An introductory piece to the expanded, multi-authored volume resulting from the eponymous three-year education program and think-tank at Strelka Institute.
Co-published by Strelka Press and Park Books, The New Normal book includes all final research projects developed between 2017-2019, newly written thematic essays by Program Director Benjamin H. Bratton, and a series of newly commissioned essays by distinguished interdisciplinary faculty.
“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
“The ape regards his tail; he’s stuck on it. Repeats until he fails, half a goon and half a god.”
Ghosts are Strata
During my first trip to Moscow after having accepted the position as director for the postgraduate educational program at Strelka Institute, one particularly significant thing did not happen. I have been thinking about it not happening a lot lately. One sleepy Sunday afternoon, while on a mundane errand to buy a SIM card, I passed the Russian White House, the scene of the failed 1991 coup that, by a turn of events, brought Boris Yeltsin to power. Among other events, this signaled the end of the Soviet Union. Despite official media blackouts, thanks to an early Relcom link sending updates to the outside world, it was also, in a real sense, the launch event for the Russian internet. One system gives way at the moment another makes its appearance.
By coincidence, as I rode past the parliament building in a taxi, I happened to recollect the date—August 21, 2016—and realized that it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the coup. Shouldn’t this place be a scene of some sort of remembrance? There was no one in sight. I am not one to stand on ceremony, but for someone who grew up in California in the midst of the Cold War, finding himself in Moscow on that day, to witness the ponderously conspicuous silence and absence of commemoration or even acknowledgement, was memorably eerie. In front of the parliament building, where tanks had been, there was only regular weekend traffic. There was nothing much about it on TV either, just a brief mention in passing, as if required by ordinance. On the street, at the site of its occurrence, the anniversary of this “revolution” was an unmarked non-event. The accumulated debt of an unprocessed past makes it extraordinarily difficult to invest in a real future. Instead, the past gets buried. Moscow is full of layered ghosts, all the more spooky for their muteness. Until, that is, the repressed returns and bursts forth, burying a new stratum of ghosts all over again.
I had been to Russia many times before, including as a teenager when I visited the city still called Leningrad. I have had the chance to reflect on the deep and strange interrelations between Russia and California, where I am from: the military antagonism, the space race, the long arch of algorithmic governance, attempted and realized, etc. Both places have their unique politics of amnesia. For the beautiful and banal La Jolla, the amnesia is based in phones, drones, and genomes. For Moscow, it is a century or more of unmourned, unprocessed utopian regimes. Maybe these are more similar than they first appear. In that summer of 2016, it seemed as if the two might have been tilting toward some awkward convergence, but of what exactly? It may take a while to become clear.
Across the river from the Strelka campus is a famous church that looks like it’s from the nineteenth century but is actually from the 1990s. There was once another church there that took more than twenty years to construct (1839–1860), but in 1931 the Soviets saw fit to knock it down to make way for the Palace of the Soviets. The design of that massive capital of world socialism drew competition entries from around the world before settling on the scheme known to every architecture student, a structure that would have been the tallest building in the world, with a King Kong-sized Lenin on top pointing to the future. The Great War with Germany intervened in the plan to build it, and available steel was used for military efforts instead. But the vast circular foundation had already been dug. What to do with such a big hole in the ground? For most of the Soviet era it became a gigantic open air public swimming pool. It was a remarkable thing. But of course, when the Orthodox Church came back in the 1990s, they wanted their pre-revolutionary church back—but this time bigger and better. And so, one was built. When Pussy Riot performed “Punk Prayer” in that new church in 2012, they were almost twice as old as the building itself, but you wouldn’t know by looking at it. It’s a reasonable simulation of what you would imagine a very old Orthodox cathedral would look like in a movie about very old Orthodox cathedrals. You can still see where the swimming pool used to be. There is no trace of the Palace of the Soviets, however, other than in architectural history seminars. The site, just out the window of our seminar and studio windows, is a microcosm of Moscow’s layering of ghosts of futures.
The New Normal education program at Strelka took the urban as a medium whose messages are at once both determinant and up for grabs. Something has shifted, it seems: this much is true. We are making new worlds faster than we can keep track of them, and the pace is unlikely to slow. If technologies have advanced beyond our ability to conceptualize their implications and revelations, then such gaps can be perilous, and it is less their fault than ours. One impulse is to pull the emergency brake and try to put all the genies back in all the bottles. This is, at best, ill-advised, and at worst, genocidal. Better instead to invest in emergence, in contingency, to bend our grasping toward its implications: to map the new normal for what it is, and to shape it toward what it should be. That said, waking ghosts is an uncertain invitation. Things can get out of hand quickly, but that may be the point.
