note: Więź (meaning link or bond) was founded by Tadeusz Mazowieck, later Poland’s first post-communist prime minister)

HW: What change do you want to make in the minds of young people who visit the museum?

PM: They are the first generation who may not have any family recollection of the war, only their grandparents can remember. The first task is to convey some basic knowledge, because schools are not fulfilling this task in a sufficient way. Also what we’d like to achieve on a deeper level is to get young people emotionally involved, to understand what war is, what violence is, what suffering is, and what challenges [and] dilemmas ordinary people like them had to face 70 or 80 years ago. We want to effect their values.

When you leave the exhibition, the last scene you will see will be a film showing developments after the war, and the last images are Syria and Ukraine. What you see in this museum is not a closed chapter. The violence is around us, the propensity towards violence could be inside us. Remember that it can be repeated and your task is to somehow avoid such [a] nightmare. But if you happen to be facing this, you can remember about those people whose stories you saw at this exhibition.

HW: What is the situation with the funding of the museum?

PM: It has already been cut. I had to suspend all publications, all research, all eduction activities. All the money is spent on running this building. I have to hire technical staff. Even with this drastic cuts which I have implemented, we have money for only a few months. Our accountants have calculated that if we don’t have additional funds from the government, or sufficient income from the tickets, you have to start firing people in September. If you want to have money from tickets, you must have the exhibition open, so it’s catch-22.

But I think the scenario will be different. The government will remove me and install a new director who will get a lot of money from the government. It’s not a question of austerity, the issue is that this museum has been created by us, me and my collaborators.

HW: What would you do if forced from the museum?

PM: I am a professor of history at the Polish Academy of Science, so I’d go back to my academic job. Creating the museum was a very hard job, but I don’t necessarily have to run it. I have my contract valid until the end of 2019. The government by breaking this contract would be violating the law.

The government is trying formally to liquidate our museum. I fight the complaint in the court. The court suspended the merger [with the  Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939]. On 5th of April, there will be the ruling of the Supreme Court. If it it allows the merger of the museums, I will be gone. If the Supreme Court confirms the suspension of the merger, I think the government will fire me because they never forget that I opened this museum against the minister of culture.

HW: We live in strange times

PM: The government [that] says it cares so much about Polish history somehow wants to marginalise the biggest history museum which has been opened in Poland. It’s a bit paradoxical.


Dr Piotr M. Majewski was deputy director of the museum and was dismissed with Professor Machcewicz. He spoke with me in mid-April. I asked him first about new director Karol Nawrocki.

PMM: I met him once during a conference. He’s a devoted fan of the Gdansk football team (Lechia Gdańsk) [which has] a political identification with Law and Justice.

HW: Nawrocki is a fellow historian – do you think he is impartial?

PMM: No-one is completely impartial, but it’s rather a question of how it influences the research or agenda. Nawrocki said at the beginning of our meeting that the exhibition represents a liberal sensitivity and he would seek to “balance” it. [First] he would evaluate the content. We openly asked his intentions.

HW: What are you doing now?

PMM: We have decided to assert our intellectual rights. From the beginning, it bore our trademark. We are consulting lawyers, we have contacted a lawyer whose field is intellectual property.

HW: what about those who have donated items to the Museum?

PMM: They don’t have intellectual rights, but they are free to withdraw objects which are loaned. They have already warned [they may]. We announced an appeal to the donors not to (until legal advice is given). We don’t want to be seen as [acting in] revenge.

(The advice should come in a matter of weeks).

HW: How have other institutions internationally reacted?

PMM: One year ago when the Ministry of Culture announced plans, many institutions around the world signed a protest to the minister (including) the Holocaust Museum in Washington. These voices are important. We think this campaign of support helped to shift [the situation, enabling the Museum to open). We gained one more year. There is an unpleasant feeling of having built something, and it is stolen.


New director Karol Nawrocki replied to me via email on 24th April 2017

HW: Do you plan to change the permanent exhibition of the Museum of the Second World War, and if you do, what changes would you make?

KN: Of course I retain such right as the director responsible at the moment for the shape of the institution. Many changes are in progress – even being reported by employees themselves. Every day brings something new, scientific research is ahead, the desire to convey the memorabilia was announced today (Sunday 23rd) by Anna Maria Anders, the daughter of the legendary Polish general. Other donors want to donate their exhibits either. It would be wrong not to use such opportunities and instead respond – no, nothing can be changed. There is no museum in the world in which nothing would change … In addition, there is no finite work in science, I am listening to the reflections of historians of varying sensitivity and if I consider that something should change after the opinion of experts or in the result of new research then  I will do change it. It’s natural.

HW: Are there plans for a museum building at Westerplatte, or will it remain an outdoor exhibition as is it now?

KN: The Westerplatte peninsula has a very difficult land ownership problem – managed by 11 institutions. Segregation of space for permanent exposure, ranking of ownership structure and start of investment will bring both the Museum of WW II, Poland and the whole World another special place of historical education, which will tell about the beginning of the world conflict and the heroic attitude of Poles in the face of German Nazism.

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