Architecture in the Age of the Virtual City Pt.2: Building community in 4 dimensions

Architecture in the Age of the Virtual City Pt.2: Building community in 4 dimensions

“Urban life having served its term is become a life-sentence (…) A life outmoded. The big city is no longer modern.”

- Frank Lloyd Wright, The Disappearing City, 1932

In the 1930s, when the telephone became a common home appliance in the US, the architect who pioneered heroic modernism in America imagined that telecommunication would eventually tear up the big city. Advances from the second technological revolution - cheap oil, automobiles and the telephone - could help us travel and plan better than our wildest thoughts. Frank L. Wright prophesied these inventions would soon outmode the dirty, congested cities we inherited from the first industrial revolution. He envisioned a radically anti-urban plan for American growth. In his book The Disappearing City, Wright laid out the principles of an alternative model he calls ‘Broadacre City’. In this dispersed model, each citizen owns an acre of land to live on, thus guaranteeing his or her health, happiness, and self-sufficiency.

The idea that access to fast transportation and telecommunication would eventually dissolve the existing cities seemed perfectly logical at the time. Yet urban centres become denser and more expensive. Today, as we enter a new industrial era - one based on universal and ubiquitous access to the internet, and soon, the Internet of Things - we could ask ourselves the same question Wright did. Why do we continue to inhabit tiny, cramped apartments, and crowd polluted streets? How are we still willing to catch a cold in windy subway corridors that smell of urine, when our words and actions can meet at light speed, wherever we choose to be?

It seems that the possibility to work, study, and socialise at a distance has not canceled out our need to share a physical environment just yet. In fact, the prospect of physical isolation in the internet age has highlighted the value of ‘just’ being in a chair looking at someone, and sharing a busy, dynamic environment with strangers. Sharing space is no longer taken for granted as an assumption of urban life. It is increasingly conceived of as a service that can be perfected and sold to us. Starbucks Coffee did not grab over half of the world’s café market by selling deliciously incomparable drinks - its success is based on free Wi-fi. Rather than a product, Starbucks sells an environment that mitigates the isolation of working on a laptop, by yourself, in the white-blue light of a screen - or you know, scrolling through social media - with the opportunity to watch, hear and meet others around you.

Note how, to accommodate for man/woman with laptop, a Starbucks interior features round tables. As opposed to a square, a round table doesn’t point to missing people. Anyone is free to join or be on their own. Since we’re a communal species, it is only natural that we’re driven to be part of a community as we work, even though our present-day professionalism doesn’t necessarily care. While coffee houses are being designed for freelancers and salespeople, many office spaces are working towards a more open, café-like layout to bring colleagues together. At the crossroads, a new subset has flourished - the co-working space where monthly fees grant entry to separate projects side by side. These offices have roughly doubled in number and surface each year from 2006 to 2015 and are expected to multiply at a growth rate near 25% annually through 2022.

Co-working startups like Wework claim to offer a community for a price. As the market leader, WeWork describes its mission to “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living”. Enter pastel coloured couches, beer on tap and low-hanging lamps… Co-working spaces have developed their own distinctive architecture, further stimulating exchange. Unfortunately, the emphasis on ‘diverse’ and ‘homely’ styles camouflages a rather shallow understanding of community. Isn’t it true that most co-working enterprises attract clients of similar ages and social class, doing similar types of work? Since the internet connects us, it seems that architecture aiming for tangible connection in the real world could be much more ambitious in terms of fostering a truly diverse knowledge exchange. 

I once spent the night in a minuscule house refurbished into an artist’s work space. It was listed on AirBnB as a ‘shared style host’, and I picked it out simply because it was the cheapest option. Upon arrival, it became clear that guests were expected to share the space, not only with fellow travellers but also the artists working there, and locals enjoying the small café downstairs. Daisuke, the owner, named the house ‘Capca’, short for the Japanese onomatopoeia ‘pukka pukka’ referring to the soothing sound of water droplets. “Because relaxing time is the most important time for creators,” he said. From the outside, the place looks like any other hip café. But the humble building’s presence on social media connect it to a network of affiliated artists, while its AirBnB page keeps the hotel strain alive. These virtual copies of the house are able to unlock real space by activating architecture’s hidden dimension: time. 

For maximal efficiency, the buildings’ functions alternate according to a twenty-four-hour cycle, during which international guests get a place to sleep for thee night, the owner and other artists compose music or make paintings in the morning, and the café opens in the afternoon for the whole neighbourhood. In the evening though, this broad range of users overlaps. Everyone turns up to share ideas, experiences, art, and phone numbers. This unique three-way has grown into a symbiotic alliance: the locals get a rich program of events to liven up their neighbourhood; foreigners gain the opportunity to have a real exchange with Japanese communities; the artists, meanwhile, benefit from international exposure. 

A time-based scheme, in which various functions mingle and succeed each other during a twenty-four-hour cycle implies a flexible spatial layout. In this case, furniture takes effect: at night, hammocks are hung from the ceiling for the AirBnB’ers. Hangers and branches are fixed to the ceiling beams for exhibitions. Since a shower is off the cards, guests depend on the city’s ‘furniture’ as well. They bathe around the corner at the local sentō, a Japanese public bathhouse. Another ‘ArtBnB’ has taken this approach too. Break’ Art Mix was conceived by a Canadian couple as an online platform, but the project evolved into a creative residency. In this tiny Paris apartment, all activities take place in a single room, and are facilitated by a single piece of furniture conceived by Panama Architecture Atelier. Their custom-made bed-stage-bookshelf serves as a bunk bed as well as a dinner table, a tiny gallery, and place to gather for a slide show…

In Tokyo again, a Japanese printing company commissioned world famous architecture office SANAA to design their new headquarters as a neighbourhood house that could also host public meetings. Here too, the building draws different crowds at different times of the day. Freelancers come to enjoy the coffee in the morning. At lunch, businessmen drop in to eat their lunch, and in the afternoon you might find mothers gathering their kids to play while discussing projects in a live wire voice. In the evening, a lecture or event takes place upstairs. In an interview posted on their website, the company president explains that for a company working with a very limited selection of clients, their Shibaura House brings value from relationships. He even envisions that, if they were to lose the kind of work they’ve been welcoming until now, the Shibaura House could alter the form of the company at large - another kind of architectural revolution.

In the Roman periphery, an Italian artist saved squatting migrants from eviction by transforming the abandoned salami factory they called home into an improvised (and illegal) alternative art museum. Pre-internet, the empty shed would have remained as invisible as it was before the artists broke in. But over social media, the artists who transformed the building were able to draw attention and trigger a public debate. "If 200 people, including 80 children, are thrown out on the street, it is not seen as a problem”, says Giorgio de Finis, founder of Maam in Rome, “but if the owners destroy 500 valuable works of art, they will be considered ISIS or Taliban". 

In theory, the internet connects us with everybody. Yet from experience we know that it consists of social islands, autonomous communities that churn around a shared interest or lifestyle. If we simply materialise what we have online - like the tech-savvy yuppies in their coffee utopia -the internet may end up dissolving the city after all. Urbanity is all about the overlap of groups that wouldn’t come together if it wan’t for the opportunities they give and receive. Rather than cementing confines, architecture in the age of the virtual city needs to enrich virtual communities by stitching them in a fabric that can change anywhere, anytime.