network culture

Post-Planetary Capital Symposium

I'm delighted to be speaking at Ed Keller and Ben Woodard's symposium "Post-Planetary Capital" at the New School's Center for Transformative Media today. My own talk is titled "A Mote in God’s Eye: 
Eternal Recurrence and 
the Post-Capitalist Post-Planetary." So what in the heavens is that about (sorry!)? I'll be using a discussion of asteroid mining, private space colonization, and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's "A Mote in God's Eye" to develop my arguments about the relationship between capital and complexity.  

On the Invasion of the Ukraine

Just because I study the Internet doesn't mean I don't think it's full of idiocy. Take for example the widespread NOAA map showing radiation spreading across the Pacific from Fukushima. Pity that it's not representing radiation but rather the height of waves produced by tsunamis. Alas, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is no different, as a perusal of recent tweets on the matter say.

I won't dignify the inanity by actually quoting these tweets but some of these just blew my mind, like the one that suggested the invasion is created by the press to distract from ongoing negotiations over the Tran-Pacific Partnership Treaty.

The fact of the matter is that this is the biggest political crisis the world has faced since the fall of the Soviet Union and is extremely unlikely to turn out as well as that did. 
Quite obviously, the sovereignty of a nation is under attack. The pretext is a familiar Russian script: "ethnic Russians are under duress." Why are they under duress? Because the puppet regime that Putin installed in the Ukraine and that bankrupted the state fell? If they are under duress, where are the crowds on the streets welcoming them? Where is the footage of the duress they are facing, so easily made in our networked day?
For centuries Russia has been a belligerent neighbor, seeking to expand its territory at a given opportunity. Its leadership understands this plays well at home and, with the success of Sochi behind him, Putin has decided to go for the gold and demonstrate how no one can touch him. 
Thus far, US President Obama's statements suggest that he thinks of this largely as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing" and is not considering military options. More sensibly, Lithuania and Latvia have invoked Article 4 of NATO. Militarily unchallenged, Putin's invasion of the Ukraine will not cease with Crimea and, if still unchallenged, will bolster his desire to rebuild "Greater Russia." 
Not only is there a threat against a host of countries such as the Baltic States, of which I am a card-carrying member, there is another threat than anyone should consider. Those of us old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union also remember that there were joint calls for the Ukraine to rid itself of its nuclear weapons. The Ukraine did so in return for a treaty that guaranteed its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the last few days that has been undone. So now, put yourself in the shoes of countries that can have—or will have—nuclear weapons and really shouldn't have them, countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan? Or Israel? If faced with pleas to eliminate their nuclear weapons in exchange for territorial security, just how will they react in the future? 
Obama is already going down in history as an exceptionally weak President, his only saving grace being that he isn't an outright catastrophe like his predecessor and foreign policy has been a particularly weak point (not that domestic economic policy or his handling of national healthcare were strong points). How he handles the biggest challenge his administration has yet faced may well define how his presidency is remembered. 

Architecture, Network Culture + Minecraft

It's my great honor to be speaking at Taliesin West today, 27 February at 7pm in Scottsdale, Arizona. My lecture will be about network culture, my work with the Netlab, and my kids' constructions in Minecraft). 

Against Passwords

Yet again there is a massive data breach. Yet again passwords are stolen. This time from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Yet again we will be told our passwords will have to have more funny characters in them, yet again we will be forced to change them.

I'm obviously in an against mood today, but this time I'll be blunt.

The idiots at these corporations who order such measures do little more than play at security theater. Isn't the idea of a password supposed to be that it's secret? That it's in your head?

But when I have to write passwords like


Just what unearthly being is supposed to remember that? Nobody I've ever met can. We keep our passwords in pieces of paper, folded up neatly next to the computer, just stick post it notes to the walls of our office, or just keep them in one massive file on our drives. This violates the whole idea of passwords and turns them into, yes, security theater. 

One day biometric fingerprint sensors like the one found on the iPhone 5S will take over with all the loss of privacy they will bring (how will you use one to log into a Bitcoin account for example?), but until then we'll have to deal with password security theater. Just be sure that it's nothing but that. The hacks will continue and the measures will get more and more stupid. Thank you, tech.


@ the Amber Festival, Istanbul

Greetings from Istanbul, where I will be speaking today on "Control and Identity in the Algorithmic Landscape" at 3pm in the Amber Art and Technology Festival in a panel ominously called "Urban Media: Quo Vadis?" with Martjin De Waal moderated by Martin Brynskov. See here for a little more. 

