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Spaces of failure

While the media gaze has been on the Olympic site in the East End of London, the new Westfield shopping centre has quietly been rising from the dirt, and today, opens it’s doors to the public. While some have questioned whether a multi-million square-footed shopping megaplex will attract the custom it needs to survive in these ‘austere times’, others have quite rightly argued that it is offering some 10,000 jobs (although how permanent they’ll be is another matter). A quick look at the store list, and even without seeing a single picture or news reel from inside the glittering, shimmering steel and glass simulacra of consumerism you can conjure up an image of pretty much exactly what it’ll be like to walk around this cathedral to capitalism.

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Video lectures worth taking the time to watch… Part 2

It’s been a long time since I posted the first set of video lectures, but I’ve been accruing a few more since then so thought it pertinent to post a second set. These are an eclectic bunch, but encapsulate the rhizomic essence of modern day phenomena and resonate with my own thoughts, opinions and research interests. Enjoy.

Bruno LatourReflections of an Actor-Network Theorist (48:23). Of course, I’m biased, but Bruno Latour is one of the world’s most progressive thinkers on society and space. Actor-Network Theory has permeated much of social science but is widely misunderstood. This will hopefully set the record straight.

Julian BarbourKilling Time (23:09). More of a documentary than a lecture but still some fascinating ideas about how we experience time.

Charles Landry – Creative Cities Summit 2.0 keynote part 1 | 2 | 3 (total about 20 mins). Charles Landry is one of those people that always crops up when talking about how cities should be, probably because he has some very progressive, Jacobsian ideas about cities.

Thom MayneArchitecture as Connection (22:37) TED talks can often be a bit deferential, but this one on architecture stood out, mainly because he is advocating non-linearity as a city mechanism.

finally…

Slavoj Zizek – Apocalyptic Times (1:24:27) This one is audio (and downloadable) so technically not a video lecture, but it is difficult enough to keep track of with his accent without the distractions of his visual tumultuousness. It requires you to ‘lean in’ a lot this one, but it is worth it as Zizek is one of the few authors who’s anti-establishment rhetoric has enough intellectual capital to validate it within the establishment. For that alone, he deserves some attention….


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Visualising Cities: Part 4 – Ecstacity

During the course of navigating the gargantuan library of literature and visual material on urban life, finding a book which encapsulates the complexity of the urban condition succinctly and concisely is much like searching for some sort of knitting implement in some sort of stack. This is in part due to the inherent paradox that our linear, one dimensional mode of communication, language is woefully inappropriate for conveying the vastness of emotions, experiences, memories, attributes etc that are associated with the modern day city. Hence, it becomes all the more important to embrace books and films that attempt to convey the city in a non-linear way. By stretching the comfort zone of the reader’s or viewer’s capacity to enjoy an uncomplicated narrative, authors or filmmakers can sometimes evoke urban complexity, if even for the briefest of moments before our brains begin the computation process which establishes order and functionality upon such chaotic neuron activity.

That is why, happening across ‘Ecstacity’ was a very exciting moment. This 2003 ‘book’ (the scare quotes will become apparent if you have ever flipped through it’s pages) is part of a wider spectrum of media from the architect slash urban designer Nigel Coates. The premise of the book is to coagulate 7 cities together – London, Bombay, Tokyo, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Cairo – to form a ‘factional’ city called Ecstacity.

Metro Map of Ecstacity (page 140)

However, the book acts a kind of surreal ‘tour guide’ of Ecstacity, pointing out the experiences and emotions connected with its various artifacts and places. The amalgamation of these seven cities is most visually evident in the maps on pages 134-5, and the metro guide (page 140-1 – pictured to the left). Placing the Vatican to the north of Blackfriars station, and the Cairo Museum next to Tokyo station creates a visually representative version of a world city network – collapsing cities from around the world in on themselves and emphasising the fact that many ‘world cities’ have more in common with each other than they do with national neighbours (Taylor, 2004).

