DELALEX Gilles Go With The Flow: Architecture, Infrastructure And The Everyday Experience Of Mobility (2006)



Can architecture continue to relate to the material space of buildings and cities, when this space itself is dissolving into a universal flow? In the mid 1990s, architecture shifts from semantics to economics . Architects no longer seek new styles and new languages, but data, diagrams and statistics . They design fluid and flexible buildings that work as the basic instruments of a world where everything is in state of flux and becomes more and more ephemeral . They redirect their imaginative and technical ef- forts towards infrastructures, and adopt new approaches derived from marketing and computer animation . The word “flow” becomes an almost tangible expression of this new attitude . “Go with the flow” – or be condemned to marginality! Hence, flows are no longer a link between a and B, a factor or a consequence of the wish to go some- where . They no longer designate a state of movement, of coming or going . They be- come an end in themselves, a cultural condition for architecture and urban design . Drawing on Manuel Castells’ (1989) concept of the “Space of Flows”, this thesis que- ries the status of buildings and cities in a space increasingly shaped by flows . How do flows address architecture and urban design? How do they influence their forms, meanings, and processes? Can flows become an object of design?

The dependence of cities on flows is certainly not novel . Ever since Antonio Sant’Elia (1914) sang the praises of speed in his “Manifesto of Futurist Architecture” and started imagining buildings detached from the static media by which they had to be designed, there has been an undeviating attitude in history toward the mobilisation of objects and images . What is new today is both the nature and the intensity of flows . In the last half of the century, flows have thus become increasingly cultural . They now consist of film, music and design . Meanwhile, buildings and public spaces become objects of exchange and partake in the fluid substance of flows . The increased inten- sity of global exchanges has also dramatically affected the shape and meaning of ur- ban space . Professionals, academics and students around the world are increasingly aware that global flows have a determinant impact on urban space and that anything that happens in a local neighbourhood is likely to be influenced by global economic trends operating at an indefinite distance from that neighbourhood.

Today, cities thrive upon a diversified flow of tourists, capital and subsidies. In their continuous attempt to attract erratic flows of capital and investments, they tend to adapt their shape to the fluidity of capital. They grow into peripheries spreading across vast territories. This new condition might seem as a definitive and ineluctable “liquefaction” of urban space (Bauman 2000). But it can also be viewed as an active response to the dominant logic of flows. For, cities find in the loose and flexible organisation of their peripheries a means to adjust to the rapid and unpredictable trajectories of flows. Hence, they construct a new material condition that allows them to integrate the erratic character of flows, without losing their centrality. Aware of these structural transformations of urban space, and the necessity to articulate the abstract sphere of new global economies and the physical spaces we inhabit, architects and urban designers are now forced to redefine their own practices around new paradigms.

Central to this thesis is the argument that the space of flows provides a new par- adigm for architecture and urban design. By introducing this concept, Castells (1989) attempts to explain the relationship between flows, architecture and urban spaces. He argues that society is increasingly organised around flows of people, money, imag- es, signs, and technologies, together constituting a new spatial form that supersedes the traditional space of places (348) . Places do not actually disappear, but their mean- ing is literally absorbed in global networks . Their position becomes entirely subject to their relation to other places and to their connection with the generic infrastructures that ensure their ever-wider sphere of involvement . Whereas the traditional space of places, the space historically rooted in our common and social experience of places, still rests on notions of proximity and physical contiguity, the space of flows lies on the simultaneity of events and interactions that take place over long distances . The space of flows appears then as the new spatial form of the “network society”, just as the city and region used to be the spatial forms of the industrial society.

The notion of flows works in this thesis as a toolbox from which I pick quite freely questions that stigmatise the influence of global economies on cities and buildings: how do global flows solidify into urban topographies? How do they infiltrate our everyday experience of urban space? It also works as a point of departure for evolving a critical position in the field of architecture: what is the role of architecture in the space of flows? How should architects react to it? Should they accept it, or fight it? Can flows and buildings be conceived of as a mutual construction of each other? Although my aim is not to criticise Castells’ concept, I develop a position that slightly contradicts his opposition between flows and places . The concept of the space of flows is thus constructed around a dialectic that opposes a global, dominant and ab- stract horizon of networks and an increasingly fragmented physical space . It entails an antagonistic relation between flows and places, which often finds its correlate in urban planning . Urban planners thus often consider that the relation between cities and infrastructures is necessarily conflicting, and that living and moving should constitute separated spheres of urban life, to be both spatially and functionally held apart . Now, if this dialectical opposition between flows and places, affecting both practice and theory, is taken as truth, the space of place and true experience preserving the possible construction of identity should inexorably shrink and dangerously dilute the space of our everyday lives.

