New Solidifications of Collective Memory in the City

A concrete sandwich lies deep in a chasm between London skyscrapers. An angry Bristol crowd drag a statue through the streets. De Chirico seems to have left something at Cambridge station. The life of sculpture in public space…

by Herbert Wright

In London, there’s a concrete sandwich that is the size of a double bed. Three skyscrapers – the 118m-high Miesian-style St Helen’s tower (GMW, 1969), the iconic 225m-high Cheesegrater (RSHP, 2014) and the overwhelming 278m-high glass behemoth 22 Bishopsgate (PLP, 2020) – crowd over the spot where it lies, to make it shady even in the brightest summer sunshine. The British artist Sarah Lucas chose the location so that office workers could sit on it and eat their lunch. It forms part of the annual trail of contemporary sculptures called Sculpture In The City in the heart of London’s prime financial quarter. 

Before sushi, superfood-salads, bean enchiladas and other healthy take-aways, the sandwich was the standard lunch for millions in the UK. Especially popular was bacon and ketchup in thick flat white bread. We still eat sandwiches, but less than before, and likely to be vegetarian. Lucas’ bread is unseeded. So, her sandwich is also a monument to what is gradually becoming a collective memory. 

That brilliantly illustrates Aldo Rossi’s proposition, in his book L’architettura della Città (1966), of the city as a repository for collective memory. Monuments played a key role, encoding memory in stone. What is sculpture’s relationship with collective memory? And because we now recognise that the built environment has a responsibility to activate city life, let us also ask: What is the relationship between public sculpture and city life?

Most historical statues are ignored, but their collective memories can be re-activated. When George Floyd was publicly murdered by Minneapolis police in 2020, it created international outrage. Bristol, England was already soul-searching about its history as a slave-trade port. The two came together when an angry crowd gathered around the statue of slave trader Edward Colsten, long considered a great man of the city. They splattered him red, pulled him down, dragged him through the streets and dumped him in the harbour. Local police made no intervention. Like Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, toppled in 2003, or Lenin statues brought down across the ex-Soviet Union, collective memory was exorcised. It was a fantastic eruption of emotion and people power, but should we erase the memory of evil? Perhaps cities need Museums of Shame, where statues and other records of past evil are displayed, explained and serve as educational resources. Holocaust museums serve as a good model.

Sculpture can store nicer historical memories of the city. In a quiet mews in London’s swank Mayfair, Neil French’s Three Figures (2012) captures fashion photographer Terence Donovan photographing 60s super-fab model Twiggy while a shopper looks on. It freezes an intimate, magical moment in an unexpected place. Why can’t architects think like this when they are busy ‘place-making’?

Five kilometres to the east, in a dull nook by the 180m-high Gherkin (Foster+Partners, 2004), another of the 20 sculptures on Sculpture in the City trail, The Granary (2021) by Jesse Pollock, actually has an architectural subject. A shiny orange metal form is an almost Jeff Koons-style representation of a historic English grain store. We forget that without the countryside to feed it, the city would not exist. Its bright orange colour not only transforms a dull corporate nook in the cityscape, but also alerts us, like a collective reminder, to the lost memory of the relationship between city and countryside.

The Granary by Jesse Pollock, photo Herbert Wright

Contemporary sculpture often aspires to be seen by use of provocative colour and form, and calls the citizen to record it on social media, especially Instagram. This shared digital memory is a new sort of collective memory, and has global reach. Rossi would have understood this – his floating Teatro del Mondo, the highlight of the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale, was a pre-digital harbinger of projecting the instant architectural image. Sculpture has now become an advertisement for its location, financed by corporate sponsorship. We are in the realm of the Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (the 1967 book which offered the radical perspective of capitalism as immersing us in imagery that serve its own ends). Digital media is the mediator of the contemporary spectacle. The urban sophisticate’s idea of city life is constantly refined by ideas from Carlos Moreno’s 15-Minute City to ‘street food’ re-marketed as hip at five times the price as when it was on the street. Sculpture neatly takes its place in this contemporary spectacle that is rooted in capitalism and consumerism.

Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo for the 1980 Venice Biennale. Photo Biennale di Venezia

I mention various London skyscrapers because each is a sculptural form, so these corporate buildings are also sculptures. Even the square rectilinear black form of St Helen’s is an example of the high modernism’s minimalism which both art and architecture expressed. Modernism was blind to its pre-exiting urban context, including community life, and the new ‘city’ it created didn’t always work. Sculptural architecture later turned into ‘starchitecture’, with the same indifference to human scale and history. Now it is yesterday’s architecture. 

Future architecture must become organic – buildings of natural materials that host plant life and generate civic life. Public sculpture is also seeking this path. Thomas Heatherington has designed a ‘Tree of Trees’ for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. It will hold 350 trees on a tree-like steel structure outside Buckingham Palace. This may not be the way to go. The trees will be isolated in pots, lonely because they cannot network via any mycelium web, and the structure has been compared to a mobile network mast. 