The Obscurity of Hybrids
The previous research theme of Strelka’s educational program was called “Hybrid Urbanism, ” and was based on the idea that physical/virtual mixtures of bricks and bits are still a mysterious novelty. They are not. Their coexistence is quite normal, and if we don’t have the words to articulate how so, other than by calling them hybrids, we should make them up. In fact, the language of hybrids is part of the problem. When something new appears, we may understand it as a combination of other familiar things. A car is a “horseless carriage.”
A handheld computer plus camera plus wireless data plus screen is a “mobile phone.” A metropolis woven with sensor networks and information technology is called a “smart city.” A blockchain is, more or less, “digital money.” And so on. Formal and vernacular languages are strewn with horseless carriage metaphors. In the short-term, hybrids may make sense by way of analogy and continuity, but soon they create confusion, and even fear, as the new things continue to evolve and resemble the familiar less and less. Hybrid terminology delays recognition and defers understanding of what requires the most audacious attention.
Instead of piling on more hybrids, exceptions, and anomalies, we need a glossary for a new normal, and for its design and redesign. But why is that so hard, and what is the new normal anyway? Or better yet—what should it be? So much of the new normal doesn’t seem “new” at all. To the contrary, it seems like a nightmarish regurgitation of history-themed vulgarities, all positions frozen in place for a long winter’s ground campaign.
As I wrote the research plan for the program, watching the year 2016 sputter away, many were struck by the ambience of stupefaction that covered the globe. Sometimes things are not as they seem (and sometimes they are even more what they are than they appear to be). To see hings new again, strange and marvelous, requires a more serious and quiet train of thought.
The “new normal” is a term that can have several connotations, and we rode that slipperiness. The first is that design must map its bizarre circumstances anew if it has a hope of ever designating their futures. From this a second connotation follows, which is working to enforce new normative claims. Design’s reaction to the new normal cannot be phrased only in terms of acceptance or resistance, but of re- configuring what norms will be based on the new shit that has come to light.
The new normal twists distant sites into one another. Discontiguous megastructures cohere from molecular, urban, and atmospheric scales into de facto jurisdictions. Ecological flows become a public body of intensive sensing, quantification, and governance. Cloud platforms take on the traditional role of states, as states evolve into cloud platforms. Cities link into vast and tangling urban networks as they multiply borders into enclaves inside of enclaves, nesting gated communities inside of gated communities. Interfaces present vibrant augmentations of reality, now sorted as address, interface, and user.
School of Thought
Strelka is not just a school of design, but a school of thought. Just like Vkhutemas, Bauhaus, and however many others, it makes its own language of and for the urban. For its part, The New Normal dealt with cities as an artificial planetary crust, an information technology for emergent economics, politics, and cultural norms. Cities are the shuttles through which the multipolar Anthropocenic precipice unfolds its many crises of authority (too much, too little), genomic flows and flux, various desperate fundamentalisms, financial melodramas, and a video game-like geopolitics full of hidden trapdoors and Easter eggs.
How to name all these more directly? That was the plan. It is not just hybrid terms that are suspect, but good solid words too, like “sovereignty,” “politics,” “identity,” “human,” “organic,” “citizen,” “home,” “modern,” “authentic,” “progressive,” “natural,” etc. What do these words mean anymore? Or rather, does what they mean describe what is actually happening? When does the gap between what they mean and what is happening become so wide that we need to move on to new words? Can we invent a conceptual language to describe what we need to? How to design a more effective glossary? Can we do it fast enough? I honestly don’t know, and only time will tell. But if it is possible, then the way to do so would be less to write out a new vocabulary list than to make the things that are only possible to say with the new words.
To assume that the future will be like the present, only more so, feels safe, but is actually quite a risky bet. All historical evidence is against it, even as it comforts us as bent-over creatures of habit hoping to preserve our predictions.
