Design And The Value Of Space-Time, Or, Tomorrow Belongs To Everybody!
By Matthew Claudel
The digitalization of our space comes with a shifting locus of power. (1) A compelling and shadowy prophecy! It portends a future when the dark force of mechanization takes command. (2) But such a shift is nothing new. Technology’s de-humanization/re-humanization is a trope probably as old as technology itself. In 1929, Le Corbusier wrote, “The machine age has set loose the consequences attaching to it, progress has seized on a new set of implements with which to quicken its rhythm; this it has done with such an intensification of speed and output that events have moved beyond our capacity to appreciate them.…[We live] in a perpetual state of instability, insecurity, fatigue and accumulating delusions.” (3) To design is to shift loci of power, to generate new value—and in some cases, new values—with new spatial or social configurations. To precisely this end, design, monuments, architecture, place-making, urban planning, public art—these have all been concerned with new loci of power: the production of spatial, social, and temporal human environments.
“Progress,” in this sense, is spurred by the persistence of “futures”: the design-polemics that sharpen nows to the point that they pierce tomorrows. We cannot ignore those radical shifts that have provided new logics of human experience, those that have given us our present reality, from which the digitalization of our space will shift. These social and physical spaces have generated new value, in ways that are characteristic of their technological moments—for example, mass production or economies of scale.
Digitization has wrested the long arm of that lever, that ratchet that is spatial value creation, away from its familiar protagonists. How, then, should we understand the role of design when digital technology colours our spatial experiences, and thus the value of and values in our built environments? This is the real crux of the issue. Two threads—the dimensionality of time and the dimensionality of space—weave toward an answer. A history of recalculations in built space and time space pass through our daily corporeal experience, colliding most forcefully in the city and the mode of labour that typifies an era.
The Age Of Consolidation
For hundreds of years, the value of a piece of land was determined by its utility, which, naturally, could be expressed as a price. A rough approximation of the value of a parcel was the sum of its natural resources, its location, its social significance, and most importantly, how much building was built on it. In this construct—a real estate market—there are competitive pressures to maximize the use of land while optimizing for a future sale. (4) At the turn of the twentieth century, the skyscraper shattered the calculus of real estate. An entirely new dimension was unlocked from single parcels: the seemingly infinite stack of floor-plates floating above a building. (5) Nowhere was the diagram more clearly expressed than Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, a proposal to raze central Paris and replace it with towers in the park. In a hidden and uncharacteristically apologetic section of his book, The City of To-morrow and Its Planning, (6) Le Corbusier elaborated a financial scheme for the project: the estimated value-per-square-foot of these towers would be twenty times greater than ordinary parcels. Design, architecture, and technology were deeply entangled in his modernist social ideology of efficiency. Le Corbusier’s plan crystallized the dominant paradigm of value-creation: consolidation. The skyscraper (and the urban plan it demanded) was a rational, mechanistic system, an economy of scale.
The industrial revolution created value in precisely the same way. A new field of “scientific management,” pioneered by Fredrick Winslow Taylor, brought enormous gains of efficiency, a so-called Taylorist factory model popularized by Henry Ford. Consolidation allowed factory designers to divide labour and organize rote tasks, regularizing and mechanizing and quantifying the minutiae of the workday. “For the factory manager or engineer, the newly invented assembly lines permitted the use of unskilled labour and control over not only the pace of production but the whole labour process.” (7) The human was re-valued as a machine of work hours, as time and capital collided in the punch card, a sinister biopolitics of dehumanized labour. (8)
Both of these design inventions popularized concepts of the perfect machine and of technological society. They heralded an imminent flourishing, an end of backwards, entrenched cottage industry, a gleaming future: the apotheosis of the Enlightenment. Prizing efficiency above all, the design of a modern city or factory in this era rested on the value-mechanism of consolidation. (9) Spatial and social systems that are aggregated and quantized are systems that can be rationally optimized. This was an extraordinarily influential proposition. Though unbuilt, Le Corbusier’s innovation came to be the only mental model available to the vast majority of architects and planners, just as the factory became the dominant tool for organizing labour. The regime—deriving value from consolidation and legibility—persisted for nearly a century.
