By Alessandro Bava
February 25 2021
Building on themes from our recent report ‘The New Normal‘, Alessandro Bava digs deeper into how digital technologies are reshaping the ways in which we work, and in turn inhabit the planet. By introducing an historical framework regarding how cities were formed around specific emergent economic and technological systems, he formulates a range of post-urban hypotheses for a future increasingly defined by remote work.
Cities and capital
Cities can be described as material manifestations of the accumulation of capital – a function of physical proximity. The early cities of Renaissance Italy, for example, transformed into larger territorial networks only once modern banking developed, and could abstract physical proximity into contracts governed by law and enforced by powerful rulers.
Physical proximity was necessary for the accumulation and governance of capital in the early modern period, mainly due to technological limitations: fixed prices for goods were established in the city markets, for instance, and involved a negotiation which necessarily took place in person: to trade, you needed to be present. One way of understanding the emergence of democratic systems of governance is as a technology built to manage and facilitate these dense trade hotspots where complex interactions take place.
Though global megalopoles represent the last evolutionary node of cities as diagrams of capital accumulation, it is nevertheless evident that neoliberalism does not require the same degree of physical proximity. Financial markets are global, regulated by instantaneous transactions, while trade related communications happen at different time zones and locations simultaneously without much friction, thanks to globalised transport networks and techno/legal infrastructures. But even with fast physical connections and communications, the continued prominence of cities within the global economy shows an enduring prestige from a pre-digital period. After all, consumer internet is only 30 years old.
The pandemic continues to reveal the extent to which physical proximity remains necessary for work. It goes without saying that physical proximity will be – at least for the foreseeable future – the necessary condition for interpersonal affective relations which rely on the complexity of physical experience (anyone in a long distance relationship knows this). However, within a central workplace, this no longer appears to be a requirement.
The internet and digital technologies in general have significantly transformed how we inhabit the planet, radically changing established practices of dwelling and working. The question of how digital tech might transform not just how we live, but also how, as a species, we inhabit the world, is still open. While governments bend backwards to allow multinational corporations to operate across borders, for individual workers things prove far more complicated.
The pandemic is a unique moment to imagine alternative scenarios, and reassess our use of technologies, separating necessity from contingency. What should happen to intellectual work that is no longer bound to a specific place?
If cognitive labour is central to the contemporary city, but no longer requires aggregation in physical space, could this emergent condition generate new geographies that require both new forms of governance and new forms of life?
The Garden City
Faced with this post-urban scenario, or at least a world in which work is no longer coagulated in dense urban environments, we are well placed to return to the history of suburban developments and garden cities. This is not only because versions of these constitute the existing housing stock, but also because the ideas that inspired them, formed in opposition to industrialisation and rampant urbanisation, offer an existing starting point from which to formulate post-urban hypotheses.
The first fully planned and designed garden cities appeared in England in the 18th century, just as the industrial revolution dawned, to house people working for vast English estates and provide them with decent and healthy homes. In some cases, such as Blaise Hamlet designed by John Nash, the small garden suburb was developed within a forest clearing to house retired servants, and provide them with “a spot to play at Arcadia”. Much later, in the 20th century, this form was extensively used in developments that housed the industrial working class outside of historic cities, in closer proximity to their place of work: the factory.
The Garden Cities tradition formalised by Ebenezer Howard in his 1902 ‘To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’, can helpfully shape our understanding of an emergent post-urban condition: based this time not on the decentralisation of industrial production, but rather the decentralisation of digital information networks, no longer bound to physical proximity. We could even suggest that a century after its first theoretical formulation, the garden city has found the appropriate economic and technological system to realise its promises.
One of the first garden cities outside of England was the city of Hellerau, in the periphery of Dresden, was built by Karl Schmidt, co-founder of the German association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists (Werkbund). Inspired by ideas of social reform, the development was not just an urban planning experiment devised by the most radical architects working in Germany at the time (such as Heinrich Tessenow), but also an attempt to reformulate the ethics and lebensform of its community. As such it was a large scale social experiment, the fulcrum of which was the city’s “School of Harmony” (pictured below), a performance venue designed by Heinrich Tessenow, where Émile Jaques-Dalcroze devised his theory of “Eurythmics” – a movement practice which aimed to translate music in movement, as a mental and physical health practice, with the political aim to ‘harmonise’ the community.