On another level, it makes our relationship to technology equally contorted. The value of emerging technologies is less in that they fix new solutions and more in how they pose essential problems and questions in new ways. Automation of what? Machine vision of what? Recognition of what pattern? Which artificial intelligence about what? The future city when? Who is included and excluded from the new normal, and on what terms will we be included in each other’s worlds, or not? We do not know what new technologies are for good yet. No one does, and that’s the point. They remain open to definition. They probably have nothing to do with what we think they’re for right now. That is the good news.
Design Futures Against Design Futures
J. G. Ballard once wrote that “the future is a better key to the present than the past.” An essential aspect of the new normal is that the very idea of the future (a future, any future at all) seems both a foregone conclusion and impossible to imagine: a dark tautology and a vanishing illusion. This double-facedness of the future tends to encourage prophetic fatalism, not thoughtful long-term composition. Cognitive faculties of foresight can lose their grip and become eschatology. Compared to California, where “the future” is a cottage culture industry, a different museum of futurism weighs heavy in Moscow’s ghostly layers. Cycles of change in Moscow are felt to be both inevitable and inconsequential. When the future comes, and afterwards, will things be even more the same than they already are?
During The New Normal, Zaryadye Park, a sprawlingly landscaped public park next to the Kremlin, ostensibly designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, opened across the river from Strelka.
The most iconic architectural feature of the park is a long dramatic looping bridge that lets park-goers walk out over the river and back again. One night, I asked my taxi driver what he thought about this new public park that had just opened. He looked at me the rearview mirror to size up my question.
“It’s very symbolic,” he said. “It is?” I answered, honestly not sure what he meant. “Yes, it’s obvious.” A long silent pause between us. “Ok, how so?”
I ventured. He seemed surprised that I could be so dumb. “The bridge where you go out over the river and look down and come back around. This is the government saying to us ‘you can go out as far as you want, it doesn’t matter, you will end up back where you started.’” We were silent again.
When the program first launched, I was once asked by an aggressive and impatient Russian journalist whether The New Normal would bring practical designs that help Muscovites right here and now, or wild and impractical gestures that would not. By the latter, I surmised that they meant, for example, the grove of isolated skyscrapers that comprise the somber Moscow City, conjured up as a flat-pack financial district near the third ring road in the 1990s. I told them that we hold quick fix schemes in low regard.
The New Normal was meant to be a research think tank, and we make no apologies for this. We did not convene to build more buildings on the spot. Yet the work we made was, I would argue, extremely practical, perhaps disturbingly so. It is the type of work that would be common sense in a city governed by the quiet clarity of reason. I told the journalist that our interest in Russian urbanism departs from the year 2050. We may normally think of that as the future, but it’s not. It’s pretty much next week, all things considered. I sensed in the way the journalist changed his posture when I responded that this line of thinking seemed plausible to him. Whereas for other education programs elsewhere in the world, that year may underwrite “design futures,” for which the future is a convenient alibi into which present problems are deferred. But for us, it does not. Again, 2050 is not the future. We are all setting the table for 2050 right now, with every little and large system we use or abuse.
The journalist then asked me, considering that cities last so long, why is the timescale of architecture so myopic? What’s wrong with you people? I responded that maybe his initial question about whether we would focus on immediate practical issues is part of the problem. Perhaps it’s because the autobiographical sense of cause and effect is so weirdly foreshortened, so over-tuned to the most immediate subjective experiences, that we understand five-to-ten-year project cycles as “long-term.” Much longer circuits between decision and outcome must be internalized, not because it would be ideal, but because it is a more practical approach.
If the “Long Now” is some kind of ten-thousand-year mindfulness, what The New Normal is after is more like a “thick now,” for which the depth and complexity of this wider immediate moment (roughly 1850–2050CE) is given greater reign over humanity’s mayfly phenomenology. Put differently, because cities and ecologies operate at rhythms that are both much faster and much slower than human social time—an intergenerational exquisite corpse—engineering them as if they will die with us sets in motion cascade effects which can, depending on how they’re designed, either coalesce into an emergent intelligent order or pile up into gigantic monstrosities. The purpose of design intelligence is to abstract patterns above and beyond individual perspective and incremental optimization, such that systems might be steered away from either banal dysfunction or self- destruction. Is that too much to ask? I think he got the point.