By contrast, I argue for a position that takes into account the fact that we increas- ingly inhabit flows, and dwell in mobility . This position, which is both pragmatic, as it seeks to uncover the physical manifestation of flows, and optimistic, as it chooses to see the logic of flows as a new opportunity for cities and architecture, under- lies the two main objectives of this thesis . The first objective is to investigate flows through their urban, physical and mundane manifestations . Although cities have al- ways been the products of flows and traffics throughout history, the evidence shows that the actual intensification of global exchanges is concomitant with an unprec- edented transformation of physical urban structures . Hence, urban and peri-ur- ban spaces seem to be increasingly imbued with the fluid and dynamic qualities of flows . If there is sufficient evidence that the nature of flows is increasingly immate- rial, and physical barriers tend to dissolve, it should therefore be taken into account that flows also need to hit the ground at some point . This is firstly because flows are not as free or deregulated as they seem . There are, for instance, multiple barriers to flow, such as matter, duration, physicality or local idiosyncrasies . The complex ur- ban policies implemented by European countries also illustrate that a great deal of negotiation and regulation is required to allow the free flow of people and objects across borders . Secondly, flows are highly specific to times and places, which are themselves determined by very specific sets of objects, buildings, infrastructures, people and cultures . My argument, therefore, does not advocate once more the ideal vision of a perfectly smooth space of exchange and displacement, but raises the mundane and unperfected expressions of flows which are experienced in everyday life. It supports the idea of an “everyday experience of flows”, where ordinary movements, supposedly passive, become, as Michel De Certeau suggests in “L’Invention du Quotidien” (1990), creative acts and spaces.

My second objective, in contrast to Castells’ rather catastrophic scenario, is to propose an optimistic view in which flows and places become mutual components of each other . As we follow Castells, the dominant tendency goes toward an acultur- al and ahistorical space, aiming at imposing its global logic over scattered and seg- mented places, increasingly unrelated to each other, and less and less able to share cultural codes . We head toward a structural schizophrenia between flows and plac- es, where a life unfolds in parallel universes whose times cannot meet because they are warped into contradictory dimensions of social space . Places vanish; they are rendered invisible by the overwhelming rush of capital, images, ideas and people . In contrast to this pessimistic vision, I argue that flows are not literally undiscrim- inating, and that they can convey unprecedented qualities for places . Cities and re- gions, for instance, acquire a new awareness concerning their capacity to attract cul- tural flows, and develop a sharper consciousness of their specificity . This new con- sciousness sometimes results in an artificial regionalisation, where the local flavour is exaggeratedly enhanced, and a form of xenophobia leading to the development of refugee policy devoid of compassion . The positive aspect of this remaking of places, however, is that cities and regions become more reflexive vis-à-vis their image and tend to enhance their own urban culture . I therefore suggest that the intensification of flows also opens a large scope of possibilities for regions or cities that wish to de- velop original projects and spaces aiming beyond the synthetic reproduction of local flavours . I propose to turn the dialectical opposition between flows and places into a question of balancing different degrees of connectedness within a spectrum . Places and cities construct themselves from the specific convergence of various networks and relations, respectively relating to different scales of involvement . As they are increasingly crossed by investment flows, cultural influences and satellite TV net- works, they realign themselves in relation to the new global realities . From there, they can be imagined as particular moments in networks of social and economic re- lations, and specific experiences constructed on a far larger scale than before . Plac- es and cities therefore are not necessarily conceived through a simple counterposi- tion to their “outside”, to the growing influence of global flows, because it is precise- ly the relations to this “outside” which now define their shape and meaning . By elaborating on our common, but diverse experience of flows and generic spaces, I wish to raise a progressive view on architecture, infrastructures and urban space – a view which is commensurate with the conception of a global space of flows, within which we circulate more and more frequently and for longer distances .