Rossi made drawings conveying collective memory in an imaginary, metaphysical city of classically-inspired buildings and surrealist objects. They were influenced by the surrealist de Chirico. Interestingly, a new sculpture outside Cambridge station, Ariadne Unwrapped by Gavin Turk, is exactly like a Rossi-de Chirico statue, except that it is wrapped and bound as if by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Gavin Turk with his sculpture Ariadne Wrapped at Cambridg CB1, photo © Phil Mynott

On 23rd June, Sculpture In The City hosted a night of live performance called Nocturnal Creatures. One of its many events, repeated from last year, was scheduled to be roller skaters gliding around the madly colourful shapes of the sculptural ensemble Bloom Paradise by Taiwanese artist Jun T. Lai. She also designed the skater’s inflatable costume to be contemporary Alice in Wonderland. It would have been a joyful update on collective memory. Like the Bristol protestors, Lai’s sculpture would have animated the city. Unfortunately, the performance was cancelled, but Bloom Paradise remains, bringing magic to the City – a different sort of metaphysical magic to de Chirico, but also like a dream nevertheless.

Alice in Wonderland performance at Bloom Paradise by Jun T. Lai, photo Cena Latif, courtesy Sculpture in the City

Dreams themselves are free-form imagination which incorporates and reconfigures memories. If sculptural imagination brings dreams to the city, they can become collective memories. The collective memory stored in sculpture is not just history, but of dreams too.

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in early July 2022, entitled: Du devenir les sculptures dans l’espace public. It has been updated in connection with Aldo Rossi and with June T Lai’s sculpture-centric performance.

© Herbert Wright, July 2022

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Elizabeth’s fantastic architectural voyage

From Malawi to Montreal, and from cosmic domes to buried passages of light, architecture proclaims her name. The woman is not an architect, but she’s had the same job for 70 years. This is the architectural voyage of the most famous woman in the world – Queen Elizabeth II.

by Herbert Wright

The Queen by Banksy (2012) at Bristol (image via Google Maps)

June 2022 will be purple in the UK. The colour will splashed across media and in the streets, it will be impossible to escape. Even the Thames will go purple — at least in Central London, thanks to the Illuminated River project. Purple signifies the ‘platinum jubilee’ of Elizabeth being crowned Queen. A super-modern underground railway called the Elizabeth line has opened, and on the London Tube map, it is purple. Elizabethan architecture is a sixteenth century English vernacular, but Elizabeth II’s architecture is global, and reaches back to mid-century modernism.

Before setting out on the epic journey of Queen Elizabeth buildings, let me declare that this is not some sycophantic nationalist romp with a pro-royalist message. Royalty is a crazy system, turning nations and peoples into inheritable assets for a lucky family. Thankfully the Queen is no despot, but an intelligent, socially-aware woman who’s actively played her part in transforming the UK from an exploitative but faltering colonial power into a fairly open, liberal, multi-ethnic society. Politics is embedded in all architecture, and the buildings named after her start with some colonial paternalism (or maternalism?), mixed with the pervading western post-war optimism that rational design could create a bright future for the people.

Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Blantyre – source Malawi Nyasaland historical

Princess Elizabeth was on holiday in Kenya when she was told her father had died in 1952. One of the first buildings named after her was also in Africa – The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, opened in 1958. Rectilinear Miesian aesthetics were rising fast in modernist architecture, but this building is not unlike a big pre-war English suburban house, with its pitched roof and a big pediment over its entrance. No-one then would have thought of applying African vernacular to a hospital – not until the 1990s would the Italian eco-architect Fabrizio Carola use traditional construction techniques and form for a hospital in Mauritania. 

Pitched roofs also characterise Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Building (1957), an exhibition hall designed by Page and Steel, but they run parallel as an engineered continuous  folded plate, and the look is modernist. The heavily-massed 21-storey Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel (1958) in Montreal by Canadian National Railway architects is big-city American-style modernism. John Lennon recorded Give Peace A Chance there, with a live crowd in 1969 (the same year he returned a medal of honour to the Queen).

Queen Elizabeth Planetarium (L) 1960, photo – Edmonton City Archives (R) 2020, after restoration, photo – Steven Hope, Zebra Society

Still in Canada, the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium (1960) by City of Edmonton by architects Walter Tefler and RF Duke – now meticulously restored by David Murray Architects – evokes a flying saucer, an echo of modernism’s Space Age-inspired Googie architecture in the US. Meanwhile, the long 12-storey slab of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (1960) in Hong Kong looks like a block from Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse.