Syllabus for Network Culture. The History of the Contemporary

Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

A4515: Network Culture. The History of the Contemporary  Fall 2013

Professor                                Kazys Varnelis

The purpose of this seminar is to come to an advanced historical understanding of the changed conditions that characterize our networked age. As a history of the contemporary, the seminar is organized around a series of topics tracing a genealogy of present-day culture, focusing on the network not merely as a technology with social ramifications but rather as a cultural dominant that connects changes in society, economy, aesthetics, urbanism, and ideology. It's a primary thesis of this course that the network is not an innocent technology but rather a social construction that serves to naturalize and exacerbate uneven growth and the distribution of power.

Topics to be addressed include network theory, changing concepts of time and space, the rise of networked publics, contemporary poetics, new forms of subjectivity, and methods of control. Throughout, we will make connections between architecture, urbanism and this insurgent condition.

The theme for fall 2013 is Uneven Growth and responds to a MoMA exhibition that will open in October 2014. Students will be welcome to participate in the workshop at MoMA leading to the exhibition and are encouraged to pursue the topic of Uneven Growth in networks in their research projects.

RequirementsParticipation: 20%

Each class will consist of a presentation by the instructor on selected themes, followed by an in-depth discussion in seminar. Students are expected to prepare all readings in order to facilitate a discussion in which all students participate. Active participation by all students in each session is required. 

Tumblr: 20%

Each student is expected to maintain a tumblelog on and to post at least twice a week. Beyond mere reblogging of information pertinent to the course, the tumblelog will form a record and commentary upon their research during the semester.

Research Project: 60%

For a research project, students have an option of either undertaking a curatorial project or an essay. Either is due on Monday, December 16.

The curatorial project will explore the topic of uneven growth in networks. The Netlab’s specific focus in this exhibit is research on the future of uneven growth in Hong Kong but students are encouraged to explore uneven growth as a constituent of networks.

Both design and scholarship are integral to the term project, which should take the form of an exhibit catalog as might be found in a museum. A carefully curated and designed book will be accompanied a 2,000 word essay (roughly 10 pages double spaced, 12 points) on the curated material. If students choose to write an essay, they should turn in an essay of roughly 4,000 words (roughly 20 pages double spaced, 12 points).

Plagiarism of any sort will result in immediate failure.


All readings will be available on-line.






An Overview of Networks

Manuel Castells, “Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint. In Castells, ed. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2004), 3-45.

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” Negotiations, 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 177-182.

Charlie Gere, “The Beginnings of Digital Culture,” Digital Culture (London: Reaktion, 2008), 21-50.

Optional: Kazys Varnelis, “Conclusion: The Meaning of Network Culture,” Networked Publics, 145-163.



Network Theory

Albert-László Barabási, “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Small Worlds,” and “Hubs and Connectors,” Linked: The New Science of Networks (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002), 25-63.

Nicholas Carr, “From the Many to the Few” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 127-149.

Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired, October 2004,

Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality,” Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet.


Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78 (May 1973), 1360-1380.

Duncan J. Watts, “The Connected Age,” Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 19-42.




Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,”

Saskia Sassen, “Electronic space and power,” Journal of Urban Technology 4 (1997): 1-17.

Alexander R. Galloway, “Physical Media,” Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 29-53.


Saskia Sassen, “On Concentration and Centrality in the Global City,” Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor, eds., World Cities in a World-System (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 63-78.

Stephen Graham, “Communication Grids: Cities and Infrastructure,” in Saskia Sassen, Global Networks. Linked Cities (London: Routledge, 2002), 71-92.

Kevin Phillips, “Preface,” “Introduction. The Panic of August,” “Finance: The New Real Economy?” Bad Money. (New York: Penguin, 2009), xi-lxxiv and 1-68.



Postmodernism and Periodization

David Harvey, “Fordism” and “From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation,” in The Condition of Postmodernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989), 125-172.

Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146  (July/August 1984): 53-92.

Jeffrey Nealon, “Once More, With Intensity, Foucault’s History of Power Revisited,” Foucault Beyond Foucault, 24-53.


Hal Foster, “Postmodernism: A Preface,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), ix-xvi.

Jean François Lyotard, “introduction” “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984), xxiii-xxv, 71-82.





Jean Baudrillard, “The End of the Millennium or the Countdown,” Economy & Society 26 (1997): 447-55.

Bruce Sterling, “Atemporality for the Creative Artist,”


optional: Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis, “Personal Lubricants. Shell Oil and Scenario Planning,” New Geographies 02(2010), 127-132





Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 135-156.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Capitalist Sovereignty, Or Administering the Global Society of Control,” Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 325-350.