If the urban design of Hellerau still adhered to the traditional Heimatstil (home-style vernacular) of pre-modern villages, whose form was produced through centuries of adaptation and negotiation, in 1919 in Switzerland, Hannes Meyer conceived a Garden City based on an exclusively modernist design ethos. Siedlung Freiburg was designed following Meyer’s motto “the needs of the people over the need for luxury”, after extensive consultations with its prospective residents, the workers of a watch-making factory. Siedlung Freiburg was characterised by its permeable boundary, the abundance of open space, and the presence of a generous community house placed in the center of the development. This community building contained a school, library, restaurant, cafe, cooperative store, gymnasium, bowling alley, banquet and meeting rooms.
The ideology of European garden cities remained bound to the individual beliefs of their initiators, ‘enlightened’ entrepreneurs and industrialists who independently attempted to seek an alternative urban form to respond to the specificities of the industrial civilization.
The most radical garden city design took place in Soviet Russia, where the political context allowed planners to imagine more extreme incarnations of the English model. In 1928 the ideology of the garden suburb was adopted in the Soviet Union for the purposes of a new development outside Moscow for the first five year plan, but was never realised, being deemed too extreme at the time. The sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich and members of the Organization of Contemporary Architects including Mosej Ginzburg proposed a project distributing housing and infrastructure across the totality of the given territory, made possible by improved conditions of transportation and electrical power infrastructures. This was, for them, the appropriate form for a communist society in which, freed from the constraints of scarcity and density, people could now organise their lives according to a multiplicity of forms of association. Production would no longer be centralised, and rather more widely distributed so that spaces of living and working could intermingle with agricultural fields and unspoiled natural landscapes. Commenting on the proposal, the architect Le Corbusier argued ‘dispersion frightens, makes poorer, and loosens all the ties of physical and spiritual discipline’, cementing his influential position as the ideologue of modern high-rise working class suburbia: precisely the ideology challenged by remote work.
So what is the connection between these past urban forms and our contemporary remote work scenario? In what follows, I suggest that a situation of more spatially distributed work could mean that production re-enters areas currently dedicated to housing. Dormitory towns, neighborhoods, and suburbs could potentially turn into radically different environments. This transformation would need to be guided with design sensitivity, learning from earlier successes and failures of those garden towns born to house industrial workers. What type of new public and private infrastructure might be needed in these areas, and how should this emergent condition be regulated in terms of land value and zoning, for instance? Building regulations would have to reflect and acknowledge the changing nature of the domestic space as a potential place of work and a new relationship to the natural landscape and resources would need to be determined. Might an ‘arcadia of remote work’ be a stepping stone towards a post-work future?
The Covid pandemic has revealed how the current infrastructure of remote work often relies upon one’s individual capacities to creatively use digital platforms and take advantage of online services to organise one’s workday.
Rather than an ad hoc amalgamation of inadequate existing tools and technologies, we need to start imagining a new kind of infrastructure for work, one that can be dispersed into local businesses, opening up new types of communal work-places. In recent years the freelancers workplace market has been dominated, with various degrees of success, by co-working spaces. These pseudo-offices are often membership-based and cater to the mobile worker who operates across borders, and are typically located in urban centers or newly gentrified areas. But should demand for alternative workspaces spreads to larger sections of the workforce, as we can expect on the other side of the pandemic, we ought to ensure that this emerging market is not subject to the dominance of few monopolies, but rather planned and regulated to deliver a new work infrastructure at scale with its physical context. Regulating this emerging market can lead to the transformation of local and rural economies, with effects that could be beneficial to both local businesses and the workforce.
An interesting precedent upon which to draw when imagining alternative local co-working spaces could be the working men’s clubs – social spaces designed for workers’ and their families’ leisure time – which emerged in the UK in the 19th century. These were typically owned by companies who built them for their employees when working class housing offered little space for after work activities. We can see a parallel with contemporary homes, which are generally not adequately equipped to be occupied for an entire work day. Third spaces are required, not so much for leisure, but rather as reconfigured and redistributed workplaces. Cafés alone cannot absorb the needs of the remote worker!