Queen Elizabeth Hospital Hong Kong in 1969, source Wiki Commons

In the UK, major buildings named after the Queen had to wait for Brutalism. The GLC (Greater London Council) architect’s department embraced it as they expanded the South Bank cultural centre, and led by Hubert Bennett, the Queen Elizabeth Hall (1967) was a showcase element they designed. This is the building where skateboarders later colonised the lowest level. Despite recent yellow paint on exterior stairs and a wacky Mexican restaurant add-on, the deeply-stained concrete looks depressing. Brutalism is now a trendy fetish cult in architectural circles, but so much of it is just ominous lumps of doom in the public eye. Suspended concrete shafts in a striking entrance canopy at the Queen Elizabeth II Hall (1977) in Oldham, Lancashire feel so heavy, you want to rush inside before they crush you. The Queen Elizabeth II Law Courts, Liverpool (Farmer and Dark, 1984) is like a Brutalist interpretation of a medieval castle. Big exposed concrete was then already in retreat, and at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre (1986) in Westminster by Powell and Moya (Powell co-designed the Barbican), glass and metal dominate its stacked concrete floorplates. 

Queen Elizabeth Hall (GLC architects, 1967) now – photo © Herbert Wright 2022

Architecture went quiet about the Queen until 2002 when her own London base Buckingham Palace got an extension to show her art collection, called the Queen’s Gallery. Architect John Simpson’s pedimented entrance simultaneously manages to be safely neo-classical and whimsically post-modernist. Another royal jubilee in 2012 generated hospitals and sports centres in the UK, and a big Law Court with jumbled blocks of glass and concrete in Brisbane, Australia. Spanish architects Luis Vidal designed the Queen’s Terminal, Heathrow (2014), an airy 220,000m2 mega-building under curving roofs. Sustainability was high on his design agenda, but plane travel remains a planet-killer.

Queen’s Terminal by Luis Vidal – photo © Herbert Wright 2016

That brings us to the Elizabeth line, which should have opened in 2017 as the EU’s largest urban construction project. Since then, the shadow of Brexit has descended on the UK, and the line’s cost has expanded to £18.8 billion (not too bad – only 18% higher than the 2005 budget). The delay has brought a much better public name than the original ‘Crossrail’ (which is still the name of the delivery agency). 

Paddington Station, architecture by Weston Williamson + Partners. Photo © Herbert Wright 2022

And the Elizabeth line is magnificent. 21km length of twin tunnels (so, 42km of tunnel) with seven central giant underground stations (all but Bond Street opened on 20th May) where trains 200m long stop. When the separate long-distance branches are connected in autumn, the Elizabeth line will have an east-west spread of over 100km. It will boost London’s rail capacity by 10% at a stroke. It’s like London’s getting a Paris RER line! (Yes, Grand Express Paris is bigger, but it’s lots of lines, and unless you’re near the Périphérique around Saint-Ouen, you’ll wait years for a train. And anyway, that line 14 extension north is on a smaller scale, like the Tube extension London already opened earlier in 2022 to Battersea Power Station)  

There’s so much great new architecture in the Elizabeth line that I will return to it another time. All the stations by different architects have their own characteristics, but architects Grimshaw have designed a line-wide identity. The tubular labyrinths of underground passages and escalators are lined with white GRFC (glass-fibre reinforced concrete) panels that create a curving grid, like a representation of space in Einstein’s general relativity which has been bent into cosmic worm-holes. Elizabeth’s worm-holes, however, are under London and filled with light. 

Elizabeth line passages by Grimshaw, photo Crossrail

In the Sex Pistols’ 1977 anthem God Save the Queen, Jonny Rotten sang ‘there is no future in England’s dreaming’. Brilliant words… but wrong!  

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in early May 2022, entitled: L’épique voyage architectural de la femme la plus célèbre du monde. It has been updated to reflect that the Elizabeth line has opened in the meantime.

© Herbert Wright, May 2022

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Big Digital Boxes Emerge from Hiding

The Cloud in London. Photo ©Herbert Wright 2021

The most important new architectural typology, without which our civilisation would collapse, is the data centre. In the grotto-like Zaha Hadid-designed Roca Gallery in West London, an exhibition entitled ‘Power House: The Architecture of Data Centres’ explores the subject. Its curator Clare Dowdy told me that she had ‘thought of them as big grey windowless boxes’, but she changed her mind. Let’s see why.  

Most data centres are so mundane you don’t see them, unlike the headquarters of tech giants who rule the world wide web. Apple’s 462m-diameter ring in Cupertino, California by Foster+Partners, or Chinese internet titan Tencent’s bridged towers reaching 248m above Shenzhen by NBBJ (both completed 2018) look like artefacts left by giant alien visitors to whom we are almost ants. Google’s almost-finished London building by Heatherwick Studio and Bjarke Ingels’ BIG is less sci-fi but still stretches like a cliff of glass and columns for 330m through busy Kings Cross. But what about the architecture of data centres, where the servers live that store the data and applications of the internet? 

In 1991, the World Wide Web (www) had just one site, for CERN (the Centre European de Recherche Nucléaire) but by 2000 it hosted 17 million websites. Data centres soon outgrew the rooms they lived in and needed dedicated buildings, but the new architectural typology of the 1990s was invisible. Security became paramount, so why attract attention? Data centres looked like curiously quiet offices with reflective windows (usually not cleaned) and numerous CCTV cameras. Others looked like light industrial buildings, and even in 2021, a major facility called IP House in London’s Docklands data centre cluster still disguises itself as a distribution depot. Data centres became bigger and evolved into plain, blank boxes. Dowdy describes ‘Hyperscale’ data centres (defined as with over 5,000 servers) as having ‘their own weird grandeur’. Their design was functional, driven purely by the needs of the servers – floor space, power, connection to data networks, and the need to dump the vast amounts of heat they generate. At least a third of a data centre’s energy demand is just to cool the IT equipment.

