Uneven Growth Studio, 2047 (2014 GSAPP studio)

Uneven Growth: Hong Kong 2047

Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Network Architecture Lab

Instructor: Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Associate:  Jochen Hartmann

This studio parallels and informs the Uneven Growth exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art in November 2014. The intent of both studio and exhibition is to tackle the complex condition of the megacity and the growing economic and social inequality within it.

As in the exhibition, the Network Architecture Lab’s physical site is Hong Kong and the temporal site is the year 2047. At this point the “One Country, Two Systems,” doctrine that began in 1997 as the former British colony was handed over to the People’s Republic of China is scheduled to run out, and the city is scheduled to lose its status as an exceptional zone within China. We hypothesize that Hong Kong will not disappear, but that instead China will.

We set out to ask how architecture can address uneven growth in Hong Kong and other megacities. Rather than finding strategic solutions, we intend to identify the conditions and location in which to operate.

This studio is conceptual, aimed at developing arguments and polemics, but it sets out to do so using the tools of the architect. We propose architecture based on rigorous programming rather than generative designs or cool forms, architecture as a system of thought that makes abstract knowledge experiential, and conceptual thinking rational and understandable. We maintain that buildings can be constructions of thought in addition to material, conceptual machines that produce arguments and state positions.

Against a cynical world in which architects—and even studios in schools of architecture—have unabashedly agreed to serve authoritarian clients, we believe it is still possible to act. We reject neoliberalism’s doctrine that “There Is No Alternative” together with the self-expressive and performance-based models of design that dominate today as fundamentally incompatible with a future of extreme scarcity and declining populations. We ask not only how architecture can continue to function in this condition but also how it can play a transformational role in it. This studio’s central task is the invention of an ethics of design appropriate to a diminished future.

Students participating in this studio will be required to travel to Hong Kong for site visits. Travel will be funded through the school.


“The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the necessary effect, so it is the natural symptom of increasing national wealth. The scanty maintenance of the labouring poor, on the other hand, is the natural symptom that things are at a stand, and their starving condition that they are going fast backwards.”

-Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations(1776)

Demographic projections show that the People’s Republic of China faces a brick wall created by the one-child policy. The demographic dividend created by the country’s large ratio of effective producers (working age adults) to effective consumers (children and the elderly) was a critical factor in the country’s growth to date. In 2013, however, a turning point was reached and the dividend’s growth rate turned negative, with China fairing now worse than many other countries. Within five years, yearly declines in the numbers of new workers fresh from school will become normal in China. Between 2016 and 2026 the population of workers aged 20 to 29 will drop by one quarter. By midcentury, 30% of the country’s population will be over 60. Without young workers dreaming of a better future, productivity will collapse. The result will be a suddenly poor country with a population of aging, bitter men, lacking sufficient pensions, welfare, or other means of supporting themselves. The central government will lose its grip on power, leading instead to a loose agglomeration of regional states, roughly akin to the Commonwealth of Independent States. In an effort to mask the collapse, the last PRC regime will describe the devolution as a natural process to recognize the differences within the country and will negotiate deals to include Taiwan, Mongolia, and post-DPRK North Korea into the commonwealth.

China’s crisis will parallel the condition of the vast majority of the world’s developed countries in which population growth has long past the tipping point. By midcentury, in addition to China, Japan, the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the United States will all endure major population declines as both poor and rich avoid having too many children. Even stern government measures, such as Vladimir Putin’s 2006 attempt to offer 250,000 rubles (about $9,200 US) to women who will have a second child, will fail to change demographic destiny. Only the southern hemisphere will continue to grow, although by then the days of its growth will seem numbered too. Although population growth has become a problem lately, its seeming inevitability means that our economies rely on it. As populations decline, economies do as well.

