One of the great things about working with Dietrich Neumann from Brown University (click here for a great link about Brown) was that he selected movies that I knew I had to watch but just couldn’t make myself for one reason or another. Well, when film and architecture are mentioned together, this is one of the first movies people think of, so it was overdue.
Metropolis (1929) 123 minutes, directed by Fritz Lang
Let’s face it: today, technology is no longer an important part of our collective image of the future. Or maybe I should define “technology” as specifically the sort of industrial/machine age concept which is represented by cars, trains, airplanes, and skyscrapers. Today we have technology in the form of cellphones, iPods, laptops, Blackberrys, the internet and Maya, which are a distinctly different beast than cars and airplanes. In fact, stuff like a 3-d modeling program isn’t technology at all. It’s magic.
A week ago or so, the New York Times published an article about how the recent proliferation and popularity of certain “magic-realist” television shows such as “Lost,” “Heroes,” “Medium,” “Ghost Whisperer” and others were indicative of a popular fascination with the supernatural and the unexplainable. The article goes on to say that this is the harbinger of a society’s decline, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that yet. What I will say, however, is that I think what has happened is that technology has come to signify something else to us: it’s complexity, sophistication, ubiquity and incomprehensible power has breached a tipping point and technology has morphed into magic.
This follows what is sometimes commonly referred to as Clarke’s Third Law (after Arthur C. Clarke): Any sufficiently complex technology is indistinguishable from magic. Don’t think that’s true? Try explaining to me how a television works, on a subatomic level. What about a microprocessor? Still don’t think technology is magic? Did you know that even common household electric wiring systems can only be predictably accounted for using quantum mechanics? And do you know what the single most important principle of quantum mechanics is? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: that at a certain scale it is impossible to know what is going on. Which is why string theory is simultaneously both extremely exciting and extremely disappointing: it can never be scientifically proven or disproven because it theorizes phenomena at a scale that we simply cannot test for. Somebody explain to me quantum mechanics. I don’t care if you’re Michelle Addington (more Michelle). You can’t. Because it’s magic. iPods and cellphones and Blackberrys and laptops run on magic.
The film Metropolis is the godfather of all filmic images of the Modern conception of the city. In this film the city under the influence of Modern technology was imagined to its logical extreme: layers upon layers of traffic all flowing in orderly grids between behemoth sized skyscrapers with Babel-esque proportioned hubris. In a sense, all films dealing with the city have been a response to Metropolis. But the age where Metropolis represents our image of the future may be closed, along with our faith in the promise of skyscrapers (except in Asia, but more on that later): prominent architects have all said or proposed as such: Rem called his CCTV (known in China affectionately as “Big Shorts”) loop a death knell to the age of the skyscraper, Eisenman’s Max Reinhardt building was also theorized as such, and Thom Mayne even said in spoken lectures that skyscrapers make no sense for cities today. Metropolis, with its grand skyscrapers, is the image of the city under the spell of technology.
As an element of urban planning, the Grid may be the most conspicuous example of an obsolete machine-age emphasis on the vehicle. How pernicious the grid has been to cities in the Twentieth century! It’s no wonder that today we care most about the cities and spaces that were developed before the car and hence, before the grid: lower Manhattan, parts of Boston, parts of San Francisco, and of course, old Europe.
Another holdover from Modernist urban planning is the vertical stratification of traffic: designers since the Modern era have always attempted to create vertically layered levels of traffic: clover freeways, elevated railways, pedestrian skybridges, etc., all in alignment with the image that Metropolis helped propagate. But in every instance the attempt to create just one more level of streetlife has failed miserably (save for in Asia, but again, more on that later). Wherever pedestrian skybridges have been built they’ve managed to kill the street life both on them and below them, and the images of clover freeways are somehow always juxtaposed next to images of suburban angst: be it Columbine High School or Insane Clown Posse. The reason why layering pedestrian traffic doesn’t work may be most simply explained using a concept Molly Steenson introduced to me: FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out). It may be hard to reside in any one place when you can see a more activated streetscape one level above or below. The next test of this idea will be seen in New York’s High Line, a competition won by Diller, Scofidio+Renfro in collaboration with Field Operations, which faces the unenviable task of trying to design an artificial environment to compete with the bustling, organic streetlife of Manhattan.
(originally written 2/20/2007)