These are the sort of design challenges that engineers rather than architects solve. Who cares about architectural aesthetics if there’s only a marginal need to design space for human presence? As Iain Macdonald, professor of the Instance of Uncertain Spaces unit at ArtEZ University and director of design agency Instance in Amsterdam, told me, ‘what we have now is buildings for automation — the Amazon warehouses, the car plants that are robotic’. These ‘semi-autonomous zones occupied by machines’ create a different agenda to ‘urban design (which) is about place-making’.

Telehouse TN2, London by Nicholas Webb Architects – photo Google

But of course, there are people around, not least those outside who see the buildings. Why not come clean, and let the building say ‘I’m a data centre’? London Docklands’ advanced, 73,400m2 Telehouse TN2 (2018) by Nicholas Webb Architects is clad with a circuitboard-inspired motif six stories high, mounted in a distinctly high-tech style structure. This is architecture, which has always known the art of appearance. Now it is mastering – or at least selling the idea of – sustainability. The proposed Belvedere Data Centre in East London, which Macdonald worked on when he was director at architects Scott Brownrigg, has twin floating boxes with horizontal cladding strips promising an almost SANAA-like etherealness, incorporating green walls and roofs, and powered by a waste incineration. It’s also next to a nature reserve and campaigners say it will drive away the rare birds that flock there. 

Belvedere Data Centre by Scott Brownrigg

Elsewhere, data centres are cropping up in madly diverse forms, as the Power House exhibition reveals. Old buildings, such as a Macy’s department store in New Jersey and a Cold War bunker in Sweden are getting repurposed as data centres. The typolgy is  going high-rise – German architects Schneider + Schumacher designed a 110m-high data centre, the Qianhai Telecommunications Center now under construction in Shenzhen. Looking further ahead, Macdonald had already imagined a tower where we co-exist with machines, sharing the first 8 levels with robots, then servers occupying higher levels to 20 or more. It’s a startling vision of our future built environment.

In the meantime, the Internet continues to expand like a supernova. It now has over 4.7 billion human users, maybe four million active websites (and four times that which are inactive), and carries almost 12 exabytes of data traffic daily. That’s equivalent to a video call lasting over 2 million years*. Traffic has grown 4,000 times bigger than it was in 2000, and telecommunication bandwidth is doubling every 18 months. This the age of Big Data and online leisure, revved up by streaming, gaming, the ‘Internet of Things’ (where devices talk to each other), the nefarious, ever-churning cryptocurrencies, and the incoming spectacles of the Metaverse. 

Data centres currently contribute 2% of humanity’s carbon footprint. We need to cut that back big-time. Big names are addressed the issue – a Kengo Kuma-designed data centre in Korea is cooled by mountain winds, and Snøhetta have a circular energy concept in which a data centre heats a city.  MacDonald proposes nuclear batteries, and has developed the concept with MIT and Westinghouse. ‘You don’t need the grid’, he says. ‘It gives you a flexible source’.

Somewhere out there, something’s cooking in the dark kitchens. Photo ©Herbert Wright

It is not just data centres that architects can bring imagination to. Cruder typologies are morphing half-blind into the light of reality right now. The next biggie may be one that feeds us something even more essential than data — food. Consider the ‘dark kitchen’. It prepares food for delivery companies, cruelly but profitably cutting the physical restaurant or take-away premises from the supply chain that leads to your mouth. Yes, they are another step in our sleepwalk from civic life to digitally-immersed hikikomori-style isolation, but they’re happening. Deliveroo recently applied to transform an entire industrial shed in East London into dark kitchens. Such buildings are anonymous, hidden and plain. Sounds familiar?

Power House: The Architecture of Data Centres is at the London Roca Gallery until 28 February 2022

*Worked out from  and 

© Herbert Wright, December 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in December 2021. It was entitled ‘De l’évolution architecturale des monstrueux centres de données’

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Manchester’s Urbanism: from Valette to Vertical City with Visions for the Future

Manchester loves a great French Impressionist painter who is strangely obscure in France. The search results for ‘Adolphe Valette’ in the French language Wikipedia rank his modest entry just above a re-direct to Adolph Hitler. Born in Saint Étienne, Valette moved to Manchester in 1907. His dream-like paintings recorded the built environment and life of the the world’s first industrial metropolis, and captured the eternal twilight of the damp, dirty atmosphere.

Adolphe Valette, Oxford Road – 1910 ; York Street To Charles Street – 1913. Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery

He returned to France in 1928, long before Manchester become a broken post-war city, an expanse of wastelands sandwiched between closed down red brick factories and grim modular social housing. For decades, only football, then bands such as The Smiths or Oasis, continued to remind the world of Manchester. 