In China, many interior cities, hastily filled with housing, factories, and starchitecture during the first decades of twenty-first century will empty, turning into Detroit-like ghost cities. In contrast, even with dwindling population rates, some coastal cities, having demanded Hong Kong-style autonomy from the diminished central government, will continue to thrive as active players in the global network of city-states. Since 2000, Hong Kong has had the distinction of being the country with the world’s second lowest fertility rate, Macao having the lowest, but with Hong Kong’s history of accommodating migrants from both within China and outside it, Hong Kong will be able to resume growth through migration from other countries in Southeast Asia as well as from Africa which is now becoming extensively colonized by Chinese capital. With its continuing role in global finance and manufacturing, Hong Kong is uniquely suited to lead the Chinese coastal city-states.

Hong Kong’s special status will spread, becoming a model for other megacities increasingly disconnected from the territories around them. Megacities will advocate for such special status within their larger countries, demanding greater autonomy, both economically and in terms of foreign policy. Such super-city-states will band together more formally over time, leaving their nation-states behind.

Even so, as in the rest of the world, inequality in Hong Kong will have grown almost insurmountable. As measured by the GINI coefficient, Hong Kong has the highest income inequality of any developed city in the world (and likely higher still since wealthy families in China habitually understate their income) and that coefficient has trended inexorably higher over the last two decades. Thus, it is unlikely that Hong Kong will deal with its own demographic crisis by allowing permanent immigration. Rather, the government will continue to expand the existing two-tier system, allowing poor immigrants to remain in the territory only on time-delimited visas while allowing the wealthy and skilled access to the system.

After the explosion of the demographic bomb, the world will face a new economic reality. Adam Smith observed that continuous economic growth has historically been predicated not only on growing technological efficiencies but also an increase in both population and the amount of raw materials available. Should any of those three variables flag, growth will cease. Under stagnant or falling populations, economies begin to contract and national wealth decreases and capitalism cannot be maintained in such circumstances. Smith himself never argued that growth in the West would be endlessly sustainable. On the contrary, he uses China as an example of a country much the same as five hundred years beforehand when Marco Polo first wrote about it. China, he explained, is a stationary state, going neither forward nor backward, but rather that had “acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.” China’s past, then, is the world’s future.

The current economic crisis is a sign that capitalism is already in a stationary state and may soon be in an inexorable slide. Starting in the late 1990s, declining profit margins and radical technological changes led economies and financial markets into a pattern of booms and busts. Within the next decade, the world’s financial élite turned away from traditional investments, toward increasingly complex and short-term ways to extract wealth such as high speed trading and quantitatively driven arbitrage so as to ensure that returns would continue regardless of the direction of the market. As a hedge against the ever-present threat of currency collapses, the wealthy also turned to real estate in global cities, helping to drive prices skyward. 

We hypothesize that, booms and busts notwithstanding, these trends will continue. Capitalism itself will have long come to an end, its highest levels being replaced by the algorithmic production of wealth wherever a loophole may still be found. Global city cores will remain strong as well. Highly defended, with a huge population of surplus labor to draw on for services, these will continue to be attractive destinations for the élite to work and play in (although only within a geographically dispersed strategy of global hedging that will include idyllic, defended exurban ecotopias should the shit finally really hit the fan).

Just as high finance will essentially be a game, everyday life for individuals worldwide will follow suit. By 2047, with income disparity high and social mobility low, those unlucky enough to be in the top 1% have little opportunity to better their conditions. Instead, as they eke out a living, they occupy themselves in a world that increasingly dominated by the logic of games. The governments of megacity-states, burdened with debt and facing radically limited budgets turn to tactical urbanism as the only possible way to make interventions in the city and to keep the populace away from the barricades.

Semester Plan

The semester will begin with a scenario planning exercise to hone what Hong Kong, 2047 will be like. Students will work individually or in teams to identify the drivers in society, technology, economics, ecology, and politics likely to impact the building over the next generation. These scenario plans will be communicated through the technique of architecture fiction. An exhibition exploring these scenario plans will be held in early March. After joining into teams to investigate possible sites, students will individually develop detailed proposals for their scenarios by the end of March. For the final review, students will develop responses to their scenarios.