Eleven Time Zones as Site Condition
The Russian context is an “interesting” position from which to map these circumstances. It is no secret that contemporary mainstream Russian political discourse is not entirely enamored with the premises of universal modernity and the eminence of secular reason. If for much of the twentieth century Moscow saw itself as the seat of one kind of internationalism, today it would be of another, defined by inverting many terms of the one it previously replaced. Against this current, we asked how past Russian futurisms (literary, cinematic, scientific, social, etc.) might yet shape urbanism here, there, and elsewhere. This is not as quixotic as it may seem, as the last years of the 2010s have been defined by the push and pull between neo-modern and neo-reactionary narratives, and it is not always clear which is which. The aims of The New Normal’s own little cosmopolitan sect of speculative urbanists are unambiguously universalist, but what that actually means requires continual rediscovery and reformulation.
Strelka’s campus is right in the middle of Moscow and its legacies of melancholic utopianism and voluptuous dystopianism. The city links European and Asian passages, Arctic and Baltic flows, and is where, during the twentieth century, algorithmic governance found one of its primordial forms. Will the expanded jurisdictional circumference of “the Moscow agglomeration” innovate a regional vernacular of duplicative sprawl, or interlocking nested megastructures? Perhaps both, or neither. At twenty million inhabitants and counting, will Moscow’s path be one toward lower density or higher density—and density of what? How much energy can it draw into the centripetal force of sovereign centralization until—like the Antonov 225, Tsar Bomba, Ostankino Tower, or Norman Foster’s unbuilt Crystal Island—the city becomes just too big to function, and finally is set aside for other options? Will it only find new ways to rehearse the existential malaise of the Strugatsky brothers’ Doomed City, perhaps now cast as an Aeroflot safety video on endless loop along the arcades of GUM?
From Russia’s eleven-time-zone expanse, the first vertical forays of Earthlings into space were launched, freeing us from one sort of planetary predicament and revealing others from which we can never leave. A century ago, Nikolai Federov, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and other cosmists imagined migration off-planet as a necessary evolutionary step for the species. But where to now? Mars? Probably not, but Mars has long been a preferred location for Russian charter cities, from Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908) and Aleksey Tolstoy’s Aelita (1923) to Valery Fokin’s (and Francis Ford Coppola’s) Nebo Zovyot (1959) and the Mars 3 craft which, in 1971, was the first Earth machine to land on the Red Planet. According to this tradition, The New Normal conceives its own charter cities and charter stacks as if they were for some place like Mars, because, in a way—whether it is Laika’s little space suit or growing food under a domed desert—they are.
Perhaps, as before, the path out is upward, where the idealism of internationalism and the geometries of the global give way to a stark and vibrant planetarity. Of course, “outer space” is not actually out of anywhere (I once had to remind a student, whose speculative design project was about “the first human born in space,” that all humans, hurtling around the sun as we are, were born in space). How space signifies an exterior alternative (or alternative exteriority) is provisional, but productively so. Whether from orbit or on Mars, the interdependent totality of Earth’s planetary circumstance can be perceived as untethered from mankind’s intuitive horizontalism, and when it is, it suggests but never guarantees the possibility of comprehensive alternatives. If Mars stands for Planet B, it is less because we will move there than it is because solving systems for its arid plains makes solving for Earth’s teeming tropics easy by comparison.
The Clown Hair Problem
Geopolitical uncertainty can be a position of leverage—and camouflage. For us, this meant embracing that saying exactly what you mean doesn’t entail speaking so that everything is obvious. Once upon a time, the man elected president stood in front of the press and waved away questions about espionage and influence with the whopper: “The whole age of the computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”
We were perfectly aware of the risks and pleasures of locating this work in Moscow. Its implications may be radical, but in ways that are illegible to those who may want to make life hard for that sort of thing. They can look all they want at our work, down to every detail, and will find mostly things that they are not sure what to make of. Is this for real? Is this serious? Are they making fun of us or pitching us a plan? Is this supposed to be a critique of the status quo, or a proposal for what should be happening instead? Can we actually invest in this? Did all of this already happen? The answers to all of these questions are both yes and no.
Looking back at the work that was produced within the think tank, I am no more certain than when we started whether each project is an aspiration or a warning, or both. We don’t want to know too fast. The old chestnut of the pharmakon as both remedy and poison still holds. Some of the journalists and critics who came to the three annual final presentations, or watched them online, wrote that the work presented showed that we were everything from authoritarian technocrats to dreamy artists, neoliberal shills, and/or communist psy-ops. To construct three years’ worth of projects that can maintain and sustain that sort of Rorschach inkblot abstraction-plus-recognition is not so easy, but it was deliberate.