Nowadays Manchester’s air is clear (although it rains a lot), and the city has bounced back from post-industrial decline to become England’s most vibrant after London. Its inner city, at the heart of a conurbation of 2.5 million, is young and expanding, and business and creatives are migrating from the south. Manchester University’s science and technology is world-class, and the city is landing on the international cultural map. All these factors drive new architecture. So, what are architects designing in Manchester? 

Deansgate Square from First Street photo @Herbert Wright

Most visible, like in many cities, is an explosion of high-rise residential towers. Sadly, most are generic orthogonal boxes. There are many more under construction, and proposed parliamentary legislation favouring developers at the cost of public consultation mean more will follow. Manchester seems to be following London, driven by the buy-to-let market and failing on affordable housing. But speaking to random Mancunians (as the natives are called) reveals that many are excited by the rise of mini-Dubai clusters on their skyline, especially Deansgate Square, four new towers designed by SimpsonHaugh. The highest is 201m, far higher than anywhere else in the UK except London. At least these towers have cool shapes, their square-plan corners extending out so that their shiny facades are concave. Architect Ian Simpson also points out there is no ‘poor door’, or separate entrance for cheaper flats. Deansgate Square brings a new terraced granite plaza, dotted with decorative Corten steel screens and served by chic designer catering, all overlooking a stream that has been cleared of trash and now attracts biodiversity. Other car-free refuges are emerging across Manchester. Yet, as in curated, upmarket developments anywhere, a certain sterility haunts such places. 

Manchester’s unplanned, bohemian Northern Quarter is the opposite to all that. A dense low-rent district of old buildings, some still abandoned, and car parks, it is gritty and edgy and packed with so much street life that the rents are rising and independent businesses now feel the pressure. Nevertheless, such urban villages, with their human scale, texture, diversity and surprise, have a vibrancy and emotionalism that eludes architects and planners. At least repurposing old buildings incorporates the city’s memory, as well as saving a lot of carbon emissions. Manchester has plenty of solid old industrial building to repurpose into loft apartments, and already has revived an entire neighbourhood called Ancoats as an über-trendy loft-lifestyle hotspot. Even more central in the city, Dutch architects Mecanoo mix old and new in their design of Kampus. Massive mid-rise apartment blocks under zig-zag skylines cluster up against old warehouses and alleys, and a public garden and bar faces Manchester’s thriving Gay Village across a canal. 

The University of Manchester has a student population of over 40,000, and with other universities in the city, it drives demand for architecture to house them. Manchester was quick to build student residence towers, a recent architectural typology, with a 2012 107m-high tower by Hodder and Partners (led by ex-RIBA president Stephen Hodder). It stands at the downtown end of the Oxford Road academic corridor, where SimpsonHaugh have added a second student tower. They will be joined by highest yet, the super-slim Hulme Street tower by Glenn Howells, 168m high but just 14.8m wide. Detractors call it ‘the tombstone’, which is unfair because it will be clad in brick, Manchester’s vernacular material.

Height stands out but some enjoy the thrills of length. That brings us to academic buildings and Manchester’s longest new project, the Manchester Engineering Campus Development, another Mecanoo project completing this year. In an ensemble which includes repurposed historic buildings. The main building is the publicly-accessible 238m-long MEC Hall, an eight-storey box of Miesian dark glass and steel. It’s the longest building built in Manchester since industrial times. Yet, running behind old buildings, it is virtually invisible from Oxford Road and is packed with atria, classrooms, high-tech labs and two great auditoria. Manchester’s engineering changed the world, and here, it should do so again.

MECD and Manchester’s southern skyline courtesy Andy Haslam Photography/Balfour

What of Manchester’s cultural revival? So far it has already produced Hallé St Peters by Stephenson Hamilton Risley Studio, a substantial concert venue extension to an old church in Ancoats, and First Street, a colourful creative zone including HOME (another by Mecanoo) and a statue of Friedrich Engels, who researched Manchester’s working class conditions and then wrote the Communist manifesto with Karl Marx. First Street is just metres away from the tragically demolished Hacienda club (1982) in which Ben Kelly created the urban-industrial interior aesthetic that would spread to Berlin clubs and the world. Manchester’s next cultural addition will be the OMA-designed Factory, a flagship venue under construction. A riverside angular volume like an amplified version of their Casa de Musica in Porto adjoins an even bigger box-shaped volume. It’s too early to judge, but one young radio journalist I talked to already dismissed it as ‘alien’. Maybe – but not as much as OMA’s  Performing Arts Center in Taipei! 

What does Manchester’s new cityscape tell us? Saving old buildings can generate future urban environments as dynamic as any high rise, and investment in the architecture of education and research is crucial. The confidence of Manchester’s architecture tells us that despite Brexit, this city’s future is big. Valette would find contemporary Manchester staggering, but he may not be entirely surprised. He painted a city that never stopped to rest.

@Herbert Wright, July 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in July 2021. It was entitled: Manchester, pour les architectes, un théâtre des reves

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Heaven or Hell?