Course Blog

Students will be expected to maintain and post regularly to a shared course Tumblr blog of their research and design progress. All student work will be posted online tagged by student name (firstname-lastname).


Students will work with roving engineers from ARUP during the semester to address the structural and environmental systems in their designs. Even the most speculative of projects can benefit from the advice of these experts.


We propose that the ultra-realistic renderings commonly used in studios today are inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present, delivered to us through the wonders of technology while we eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer. Evacuated of any critical intent, such work only cements the false notion that modern technology has made communication transparent.

But more than that, if all architects produce a form of science fiction, then to paraphrase William Gibson, we need to remember that as we construct futures, all we have at our disposal is the moment that we are currently living in. The moment we construct a future it starts to age rapidly. Since the crash, along with the development of technologies that were formerly consigned to an endlessly deferred proximate future such as near-universal wireless Internet, locative media, tablet computing, and touchscreen interfaces, it seems that we have exhausted the era of the next new thing, of rapid technological and cultural development and obsolescence.

If Gibson is right and society is gripped by “future fatigue,” then envisioning the future through architecture forces us to follow Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “all media is dead media,” to understand that appropriate representational strategies that might resist capitalist realist representations might emerge out of a new understanding of what Gibson calls a “long now,” a temporally stretched condition out of which we can freely recombine material and representational motifs.

We will look at forms of representation immanent to our topic at hand, both the means of representation that architects and others working on these and similar projects would have used, but also the other means of representation of the day, e.g. schedules, traffic engineering plans, flowcharts, exploded axonometrics, and so on. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand how to think and represent visually.


20% Attendance and Participation

Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. By this we mean that students should be in studio at least from 2 to 6 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays unless they have made other arrangements or are conducting research. Please let us know in advance. In no case will we meet with students who arrive after 4pm on that day unless they have prearranged the late arrival with us or there are mitigating circumstances.

Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.

Students are expected to be at pin-ups and reviews on time with work ready to present. Students who are not ready at the beginning of the pin-up or review forfeit the right to receive criticism. Students are expected to contribute to pin-ups and reviews, both in terms of criticism and questions as well as by working in a team to ensure that rooms are ready to present in (adequate chairs, projectors, and so on).

40% Concept

Students will be graded on the originality and rigor of their concepts. All students need a coherent thesis in this studio.

Columbia teaches in English. There is help available for difficulties with the English language in the university, but lack of understanding is not an excuse.

40% Execution and Presentation

A good concept means little if it is poorly executed or presented. Presentation and execution are not trivial, nor are they mere “polish,” rather the choices made in presentation and execution should inform, and be informed by, the concept.

Students are expected to render and present their work clearly, succinctly, and elegantly.

Work should be thoroughly and completely represented.

Old Cooper Union Dead: Trustees Approve $20K Tuition: Gothamist

Old Cooper Union Dead: Trustees Approve $20K Tuition: Gothamist:

Cooper Union will officially start charging its undergraduates tuition, after the Board of Trustees rejected a 54-page report compiled by a Working Group of alumni, staff, students and trustees that outlined a plan to keep the school free.

In a statement yesterday, the Board of Trustees announced they had voted against the Working Group’s report [pdf], which, among other things, suggested the school reduce faculty’s salary expenses, sell the school’s sole resident hall and slash the president’s salary. The report, which was submitted to the Trustees last month, offers a sobering look at Cooper Union’s already lean amenities, but those who worked on it hoped it would be a last ditch effort to keep a school founded on the principle of free education from rejecting that fundamental purpose. “If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free,” Kevin Slavin, a Cooper Union alumnus and one of the Board’s 23 Trustees, wrote on Thursday. “If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.”

Against Passwords

Yet again there is a massive data breach. Yet again passwords are stolen. This time from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Yet again we will be told our passwords will have to have more funny characters in them, yet again we will be forced to change them.

I'm obviously in an against mood today, but this time I'll be blunt.