Marc Augé, “Prologue” and “From Places to Non-Places,” in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (London; New York: Verso, 1995), 1-6. 75-115.

Hans Ibelings, “Supermodernism,” Supermodernism (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 1998), 55-102.

George Simmel, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” Donald N. Levine, ed. Simmel: On individuality and social forms, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971), 324-339.


Kazys Varnelis and Marc Tuters, “Beyond Locative Media: Giving Shape to the Internet of Things,” Leonardo 39, No. 4 (2006): 357–363.




Uneven Growth Workshop, MoMA






Kenneth J. Gergen,“Social Saturation and the Populated Self,” The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 48-80.

Brian Holmes, “The Flexible Personality. For a New Cultural Critique,” Transversal,

Jeffrey Nealon, “Once More, With Intensity, Foucault’s History of Power Revisited,” Foucault Beyond Foucault, 24-53.

Warren Neidich, “From Noopower to Neuropower: How Mind Becomes Matter,” Cognitive Architecture:From Bio-politics to Noo-politics; Architecture & Mind in the Age of Communication and Information(Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2010), 538-581.





Yochai Benkler, “Chapter 1. Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge” and “Chapter 4. The Economics of Social Production,” The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 1-28 and 91-127.

Bill Wausik, “My Crowd. Or Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2006), 56-66.

Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 1-77.


Selections from Michael J. Weiss, The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means About Who We Are (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1999).





Geert Lovink, “Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse,” Eurozine (2007),

Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002), 7-48.

Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), excerpts.

Jordan Crandall, “Showing,”





Joseph A .Tainter, “Introduction to Collapse,” The Collapse of Complex Societies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1-21.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1977), 13-32.

Charles Perrow, “Normal Accident at Three Mile Island.” Society 18, no. 5 (1981): 17–26.




Thanksgiving Break / No Class


Networked Publics, or Pareto's Revenge

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Penn Humanities Forum in a symposium on cores ande peripheries. I enjoyed myself tremendously. It was a welcome opportunity to have an opportunity to expand my work on networked publics and network culture, especially with such a great synergy between speakers, responders, and audience. I gave two talks, first a position statement and second, a talk on how power configures itself in networked publics.

I've uploaded the second talk to Vimeo and am including the text here. I don't have video for the first talk, but I will upload the text soon.


Networked Publics or Pareto's Revenge from Kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.


In this talk I want to explore how core and periphery might appear in networks and how they are networks reconfigure their structural conditions. 

During the last two decades, networks have become our dominant cultural logic. The Internet and mobile telecommunications devices have revolutionized our lives by connecting us in new ways, but more than that, in a book length study of network culture that I am slowly picking away at, I want to suggest that there has also been a mutation that produces this condition and that this condition is no longer simply postmodernity. 

Now I’m not suggesting technological determinism. On the contrary, it is the widespread technological determinism in society today that serves as evidence of network culture as a distinct period. Contrast the widely held techno-utopianism today with the technological pessimism of postmodernism. As late as the early 1990s, historian of science Leo Marx would declare “‘Technological pessimism’ may be a novel term, but most of us seem to understand what it means. It surely refers to that sense of disappointment, anxiety, even menace, that the idea of ‘technology’ arouses in many people these days.”

Even with the addled sense of overload that too much e-mail, too many SMS messages, too much Twitter, and too much of everything gives us, these voices are fewer and farther between than they were in the 1980s. We see Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr as Cassandras, not as leaders of some kind of neo-luddite movement. In contrast, oppositional movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring not only rely on the familiar technology of smart phones, Web sites, and Twitter but also use distributed networks as models for organization. RAND researchers John Arquila and David Ronfeldt refer to new insurgency movements as “Netwars.” They write that “Strong netwar actors will have not only organizational, but also doctrinal, technological, and social layers that emphasize network designs. Netwar actors may make heavy use of cyberspace, but that is not their defining characteristic—they subsist and operate in areas beyond it.”

So, too, commonplace menaces like Peak Oil and Global Warming are commonly shrugged off as being solvable with technological fixes. 

The network, meanwhile, seems everywhere, spreading far beyond technology, “everting,” turning inside out, as William Gibson suggests in Spook Country. Whether we take neoliberal affirmations of globalization, post-Marxist network collectives, educational institutions, or analytical models of organization in sociology, the network has replaced both the formless mass and the hierarchical tree as our model of collectivity. It has been two decades since Manuel Castells dubbed our social order “the network society.”