The Metaverse, NFTs, Crypto-architecture, Fantasy Architecture and a word about the Real World at COP26…

by Herbert Wright

Do Androids Dream of Leonidov? (2021) by Simon Tyszko, courtesy of the artist

Big news is coming in for humanity. From Glasgow, the COP26 climate change meeting of world governments will decide if we give ourselves a future or we all go to Hell. (At the time of writing, it could go either way). But maybe that doesn’t matter anyway, because the news from Silicon Valley is that Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg has changed the company name to Meta to be better focused on the metaverse. 

What is the metaverse? It’s an online alternative digital world in VR (virtual reality), where you can work, play, trade, hang out and who knows what else.  Cyber-sex is surely just a temporary challenge to be solved by a start-up in wearable technology. Second Life is an example of a metaverse, but Facebook thinks the true metaverse may need 15 years to develop.

That timing could not be better! ‘Update to limits to growth’, a paper by Gaya Herrington published in Yale University’s Journal of Industrial Ecology last year outlined four scenarios and two of them suggested civilisation collapsing around the 2040s. That gives us plenty of time to make sure that the internet connection in our safe bunker will be secure.

Of course, the metaverse will need digital buildings, so no need for architects to worry — the work should keep rolling in. Sure, a building that’s not physical isn’t quite the same as a real one, but in the metaverse, as John Lennon anticipated in Strawberry Field Forever, ‘nothing is real’. Architecture has always produced fantasy buildings anyway. Competitions alone generate loads of them, because the only design to (sometimes) get built is the winning entry. Historically, some of the most fantastic buildings ever remained fantasy, such as Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenopath for Newton (1784), Ivan Leonidov’s Lenin Institute (1927) or Fred and Wilma Flinstone’s Flinstone House (1959). Oh, hold on, I just double checked, sorry… there are actually quite a few replica Flinstone houses in the US. Whatever. The point is, virtually anything can be made in the metaverse! Apart from food and drink, of course. But as any hikikomori kid in Japan will tell you, just order that online. 

Before we get giddy about the architectural prospects of our new life in Zuckerberg’s world, let’s stop a moment and get serious about going deep digital. I’ve previously warned about how we’re sleepwalking into an immersive digital world and of course the 1999 film The Matrix has left some thinking that we’re already in a vast simulation. In the real world, advances by AI (artificial intelligence) into architecture may well render most architects redundant. This summer, I gave a Zoom talk and imagined a scenario where every design made by (for example) Frank Lloyd Wright was fed into a deep-learning neural network. An infinite variety of fake Wright buildings could be generated, each customised to their function, program and site. 

In this month’s issue of C3 magazine Simone Brott of the University of Queensland, Australia, considers NFTs as a vehicle for architects to exploit. (Disclaimer: I edit and write in this fine Korean publication!). NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens) are unique chunks of data that are protected by blockchain and can be traded. Brott imagines architects no longer building but creating architectural NFTs. If a city masterplan NFT is securitised, ‘fractionalised’ and bundled on Wall Street, streams of revenue start to flow from multiple investors building with no connection to the architect. All that is needed is a ‘cryptoarchitecture’ trading platform and speculators will let such NFTs loose. It’s scary. Brott concludes that ‘NFTs will kill architecture’.

And she doesn’t mention that blockchain trading, as Bitcoin demonstrates, is a paradise for criminals. Worse, Bitcoin alone generates a carbon footprint as big as a medium-sized country. Until crypto trade moves from ‘proof-of-work’ to ‘proof-of-stake’ (sorry to get technical), it’s a crime against the planet. COP26 should have added it to the agenda. 

PHASE3 Architecture – Sugar Plum Square (2019) photo: © Luke O_Donovan

Meanwhile in the UK, as well as COP26, we have new visions of Heaven and Hell, both with fantasy architecture. First, an edible heaven: London’s Museum of Architecture is preparing to unveil their annual feast of architecture rendered in cake called Gingerbread City. This year’s theme is Nature and the City. Until December, we don’t know the designs that UK-based architects will bake, but a picture of PHASE3’s Sugar Plum Square from the 2019 show will give you an idea of the event. Already the names of some 2021 works have been revealed. Foster + Partners are making Honeycomb Heights, Zaha Hadid’s practice offer Museum of Gumball Ecology, and PLP (better known for their hard glass and steel skyscrapers) promise a Hazelnut Herbarium.

Oil Rigs (2021) by Pablo Bronstein, courtesy of the artist

Cake is one of the things we find in the Hell of artist Pablo Bronstein, a master draftsman famous for his works exploring the oddities of post-modernism and classical styles (as well as dance). But most of all we see fabulous fantasy architecture. His current exhibition Hell in its Heyday at the Sir John Soane Museum (Soane was an 18th/19th century giant of British architecture). Bronstein presents a banquet of water-coloured drawings of an absurdly decadent city called Hell. Modernist buildings contrast with eclectic buildings of gloriously baroque styling, including the oil rigs and factories that support the city. Is there a message about our own fossil-fueled consumerist society? Bronstein told me ‘yes absolutely. I’m looking back at between 1850 and 1950 as a precursor to what we are living through now. In [that] period we have the rise and fall of a culture based on limitless production and consumption. Now we are aware that there is a human [and] ecological price to be paid for everything’.