This is a far better method than what stands now for so much “design thinking,” a term that suggests a multipurposed meeting room filled with sticky notes and stakeholders reluctantly drawn into a bad faith LARP; a cringe corporate ritual based on the mistaken notion that if by coercing anyone with a possible future complaint to voice their improvised opinion upfront, then the eventual “design” will bear a veneer of consensus and collaborative equality. Design thinking, in this sense, is a way to avoid investing in expert designers with adequate budgets and authority, based on the mistaken notion that unlike almost any other profession, design is an easy formula that works best when every random preference is mixed in to the whole. The performative dynamics of this horrible process lend themselves to passive aggressive demagoguery, subtextual subterfuge, and absolute amateurism. No wonder then that design is so easily lent to processes which seek to incant outcomes into being by guaranteeing that the organization of meeting-goers fully represents the presumed outcome in the most superficial ways. Like ineffectual ritual-based political activism that finally gave up on power and relocated to galleries and museums where its beatific pointlessness was seen as a virtue, the same fate is befalling “critical design.”
For The New Normal program specifically, the urban was taken more as a format for design rather than a genre of design. Cities are media for the circulation of potentials (as well as the encapsulation of foregone conclusions), and to search for that potential means getting out of our own skins. The passages between hard science and science fiction set the rules for spatial scenarios to play out. To make the future look Russian, we will have to cultivate that most Russian ethos: alienation.
The phrase “new normal” has been trending in popular discourses since the program launched, all on its own. It has often been used to declare that certain new things should never be considered “normal,” and that we should not bend the frame of acceptability to include them. Here we can be reminded of Eugène Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros (1959), in which people rationalize away the massive savannah mammal marauding suddenly through town. “Give it a chance, wait and see. Maybe it’s a rhinoceros and maybe it’s not. How bad could it be, really? I heard that it’s not even happening.” Among our thematic trends was the infrastructural-scale defamation for the real by conspiracy, intrigue, superstitious populism, clickbait pseudoscience, causality/correlation fallacies, and motivated inference. Yet these new normals have already become part of the long collapse of novelty cycles, such that technologies become normal even before they become real. AI is already normal. Universal Basic Income? So August 2015! Driverless cars are blasé and they aren’t even on the road yet. Your mom was probably already playing Pokémon Go before its denouncers knew what was going on. She was perhaps among the crowd gathered day and night at the park on Pokrovsky Boulevard near the Kremlin, huddled around the densest cluster of Pokémon gyms, Pokéstops, incenses, and lure modules in the whole time zone. That this assembly was interpreted by the Russian government as a dangerous message from Google (Niantic Labs, the game developer’s parent company), that they could send a crowd to the Kremlin anytime they wanted, is not so surprising.
Part of what animated the little worlds we hoped to carve out was an impatient exhaustion with the contemptuous, tautological malaise exemplified by mainstream “critical design” shouting at history in big sans serif visual prose. And as for mainstream politics, in the exact spot where a viable future should be, something insufferably backwards has filled it in: a psychotic simulation of medieval geopolitics burning as bright as creepy clown hair. The rise of ethno-nationalist populism is a global phenomenon with global causes. Yet in each case, the locals either blame or congratulate themselves for their unique failure/accomplishment. But from Manila to Milwaukee, we see the same demographic voting patterns of urban, highly- educated cosmopolitans, and rural, less-educated monocultural nationalists (and/or national monoculturalists). Even as globalization has delinked class from geography in uneven ways, we all try to deal with the phenomenon one eighteenth-century jurisdiction at a time. This is also a moment when networks of city-states seem decisively detached from their national hosts. For those from District 13 in the real-life Hunger Games, the city is a source of arbitrary power, and in this way, urbanization itself a focus of populist backlash.
We may be seeing the emergence of a new (old) multipolar order of geographically encapsulated domains, an amalgamation of legacy polities that could last a few years or a few decades. While some functions of globalization proceed according to the dynamics of spheres and networks, the nomos of the cloud is subdividing into multilateral sovereign domains, each with a parallel stack of servers, sensors, data, applications, and users/ citizens. A silver lining to this enclosure into regional sovereign stacks (North American, Eurasian, Russian, Chinese, etc.) may be a diversification of innovation at each layer according to differing contexts. Such consolidations may be another phase in the “great convergence” of political economies under information logistics, and if so, it holds both dark and light potentials. The segmentation of stacks may force the diversification and speciation of software and hardware by hemispherical “Galapagos effects.” Among the strange implications of this might be its effects on the evolution of artificial intelligences, which are bound to the data they are allowed to sense and process, and so may be physically constrained by the Great Firewalls of the regional stacks inside of which they are born. For the coming years, the morphogenetic diversity of AI may be a function not only of their application domains, but of their sovereign domains as well.