The network is the cultural dominant of our time, much as the machine was for the modern era. Like the machine, the network is a technology, and in this, our time shares a return to the modern obsession with technological change. 

In this talk, I want to focus on “networked publics,” a term that I wound up working with as a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication in the 2005-2006 academic year after a semester here at Penn. I want to pose the question of what sort of logics of hierarchy emerge within networks and how do these give form to the public, that meeting ground in which we come together to observe and discuss culture, politics, and other matters of common concern? 

Let’s start with culture since it is key to the public. In Ancients and Moderns Joan DeJean shows  that those debates on cultural matters in the seventeenth century were the theater in which a modern idea of the public first emerged.

 The cultural, of course, is the political; the stakes were high for Boileau and Perrault, no question And what of the decline of the public sphere or rather its metamorphosis into mass media and the development of the mass? Habermas descries the mass media as commodified, “a public sphere in appearance only,” its mission being to encourage consumption.

 But we should remember another meaning to the mass, which is that of a certain Utopic strain of modernity, that strain that can’t help but call forth an absolutist argument, be it Lissitzky, Corbusier, or Eisenstein. There is no alternate viewpoint to be entertained, no debate to be had, only Agitprop for the avant-garde that advocated a universalizing instrumental rationality. 

Postmodernity not only did not return a public sphere, it broke up the mass. After all, postmodernity and postmodernism were defined by the thorough triumph of the culture industry, with postmodernism in Jameson’s words, “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” But with this too, came the fragmenting of mass media in response to the shift from manufacturing to the service industry in postmodernity and the culture industry’s need to expand its market by directly targeting consumer groups.  

But if the rise of the culture industry is a constituent of postmodernity, during the last decade we have witnessed a stunning reversal. Culture has had tricks up its sleeve to foil the market, networked tricks. Just as its triumph seemed complete, the culture industry faced an unprecedented crisis of value. During the last decade, the free availability of information on the Internet has undone entire media ecologies. Just when it seemed to be defeated by commodification, culture decided to fight back and shrug it off. In part, consumers—particularly young consumers—have proven that they have little allegiance to the culture industry’s ideas of ownership, and are glad to pirate what they can. But even when the means are legal, consumers seek to optimize their spending on culture, throwing the media into crisis. That new media corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, and Mog are eager to help in the “creative destruction” only makes this more so. 

More than this though, relationships of producers to consumers have changed fundamentally, even from postmodernism. If Habermas described the privatization of the salon from public to private, now matters are reversed. No longer is the individual’s opinion restricted to the living room, rather they can give vent to their reactions across the Internet

Network culture, then is the age of networked publics. Networked publics are groups of individuals who congregate around issues and media that they share an interest in, regardless of their location. Networked publics do not merely receive information, they communicate bottom-to-top-and side-to-side, sharing opinions, reworking, and redistributing information. In this, networked publics have not only utilized but also greatly shaped the technological platforms that constitute media culture today. Think not of comments on newspaper articles, forums about television shows, YouTube, academic listservs and on and on. 

Networked publics do not, however, coalesce. There is no place in which we come together, no new public sphere. I’d like to point out that Habermas talks a great deal about architecture in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and in that respect, I’d like to draw an analogy with physical space. In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop tries to account for how we have seemingly given up any notion of the public sphere for and wound up with a paradoxical country that is remarkably divided. Bishop argues that politics has become subject to a consumption mentality and we choose the places we want to live based on the presence of individuals who think like we do. Bishop: “For companies, there weren't mass markets any longer, only individual consumers to be targeted and then supplied with just the product they wanted. The country sorted into separate groupings of lifestyle and belief. We left behind a country that was striving to be whole in 1965, with the passage of civil rights laws and universal health care coverage for the elderly, and we began to sequester ourselves into tribes of like beliefs, images, neighborhoods, and markets.”

 We can see this sort of segmentation in, for example, the clusters that geodemographic marketing firm Claritas produces. Utilizing data like this, politicians tune their messages to generate the most votes. Now networked publics do link individuals across political boundaries, but the basic problem remains, you dig yourself deeper. 

So networked publics seem to be a set of peripheries that can’t coalesce. But there’s more to it than that and the rest of my talk will address networks themselves. We’ve seen the diagram of distributed networks, but if the nodes in a network are allowed to make their own link, something curious happens. Some nodes will connected more to others. Some of those highly-connected nodes will get even more connections. The result is the emergence of “hubs” that will have vastly more connections than other nodes. Take for example the Web site for this conference and compare it to Google.