That price will be high, and it won’t be payable with crypto-currency, or in the metaverse. Apparently, ‘meta’ in Hebrew means ‘dead’, so what does that say about Zuckerberg’s vision? Architecture is for people in the real world and without massive leaps in sustainability that world will be hell. We need to get real! Not least because, as Txai Surui, a young Amazon native and co-ordinator of the Indigenous Youth Movement, said at COP26, the Earth is speaking. She tells us we have no more time’

Txai Surui speaks at COP26 in Glasgow, Nov 2021. Source Twitter@wwf/brasil

© Herbert Wright, November 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in November 2021 (during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow). It was entitled: Enfer ou Paradis: Dans le métaverse, rien de réel… 

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Not Being There… Venice and the Architecture Biennale

Guidecca, Venice 2016. Photo © Herbert Wright

by Herbert Wright

If you were at the Venice Architecture Biennale opening, you may have found me there, but only if you had a QR reader. My voice speaks from a Kowloon neighbourhood in a film at the Hong Kong Pavilion, as I will explain.

But was I physically there at the great gathering of the great, the good and the journalists that is the Biennale opening? I wasn’t, and I have mixed feelings about it. 

Let’s face it, not everything is fab at VAB (as I call the Biennale). There is way too much to take in at the Arsenale and Giardini. The Central Pavilion’s group show alone needs a day to absorb, and this year there are an overwhelming 61 national pavilions, 17 collateral shows, pop-ups and events that spread into the canals and alleys of the city itself. If you consider giving each of the 112 participants just 5 minutes attention each, you would need 9 hours 20 minutes to see it all non-stop. That’s if you could travel instantaneously across VAB’s vast territory and not eat or rest or go to the bathroom. Eating can be a serious challenge — the queues for food can be slow and cruel, especially under bright sunshine.

As well as teleportation, another superpower would help you cover the biennale in realistic time — invisibility. Why? Because half the architectural people you’ve ever met will spot you, and you will lose count of how many want to stop and chat, or even propose an immediate serious meeting. Without invisibility, you could try a good disguise, but a false moustache (no matter your gender) and hat may mean the sunshine bakes you like a potato in the oven. 

There is a deeper problem. If you wanted to invite attention to important ideas that could change our world for decades to come, would you want to present them in a place that distracts attention? Such as perhaps the most beautiful city on Earth? Yes, you can try and shut out ‘la Serenissima’, but it is always there, like a sad, beautiful, dying lover who is waiting, calling, yearning… In my two* Biennales, there was always a point when I asked myself, ‘how long must this hectoring parade of architectural notions wrench me from the drug-like dream of beauty and mystery just around the corner?’  The biennale can become like a new Spotify mix on exhausted earphones while the orchestra plays Mahler’s 5th around you. 

Well, at least I have a Venetian solution to propose for that last dilemma, and you heard it here first. The city has big spaces where its ancient magic does not operate. Behind the Piazzale Roma, the docks have expanded, even creating the new island of Tronchetto, to accommodate the vast cruise ships that long menaced Venice like invading aliens. In March, Italy banned these monsters from entering the lagoon. The endless, voluminous passenger buildings, ‘non-places’ of ‘super-modernity’ in Marc Augé’s words, could be anywhere in the world. Their silence must be deafening now. The Bienalle could fill them, and they offer road vehicle access, helpful for installation logistics. 

Am I being serious? Sure, about as serious as those sandwiches in plastic triangular boxes available from the Co-op at Fondamente Santa Chiara on the Grand Canal by the Piazzale Roma. They’re serious survival tools when you need to refuel quick so you can move on. 

Yes, we know the nightmare of the tourist strip that runs from Santiago Calatrava’s disability-indifferent Ponte della Costituzione, past the sublime, solid horizontality of Angiolo Massoni’s modernist Stazione Santa Lucia, down the insanely busy Strada Nova, past the human traffic jam on Rialto bridge to the Instagram hyper-node of the Piazza San Marco. We know why so many Venetians hate us visitors, like companions of the evening hate their clients but need the money. And yet, the endless interface of water and architectural perfection in palazzos and churches remains transcendental. And just three minute’s walk from the tourist runs, there are alleys that are so quiet you can hear footsteps around corners. They echo just like Casanova’s did in 1755 or Sophia Loren’s in 1955. 

Venice is a city of memories and emotion. That brings me to Hong Kong. Its pavilion was unstaffed at the opening, but that QR reader enabled access to its films, including E-Motion-AI City by Tszwai So of Spheron Architects. (Online access will hopefully be soon). The film follows a couple with a two-year old girl, at home and in their intensely urban neighbourhood. These are places of memory and emotion. But the film is haunted by a mysterious figure, and equally by my commentary about how the digital world and real world could become indistinguishable. How would we live together when that happens? 

