“Unable to find a place outside the capitalist system, the postmodern subject loses any possibility of fulfilling the Enlightenment ambition of drawing a map that could claim to mirror reality.”
When Frederic Jameson published Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism twenty years ago, he ensured that his essay’s subject, the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, would become the world’s most intellectualized hotel. Designed by John Portman and built in the late 1970s, the Bonaventure’s monolithic presence in downtown LA (like much of Portman’s work) still represents everything urbanists hate: The massive building is a mirror-clad fortress with a rotating rooftop bar that boldly shirks any responsibility for relating to or enhancing the cityscape that surrounds it.
Inside its walls, the Bonaventure is its own universe: disorienting, windowless, and lacking reference to any external reality (aside from the rooftop bar’s panoramic views of the city). Reflecting upon the building and Jameson’s essay, Kazys Varnelis observes that its confusing, illegible layout perfectly epitomizes the contemporary era: “For Jameson, the hotel’s complexity is an analogue for our inability to understand our position in the multinational, decentered network of finance and communications that comprises late capitalism.” In the past, we believed that we could comprehend the world that we lived in—especially the parts of that world that we ourselves had made—but Portman’s hotel was a society announcing that it had finally outsmarted itself and was willing to embrace that outcome.
During the last two decades, frantic technological process has destroyed, transformed, or at least shaken many of the institutions and activities that predate the internet and smartphones. Some have fared much better than others. Public space—always a broadly-defined concept—has been spared the upheaval that has afflicted, say, the print media, but its digital counterparts have certainly challenged it. Many commentators have explained how networks like Facebook and Twitter are our new public spaces, but these analogies are typically far oversimplified: A glance around any major city reveals that traditional public space still exists and flourishes in its familiar, pre-digital form. People still fill Central Park on a warm Saturday afternoon, regardless of what’s happening on the internet.
What has changed about public space is how we enter that space and organize ourselves within it. The complex interactions between people on the street, in the marketplace, and at social events and bars now also occur as more streamlined and rationalized processes on Craigslist, eBay, Meetup.com, dating sites like OKCupid, and, of course, Facebook and Twitter. On OKCupid, for example, much of the information processing that has traditionally assumed the form of nuanced face-to-face contact in dating now happens digitally from the comfort of home. Yes, it eventually becomes necessary to venture out into public for the date itself—this is the whole point of OKCupid—but a lot of the sorting, matching, posturing, and arranging can occur online.
In other words, the internet functions as a back office to the city’s “front end” of streets and public spaces. When we finally leave the house, as a society, we can just relax and enjoy ourselves because so much of the work has already been done. Traces of the prior era still persist everywhere—street vendors still hawk merchandise the old-fashioned way, and people still go to bars to meet prospective mates – but there’s a new, powerful dynamic layered on top of this, silently and invisibly searching and sorting, arranging us in public according to its own networked logic.
Cities have always been information systems as well as places to live, and the built environment occupies the intersection of those two roles. The Bonaventure Hotel represents a departure from the belief that we can understand the environments that we created for ourselves to live in, but traditional city planning—which favors grids, parks, and legible urban patterns—embodies the opposite assumption: that understanding those environments is not just something we’re capable of, but something we need.
Legibility and perception change with technology, however, and the traditionally-planned city assumed slow speeds, low mobility of information, and relative simplicity. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, in their seminal Learning from Las Vegas, understood that city’s “new landscape of big spaces, high speeds, and complex programs” as a function of the car. No one driving at 70 miles per hour has time to interpret subtle details and nuanced symbolism. They need unambiguous signs that they can read quickly from far away—an “architecture of bold communication.”
If the car dictated the look of the 20th-century city, as epitomized by Las Vegas, the iPhone and the internet will provide the logic that produces the next version of the legible urban environment. The iPhone enables us to filter the mystery and ambiguity that surrounds us, extract relevant information, and navigate the unfamiliar. Legibility, instead of something we build into our environment using street grids or neon signs, is attained through handheld devices that scan for signals amid noise. An app like Yelp is to this new city what the huge signs of the Vegas Strip were to the prior iteration.
Reyner Banham explained Americans’ love of gadgets and devices as “the belief in a device like a surfboard as the proper way to make sense of an unorganized situation like a wave.” The iPhone and the Bonaventure Hotel are both surfboards, then: tools for facing a wild, complex reality without having to understand or control it. The imperative of urban legibility always implied power—for the designer as well as the user, who always demanded to see the big picture. Public space in the legible city was most itself when filled with a crowd responding to a leader. The widened streets of Haussmann’s Paris, for all their ordered beauty, were optimized for military operations. Those same public spaces, in the digital era, are increasingly staging grounds for algorithmic operations carried out on the internet, filled with centerless swarms instead of crowds. The most common criticism of Occupy Wall Street—the purest lesson yet in the ongoing transformation of public space—was always that it lacked a center, a leader, and a coherent position. Why would the movement have needed any of those, though? We used to organize, map, and comprehend; now we surf and swarm.