Media theorist Clay Shirky has suggested observed that in the case of blogs, what is called a “scale-free” network developed naturally, leading to the disproportionate favoring of certain sites. Shirky: “This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

 As network theory shows, Shirky argues, this is absolutely natural: “Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable.” Shirky suggests that although this might one day be a problem, for now we can content ourselves with knowing that this is a natural property of the network. Fair enough, I suppose but if we see the network as a model for society, then we know that this is going to lead straight into neoliberalism and into the creation of a new set of cores and peripheries, network style. 

More than that, former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that if we look at media consumption as a scale-free network, then the low section of the graph, or the Long Tail, is particularly rich. Anderson observes that aggregators such as Amazon or iTunes make as much money or more from the Long Tail in their libraries as they do from the hits oat the top. Artists in the Long Tail, Anderson suggests, can make decent livings from a dedicated community of fans, a networked public that revolving around them.

 Curiously, what happens is an evisceration of the middle. We all share knowledge of the big hits, but the middle is now obscured. We have networked publics—our love of Kung Fu movies or noise music or shoegaze—but will we ever meet except at the most basic big hit level?

But ultimately my point, to get back to what I was speaking about this morning is this. There is a power rippling through networked publics and that power is neoliberalism. For the network naturalizes its propensity toward creating ever-greater GINI coefficients. I want to finish by pointing to one particular origin of network theory that also gives rise to my talk’s title. The scale-free network in which 80% of the hits are taken by 20% of the nodes was first formulated by sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto, active in Italy in the first part of the last century. He came to this insight when he sought to explain the development of power in societies. Pareto himself believed that such scale-free networks were just. A ruling class, he argued, would always emerge. In writings that appealed to Mussolini and the fascists, he suggested that since this was the natural order of things, the state should simply get out of the way, allowing the natural social law to maintain itself. 

If recent apologists for Pareto have suggested that had he not died within a year of the Fascist assumption of power, he would have turned against it, it seems to me that our network culture might have been more acceptable to him. For networks may not seem to have cores and peripheries, but make no mistake, they give rise to power structures no less intractable. 

Tract Homes and Starchitecure


It still strikes me that we haven't made the right links between the housing bubble and starchitecture. If much of the world is economically devastated, high-end architects and developers in global cities find their offices thriving. If starchitecture has pulled back a little, its perhaps in name only as the boom seems to continue, having missed only a beat or two.  

If the self-congratulating promoters of the creative city may pat themselves on the back these days about the failure of vast swaths of tract homes, they still fail to understand that the products of Toll Brothers and the products of Richard Meier Associates are the results of the same economic mutation.

I think we can all agree that there is an obvious relationship between the ill-fated real estate bubble of the 2000s and the new products for real-estate consumers developed and popularized at the time such as interest-only mortgages, balloon payments, subprime mortgages, and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) as well as complimentary instruments for financial investment such as mortgage-backed securities and the credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that backed those securities. The creative innovation that brought us these financial instruments is the highest form of production in the global city, at least from an economic perspective. If the creative class that produced and marketed these instruments worldwide lived in the towers made by starchitects, the relationship also goes deeper than that.  

Tract homes and designer apartment buildings were two sides of the same radical speculation, both precarious constructions of finance, carefully targeted to the appropriate demographic. The endless proliferation of tract home sameness found an echo in the ceaseless production of unprecedented formal innovations. If the latter aimed to always be new and photogenic, such works were not so much the products of polemical statements about architecture as they were of assembly lines capable of endless stylistic variations. Typically utilizing the most advanced computer-aided design and construction technologies available, such work cements a conception of architecture not as a series of enduring monuments but rather as part of a consumer fashion cycle.         

The difference between the repetition of the same and the repetition of the different is not so much an abstract notion of quality as a question of finance and motivation. The tract house was marketed as both a place for a family to dwell and as a lucrative but safe investment, an interchangeable commodity that could be exchanged at will for an ever-greater price. Its ubiquity was assured by the therapeutic figure of the realtor and the process of staging the interior to substitute traces of the unique with the universal. In turn, the high-end residential apartment was billed as a theatrical pied-à-terre, a temporary residence aimed less at existing city populaces than at individuals from abroad seeking to cement their identities as members of a global elite. They sought to join this society while diversifying their real estate investments internationally to hedge against any localized collapse in property values.