How will we live together? is the question that this year’s curator Hashim Sarkis asks. Despite all my complaints of the surrealistic pressures of the Biennale, yes, I want to see the splurging cornucopia of responses in Venice. Doubtless they will raise more questions than answers. Doubtless they will be exhausting to process. But is it all so bad if an Italian coffee awaits you just outside the Arsenale? On the via Garibaldi, you can reflect and watch Venice walk by, in the a world that is neither digital or a new architectural vision. 

Italy’s MOSE barriers protect the Venice lagoon from three metre tides, but Venice will be gone one day. Greenland has started to melt fast, and if all its ice melted, sea level would rise by 7.2 metres. Should we anticipate Venice’s demise with virtual versions, at far higher resolutions than those parts replicated around the Venetian Hotel in Macau?

London, May 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in June 2021 as Biennale de Venise, comme si vous n’y étiez pas. *The French version says I attended three VABs, but I mis-remembered, it was just two!

Also published in June 2021 – my review of what you can find online from Venice Architecture Biennale on the CoBo Social platform

An earlier 2021 column from Chroniques d’Architecture, now in English as Confessions of an Architecture Critic

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Confessions of an Architecture Critic

by Herbert Wright

In 2018, architectural writing, mainly for Blueprint magazine, took me to 10 countries beyond the UK. In 2019, the same again. I sometimes reached Paris or Berlin by rail or bus, but usually the trips were by air. Since covid-19, such travel is history, and Blueprint ceased publication. But a year grounded in London has exposed more than just the arrogance of giving lip-service to sustainability while flying to Seoul, Singapore or Chicago. Floating up from murky water is another long-submerged question: What is it to be an architecture critic? 

Oct 2016 – I’ve flown in from Beijing Design Week and come straight from the airport to the MAAT opening in Lisbon (April 25 Bridge in background). It’s my fourth city in a week. My hair still hasn’t quite landed.

I asked myself, who was reading my stuff, and why? Could anything I write change the world? Or was I merely a specialised travel writer reporting about architectural specificities, like a jet-setting gastronomic critic may report on exotic cuisines? And then there’s this haunting question: Am I just a servant of an architectural establishment with a self-serving agenda, because I amplify the spectacle they present to society? The propaganda of the spectacle is that the world is better because architects design it. Well, maybe… 

The dilemma is clear when architects and their PR agents are generous with tickets and hospitality. Of course, any business should be proud of good work, and publicising it may bring more. But can the lucky invited journalist be truly critical? If he or she is too critical, they may be left out of future jamborees which may actually produce important stories. But critical is also different from constantly cynical. Sometimes a writer’s tone can be so negative, it sounds like an angsty ‘emo’ teenager. Yes, expose the faults, be skeptical. But there’s an old Groucho Marx song called Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, and that’s no stance for unbiased critiques.  

In the UK, there are seven subscription architecture magazines in print, and even more titles covering wider design fields. What architect has the time to even skim more than one? What non-architect can navigate the language laden with architectural jargon and our baggage of pre-conceptions? If the content is critical, it likely touches on the familiar mantras of sustainability, community, place-making, social justice etc. These are paramount issues, but endlessly repeated within the echo-chamber of specialist media, they become politically-correct routine. Take sustainability, for example. Nowadays, it’s a tick-box in a critic’s review — just like in many an architect’s office, where the prize of a rating certification like HQE, BREEAM or LEED becomes a surrogate for fresh thinking in the face of the climate emergency’s existential threat.

Of course, architects write their own project texts. Unedited and ranging from brazen hype to arcane meanderings, they flood online agglomeration sites such as (which has plenty of good editorial content too!). Project text becomes padding for the images, sometimes by photographers with bigger names than the architects. Our focus dissipates in the churning cornucopia of images in which a building anywhere on the planet may hold us for a few seconds until we move on. Maybe they need a thumbs-up ‘like’ icon, like Instagram. 

What can a critic do to make the words worthwhile? Honesty is vital, but so is speaking up. Too often, I have indulged in intellectual musings about a project’s aesthetics and references, but muted deeper critical issues. That’s cowardly. We critics need to shout about issues in a way that will be heard. In 2020, I questioned Germany’s green building agenda in Baumeister magazine with a reminder that Germans eat on average 90kg of meat annually. In Abitare (Italy), my report on ZHA’s new Beijing airport asked, why are we building new airports in a climate emergency? In Korea’s C3 magazine, I argued (again) that we are sleepwalking into an immersive digital future, and architecture must declare war on its erosion of authenticity and devaluation of craft and creativity. 

Let the critic be neither architect’s dupe nor disconsolate whiner, but a voice to wake us up. 

London, January 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture February 2021 as Qu’est-ce que d’être un critique d’architecture? (What is it to be an architecture critic?)

Another Chroniques d’Architecture blog, original English version – Not Being There… Venice and the Architecture Biennale

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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. 

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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’.

Sezione trasversale_1.100_bw

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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