The Age Of Atomization
As the millennium drew to a close, a proliferation of skyscraper-cities bristled across the surface of the planet. As parcels were exploited to their maximum, the competition for urban real estate became fierce. A globalized land market, churning with multinational firms and their tech elite, demanded ever more real estate development for ever more economic development. (10) The skyscraper reached its technical and political limits at precisely the moment global finance and digital systems unlocked a new dimension of value.
Buildings turned inward for a new source of value: divided and sub-divided into a fractal of floors, zones, rooms, and individual hot-desks. Architectural fragmentation goes hand-in-hand with a new economy, one in which the stability of labour (from the workday to the career path) has dissolved. This is the age of atomization. Digital technologies have broken apart consolidated systems, but they are also beginning to reorganize space and time in new ways. Just as Le Corbusier engineered twenty times the value out of the same physical territory, we are now unlocking idle assets that lay hidden in the city we have inherited.
Consider the skyscraper. Co-working companies like WeWork take a (cheap) long lease on a large space, and divide it into (expensive) short contracts for small offices, multiplying value by fragmenting space and time. (11) Atomized real estate generates astronomical value per square foot. And it is only possible in today’s characteristic labour configuration. Most high-growth, volatile firms (start-ups) can only see a twenty-four- to thirty-six-month time horizon, while standard lease terms in a place like New York City are five to ten years. Short, pay-as-you-go co-working leases are the only viable option. That safety-in-flexibility has significant financial value to young firms that are flush with funding. Skyscrapers—designed in the persistent image of Le Corbusier’s diagram—have been fragmented and re-animated, buzzing with activity.
And of course, the protagonist of WeWork’s epic is the entrepreneur. While the Taylorist factory systematized human-as-labour-as-tasks-in-time, today’s innovator creates and trades intangible assets at any time, and in any space. Organizational challenges of communication, task management, and system control have become trivial in a networked economy. That is, fragmentation of space and fragmentation of labour-time go hand in hand. The eight hour workday seems like a quaint anachronism in a new normal of hot-desking, telepresence with the Singapore team, and ticking off a few emails before bed. Work is liquid; the worker is unmoored; the tide of a gig economy rises.
An Archaeology Of Invisible Consolidations
The spatial injustices and inhumanities of Corbusian consolidation are palpable. Not only did the Plan Voisin propose to erase the rich cultural fabric of Paris, but also to replace it with a diagram of efficiencies, sorted into an austere shadow of urban life that would inevitably cleave deep socioeconomic fissures. Its unrelenting concrete is almost as easy to vilify as factory labour. The age of atomization rides on the crest of these critiques, trumpeting a glittering future of techno-utopian progress. Today’s entrepreneur is awash in a rich sap of empowerment, well-being, and quality of life as she makes the world a better place. But beneath the glossy surface, our new atomized condition has deeper spatial and social layers. Designers have created those layers, and we have a responsibility to excavate their impact.
Most superficially, the co-working sector has been dominated by only a few of monopolies. WeWork, for instance, has become the second largest commercial office tenant in Manhattan. What appears to be a fragmentation of spaces, the death knell of corporate consolidation, is, in effect, a pervasive but intangible re-consolidation on a much larger scale. In 1978 Rem Koolhaas axiomatically assured us that, “with [the grid’s] imposition, Manhattan is forever immunized against any (further) totalitarian intervention. In the single block—the largest possible area that can fall under architectural control—develops a maximum unit of urbanistic ego.” (12) He could never have predicted the pollination of WeWork’s spores beyond the bounds of a building or block. The co-working vibe is a new maximum unit of urbanistic ego.
As it transforms the viscera of a city’s skyscrapers, WeWork is bolstered by a seemingly limitless flow of demand. Strategically, this affords it the luxury of top-shelf real estate in areas with the highest growth-potential, where co-working then redefines the hyper-local economy. It follows, logically, that municipalities view companies like WeWork as the gatekeepers to economic development. As cities queue to cross the threshold, the company gathers up political power. In a snowballing tumble, WeWork and its ilk are materially, politically, and culturally reshaping cities.
And they are also reshaping us. In yet a deeper fold of this logic, the empowering narrative of self-optimization has been constructed around WeWork’s flavour of entrepreneurship. Passionate doers swarm around beer taps, quaffing a frothy brew of self-determination. Yet even as we revel in the freedom and flexibility of digitally unmoored work, it suffuses our lives. We are always on. We must produce, we must compete-or-die under the looming threat of automation or outsourcing. We are organized as a terrifically and terrifyingly productive machine that needs never suffer the constraints of refuelling or maintenance, and whose cogs are easily replaced. The fairy tale of entrepreneurship seldom acknowledges its grim danger, a villain much larger than the factory. Here, the archaeology of digital re-consolidations finally broaches the deepest layer of value extraction, the least visible, the one most psychologically insidious: the extension of economic rationality into every corner of human life.