Developers of starchitect-designed properties targeted that demographic of the global elite already interested in investing in the art market or owning works of reputed cultural significance. In this, it is instructive to compare the branding of starchitect-designed apartment buildings with how Donald Trump-branded apartment buildings targeted at a market-segment interested in associating itself with more conventional ideas of celebrity and with conventional amenities such as interior waterfalls, high end French restaurants and billiards rooms. Whatever name a luxury building was branded with, be it Herzog and de Meuron or Donald Trump, the deeper pockets possessed by purchasers ensured that after the global downturn in real estate, the market would remain liquid and prices wouldn’t collapse the way they did for suburban tract homes.  

It's really the Pareto priniciple at work. After the collapse, the overproduction of real estate worldwide only served to cement the value of the core of global cities as what David Harvey has called a spatial fix for capital, thus demonstrating its value even further. In other words, it all worked out very nicely for everyone holding the cards, didn't it?  

Peepers, Flashers, and Other Law Breakers


The Netlab explores architecture, networks, privacy, voyeurism, and exposure on Monday, February 11, 2013 6:30pm in Columbia University's Wood Auditorium.

Since the Enlightenment, both architecture and the law have provided parallel and often complimentary definitions of the public and private. Under network culture, however, walls have a new permeability and laws have a new instability. Amidst all this, our own perception of what constitutes private life is changing with our use of online social networks.
Leaders in architecture, digital media, and the law take on this rapidly changing landscape in a wide-ranging conversation on privacy, self-exposure, and space.
Beatriz Colomina,  Princeton University SOA
Eric Höweler, Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Helen Nissenbaum, NYU Information Law Institute
Mark Shepard, University of Buffalo
Kazys Varnelis, Columbia University GSAPP

Studio 2013: Building Megalopolis


Extreme Cities: Building Megalopolis

Spring 2013
Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Network Architecture Lab

Instructor:              Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Associate:             Leigha Dennis

This studio is part of the Extreme Cities collaboration between the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and Audi AG. Not merely content with the extra-large, our aims are the extreme future, the megalopolis, and the megaform.

Developed out of the Experiments in Motion program, Extreme Cities begins with the observation that cities will intensify considerably during the next fifty years. Instead of the usual mindset seeing the growth of global cities as an overwhelming set of seemingly unmanageable problems, this project sets out to take this intensification to an extreme. In doing so, we will interrogate both the past and the distant future, with the aim of having students envision unprecedented building types for the year 2063.

The studio’s site is the world’s first megalopolis, BOSWASH. In his 1961 book Megalopolis; the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottmann identified this territory as an unending conurbation of cities, satellites, and suburbs stretching from Boston to Washington D.C., For Gottmann, the megalopolis is “the cradle of a new order in the organization of inhabited spaces,” a territory in which any distinction of city and country is gone, but also a territory that is dominantly suburban.[1] Dubbing the area BOSWASH in his 1967 book the Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years, scenario planner Herman Kahn predicted that the area would reach a population of 80 million by the year 2000, up from 37 million in 1960. Kahn’s term stuck but his prediction was mistaken, missing the massive migration of population to the South and West, and a warning sign to us that prediction is a dangerous business. Architecture studio, of course, is dangerous business.

Thus, if BOSWASH is our physical site, the studio’s temporal site is in both the past and the future. We aim to go back fifty years into the past, to the era of Gottmann and Kahn, as well as fifty years into the future, to a time when current GSAPP students will reach an age traditionally considered as elderly. Doing so will unsettle our conceptions about architecture and cities, allowing us to think beyond the atemporality of contemporary culture and the limitations of contemporary thought.

Semester Plan

We will begin the semester with a historical research project into the development of BOSWASH.

Our premise is that the fifteen years between 1961 and 1976, traditionally seen as an era of decline were in fact a rich time in terms of thinking about the future of cities and particularly so in BOSWASH. In addition to Gottmann’s work, the research of BOSWASH-based scholars and designers such as Jane Jacobs, Herbert Gans, Kevin Lynch, Venturi-Scott-Brown, Stanley Milgram, William H. Whyte, Paul Rudolph, Kevin Roche, Robert Smithson, and Gordon-Matta Clark proved critical to establishing new thinking about the city. We start off with a survey of both, producing a timeline of the megalopolis and also a dictionary of urban qualities.

For our survey, we will take repeated forays into the nearby areas of BOSWASH, visiting the Empire State Plaza in Albany (one of America’s largest megastructures and an attempt to create a link to BOSWASH that is generally considered to have failed), Union Carbide Headquarters in Danbury, and take repeated forays into New York City. Our goal is to investigate architectural interventions that reflect specific qualities of the city, engage in the region, and anticipate a future, particularly those that Kenneth Frampton has identified as megaforms, an architectural genre of massive sprawling horizontality that he sees as native to the megalopolis.[2]

During the first half of the semester, each student will examine one project in this region and timeframe in extreme depth and identify the governing urban quality in it. If the Ford Foundation exemplifies generosity, which projects demonstrate mobility, asymmetry, complexity, or cosmopolitanism?

