exurbia

The Return of Galt's Gulch, or Enclave Urbanism

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about exurban communities for the ultra-rich that have thrived even as the rest of the real estate market has collapsed. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Keates, who writes on luxury real estate for the paper, looks at the Aspen and other exurban areas inhabited by the super-wealthy. 

If Aspen is the most expensive town in America, it isn't alone; a friend who is an architect in the Hamptons reports that construction for the ultra-rich has barely slowed due to the crash. Budgets? For these the ultra-rich cost doesn't matter. Instead, they set out to build structures that are modelled less on vacation homes and more on resorts. Forget Dubai, everyone knew that was a bubble: the real money goes to places that don't need to advertise. 

For some time now, I've been warning that uncritically worshipping city life (or rather, the increasingly bland Starbucks blend that passes for life in global cities like New York, Los Angeles, or London) blinds us to the real changes and problems such communities face. Although some of these—like the lack of economic diversity and growing homogeneity—appear to hardly be of interest to urban boosters, the development of exurban enclaves should be.

Radical change doesn't just happen in booms, it also happens in crises and recessions. During the protracted crisis that will define this decade, we should watch the continued streamlining of upper-middle class jobs, particularly jobs in finance. The working class has long since lost the living wages they used to earn from factories. Now it's time for people like lawyers and accountants to find themselves automated out of jobs, as the New York Times reports. In Liquidated, Karen Ho points out that financial industries—the same financial industries that urban boosters rely upon for their vision of the creative city—see employees as costs to be cut. Times columnist, economist, and Princeton professor Paul Krugman is alarmed by this trend and wonders aloud if university educations are really worth it anymore in both this piece and this one.

The future won't be kind to global cities when this key group of inhabitants find themselves out of jobs. Certainly the kind of urban unrest that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s is likely, not from unemployed lawyers (though perhaps from their children who will face a bleak future) but from the massive underclass of service workers who will find themselves out of work. Many cities will also age, as baby boomers who have invested in real estate (apartment prices in New York can only go up!) will find themselves unable to sell their apartments at acceptable rates. 

The exodus of financial industries to places like Greenwich (note that it's mentioned in Keates's article) will continue and perhaps even accelerate (I have reason to believe that the construction of the NYSE facility in Mahwah is a step toward bringing financial capital industries to New Jersey) with offices in cities reduced to centers for wealth managers to meet with clients. But note also that Keates points to the growth of financial industries in Aspen. Few cities can boast financial services firms managing $775 million, but Aspen can. The sort of face-to-face deals that used to take place in the boardrooms and restaurants in the city may now take place away from prying eyes in Aspen or Sagaponack. Note the inversion from the usual logic of the global city in both of these cases: rather than being located near airports, they are located far from them. As Keates points out, it keeps the tourists away. Similarly, one of the main selling points of the Hamptons is the private airport at East Hampton. While tourists are stuck in traffic for hours, the ultra-rich fly overhead, their identities unknown.   

In the January cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, Chrystia Freeland looks at the growth of the ultra-rich and their increasing distance from us. Freeland reminds us of Galt's Gulch, a Rocky Mountain that Ayn Rand—that author so beloved by architects—had envisioned for the super-rich in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Freeland concludes that, historically speaking at least, Galt's Gulch is unsustainable and the super-rich will have to either violently suppress the rest of society or give up some of their wealth. This remains to be seen. The uprisings in Egypt and Libya may only be the beginning of a global protest by the disenfranchised middle class against the growing inequality in society.

Remember, it's not just Communists and Socialists who argue against such positions. For most of capitalism's history, excess concentration of wealth and the growth of monopolies were seen as obstacles to growth by capitalists themselves. 

But Galt's Gulch is seeming awfully real these days and is showing little signs of going away any time soon. Watch this space for developments.

The Economist Looks at Small Town America

giant bee

The Economist Magazine looks at "America, the Creative." The lessons of the Creative City and the Bilbao Effect have not been lost on small-town America.

To attract tourists and settlers, small towns are turning to storytelling festivals and giant killer-bee statues. I've seen this first-hand as, over the last quarter century the town I spent my teenage years, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, pioneered this sort of change. The hardware store, then the pharmacy, the grocery and the elementary school disappeared one-by-one as the community refigured itself in the image that resident Norman Rockwell created for it. I still remember the lunatic old ladies from the city asking if we had toilets or outhouses. At some point we become a world of tourists, all looking in vain for just the right place that fits our demented sensibilities.

desert america @ columbia university gsapp

On Monday, November 20, 2006 at 6:30pm, I will be speaking as part of the American launch of Desert America: Territory of Paradox , a new book from ACTAR in which I have a piece about the Mojave desert and SpaceShipOne while AUDC analyzes the instant city of Quartzsite, Arizona.