Along the coast or countryside, on Earth or Mars (one standing in for the other), the question of urbanization is now, and will remain, a question of who and what is urbanized, when, and how so. For The New Normal, the ante is a tempered alienation from conventional answers. For all our interest in planetary-scale systems, the bleeding- edges of urbanism are at the level of sensing and sensation, both human and machinic. Smart city scenarios are full of sensors in the service of administrative loops, but they tragically undersell the potential of machine sensing at urban scale.
In real cities, much more interesting applications already flourish—and besides, cites have always been information-rich. Concurrently, technologies that augment human sensation have become more mainstream, and as they do, they extend and focus the perceptual practice of everyday urban life. We see these vectors—machine sensing and augmented sensation—as correspondent to and convergent with one another. For machine sensing, the surfaces of the city are made more vital as they respond to light, touch, and motion in new ways, and for augmented sensation, the living inhabitants’ sensory apparatuses are infused with new layers of hot and cool stimulus. There is an urbanism to be found in the hatched membrane between these.
Megastructures in the Wild
One hope is that the result of this new tale of sensing and sensibility is a tactile intimacy with the unfamiliar and inaccessible rather than another way of projecting more dumb constellations onto a new glass ceiling. A possible price to pay for this is that boundaries between what feels like the inside and what looks like the outside are less certain, testing our confidence in causation versus misapprehension. What some call “affect” is distributed into an overwhelming synthetic kingdom of sensors and their prostheses; the senses of memory and agency shift seats. Another more expensive toll, however, is the amnesia of our perpetual present-tense, the virtual reality that is waking life. And yet, even that may come to de-subjectivize and de-individuate historical trace and trauma; itself a possible precondition for the futurisms most needed.
A generation ago, the present moment might have been explained this way: Foucauldian disciplinary society based on institutional walls gave way to the Deleuzian society of control based on switches and gateways, so now a biopolitics of synthetic sensing (including seeing) is the physical location of metropolitan power. If so, synthetic sensing and sensation can be used to narrate urban designs, but also, user by user, they are the bricks out of which cities are built. For The New Normal, such technologies were taken as both tool and subject matter. We learned to think with each and understand how each thinks with us. We made use of them as drawing tools with which to tell stories. In some scenarios, technologies may be the protagonist or antagonist of said stories.
This presents a rather different definition of the “city.” It may be true, as Rem Koolhaas has suggested, that we’ve invested precious little time into re-thinking what urban form might be, and that the concentration of human populations into megacities has allowed us to overlook revolutions in rural and suburban peripheries. It is in data centers, distribution warehousing zones, ports, crop fields, and energy farms where the logistical sublime of algorithmic urbanism has already reshaped the built environment most decisively. Even as these places serve huge metropolitan populations, they are increasingly manned by lean crews of technicians and service staff, itinerant or not. Given their scale, they surely count as megastructures, but of a different sort than the now-canonical 1960s-era encapsulated utopias of the Metabolists, Buckminster Fuller, or Constant (though they do bear affinity to Archizoom’s networked refractions, with wide grids optimized for programs other than human habitation). An urbanism for inanimate objects is not itself a speculative exercise, but now one pillar of what is and will continue to be the real city. This doesn’t diminish factors like energy and access; to the contrary, they come to the fore in ways that they probably would not, if this architecture were designed only as a stage for human dramas.
Megastructures have played a starring role in urbanism’s own historical “speculative design” avant la lettre. They have been a way to make sense of planetary scales and non-local integrations; they have extruded diagrammatic plans of ideal societies into domed sections. From Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture (1972) to Biosphere 2 (1991), they have been a figure of totality, either social or ecological or both. Their currency is traded for and against ideas of what those totalities should be, and so they are, at least in this way, models that are at once descriptive, predictive, and projective. Now, as the Anthropocene binds social time to geologic time, the totality of totalities becomes a yet more critical, and in no way hypothetical, geodesign brief. Even so, given that the continuance of urban design conventions will not clarify this work, speculation is a necessary, not fanciful, method. The New Normal drew from these histories, but also from those we lived in Moscow: things like the subterranean public luxury of the palatial subway station network, the vectoral obelisk that caps the Museum of Cosmonautics, and the charming, sprawling, miscellaneousness of the VDNKh exhibition grounds. Totalities were abundant.
