Architecture in the Age of the Virtual City Pt.1: Pokémon today, Panarchy tomorrow

Architecture in the Age of the Virtual City Pt.1: Pokémon today, Panarchy tomorrow

In 1860, a Belgian scientist from the thriving industrial town of Charleroi had an idea that promised to resolve our political disputes once and for all. In his essay ‘Panarchie’, Paul-Emile De Puydt introduces a political philosophy allowing for each individual to adhere to a tax and justice they feel is right for them, without having to go through the inconvenience of emigrating to another country. Why, he asks, do we think it so obvious that a political system be accompanied by a territorial monopoly? Inspired by the contemporary enthusiasm for ‘laissez-faire’ economic principles, De Puydt argued that healthy competition between multiple 'extraterritorial' governments would lead to a more efficient and more peaceful political system. In the panarchy, a framework in which all '-archies' and '-cracies' peacefully coexist, the rule of different authorities would no longer be confined to a predefined term within an arbitrarily delimited patch of the earth. Giving up temporal and spatial boundaries to share a common and free market, governments would be working on demand for those wishing to exchange part of their time and income in return for the services of their ideal state.

While De Puydt goes on to describe how such a system might work in practice, he suspects that his idea still sounds strange to many of his readers. To demonstrate that a panarchy is more familiar than it seems, he makes an analogy with the major world religions: If Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists can live peacefully together and build their temples in the same city, as they do here in Belgium, why can republicans, democrats, communists and anarchists then not pursue a similar tolerance? The genius to the abolition of political monopoly is that even the most authoritarian regime could never prosper at the expense of oppression, since every citizen remains free to 'unsubscribe' and find a new political church at all times. Is matching offer and demand not inherently more democratic than, at best, pleasing only a majority? In ‘The Real Social Contract’ present-day panarchist Max Borders depicts panarchism as an upgrade of our 'Democratic Operating System’: “Wouldn’t it be better if politics was more like choosing from apps on an iPad?”

Beyond the metaphor, the comparison with internet technology reveals an opportunity. In a world of ever-expanding global connectivity and bottom-up initiatives via internet, panarchism could be considered more seriously now than ever. Who knows, maybe the App Store turns out to be the invention that makes De Puydt’s vision come true one day. Yet it is striking how virtual space continues to be associated with a dystopian future—one in which social relations would degenerate and homogenization would result in loss of culture and tradition—while in many ways, in panarchism it is precisely the opposite which is intended: space for freedom, diversity, creativity and collaboration. Before taking De Puydt’s proposal too literally, it may be interesting to follow his reasoning as we take a fresh look at the subtle developments that the virtual world has already downloaded into our everyday environment. 

De Puydt was a botanist and found inspiration in his study of the natural biotope. The biotope of the 21st century will be the city, and the possibilities offered by this urban environment inevitably depend on its built form. Due to stagnating demographic growth, this form is not changing as much as it used to in developed countries, yet the past few years have proven that the city is still capable of transformation. Without touching a single brick, new apps from Silicon Valley like Google Maps, Airbnb, Uber or even Pokémon Go are reinventing urbanism from afar. Throughout the 20th century, the city was adjusted to the needs of the times using concrete and steel. Hilton Hotels for example, had to erect its empire tower by tower since its establishment a century ago. Today, we have the house sharing platform AirBnB which, within a decennium and without building anything whatsoever, acquired a higher market value than the Hilton and the Hyatt corporations added up. From this perspective, modernisation no longer consists of expanding the tangible infrastructure, the ‘hardware’ if you will, but of an update of the ‘software’ enabling the use, and reuse, of the existing patrimony.

Critics tend to portray Silicon Valley’s virtual city as parasitic. They see it as an intrusion of the ‘big bucks’ into our most intimate chambers, transforming them into consumption objects and profit machines. An attack on the familiar city—proliferating generic space and all-encompassing commodification. We are forced to conclude that the once reliable border between public and private space is fading. Or rather, the separation is no longer clearly defined as it was by urban facades. Historically, the architecture of the city has been complicit in cementing the state territorial monopolies denounced by De Puydt. Using columns and cornices, the articulation of architectural form and materiality codifies the hierarchy, continuity, and meaning of urban spaces. But mobile internet has introduced a new means of organising urbanity at odds with this architectural tradition. Urbanites now have the power to overwrite architectural code with binary code, effectively enveloping the city in a new layer of text. 

For the first time in history, we no longer read urban space with the naked eye as smartphones provide an increasingly indispensable lens to navigate the city. In the virtual streets of Google maps, ‘virtual facades’ have the power to give existing buildings a new appearance, using a scale of stars, a short description and the comments of previous users. Architecture as ‘interface’ is silenced, thus letting new functions worm their way into old shells. Pokémon Go took this game to a new level in 2016, when they projected a virtual layer over city streets all around the world, magically transforming every open space into play-ground. Whether this open space is an abandoned parking lot or the central square doesn’t matter all that much. The physical attributes and corresponding hierarchy between these spaces makes way for a new order, one that emphasises the distinction between players and non-players instead. Sure, the Pokémon hunters were made fun of, but they are rebels. Do they know it yet?

The public space of the Facebook generation is an ephemeral phenomenon. It can appear―and disappear―in interior and exterior spaces, in the center of the city or in its periphery. Just like in De Puydt’s panarchy, it consists of spontaneous cooperations of like-minded folk, oblivious to the state monopoly on public space that was chiseled in the city over centuries. For all its empowering potential, the extra dimension unlocked by this virtual duplication of space ought to be met with extra responsibility. Initiatives like FairBnB show that the solution to the problems caused by the virtual city rely on the same means. That is why De Puydt’s old idea may just be what we need today. A new way of thinking, to work out a scenario in which the software of the city does not hijack urban space, but gives it back to its citizen. 

To be continued