The idiots at these corporations who order such measures do little more than play at security theater. Isn't the idea of a password supposed to be that it's secret? That it's in your head?

But when I have to write passwords like


Just what unearthly being is supposed to remember that? Nobody I've ever met can. We keep our passwords in pieces of paper, folded up neatly next to the computer, just stick post it notes to the walls of our office, or just keep them in one massive file on our drives. This violates the whole idea of passwords and turns them into, yes, security theater. 

One day biometric fingerprint sensors like the one found on the iPhone 5S will take over with all the loss of privacy they will bring (how will you use one to log into a Bitcoin account for example?), but until then we'll have to deal with password security theater. Just be sure that it's nothing but that. The hacks will continue and the measures will get more and more stupid. Thank you, tech.


Against Peer Review

I've recently made the decision to say no to requests for peer reviews (outside of editorial boards on which I already participate, of course). While in the future, I may reconsider on my terms, I am finding at least one request a week for these and I think that it would be useful for to explain why this is so. 

Obviously, I am well aware that peer-reviewed work is part of system that academics established in order to verify that work is up to scholarly standards and that it plays an important role in the tenure system. But the peer review system, as presently constituted, is broken.

First, there are far too many requests going around. Given the pervasiveness of global telecommunications, I get requests not just from the US, Ireland, and Lithuania, but from worldwide. Some of them are from entirely different systems and I am so far outside of the context that I have no framework to accurately respond with. If a dissertation is done badly by the standards that I would apply to it, is my evaluation appropriate if the person's work is head and shoulders above that of their own peers? How do I evaluate such work? 

Moreover, academics asking for peer review are asking for free labor, time spent away from my work and my family. In an ideal world, this is communistic in which we all participate equally and do so for the mutual good of the system.

But my own position, outside of the tenured framework with have no sign that this will change any time in the near future, is the norm today. During the last decade, universities eager to engorge themselves with administrative staff have done so at the expense of tenure-track and tenured positions. If in the past, tenure-track was the rule, it is now the exception. The vast majority of my colleagues are not tenured or even tenure track. Most of us are not evaluated on the basis of peer-reviewed accomplishments, so asking us to peer-review work is to ask us to provide free labor for a system we are excluded from, and frankly that adds insult to injury. 

Nor is this something that can simply be fixed. For every ten people who get a tenured position, I hear at least one unbelievable story of tenure denial. I couldn't think of a denial that I know of that has hit the press and therefore I can mention, apart from this famous one (ok, they have some grounds in denying him, no question), but if you are in academe and don't have friends who have been scarred in the process, then you are either a student or should still consider yourself "freshly minted" in the lingua franca.  

Finally, Lyotard is right. We speak in incommensurable languages and, particularly in the messy realm of digital and network culture, we often have no way to evaluate each other's work. For example, the trumpeting of sources, in which a pastiche of names is strung together with nary an argument, is endemic in certain strains of sociology, but it would get a failing grade from a student in one of my courses. How do I evaluate it fairly? In another strand of geography, writers constantly refer to how their feelings about a place and the way that the ground feels under their feet. Normally I try to weed that out of my students like so much poison ivy in a yard. What am I to do with a review request regarding that sort of work?

I don't mean to say that these strains of academia should be snuffed out like old candles whose wick has burned down, although I suppose that I enthusiastically urge that on, but given that I have encountered this sort of work recently in reviews, was it appropriate to have a reviewer like myself on board? I'll leave it to your imagination as to how I might have responded to such requests, but obviously I have to balance being objective about the quality of the work with the fact that there is another person on the other side, no matter how ill-informed. In my own case, my attempt to find balance is informed by having been the victim of reviewers who I still think of as unqualified to be considered my peers. A long wihle back one of my articles was rejected for publication in one venue only to win an award in another. Another piece that I submitted as a talk to a conference was turned down because "the author's is derivative of research being done at the Center for Land Use Interpretation." This so-called peer was not sharp enough to fathom that the work was not derivative but was rather done in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation! Given that the submission was to be anonymous, I did not find it appropriate to list the Center any more than I would have listed the university I teach in. Another peer reviewed a project negatively and their decision stood even though the editor said it was quite clear that they had not actually read what I had submitted (believe me it perfectly was clear to me!). And so on.  