More than this though, Ecstacity painstakingly creates an urban environment that is centred around the emotional, experiential and architectural difference that is so absent from many contemporary world cities. Creating and celebrating difference is key kernel of thought in this book; and while it is partly a vehicle of the (sometimes downright) weird architectural urban designs, and some of Nigel Coates’ real-world pieces have been the focus of considerable debate (the Body Works in the old Millennium Dome is one that immediately springs to mind); there is a sense of chaos, complexity and convolution throughout the book which resonates with the urban condition in ways unparalleled by other books, films and other media. The complexity and short-circuiting of urban areas is exemplified in the following quote, part of the section ‘Around the world in Ecstacity':

“Ethnic places in Ecstacity are full of distraction and scramble the choices on offer. Activities interfere with one another constantly. A single door may connect quite different cultures. It’s the inhabitants of Ecstacity who make sense of it, and not the buildings. Check the Japan Centre on Picadilly, or Babington’s Tea Rooms in the Piazza diSpagna. Go through the right door and they’ll join up” (Coates, 2003: 265).

The mixing of city cultures and styles and reliance on the inhabitants to make sense of them is symptomatic of world cities across the globe. More than this however, Ecstacity’s architectural mantra is inherently ‘networked’ with the city itself, and not isolated from the functioning and operationalisation procedures of the city by what Coates calls ‘pumplanning':

“For some reason, [twentieth century] architecture felt safe by separating itself from the day-to-day world. ‘Pumplanning’, had reversed all that. Pump up the body, pump up the city. Every act of lobbying counts, whether online or picketing parliament. Pumplanning is Ecstacity’s mechanism that fields the contest between control and everyone’s desire, however different. It regenerates the city in a way that straight planning never by working with what’s literally there” (Coates, 2003: 143).

Following Thomas More, Ebanezer Howard and other utopianists, Coates is purporting a city of calm and overriding tranquility. However, unlike these other utopianists, Coates’ utopia is based on a disjointed, multifarious heteroglossia, but is connected through the collaboration between people, places and buildings. Echoing the concerns that Jane Jacobs (1961) had with utopianists, Coates’ Ecstacity rejects a central planning ethos, instead embracing complexity, difficulties and in many cases, untruths.

This ‘book’ is not without it’s faults, and a reading of it is difficult, disjointed and confusing. But given that these are the prevailing qualities of the contemporary world city, then for me, it is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a theoretical and philosophical grasp of the city.


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Creative Recessions: Are the Creative Industries the way out?

moneytile

The last few weeks has seen myself and other creative industry commentators share information (through Twitter, Google Reader feeds etc) about how various institutions, companies, governments and individuals are championing the cultural and creative industries (some saying ‘the arts’) as a way out of the current financial turmoil.

There is no doubt that while the financial sector has been imploding, the creative industry sectors have been steadily increasing their wealth, income generation and presence (in the UK economy at any rate) – or so the rhetoric would have you believe. NESTA’s recent report on how the creative industries will be the engine of growth in the UK suggests “between 2009 and 2013 the UK creative industries – which is responsible for films, music, fashion, TV and video games production – will grow on average at 4% – more than double the rate of the rest of the economy. By 2013, the sector is expected to employ 1.3 million people, likely to be more than the financial sector” (quote taken from here). These are bold statements, given the recent problems that have been reported in the so-called creative sectors. Forster & Partners, the global architectural firm shed 350 workers, Geary has halved its workforce, ITV is facing huge job cuts through a fall in advertising revenue, the music industry continues to battle against online innovations which limit their profits, and a particular issue of mine, the UK computer game industry is still facing a massive brain drain to Canada (also here) due to the fact that the government is still sitting on it’s hands regarding tax incentives for the industry.

However, recently, the creative evangelist himself Richard Florida has been trumpeting how the creative economy is where the US should be focusing it’s efforts, and not bailing out the stagnant and ‘old world’ industries of the banks and the automobiles. There is a sense that we should be enforcing a ‘revolution’, not ‘reseting’ the old and unworkable Fordist economy regime, by encouraging creativity and not supporting industries which got us into this mess in the first place – a message that has been echoed for the UK.