This thesis is divided in five parts . The first part raises the implication of the space of flows for architecture and urban design with regard to the actual awareness of ar- chitects and planners of urban instabilities and global phenomena . Why are global flows an issue for architecture and urban design? Why does this issue fuel so many discourses? Firstly, the logic of flows defines a new context of interaction . Objects, cities and buildings become similar to nodes, interfacing and connecting different kinds of flows . They increasingly depend on their relations to others, on elements that are outside immediate control . As flows change their volume and direction, they also change their characteristics . Their function, value and meaning become relation- al and multiple, rather than absolute and individual . The question is no longer what objects and buildings are made out of, but what they interface with . Secondly, cities, buildings and objects become generic . Since the logic of flows involves a higher de- gree of instability and unpredictability, it forces us to accept a certain lack of control . This does not lessen the importance of design, but changes its objectives . Objects and buildings remain incomplete and interchangeable . Only when they are insert- ed in a specific environment do they take their full and definitive shape, if they ever take one . It is only under unpredictable conditions that they really become specif- ic . Meaning moves from the object of design towards relationships created by flows . Accepting the generic character of buildings and objects, and their necessary incom- pleteness, becomes a new issue for architecture and urban design .

In the first section of this thesis, I also trace a short history of architecture in relation to flows. From the 1950s when the Metabolists adapted biomorphic structures to the design of buildings and cities to today’s cyber-architectures, the continuous evolution of architecture has reflected the changing content of flows . The space of flows entails today a conception of space that marks a shift from the modern Cartesian space, where objects were geometrically organised on a neutral and horizontal background, to a more virtual space defined by intricate relations between cities, companies or individuals . It evokes a space which is no longer understood as a neutral ground (of representation or intervention), but as an active subject, agent or process . Not only does this transformation mark a significant evolution of the city’s structure, it also entails a re-conceptualisation of architectural space . I illustrate this new comprehension of space through a series of contemporary projects which deliberately seek to incorporate flows of air, water or people, but also by immaterial flows of electronics and information . By comparing the works of Greg Lynn, Stan Allen, Reiser and Umemoto, Foreign Office Architects, Rem Koolhaas and Toyo Ito, I present an overview of the tendency to conceive of cities as fluid and topographic spaces . This tendency shows that the issues of architecture and urban planning are now shifting from objects to flows . As Arjen Oosterman argues (2002) in one of his editorials for the magazine Archis today even flows have to be shaped and designed . The visual design of places and objects becomes less relevant than the movement that unfolds between them . In the fields of architecture and urban design, the issue is not therefore to design places or objects, but the flows that lead from one to another.

The second part focuses on the phenomenological aspect of global flows . How do we experience them? Does the logic of flows restrict itself to a business elite and the confidential networks of World Trade Centres and airport lounges, or does it also affect our banal experience of urban space? Has traditional space been annihilated and determined by the capsules of the car, the train and the plane? Has it been flat- tened and made legible like the sign-board of a motorway, or replaced by the virtual stage of the computer screen? In this section of the thesis, I propose to look spe- cifically at the many petrol stations that punctuate the European network of motor- ways . These places, I argue, are some of the very physical expressions of the space of flows, and provide a transition between the abstract sphere of global flows and the physical spaces we come to experience in our increasingly nomadic lives . They make visible and explicit the solidification of global flows into built environments . Moreo- ver, motorways like many other infrastructures, such as airports or metros, have in- duced parallel cities and new forms of urbanity . The motorway interchanges of Los Angeles, for instance, have become some of the most powerful architectures of the last century . Large urban complexes, such as La Défense in Paris, have fabricated huge physical knots of intermingling infrastructures . These extreme urban forms prove that the space of flows has taken a number of shapes, which have now become an intrinsic part of the environments we live in . One might argue that they represent the confirmation of the 1960s’ utopias, that they are nothing but the actualisation of the different mega-structures imagined by architects such as Archizoom, Fried- man, Kurokawa, Isosaki or Kitutabe, but without them . Yet, in the actual shape of transitory spaces, very little remains from the grand monumentality of their utopian predecessors . Their form is diffused and discrete . They include vast amounts mi- cro-spaces such as stations, lounges, car parks, crowds and bus stops, which consti- tute an increasing part of our public places and confront us everyday to the increas- ingly influential logic of flows .