Peer review is broken and I have no good ideas for fixing it, but more than griping my experiences with it or making excuses about why I am not responding to over-the-transom peer reviews, I want to put this complaint on the blog, and therefore, in public as a political statement, as a call to openly discuss the failings of this system. 

Finally, I really miss Lingua Franca. If you are too young to have read it and you are in academe or planning to be, check out that link. Lots of grist for the mill there. 

On Drupal, or Wither Web 2.0?

With the end of the year approaching, I might as well begin my reflections with yet another rote lament for why I don't post enough anymore. Blogging is dead for many and has been dead now for about as long as it thrived. Somehow, I resolve, I'll turn back to blogging one day, but other things come first, like my kids, my project at MoMA, various projects at the Netlab, teaching, articles that I have neglected too long, writing my book, working on the restoration of my house and so on.

But every now and then it turn back to the Web, if not to blogging then to working on the infrastructure beneath my stable of Web sites. In this case, this morning I took the Networked Publics site and converted it to from a live Drupal installation to a static site. Networked Publics ceased to be live years ago as it was the record of a year-long workshop that took place from fall 2005 to fall 2006 and the book that came out of the workshop was published in 2008. Besides me the last log at Networked Publics comes from my late colleague and friend Anne Friedberg some six years, twenty-four weeks ago. I find it sad that the group we formed doesn't stay together virtually, but such, I suppose, is the nature of scholarly collaborations involving individuals from radically disparate fields. Still, as a historian, the record of a year spent by a team of scholars investigating a topic seems worth paying a few dollars to keep registered so I spent a couple of hours to ensure the site wouldn't be tied to an aging Drupal 6 infrastructure.  

Looking back at the low-fi Web 2.0 site and the low-fi videos on it, it already seems like ancient history. But this was the state of the art not 15 or 20 years ago but rather a mere eight years ago. The trends that the Networked Publics group identified—the rise of DIY media in particular—are now not the province of nerds and geeks but rather part of our everyday lives. It's stunning to think back and remember showing the group the first video iPod that I had purchased soon after its release that year. Such, I suppose is the process of aging in the technological future. One gauges oneself as much by the personal milestones one experiences as by the tech one leaves behind.  

For me, development on Drupal has become something to leave behind as well. Last year I concluded my development of Docomomo-us.org, which I had transitioned from outdated custom cgi code to Drupal back in 2006, by having Jochen Hartmann take over as web developer and earlier this year I replaced the Drupal sites for both AUDC and the Netlab with sites driven by Indexhibit. This process of steadily whittling down my Drupal sites means that this remains the only one I have left (minus the seriously neglected Lair of the Chrome Peacock). 

But this isn't a mere status update regard the infrastructure of these sites. Changes in infrastructure, as my readers should know, are never innocent, but rather embody ideological and social changes. When I first came to Drupal back in 2005, I was encouraged by the ease of extending the system and its Open Source development. For a time I was active in the community at Drupal. Not being much of a coder anymore, I asked questions, gave suggestions, and helped out with some problems people had on the forums, but it became clear to me that most people on Drupal's communty site fell into three categories. Those just starting out, those trying to help out as they could (and usually fleeing when they felt overwhelmed… this typically happened after they had submitted a new module or theme), and those who were either dedicated hobbyists or worked with Drupal for a living. Not being part of the latter two, I wound up retreating.

As a designer, I had this foolish idea that my site should look the way I want it to look so I spent a ridiculous amount of time tweaking these sites by building themes for them and outfitting them with extensions called "modules." Unfortunately in an effort to optimize its code base, the developers of Drupal have adopted a mantra which states that "the drop is always moving" which simply means that Drupal will actively break any themes and modules during each major point release. The result is that I found myself needing a month of down time to upgrade my sites from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. For a scholar to do this is preposterously difficult. For a scholar with kids to do this is virtually impossible. 