The press release follows:

Desert America takes on the discussion of the American desert as a space of extreme uses and activities. The desert is a huge paradox: beneath the immensity and silence of its outward appearance, the traces of all kinds of activities, experiments, mysteries, fictions and utopias can be heard. Far from being “empty,” the desert is full of an uninhibited, excessive activity that encompasses everything from oases of entertainment to the secret staging of military power. The most hostile and seemingly uninhabitable of environments turns out to be an ideal setting for action.

Speakers:

Michael Bell, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ARCHITECTURE, GSAPP
Sanford Kwinter, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ARCHITECTURE, RICE UNIVERSITY
Kate Orff, DIRECTOR, URBAN LANDSCAPE RESEARCH LAB, GSAPP
Kazys Varnelis, DIRECTOR, NETWORK ARCHITECTURE LAB, GSAPP
Moderated by Michael Kubo, DIRECTOR, ACTAR NEW YORK

Event co-sponsored by ACTAR to celebrate the publication of its new title, Desert America: Territory of Paradox.

Network Architecture Lab Established

Why has this blog been so barren lately? Am I giving up on the Net? No! Far from it. I have, however, been a little busy lately. Now that the project is safely established, we can announce that...

AUDC Establishes Network Architecture Lab

@ Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

Formed in 2001, AUDC [Architecture Urbanism Design Collaborative] specializes in research as a form of practice. The AUDC Network Architecture Lab is an experimental unit at Columbia University that embraces the studio and the seminar as venues for architectural analysis and speculation, exploring new forms of research through architecture, text, new media design, film production and environment design.

Specifically, the Network Architecture Lab investigates the impact of computation and communications on architecture and urbanism. What opportunities do programming, telematics, and new media offer architecture? How does the network city affect the building? Who is the subject and what is the object in a world of networked things and spaces? How do transformations in communications reflect and affect the broader socioeconomic milieu? The NetLab seeks to both document this emergent condition and to produce new sites of practice and innovative working methods for architecture in the twenty-first century. Using new media technologies, the lab aims to develop new interfaces to both physical and virtual space.

The NetLab is consciously understood as an interdisciplinary unit, establishing collaborative relationships with other centers both at Columbia and at other institutions.

The NetLab begins operations in September 2006.

Goodbye to the Middle Class City + Suburb

From today's Washington Post: America's middle class city neighborhoods and suburbs are disappearing into a radically polarized landscape. City of Quartz? The whole country is following that model. See U.S. Losing Its Middle Class Neighborhoods

The Next Googleplex

Is exurbia the next frontier for massive digital infrastructure projects? The New York Times explores the construction of the Googleplex on a remote site in The Dalles, Oregon, on the banks of the Columbia River. Google paid $1.3 million for 30 acres! They're going to be paying a lot more to hook up fiber to the grid out there. Is this a response to the concentrated nature of telecoms in cities? Of course, if you have sufficient means, any place can be made a command and control center for the global city. Silicon Valley was once farmland as well.

orange county, china

What if Orange County went to China? Back in 2002, this blog provided a link to an LA Times article (now in the Times's pay-to-view archive) on the topic, but now that the community has a bigger and better website, it's time to revisit it. BoingBoing carries this story about how architecture can be exported. Who says architecture isn't media?

Quartzsite in Cabinet

The spring issue of Cabinet Magazine is out, featuring a project that Robert Sumrell and I did on Quartzsite, Arizona at our two-man collaborative AUDC.

Quartzsite, Revisited

No posts yesterday since AUDC was in Quartzsite, taking photographs and doing research for publications soon to appear in ACTAR's upcoming book on the desert, the next issue of Cabinet Magazine, and AUDC's first book (also with ACTAR and due out later this year), the Stimulus Progression. Quartzsite, of course, is the town of 5,000 in the summer that swells to up to 1.5 million in the winter due to an influx of snowbirds.

More on Quartzsite at the AUDC site.

Some preliminary images from our helicopter ride:

aerial of Quartzsite

aerial of Quartzsite

aerial of Quartzsite

aerial of Quartzsite

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