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THE ACTION IS THE FORM
VICTOR HUGO’S TED TALK

by Keller Easterling

Space is a technology. Buildings and the cities they inhabit have become infrastructural – mobile, monetised networks. For the world’s power players, infrastructure space is a secret weapon, and the rest of us are only just beginning to realise

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If Victor Hugo came back to give a TED talk, he might assert that architecture, which he once claimed had been killed by the book, is reincarnate as something more powerful still – as information itself. If this space is a secret weapon, says Keller Easterling, it is a secret best kept from those trained to make space – architects. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs in economics, the social sciences, informatics and activism are developing what might be called spatial software as a political instrument to outwit politics as usual.


About the author

She is an architect, writer and professor at Yale University. Her book, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades (MIT, 2005) researches familiar spatial products that have landed in difficult or hyperbolic political situations around the world. A previous book, Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways and Houses in America, applies network theory to a discussion of American infrastructure and development formats. A forthcoming book, Extrastatecraft: Global Infrastructure and Political Arts, examines global infrastructure networks as a medium of polity.

THE ACTION IS THE FORM
VICTOR HUGO’S TED TALK

Microwaves bounce between cell phones. Credit cards — all 0.76 mm thick — slip through the slots in cash machines anywhere in the world. Computers synchronise. Shipping containers calibrate the global transportation and production of goods. Nearly identical buildings and urban arrangements proliferate globally. All these ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous features of our world are evidence of global infrastructure.

The word “infrastructure” typically conjures associations with physical networks for transportation, communication or utilities — a hidden substrate or binding medium. Yet the technologies comprising these networks consist not only of underground grids of pipes and wires or tangles of fibre-optic cable on the bottom of the ocean, but also pools of microwaves beaming from satellites, atomised populations of electronic devices and shared technical platforms. Far from hidden, infrastructure is often the overt point of contact and access, where the underlying rules of the world can be clasped in the space of everyday life.

Making another, perhaps more important observation, buildings, and even whole cities, have become infrastructural technologies. From the fields of repeatable suburban houses and traffic-engineered highways of the mid 20th century to the malls, resorts, golf courses and big-box stores of contemporary culture, repeatable formulas make most of the space in the world. These buildings are not singularly crafted enclosures, but reproducible products — spatial products. The discipline of architecture is only responsible for a trickle of the world’s spaces while a fire hose blasts out the rest. A familiar confetti of brightly coloured boxes nestled in black asphalt and bright green grass tells elaborate stories about Starbucks coffee, Beard Papa cream puffs and Arnold Palmer golf communities. This all too visible cartoon of abstract logics shapes most of the space in which we are swimming. Now not only small communities and resorts but also entire world cities are constructed according to a formula, usually a formula that replicates Shenzhen or Dubai anywhere in the world.

However familiar this mise-en-scène, popular culture has not yet found a compelling way to express the collapse between object and background. Some essential distinction between what is positive object and what is matrix must be dissolved: infrastructure is not just the urban substructure, but the urban structure itself — the very parameters of global urbanism. We do not build cities by accumulating singular masterpiece buildings. The constant flow of spatial products and urban formulas is more infrastructural. Architecture is making the occasional stone in the water. The world is making the water.