Besides the role of hard science/science fiction for Anthropocenic urbanism, “discontiguous megastructures” were understood as the essential platforms we must understand and design with/ for/against. The cloud urbanism that now drives urban/rural core/periphery dynamics links moments of production, distribution, habitation, and consumption into fantastically regular cycles. Its choreographies also pile on dangerous effects, which is all the more reason to commandeer the algorithmic coding and zoning machines toward better outcomes.
We tried to detail how the cloud enables and prevents different urban forms. Just beneath the city’s skins, working as a vast animating engine, we tapped into various appliances (buildings, cars, phones, etc.). Where it oozes through screens, we marked a digital aesthetic, both human and inhuman at once, fleeting like weather patterns. As urbanism, it binds contact, conflict, consensus, and monumentalization, taking form in cities but not reducible to them. In search of our own kind of cloud Brutalism, we decamped the think tank to the Arctic coast where Russia (along with Norway, Canada, and others) is building automated shipping ports in anticipation of the further melting of the polar cap and the opening of the Northern Passage. There is little that is more “new normal” than a networked archipelago of hyperborean robot cities sending containers back and forth to one another across the top of the planet. In search of the edge, we also went to mining and manufacturing hubs in the Urals and to the Siberian port city of Magadan (which is the closest to Martian environmental conditions that humans may ever get to experience).
Along the way, we were reminded of Stalin’s “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature” from the 1940s, to terraform the country’s agricultural interior through massive infrastructural works and Lysenkoist geoengineering. If the enduring value of post-WW2 utopian megastructures is how their ambitious urban-scale architecture (or architecturally-enveloped urbanism) sought to diagram a programmatic totality, their weakness was an inability to adapt to intrinsic or extrinsic perturbations that demanded accommodation. Despite the modularity of contemporary platforms, we shouldn’t be overconfident that the discontiguous cloud megastructures of today are so different from their forebears. As urban systems (macro to micro) link molecules and continents, cause and effect are difficult to model, and in the face of that difficulty, placeholder clichés from smart city advertising stick around beyond their shelf life to become inadvertent conventional wisdom that is hard to dislodge.
The New Normal projects not only illustrate integrative scenarios, but also microprotocols, games, and ruses, understood not as minor exceptions but as a primary grammar for how spatial systems work. We focused on maneuvers that produce unexpected outcomes as the basis of a more hard-realist urban cybernetics by paying close attention to how incrementally more precise measurements often come at the expense of understanding what needs and does not need to be measured in the first place. The big picture gets lost as the details become more precise. Pull on which levers to push which urban systems? Perhaps for the global economy, our indexes are metering a ghost economics, and our game theories, legal fictions, and incentive zones are poorly disposed to zero-marginal-cost platform economics. Or perhaps not, and we just don’t know what to do with them. As ever, reflexively treating each awkward signal as anomalous to the rule— instead of as a reason to fix new rules, patterns, and norms—only defers conclusions. The alternative is for design to wield its essential craftiness and cunning (and critique) to trick those new norms into appearance.
Inside the Outside
If one of the key questions for any architecture is who or what is inside and/or outside any envelope, The New Normal accepted the nervous uncertainty of the answer as a starting point. For starters, in the architecture of political geography, who or what is and is not a migrant of one sort or another? But in that solidarity, there are cutting differences: for some, that status is a death sentence, and for others it’s a token of access. From across the spectra of positions, the work needed is on behalf of the permanent artificiality of the built environment. Among the uncanny effects of climate change is how the ground shifts beneath our feet. Whole habitats migrate north or south with species chasing or escaping the sun. Do their humans follow them, or are they left behind as indigenous refugees? Such new normal conundrums organize, entangle, and confuse. Our responses have been on behalf of the emergent, not just the emergency.
