Non Urbanism

[View from the Econo Lodge balcony, just off I-5, Ashland OR]

“If you go into the hardcore urban or the hardcore rural, it is quite simple to define it, but that is not so relevant.  It is more significant to talk about the condition in between.  And this condition is extremely difficult to define.”  – Urban planner Kees Christiaanse in conversation with MONU.

MONU’s call for submissions for its latest issue (#16, Non Urbanism) asked its participants to “investigate how non-urbanism may be defined and identified today, and how non-urban areas interact with and relate to urban areas.”  Fortunately for readers, the printed compendium seems to succeed in largely refuting the very existence of its themed subject matter.  Or, if it doesn’t go so far as to refute the ‘non urban’, the content demonstrates how difficult it is to call out any place as not being deeply under the influence of it.

MONU #16’s agenda fits within mounting reactions to the geographic myopia found in some of the contemporary ‘urban age’ rhetoric.  ‘Non Urbanism’ explores what happens when the inventory of urban moves beyond widget counts of human bodies for its reductive definition.  It asks: what is non-urbanism when we approach the ‘built environment’ in a fully relational way?  What happens when we see cities in the wider geographic field of their effects, borrowings, and precariously networked agencies?  Even if one is seduced by the persistent mantra of “…over half the human population now lives in urban centers…“, this issue of MONU reminds us that there is still the other half of humanity inhabiting and designing within everywhere else, which is a far larger and more diverse territory.

Jessica Bridger’s essay  (“Urbanism in the Expanded Field of the Built Environment”) sets the stage by revisiting Rosalind’s Krauss’ ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ (yes, again).  This time around Bridger substitutes nature and urban for the binary/continuum of landscape and architecture.   Perhaps more effective than the reworking of Krauss’s diagram is the text supporting it:

“…the consideration of what is urban and what is not is a distraction from the reality of the built environment…urbanism needs to be expanded to the built environment, and the understanding that the environment in specific as well as in general, is built.  It is constructed from the level of the poetics to the poured concrete of a sidewalk, to the designation of a nature preserve.

…we are so concerned with the edges, the delineations of things that we risk missing the field condition, the environment for the buildings or the trees.  We must move from the binary either/or to the multivalent both/and.”

[Former U.S. military missile silo turned into a private residence.  Artist rendering courtesy of 20th century Castles, who provide a list of such properties available for sale.]

MONU #16 compiles excursions into these  field conditions, with each essay and interview providing a different instance of the rural-urban’s vast and varied in-between.  The examples are culled from around the world.  Benjamin Beller travels through China’s explosive rural development, looking for opportunities.  Eduard Sancho Pou peers into the spatial corporate assemblage of Red Bull via an on-the-ground stroll through its surreal and Truman show-esque corporate headquarters at Fuschl am See, Austria.  In “Processes from Away and Under”, Clark Thenhaus explores Midwestern US’ missile silos and clandestine underground digital servers as the non-urban of safe harbor for both covert militarization and cultural innovation:

“What falls under the notion of non-urbanism – those diverse realms beyond the city center – are territories at a distance from regimentation and scrutiny, the place of pioneers and innovation…Considering the vernacular as process of systemic integrations of ‘rogue’ populations interacting over time and distance, exposes the non-urban as a frontier space in which spatial and temporal fluxes produce novelty and change.”

The “non-urban” as free zone for innovation and territorialization is repeated in other articles, including two looking at desakota, or “pioneer” and “transitory space leading to the rise of the city of non urban.” [defined elsewhere, desakota “encompasses more than the term “periurban.” It refers to closely interlinked rural/urban livelihoods, communication, transport and economic systems. Desakota systems occupy, and radiate out from a spectrum of conditions that have purely urban and purely rural as the two extreme ends”].

[Images above: Map of China's interstate expressway system and photo of in-process highway construction.  Both taken from polis' post on the subject.]

Mobility – both physical transportation and digital modes of communication – are also privileged  in the volume to describe the basic vectors, or logistical ‘autopoietic’ by which the urban and non-urban are co-generators of one another.  Think Amazon wish lists, Google’s latest policies and principles, and Facebook (towns and villages based on tourist economies may have thousands more Facebook ‘friends’ than they have embodied inhabitants).   In “Sentient Cities”, Mike Crang and Stephen Graham unpack the politics of information space (both commercial and military applications) and track creative resistances to space experienced as active computational agent organizing our daily lives and the weird geo-networks we are part of.

[Checking mails at 6 pm. By STAR strategies + architecture Original painting: The Angelus, 1857–59 by Jean-François Millet.]

In MONU 16, ‘non urbanism’ is interrogated as a stereotype, a rather blunt instrument deployed for any number of agendas of oversimplification.  It conceals the huge terrain of mongrel, spliced, hybridized and networked landscapes detailed in the essays that defy broad generalization.  This point is brought home definitively in an interview with Scott Herring (Author of “Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism”) in which he debunks the queer ‘flight to the city’ narrative and the rural as a cultural backwater by highlighting the instances of non-urban queer spaces in the US as sites of cultural richness and resistance.  An essay by Ian Bogost would have fit well into this collection of works, as we come to see these non – urbanisms as a lot like what Bogost refers to as alien phenomenologies.

Ecologists have long privileged the pseudo-pristine, or instances of untouched ‘wilderness’, while designers have largely confined themselves to population centers.  Consequently, both disciplines have historically missed the bigger picture.  As MONU points out, commonly used antonyms within urban discourse such as “urban-rural, diversity-homogeneity, connectivity-isolation, tolerance-intolerance, sin-virtue, decadence-purity, perversion-normalcy, falsity-truth, or danger-safety are ultimately challenged and have to be re-thought and re-theorized.”  The pervasive in-between realms where these modifiers overlap, exchange roles, or become entirely irrelevant is far more extensive than the rarefied extremes from which they were culled.

List of the full lineup of MONU #16 Non-Urbanism is available here.

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