The value of an always-on workforce is not marginal gains in efficiency or work hours. And the value of WeWork is neither its occupancy per square foot equations, nor the collaborative work style it peddles. The real value in this new digitally laced urban system is an easy hyperlink to the highly malleable whims of a mobile, wealthy, empowered elite. The final re-consolidation, the one that threatens our social fabric at its deepest stitches, is a creative class that can be near-infinitely re-organized and mined for profit, with shocking ease. Unlike the highly visible injustices of factory conditions, or the bulldozer’s threat to Paris’ cultural richness—both of which were a focal point for resistance—today’s enthusiastically submissive workforce lines up at the beer tap, no less than cities line up at the creative class tap. Shrewd companies joyfully tend bar.
Beneath the veneer of atomization and empowerment, we ourselves are consolidated in pervasive and invisible ways, both spatial and temporal. The underlying ethos of the modernist era still binds us today—digital tools have made it less visible, but far more effective and pervasive. WeWork, Google Maps, Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, Sidewalk Toronto…these are today’s punch cards, where capital collides with the human experience of time and place. Digital-physical systems are setting the value of a human-as-consumer-data point. Far from empowerment, the new liquidity of our social-spatial culture is consolidating into history’s greatest monolith.
As it merges with technology and digital systems, design must contend with its archaeology of spatial and temporal effects. Counter-intuitively, we can look to precedents. At the origins of previous reconfigurations there are glimmers of alternatives.
In designing his provocative re-valuation of urban space, Le Corbusier introduced a distributed financial mechanism. He proposed to bond the future value of those 600 foot architecture machines to pay for their initial construction. They would be financed neither by a developer nor by the state, but by the occupants: “the users would be the proprietors of the sky-scraper,” what he called “tenant-owners.” Excess value could finance apartments for low-income tenants—“enhanced resources would even allow us to present them with free cottages.” (13) The Plan Voisin, in modern terms, was a crowd-funded bond that could incorporate social impact.
This gestures at a real estate model very different from what we are familiar with today. A slate of companies has emerged to facilitate crowd-funding architecture (including Fundrise, Patch of Land, and Realty Shares). At the civic scale, Neighborly’s platform for crowd-funding municipal bonds allows residents to invest small amounts (on the order of $1,000) in capital projects like parks or schools in their neighbourhood. Residents contribute to a stable investment and directly benefit from new civic assets.
The factory sparked no less radical innovation: alternative corporate structures with decentralized organization. The Mondragon Corporation pioneered a nested cooperative model, in which every individual can participate in management decisions through a distributed governance architecture—a structure that permits, and welcomes, constant change. (14) Mondragon has remained remarkably competitive in the global market for over sixty years, working across diverse sectors from consumer goods to technical machinery to design. Today, over one hundred worker-owned and managed firms with more than 70,000 employees are confederated under its general alliance. Perhaps the starkest contrast to Taylorist factories and our contemporary model of shareholder-driven firms is the pay ratio between the highest paid employee and the median salary. Mondragon’s individual cooperatives vary from 1:3 to 1:9, with an average ratio of 1:5. A comparably sized business in the United States averages 1:183. (15) A similar concept is proving even more relevant today, as various forms of automation and remote coordination make project-based, actor-driven collaboration easier. The polymorphous firm Project 00 practices design with an open business model, a radical reorganization of ownership, compensation, and organizational governance. (16)
Who Owns Tomorrow?
Contemporary digital tools have opened the possibility of zero-overhead coordination, peer legitimacy and ownership, and co-design; they allow us to challenge the very premise of a growth-oriented political economy of cities. And yet we have not. An inclusive right to the future is threatened by the monopolies of urban digitalization if it is not accompanied by a new designerly engagement with the value of space and time.