The third part of this thesis concentrates on the mechanism that draws the tran- sition between the abstract sphere of global flows and the physical places that we inhabit, namely the process of standardisation . Hence, the most significant feature of spaces of transit is certainly their extreme standardisation . Since the early implemen- tation of industrial modes of production on 1950s American suburbs, the standardisa- tion of urban space has gone beyond all predictions and forecasts . It has usually been associated with a negation of local cultures and a progressive uniformisation of space . Yet today, when we look at the peripheral condition of cities with their standardised networks of high-rise office buildings, communication thoroughfares, airports and shopping malls, what is striking is that standardisation seems to have created more than it has erased differences . Homogenisation and differentiation appear therefore as two determinant and antagonistic consequences of the logic of flows . I propose to interrogate this apparent contradiction by showing how they are in fact the two sides of the same coin and how they intersect each other. On one hand, the development of global networks entails the creation of standards that ensure compatibility of local infrastructures and cultures . It involves, therefore, a certain homogenisation of space . On the other hand, the multiplication of linkages among localities provokes a marginalisation of the places and populations that fail to enter global networks and remain as the fatal counterpart of the obligatory connection to generic infrastruc- tures . Hence, we might think that more standardisation would produce more homogeneity and more sameness, but it is actually the opposite that happens . The process of standardisation is now embodied in such a multiplicity of rules and objects and entails such complex patterns that it acquires an increasingly ambiguous meaning. On the motorway, for instance, the self-similar repetition of signs and spaces seems to continually reassert the commercial monopoly of transnational corporations over public space and exert control over people . Yet, it also provides travellers with a sort of cognitive reassurance that allows them to feel at home whenever they travel far from home. Moreover, I argue that the process of standardisation bears a creative potential as it ensures the compatibility of local communication networks, cultures and languages. Rather than following usual alarmist discourses that criticise the increasing standardisation of urban landscapes, I emphasise the creative quality of standards and define them as potential subjects of design.

In the fourth part of this thesis, I propose to redefine the role of infrastructures in the context of the space of flows . Infrastructures, I suggest, act as urban mediators that allow flows and cities to mutually construct each other . They serve as a third entity that overcomes their dual opposition . Hence, the interrelation between flows and cities cannot be reduced to a merely causal or logical relation . Cities have always been places of transit . Today, with the intensification of global exchanges, they tend
to accept an even stronger reliance on global flows . Their position is becoming increas- ingly dependent on their temporary alignment with global networks and the uncontrollable variations of transnational exchanges – whether human, financial, economic, ideological or cultural . Flows and cities, I argue, are mutually defining entities, whose increasingly perilous, complex and intimate relationships are largely mediated by the infrastructure. I then investigate a series of mechanics of movement that construct together an intermediary landscape marked by a very technological character. This new artificial landscape involves a form of “organicity” and a multiplicity of phenom- enological ramifications. Moreover, the content flowing through this diffused infrastructure is increasingly cultural and aesthetic. This gives rise to a both deep and su- perficial aestheticisation of urban space, where artificial local flavours cohabit with ostentatious flagship buildings. The infrastructure becomes, in this context, an aes- thetic attribute of the urban, and quasi-graphical, identity of cities.

The last part of the thesis illustrates my theoretical argument through a series of architectural projects dealing with the motorway. Each project takes the motorway network as material expression of the logic of flows and a potential site of intervention. The motorway is not only apprehended as one of the very infrastructures that allows exchanges among cities, but also as a city in motion that cuts across borders and creates a new form of public space taking shape on a transnational scale. The different projects have been developed as an integral part of the reflection on the logic of flows. They should not be seen therefore as a basic application, or as a mere illustration of the concepts and issues raised in the previous sections. They should, on the contrary, be considered as a research through means that are intuitive, strategic, and aesthetic.