Local Code: 3,659 Proposals about Data, Design and the Nature of Cities
Nicholas de Monchaux
Princeton Architectural Press, 2016
In 1973 cybernetician Stafford Beer’s Project Cybersyn radically reframed the role of computation within a design process. The project, an attempt to computationally control the Chilean national economy, used a computer and 500 Telex machines (imagine a sort of proto–fax machine) to synthesize complex production information and provide human users an ability to intervene. Through a complex ecology of information, human agents were provided with simple choices that would alter the entire economy.
What is notable about Project Cybersyn is what it did not do—it did not, at any point, attempt to create a simulation of the economy, a common approach for strategists and scenario planners at the time. One could argue that the two-day lag of information was essentially a simulation, but for hardware circa 1973 the delay was effectively real time. Beer was entirely focused on using computation to intervene with the economy directly, as opposed to creating a computational model of the economy and then developing a response. The direct application of cybernetic systems was critical for Beer, who was once quoted as saying that academic research scientists were not “solving problems, they are writing bloody Ph.D. theses about solving problems.”1
Cybersyn leveraged computation to directly integrate with a context, to intervene with a complex adaptive system without the filter of simulation. At a time when computation and systems thinking were celebrated as urban saviors by figures such as Hubert Humphrey and Jay Forrester, their approach was primarily one of abstraction—the reduction of a complex system to a simplified essence or discrete parts. Once the parts or simplification was analyzed, a model of how to proceed was determined. Beer—who felt that exceedingly complex systems such as the universe, the human brain, a national economy, and the city were impossible to simulate—sought a different approach.
At the core of Nicholas de Monchaux’s work is a similar attempt to frame the city as a problem or system that defies systems thinking. De Monchaux’s previous book, Spacesuit, demonstrates the failure of systems thinking as deployed to clothe the human body in the extreme context of space, while succeeding in placing a human body upon the moon. Similar to Andrew Pickering’s description of British cyberneticists such as Stafford Beer in The Cybernetic Brain, de Monchaux does not seem interested in subverting systems thinking as much as demonstrating the capacity for other methods to be effective. It is the hegemony of systems thinking and its suitability to urban design that de Monchaux is concerned with, not the approach itself. Spacesuit’s twenty-one layers (chapters) all focus on the political and technological forces that produced this rift of design approaches—except one, layer 19, “Cities and Cyborgs.”
The inclusion of cities and cyborgs in a book that is otherwise entirely focused on the cultural forces behind industrial and fashion design suggests that the development of the Apollo spacesuit is a subtle metaphor for urbanism. Local Code: 3,659 Proposals about Data, Design and the Nature of Cities extrapolates the urban implications of the counterapproaches described in “Cities and Cyborgs” into a series of essays and urban proposals. The essays eloquently draw from sources like Jane Jacobs and Colin Rowe to describe, in Jacobs’s words, “the kind of problem a city is,” and why it has resisted a systems theory–based design approach. De Monchaux skillfully uses the development and history of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to articulate how digital cartography tools have accelerated an acceptance of representation of a landscape as the landscape itself, an acceptance of the simulation of a context as proxy for the context.
In “Fake Estates and Reality Properties,” a standout chapter of the book, de Monchaux offers the work of Gordon Matta-Clark as a counterapproach to the conflation of simulation and context. De Monchaux traces Matta-Clark’s tragically short career, demonstrating how Matta-Clark’s “Anarchitecture” subverted not only conventional modes of architectural production but also the dominant view of urban environments. Matta-Clark’s operations upon abandoned buildings may have been foundational for the formal revolution of deconstructivist architecture, but his more radical conceptual approach toward the city has remained relatively untapped. As de Monchaux describes, Matta-Clark was “concerned not so much with the physical shape or statistical outlines of the city, but with its processes and operations” (72). To Matta-Clark and Jacobs, the city was very much a living body, full of “shifting networks and networked metabolisms,” impossible to abstract or reduce (80, 85).
A lesser-known aspect of Project Cybersyn was the related Project Cyberfolk. Also developed by Beer, Project Cyberfolk can be understood as one of the first attempts at computational social media. Beer proposed that every house in Chile would have a dial that the occupants would change based on how they felt about the government’s control of the economy. They would have been effectively thermostats for political content—if the inhabitants appreciated the decisions that were made, they would turn the dial one way; if they were dissatisfied with the economic actions, they would turn it the other way.
As de Monchaux writes, “an abundance of data is not knowledge” (9), but what is an abundance of data? Could the emotional response from every home in Chile serve as a proxy for the thoughts of millions of people, or is it something else unto itself? Rather than attempting to ascribe meaning or value to the information, de Monchaux seems to suggest that we should intervene with urban data directly as a means for computationally designing without simulation. Yet the design proposals within the book serve to illustrate the very problem that de Monchaux has identified—that the city is fundamentally resistant to prediction, including prediction as deployed by the conventional architectural design method (139). The proposals presented deploy a set of strategies upon vacant lots in four different cities that culminate in thousands of proposals that suggest significant environmental benefits. The enormous quantity of proposals suggests not a singular specificity, but a heuristic that generates a multiplicity of outcomes. Perhaps it is more productive to see the proposals not necessarily as design suggestions, but as manifestations of data, representations of elements within complex urban systems. They are windows into the system or, as Keller Easterling describes in Local Code’s foreword, a digital version of Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” (7).
Local Code is a compelling description of the kind of problem a city is and, in building upon Jacobs’s insight, convincingly describes many of the issues of designing for it. While the design proposals may be nascent, the underlying suggestion is clear—we cannot pretend that the old models for computational urban design will suffice; we need to seek to leverage urban data in other ways. Local Code has very effectively opened a door into the wall created by systems thinking, offering urban and architectural designers a substantial theoretical framework within which to work.