So where does this leave us? The mixed messages coming from the UK government are unhelpful, but they do point toward the fact that their is a consensus that creative and innovate workers need to be encouraged to ‘let rip’ and rebuild a different economic base to that from before. But more than this, it is the ‘atomisation’ (i.e. networked individualisation, or connected fragmentation) of the creative economy that will be crucial in the future. Architecture as an industry is so heavily linked to construction that an economic downturn, which effects the construction of major projects more acutely (one only has to remember the stationary, rusting cranes of the Asian financial crisis of 1997), will always see these firms suffer in one way or another. That is why those innovations that can make things more efficient or more environmentally friendly will win out in the end, not only politically, but economically.

Also, I believe that the problems facing ITV (and to some extent Channel 5 and 4) are indicative of a wider social media movement. Spoon-fed media is not what the majority of people are looking for in this hyper-connected, user-generated-content environment; and producing films, televisiual products, music recordings or newspapers for mass consumption is a process that will soon be redundant. Having the ability to produce and manipulate content to your own desires is the future of cultural production and the industrial policies that Mandelson is keen to operationalise will have to take note of this. How? That’s for the politicians to argue over, but encouraging risk-taking and collaborative innovation are essential facets of a creative escape from recession. For example, the success of Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars is always going to be heralded as a British cultural achievement, but will the filmmakers actually make that much hard cash? Film4 (the funders) will see little of the huge profits generated by the film. The creative talent on show in this product is immense, but this does not always translate into financial reward, which if rectified, could  be ploughed back into the industry. This is not just the case in the UK, with Australia and other ‘inde’ producing countries and cities seeing similar problems.

With the advent of the democratisation of the production of cultural products through social media techniques (on which I blogged some thoughts on recently), investing the right people, firms and products will be crucial and will need to be an important part of future policy developments.


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Mapping London’s skyline

Architecture, the design of buildings and outdoor places is one of the most fundamental processes of human society – the production of where we live, where we work and where we play can all be attributed to the architectural profession. As an urban geographer, I am fascinated with the built environment and as the architects that create city skylines are a fundamental part of the creative industries, it represents an exciting cross-section of my research interests.

I wanted to share some recent work that I’ve been doing regarding social network analysis (SNA) and the architecture industry in London. Using SNA to map connections is becoming increasingly easier with online software such as UCINET and it can aid in the visualisation of networks, and with my penchant for Actor-Network Theory as a methodological tool, it allows for a ‘range-finding’ technique that can be further developed by qualitative techniques. Incidentally, Valdis Krebs, one of SNA’s main protagonists, is on Twitter (@valdiskrebs) and often posts great SNA resources.

Also worthy of note is a former co-worker of mine, Eva Cardoso who is responsible for the wonderful SNA diagrams and helped me with the research – I promised her work would not go unrecognised so here it is!

Before any SNA, the first step is to map London’s industry, and Map 1 below shows the location of the top 100 firms in London (based on turnover).

Location of top 100 architecture firms in London

We can see from the map above the top 100 firms (in terms of turnover) are clustered in central London, particularly the western part and the City of London. However, the clustering is not as intense as some of the other creative industries in the area, although with closer inspection to the WC area (Map 2 below), we see that there are two small dense clusters. The first cluster centres on Oxford Street and Bond Street, while the second is around the Tottenham Court Road and further research and analysis is needed to explore whether or not these companies communicate to produce increasing economic returns through clustering (i.e. the Porter model of agglomeration economies). It is worth noting that the maps only show the top 100 firms (in terms of turnover) and so naturally there would be a large number of small and medium sized firms within these clusters, also looking to gain an advantage through agglomeration.

WC cluster of Architecture firms

There are a number of other groups of people that are important to the construction of buildings – the companies and practices themselves, the globalizing politicians and bureaucrats, the global professionals and the merchants and media (see Sklair, 2005) Therefore, these groups of people (and their relevant institutions) will need to communicate regularly and as a result would benefit from proximity. Therefore, a central London location is not only important for agglomeration economics, but also for institutional and organisational advantages, i.e. to be close to the city planners, the local and national governments, as well as the media and related companies.