Students will be required to produce two well-developed drawings of publication-level quality that address the architectural project through project-specific analyses. Some projects may have remarkable circulation and crowd patterns, space planning, environmental systems, etc. These drawings should be produced over time, developing throughout the first half of the semester, as more information is unearthed and will be simultaneously oversaturated with information and rigorous restrained (in other words, you will find out so much utterly amazing information that even though you will only add the information you cannot resist adding, there will be a lot of it). Students should look to the representational techniques that their projects’ architects and others produced for inspiration. Grand exterior axonometric drawings, intricate multi-layered plans and analog data visualizations will become common tools for representing projects of the megalopolis.

Accompanying this, students will collect a dossier of information on the single urban quality embodied within their project. Using photography and film, they will capture evidence of this quality within the present day city. Students will situate this data in the form of a timeline that examines the temporal dimensions of their quality and its architectural, urban and social implications.

This historical research will act as the basis for the second half of the studio in which students will extrapolate a new building type. This time, projecting fifty years into the future, students will produce a new architecture typology that reflects and aids the changing characteristics of the radically intensified megalopolis of 2063. These future projects must have a timeline of their own, and should demonstrate a nonlinear intensification of multiple urban conditions while embracing one urban quality.


Course Blog

Students will be expected to maintain and post regularly to a shared course Tumblr blog of their research and design progress. All student work will be posted online tagged by student name (firstname-lastname).


Students will work with roving engineers from ARUP during the semester to address the structural and environmental systems in their designs. Even the most speculative of projects can benefit from the advice of these experts.


Ultra-realistic perspective and Photoshop-based montages are banned in this studio. We propose that this sort of representation is inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present the eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer.[3] Evacuated of any critical intent, such work only cements the false notion that modern technology has made communication transparent.

But more than that, if all architects produce a form of science fiction, then to paraphrase William Gibson, we need to remember that as we construct futures, all we have at our disposal is the moment that we are currently living in.[4] The moment we construct a future it starts to age rapidly. Since the crash, along with the development of technologies that were formerly consigned to an endlessly deferred proximate future such as near-universal wireless Internet, locative media, tablet computing, and touchscreen interfaces, it seems that we have exhausted the era of the next new thing, of rapid technological and cultural development and obsolescence.

Thus, envisioning the future through architecture forces us to follow Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “all media is dead media,” to understand that appropriate representational strategies that might resist capitalist realist representations might emerge out of a new understanding of what Gibson calls a “long now,” a temporally stretched condition out of which we can freely recombine material and representational motifs.[5]

We will look at forms of representation immanent to our topic at hand, both the means of representation that architects and others working on these and similar projects would have used, but also the other means of representation of the day, e.g. schedules, traffic engineering plans, flowcharts, exploded axonometrics, and so on. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand how to think and represent visually.

Precise, unshaded hidden line drawings, plan, section, elevation, and axonometric form the basis for this studio.


20% Attendance and Participation

Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. By this we mean that students should be in studio at least from 2 to 6 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays unless they have made other arrangements or are conducting research. Please let us know in advance. In no case will we meet with students who arrive after 4pm on that day unless they have prearranged the late arrival with us or there are mitigating circumstances.

Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.

Students are expected to be at pin-ups and reviews on time with work ready to present. Students who are not ready at the beginning of the pin-up or review forfeit the right to receive criticism. Students are expected to contribute to pin-ups and reviews, both in terms of criticism and questions as well as by working in a team to ensure that rooms are ready to present in (adequate chairs, projectors, and so on).

40% Concept

Students will be graded on the originality and rigor of their concepts. All students need a coherent thesis in this studio.

Columbia teaches in English. There is help available for difficulties with the English language in the university, but lack of understanding is not an excuse.

40% Execution and Presentation

A good concept means little if it is poorly executed or presented. Presentation and execution are not trivial, nor are they mere “polish,” rather the choices made in presentation and execution should inform, and be informed by, the concept.

Students are expected to render and present their work clearly, succinctly, and elegantly.

Work should be thoroughly and completely represented.

A Brief Bibliography of Books regarding Design and Presentation


Elam, Kimberley. Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.

Hurlburt, Allen. The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books. New York: Van Norstand Reinhold, 1978.

Jardí, Enric Twenty-Tips on Typography (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2007).

Muller-Brockmann, Josef. Grid Systems in Graphic Design. Zurich: Niggli, 2001.

