Friday, June 4, 2010

Change III: Detritus of the Past

The Economist has an article about possible trends in the future of the architecture business. Will we have cities that are based around auto-piloting cars as living spaces? Or will we have walkable cities with robotic delivery systems?

The note that The Economist leaves us on, as they always, do, cuts against the grain of the rest of the article:
But perhaps the whole exercise is misconceived. Cities are perfect examples of the sorts of system that emerge from unplanned preferences even as they seem to demand large-scale planning. The question is whether the patterns of that emergence can be shaped by changing the objects of desire, or whether it is necessary to change the desire itself. If the former, then experts in beautiful buildings and sleek aluminium have a chance. If the latter, the question becomes a whole lot harder.
Leaving aside The Economist's tendency to finish an article telling you why it probably isn't as important as they spent the preceding paragraphs telling you it was... the whole problem with utopian futurism is that if you want to build a model in real life, you have to answer the question -- what happens with the detritus of the past?

The problem goes beyond people's desires. The problem is that if you look at the world around us, very little of it was actually built in our lifetimes. I'm in Orange County, California right now; most of the city was built in the 1970s, and that's considered extremely new on the urban timescale. New York City is even older -- a city of ghosts. And yet, if you compare it to world cities, its a spring chicken.

But every generation only adds a little of what is new to a mass of what is old. The key changes to history come from some small new thing that manages to change the shape of the old things around it. For instance, the transcontinental railway managed to reshape the geography of the Mid-West even though most of the prairie folks still lived in pre-Industrial Revolution towns and life-styles.

So a successful dream of the future is going to have to plan for the detritus of the past. You can't bring the future command-economy style. Unless of course you are China. But you can figure out how the new thing can change the old thing, so that the changes will be magnified. They say that car culture is ending. But if you want to propose a vision of the future without cars, you're going to have to account for the layout of suburbs, the infrastructure of freeways, the many people whose lifestyles are built around cars. You're going to have to deal with the detritus of the past.

That's why, to quote William Gibbons, "The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”