London’s Top 20 Tallest Buildings

So the economies of agglomeration are important, but in terms of individual projects, I have found myself asking if this agglomeration holds? Below is a list of London’s top 20 tallest (completed) buildings, with their height in meters in brackets:

  1. One Canada Square (235 m)
  2. 8 Canada Square (200 m)
  3. 25 Canada Square (200 m)
  4. BT Tower (191 m)
  5. Tower 42 (183 m)
  6. 30 St Mary Axe (180 m)
  7. Broadgate Tower (161 m)
  8. One Churchill Place (156 m)
  9. 25 Bank Street (153 m)
  10. 40 Bank Street (153 m)
  11. 10 Upper Bank Street (151 m)
  12. Pan Peninsula East Tower (147 m)
  13. Guy’s Tower* (143 m)
  14. City Point (127 m)
  15. The Willis Building (125 m)
  16. Euston Tower* (124 m)
  17. Shakespeare Tower (123 m)
  18. Lauderdale Tower (123 m)
  19. Cromwell Tower (123 m)
  20. Pan Peninsula West Tower (122 m)

You can see these buildings visualised here.

Each of the companies involved in the construction of each building (the information was sourced from Emporis.com) There are only 18 buildings used in the following network diagrams as there has been no information available for the Guy’s Tower and Euston Tower (*); hence those two buildings had to be excluded from the network.

Remarkably, the whole network as illustrated in the first diagram below, comprises one single component (self-contained unit) as all of its points in the component (companies) can reach one another through one or more paths. Accordingly the density of the graph is relatively high with 5.5%. The density describes the general level of linkage among the points in a self-contained network. The more points are connected to one another, the more dense the graph will be, in this case, it means that a number of companies worked together on multiple projects.

SNA diagram for London's buildings and companies involved

The network diagram below is the network with pendants (i.e. those  nodes with only one connection) removed:

Company-to-building diagram (with pendants – connections of 1 degree – removed)

193 companies were involved in the creation of the 20 tallest buildings in London, with Reef Associates being the most connected company. The majority of these highly connected companies are specialised in certain fields and operate globally, and they are:

  • Reef Associates is a leading Façade Access consultancy. They are based in London with involvements in international projects (including France, Spain, China and Germany).
  • Canary Wharf PLC, a property development and investment group, is the only company that does not operate internationally nor nationally as the group was set up exclusively to focus exclusively on ‘Grade A’ office space and high quality retail facilities at the Canary Wharf Estate and the skyscrapers situated there.
  • Sandy Brown Associates are consultants in the field of acoustics, noise and vibration control and operate in over 50 countries with its headquarter in London, UK.
  • Ove Arup & Partners (Arup) is a global firm of designers, engineers, planners and business consultants providing a diverse range of professional services and is the largest company in London; indeed it has a monopoly status in the capital.
  • Permasteelisa (UK) is leader in the engineering, manufacturing and installation of architectural envelopes (curtain walls), internal partitions and furniture systems. It operates in 4 continents with offices in 27 countries. It started its business in Italy.
  • KONE UK, a leading elevator and escalator company, is present in 50 countries worldwide and has its headquarters in Helsinki, Finland.

I am aware of the limitations of this data set and the presence of these companies may seem obvious, but my main aim here is to show inter-connected the companies involved in the construction are (network mapped here) and how London’s skyline has been built up only a handful of companies. Moreover, as a geographer, I wanted to show where around the world these companies are, showing how ‘global’ London’s skyline actually is.  The video below was created using a Google Earth kmz file of the location of London’s top 20 tallest buildings (the white arrows) and the location of each of the different companies that were involved in their construction.

Obviously companies based in London feature prominently,but as can be seen from the list above, the main companies involved in the network are spread across the world. Also, the presence of a large number of New York-based companies is poignant as it provides some more evidence for the NY-LON thesis purported by the urban geographer, Richard Smith. The project-based nature of the architecture is often thought of as being heavily project-centric (as well as the creative industries as a whole), yet it is the spatial aspects of those projects which is often overlooked, but is what has been exemplified here.

Much, much more could be done here, as this research forms only my initial forrays into the project-based nature of the architecture industy. Hopefully I will be able to continue it in a more formal setting, but in the meantime, I will continue to develop SNA and the GeoWeb in further research agendas.

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