While accepting our own presumptions and blind spots, we deduced and sorted interesting patterns and assembled them into charter cities and charter stacks, drawn not only with lines and volumes, but also with diagrams that trace what might ensue. Just as with synthetic sensing, the conjunction and disjunction between code, image, and model is multidirectional. The New Normal projects are proposed as fungible platforms, not fixed master plans. Almost all are systems more than policies, and accordingly, all have their own economics and aesthetics that allow them to work as they do. The circumstances in which they move about are sometimes cloudy. Appearances confuse. What looks like a clean slate may actually be a canvas so full of contradictions that no light can penetrate it. What seems uncertain may not be; what looks like cool gamesmanship may be a slow-motion fake out. The post-truth mode of knowing may be less a cunning scheme than a sign that the sovereign has nothing left to lose. Or it may be nothing but a facile preference for conspiracy myths that keep the hero’s sentimental journey in center frame. What good is algorithmically- augmented pattern recognition for someone who thinks they already know how the movie ends, despite all of the “known unknown” sleights-of- hand that turn audiences into users, developers, believers, and collaborators?
As urbanism itself variously sprints and meanders toward different platform economics, their aesthetics take on more gravity. To design accordingly is not straightforward. The task solicits gestures of revelation and secrecy, of obscuring as a kind of revealing. It involves both stating things plainly and telling winding stories; a hardcore cultural realism based on hiding in plain sight. Steganography, for example, is the practice of encoding information within other non-secret text or data, such as messages hidden in the raw code of a JPEG image, but even that is too James Bond for us. The New Normal was best suited for those comfortable with counterintuitive perspectives and working across more differing scales than their current circumstances might have allowed them: urban data, urban economics, urban philosophy, urban software, urban cinema, urban services, urban science fiction, urban systems, urban interfaces, and even urban planning.
We spoke different conceptual languages to engage the new normal and things to come—search, orientation, projection—sometimes all at once. Our work overfilled content feeds with nice images, good ideas, and terms to build a new glossary, but the real “deliverables” of The New Normal are new design practices themselves. The subdivision of design practice into graphic, industrial, interaction, service, urban, and architectural design, etc., has already been supplanted and augmented by another distribution of robotic, ecological, and biological techniques. Yet the latter doesn’t replace the former as some new orthodoxy. Practices must mix the old and the new on their own terms. They should hone a generous philosophical approach and deploy them with as much coldness and cruelty as they can muster.
If urbanism intertwines so many scales and modalities of life, there is need for urban design practices that deploy combinations of their own full-stack service and/or independent development concerns. This fits both very well and very badly with forms of the now-normal asymmetrical information battle that operates on many fronts with dissonant messages aimed at the same goal and sometimes without clear attribution of blame, credit, or authorship. In other words, if the world has made discontiguous megastructures, now we need to make the discontiguous megastructuralists.
I still think back to the unmarked anniversary of the failed 1991 coup, and wonder what the lesson may be about a purported fidelity to “events” when revolutions are eventless? Perhaps the real processes and the ways they “take place” don’t need to be marked by human-scale events. Like cities, they just keep on happening with or without our observances. Who knows, by 2050 we may look back on the 2010s as the “pre-war years.” If so, let the record show that the danger was less artificial intelligence than old-fashioned human stupidity. We blamed the machines for listening to us and doing exactly what we told them to do. We should have built machines that knew not to focus only on us, but on everything else.
The questions of what is the new normal, what it should be, and what should be resisted and never normalized are poorly served by simple stories of tradition, justice, or efficiency. Some systems may be broken because they are deeply cemented niches impervious to new signals, and others because they do nothing but receive, reflect, and amplify every desire back to themselves. Cities are guilty of both, but they are victims too.
Design always takes a risk when addressing any state of exception, in that its techniques of mitigation may prematurely normalize, and so sustain, a pathology that would otherwise dissipate under the weight of its eventual failures. In hopes of protecting what is good, design interventions can support what is harmful to carry on. Sometimes the best defense is to let something destroy itself.
So, pick your emergency: electron distribution, value exchange, protein capture, carbon dioxide storage, etc. What is actually worth what, and to whom? How much value is there in the world, and why? What should be done with cities, now? To see things anew, and to see them for what they really are, in all their marvelous strangeness, both beautiful and ugly, will require our most intense and adventurous imaginations and techniques. The future has not been canceled. The future is where we will live and grow, but first we need to catch up to the present.
Find out more about the publication and The New Normal initiative at thenewnormal.strelka.com
Benjamin H. Bratton