From the opposite direction office design has already begun a process of ‘homeification’ where the workspace is equipped with the functional and aesthetic signifiers of cosy-ness. However, this approach has the narrow aim of augmenting productivity and is limited by a top-down one-size-fits-all approach. Future workplace provisions need instead to be rooted in specific communities rather than bound to a single company and its spatial ‘branding’. The idea is to fulfill the potential of remote work as a cybernetic, self aggregating phenomenon, which allows greater freedom for the worker, including the choice of place of work, context and community, unbound to the rigidity – spatial and organizational – of company structures.
While I’ve focused primarily on how remote working might affect cities and the workplace, the most cogent question remains what happens to the home. The modernist project of mass worker housing took the nuclear family as its generative nucleus, both economically and architecturally (in liberal and socialist declinations alike). This was a necessary standardization, given the limited capacity to manage the actual complexities of real emergent social conditions. To standardise was also necessarily to introduce industrial manufactory in the construction industry, with the aim of being able to build better and faster, and give more people access to healthy housing, creating jobs in the process.
Today, as work is challenged by automation, and a monolithic patriarchal model has given way to the emergence of different forms of kinship and communities, new housing needs to give form to dwellings capable of registering such changes. Furthermore, in a data-rich world we have greater real time knowledge of societies, as well as the tools to design human habitats that are more responsive to emergent ways of being and dwelling. Both social and speculative housing are still designed under the pressure of the real estate market and policy frameworks not yet adapted to mutating paradigms.
Alternative forms of automation and augmented intelligence can help unblock the situation and open up space to imagine future housing typologies that move away from modernist standardization and towards a richer typological complexity that is more true to contemporary dwelling practices and communities. For instance, research carried out by Amir Homayouni uses Artificial Intelligence to build an evolutionary design tool which helps designers find the best solutions for a given space, taking into account both existing regulations and spatial concerns, empowering designers to move away from established assumptions about the domestic space. Similarly at the course I lead at UCL Bartlett, we explore the formal and spatial qualities of computational processes, to test their capacity to accommodate the emergent needs of remote workers, challenging existing domestic typologies. The aim here is to solve old problems with new tools approaching a truly radical paradigm shift.
If 20th century garden cities reacted to the alienation of the modern industrialised metropolis, what type of settlement can we design for a future where work is radically changed by digital technologies?
Currently regulators understand live-work housing typologies only in purely quantitative terms: percentages of surface dedicated to “living” and percentages to “working”, and so on. Going forward, as working remotely and working from home become the new normal, we need to think more qualitatively about new domestic typologies. This will open up space for a new domestic architecture that breaks away from the taboos and assumptions which currently qualify public and private real estate. What is at stake is not only the typological definition of housing, but also its ownership model; typologically it is necessary to question the traditional programmatic divisions of the home, bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms, have never seemed more outdated and up for a new terminology more adherent to current uses and lifestyles. For instance, it might be helpful to redescribe the home in terms of gradients of public and private, wet and dry etc. casting the home as a more fluid construct.
An interesting speculation that takes into account such transformations is the idea of ‘platforming’ the home, using digital platforms to help manage an increasingly fluid domestic space. This would open up home ownership models retooling available digital technology towards potentially emancipatory ends, where true sharing of means and ownership is facilitated.
Such ideas, if still speculative and unripe, point toward the fast approaching necessity of a radical re-design of both the architectural materiality of housing and its ownership and management models, taking advantage of digital technology which, especially after the pandemic, shapes how we live today.
Alessandro Bava is an architect based in Naples, Italy. Since 2020 he has held a course on computational design at the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture in London. His practice, both spatial and textual, is an artistic investigation of space and contemporary lebensformen. His work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the Berlin Biennale, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Fondation Cartier in Paris, Moderna Museet in Stockholm and recently at the Quadriennale in Rome. He is a regular contributor to e-flux, Mousse, Flash Art and Spike.