Samar, Timothy. Making and Breaking the Grid. A Graphic Design Layout Workshop (Beverly, MA: Rockport, 2002).

The Grid System,

Tomato,Bareback: A Tomato Project (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press,1999).



Preliminary Bibliography


Abalos, Iñaki, and Juan Herreros. Tower and Office: From Modernist Theory to Contemporary Practice.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Associates, Archizoom. “No-Stop City. Residential Parkings. Climatic Universal Sistem." Domus 496 (1971): 49-55.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

———. "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown." Economy & Society 26, no. 4 (1997): 447-55.

Bell, Genevieve, and Paul Dourish. "Yesterday's Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing's Dominant Vision." Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11, no. 2 (2007): 133-43.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. (New York: Harcourt, 1968.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Empty Fortress; Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self.  New York: Free Press, 1967.

———. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.  New York: Knopf, 1976.

Brash, Julian. Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City. Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Caillois, Roger. The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader.  Durham N.C: Duke University Press, 2003.

Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity. 2nd ed.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2004.

———. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2010.

———. End of Millennium 2nd ed.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2010.

Clark, T. J. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Crystal, David. English as a Global Language.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Postscript on Control Societies." In Negotiations, 177-82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Eckardt, Wolf von, and Jean Gottmann. The Challenge of Megalopolis; a Graphic Presentation of the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Twentieth Century Fund Report.  New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative.  Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009.

Frampton, Kenneth. Megaform as Urban Landscape, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999.

Flood, Joe. The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City--and Determined the Future of American Cities.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

Foster, John Bellamy. "The Financialization of Capitalism." Monthly Review, April 2007, 1-12.

Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture.  London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Gottmann, Jean. Megalopolis; the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States.  New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961.

———. Megalopolis Revisited: 25 Years Later. Institute for Urban Studies Monograph Series.  College Park, Md.: University of Maryland Institute for Urban Studies, 1987.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989.

———. A Brief History of Neoliberalism.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hatherley, Owen. Militant Modernism.  Winchester: O Books, 2008.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  New York: Random House, 1961.

Johnson, Simon, and James Kwak. 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. La production de l'espace copyright Editions Anthropos 1974, Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991.

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority; an Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

———. The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Addison-Wesley Series in Social Psychology.  Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1977.

Osborn, Frederic J., and Arnold Whittick. The New Towns: The Answer to Megalopolis.  London: L. Hill, 1963.

Patterson, Clayton, Joe Flood, and Alan Moore. Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007.

Pell, Claiborne. Megalopolis Unbound: the Supercity and the Transportation of Tomorrow.  New York: Praeger, 1966.

Phillips, Kevin. Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism.  New York: Viking, 2009.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

———. "Global City 20 Years Later." A+U, February 2011, 10-16.

Scheppe, Wolfgang, Migropolis: Venice: Atlas of a Global Situation.  Ostfildern: Hatje/Cantz, 2009.

Shepard, Mark, ed. Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space.

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Short, John R. Liquid City: Megalopolis and the Contemporary Northeast.  Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2007.

———. Liquid City: Megalopolis and the Contemporary Northeast.  Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2007.

Sky, Alison, and Michelle Stone. Unbuilt America: Forgotten Architecture in the United States from Thomas Jefferson to the Space Age: A Book. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Stern, Robert A. M., David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove. New York 2000: Architecture and Urbanism between the Bicentennial and the Millennium.  New York: Monacelli Press, 2006.

Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial.  New York: Monacelli Press, 1995.

Swatridge, L. A. Problems in the Bosnywash Megalopolis: Pollution, Transportation, Sprawl, Social Problems. Selected Studies in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.

Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1976.

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. New Studies in Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Tomlinson, John. The Culture of Speed. The Coming of Immediacy.  London: Sage, 2007.

Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture.  New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Wigley, Mark. "Network Fever." Grey Room  (2001): 82-122.

Wolf, Peter M., and American Federation of Arts. The Future of the City: New Directions in Urban Planning. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974.





Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961), 9.

[2] Kenneth Frampton, Megaform as Urban Landscape, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999), also available at

[3] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative,  (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).

[4] Scott Thill, “William Gibson Talks Zero History, Paranoia and the Awesome Power of Twitter,” Wired Underwire Blog, posted September 7, 2010,

[5] Alex Galloway, “Cory Arcangel (Beige) and Paper Rad’s The Mario Movie" (2005) Michael Parsons, “Interview: Wired Meets William Gibson,” Wired UK posted October 13, 2010,

Syndicate content