Drupal 7 came out a while back, but lacking any compelling features, I chose not to upgrade. After all, a month of down time just to get back to where I was is hardly attractive. Now Drupal 8 promises adaptive themes that will appropriately react to the mobile platforms that increasingly drive Web traffic so I am likely to go to it, but even though new development was frozen in the system a year ago, it seems far from prime time. I spent more than half an hour today looking for a release date for the first beta and couldn't find anything but long-outdated information. If this site is to be believed, there are more critical bugs in Drupal 8 today than a year ago. 

Therein lies the trouble with Drupal and modern coding: immense complexity (see my comments on complexity at Triple Canopy). Projects of this size become impossible to manage, impossible to code, and impossible for users to work with. My front page is aging, an artifact from an era in which laptops commonly had screens with a resolution of 1024 X 768 not 1920 X 1200 (as my current one does) but to redo when it will only break again soon seems ludicrous. Perhaps I'll use another system like Wordpress to run this site or maybe I'll pickle it and fork off to another platform. Any of this is possible, but I'll hardly recommend Drupal to anyone again or do anything but build the most minimal theme I can for it.  

Beyond a stern caution about the complexity that Open Source projects can generate and that can choke them, as Drupal has been choked, for all of the technological maturation that we've seen over the years since Networked Publics, the one thing that we've drifted away from is Web presence. If the static Web marked the 1990s, Web 2.0's dynamic Web sites dominated the time in which we wrote Networked Publics. Bringing varnelis.net back to life with Drupal in 2005, I envisioned it as part of an interlinked ecology of sites, both local (AUDC, DoCoMoMo-US, the Netlab, etc.) but also global, interlinking to other sites through RSS feeds and commenting systems. This hasn't happened, to this site or any other. Web 2.0's strongest links such as social bookmarking (repeated problems with Delicious at the hands of Yahoo! and AVOS and the meltdown at ma.gnolia) and RSS suffered a similar fate after Google Reader shut down this summer. As Open Source withers when it becomes over-complex, struggling corporations like Yahoo! and Google undo matters in their binge and purge cycles, buying up whatever they can in hopes of monetizing the Web and then wiping out communities when they turn out to be too hard to profit from.    

Instead of the open Web then, we have apps and the privatized, Balkanized world they promise. It's hard not to be gloomy about this, hard to find a happy face to put on all this. Perhaps that is my wont, but sometimes there isn't one. The problems of cooperation, collaboration, and democratic decision-making remain the thorniest of problems for Networked Publics. 

@ the Amber Festival, Istanbul

Greetings from Istanbul, where I will be speaking today on "Control and Identity in the Algorithmic Landscape" at 3pm in the Amber Art and Technology Festival in a panel ominously called "Urban Media: Quo Vadis?" with Martjin De Waal moderated by Martin Brynskov. See here for a little more. 

darklyeuphoric: Banksy, astute architecture...


Banksy, astute architecture critic.

“Today’s piece was going to be an op-ed column in the New York Times. But they declined to publish what I supplied. Which was this…”

via http://banksy.co.uk/

Slaves of the Internet, Unite! - NYTimes.com

Slaves of the Internet, Unite! - NYTimes.com:

Well, I suppose it’s better than when I’m expected to contribute my own money to get a project for which I’m not paid realized, but this piece by Tim Kreider rings very true.  

Strange but True (most of the Time): Architecture Between Research and Fiction

I will be speaking the California College of the Arts in San Francisco tonight, October 21, 2013 at 7pm. My lecture will address the Yerba Buena show "Dissident Futures," for which I wrote a catalog essay as well as the topic of research and (fictional and non-fictional) speculation in architecture, ending with a presentation of work by AUDC and the Netlab. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there. 

Syndicate content