What would it mean to develop a cooperative model for spatial design interventions and temporal operations? Already we see owner-occupants successfully finance and manage housing; municipal bond platforms have constructed strategies that extend crowdfunding to an urban scale; cooperative firms have proven competitive, innovative, and robust to economic crisis. In its purest form, co-working could be a similarly decentralized peer-to-peer system of individual ownership, where agency is distributed among members who manage as a cooperative whole and reap the value of spaces directly. Without an intermediary, distinct but co-located groups would have more permeable boundaries, sharing employees and contracts. With a vested interest in shared outcomes, mutual support on collaborative projects would be the norm. The distinction between a building and a corporation would blur, yet it would have no reason to be spatially constrained. This would not be a business, but an empowering way for humans to organize themselves in space and time, a de-centralized and extensible system. This is just one naive vision—but the mandate is clear. If designers resist consolidating spaces, ownership, and management, our spatial and temporal systems, in all their scale and speed, may yet deliver on the promise of the digital era: atomization for collective value.
Le Corbusier engaged with time as a function of owning the future. He issued a rallying cry, “tomorrow belongs to nobody,” implying a virgin territory whose value was ripe for the taking. A land-grab for the city of tomorrow was won by a privileged few, and its divisive consolidations have only been reinscribed and exacerbated over time. Beneath the veneer of atomization, contemporary space and labour are saturated with Le Corbusier’s aggregative logic; they are nothing new. If indeed the digitalization of our space comes with a shifting locus of power, we now have the opportunity and responsibility to issue a new polemic—tomorrow belongs to everybody!—and to imagine a new architecture of space and time that cuts to the core of our human environment. We must reject the ethos of consolidation as we design dynamic modes of social organization that enable ecstatic movements through time and space and, most fundamentally, generate collective value.
(1) “Call for submissions, Volume 39: Foundations/Disruptions,” The Site Magazine, March 2018, http://www.thesitemagazine.com/past-calls/ (archived call).
(2) Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1948).
(3) Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (Reissue ed. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1929), 85.
(4) Harold Demsetz, “Toward a Theory of Property Rights,” The American Economic Review 57, no. 2 (1967): 347–59.
(5) Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York. A Retroactive Manifiesto for Manhattan (New York, NY: The Monacelli Press, 1994).
(6) Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, 85.
(7) James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Journal of Social History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 98.
(8) Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. (Reprint Ed. New York, NY: Picador, 2010).
(9) Scott, Seeing Like a State, 80.
(10) David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism,” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 71 no. 1 (1989): 3–17.
(11) Margaret Rhodes, “WeWork’s Radical Plan to Remake Real Estate With Code,” Wired Magazine, March 18, 2016, accessed July 15, 2018 https://www.wired.com/2016/03/weworks-radical-plan-remake-real-estate-code/.
(12) Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 20.
(13) Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, 196.
(14) Jill Bamburg, “Mondragon through a Critical Lens.” Fifty by Fifty, October 3, 2017, accessed July 15, 2018. https://medium.com/fifty-by-fifty/mondragon-through-a-critical-lens-b29de8c6049 .
(15) Margaret Engel, Lauren Peek, Ryan Colucci, “2018 Proxy Season: Early Trends in Pay Ratio Disclosure.” Harvard Law Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, April 4, 2018, accessed July 15, 2018. https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2018/04/04/2018-proxy-season-early-trends-in-pay-ratio-disclosure/.
(16) Indy Johar, “A Small World Future: From Start-Ups to System Change, ” TEDxBrum, Birmingham, UK, video, accessed July 15, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEAPkjPABEc&feature=youtu.be .
Matthew Claudel is a designer, researcher and writer focused on the opportunities and challenges of urban innovation. Matthew has been published widely in the fields of architecture, spatial scientometrics, technology, and art, and co-authored two books: Open Source Architecture and The City of Tomorrow. Matthew has given a Talk@ Google, taught at the Politecnico di Torino e Milano, lectured at the Harvard Business school, and was featured in the BBC Future series. His interests span from business—he is a World Economic Forum ‘Global Shaper’—to art—as an active protagonist of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s 89plus. He serves on the jury for Canada’s federal Smart City Challenge, and is a strategic advisor to Future Cities Canada and the McConnell Foundation’s “Cities for People” initiative. Matthew is co-affiliated between the MIT Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the MIT Lab for Innovation Science & Policy for his PhD, and is on the leadership team of DesignX, a new initiative in the MIT School of Architecture + Planning that accelerates design-innovation for the built environment. He studied architecture at Yale, where he received the Sudler Prize, the highest award for creative arts.