On 03.16.15 the Center for Architecture hosted Keller Easterling, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, to discuss her latest book, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. As attendees walked into the Center’s lecture hall, Easterling projected a dramatic flyover of a glittering city of fiber-optic optimization with diamond- and dolphin-shaped buildings. In a continuous loop, the animation showed urban space and order, form and function – but it was scary. Was the audience to think it was so bad it was cool? Is Easterling intimating that there was an aesthetic to embrace? Was it offered up as something to correct or something to embrace? Is she a pro-Matrix (as in the movie franchise) Denise Scott Brown? Easterling’s delivery is journalistic in tone but disconcertingly optimistic. Her balletic cadence was compelling, and drifted in and out of preacher-like caution against neoliberalism and a gamer’s excitement of this new realm of nongovernmental parameters and freedoms.
Easterling’s language is dense, elegant, and finely crafted, but the book holds paragraph after paragraph of corporate acronyms and initialisms which make for weary reading. Ironically, she cites this initialized and anemic language as a symptom of the over-quality control of the Free Trade cities she portrays. I worry that this language fits too nicely into dense academic jargon; the line between the academic and the corporate is thin. I attempted to make my own crib sheet for major quasi-corporate players, but should a coping devise really be necessary?
The most vivid spaces that Easterling interrogates are a series of international “zones” derived from ancient port towns. She walks us through the developing, amorphous landscape of container trade and easy transport locations. These zones were originally intended to jump-start economies as temporary landscapes, and now present us with a new urban model. The existence of the “zone” is a mash-up of fuzzy laws, restrictions, and deregulations, or “freedoms,” that Easterling cites as a form of neo-liberalism. Fascinating stuff. One of her greatest achievements in the book is a clear definition of the advent of urbanistic liberalism. She quotes Winston Churchill’s “Socialism exalts the rule; Liberalism exalts the man.” She then walks the reader into the again scary realm of neo-liberalism, where economic freedom and authoritarianism dance together.
In the vast chapter on Quality, Easterling explains the intricacies of the ISO – International Organization for Standardization. She refers to it as a “parliament of extrastatecraft.” ISO is intended to help organizations adhere to a “uniform built environment,” but it is not a government agency. In this chapter, she illustrates how a desire for consistency in a corporate structure can lead to a series of abstract non-conventions. At one point she slyly cites the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards as a questionable checklist that mimics the “bureaucratic jargon” of the ISO, and borders on a tool for environmental placation rather than action.
In the end, I needed more 20th-century imagery to get through the abstraction of Zones, Dispositions, and Broadband. Easterling’s use of Mark Twain’s description of the Mississippi River as a knowable, but not a controllable, space was an oasis to cling to when looking at urban space that is derived from undersea cables and cellphone connectivity. The model of the city of Savannah was a blessing. It was a provocative, deeply interesting idea to propose that, like Savannah, urban places be designed via reduction. This subversive idea that urban conditions and urban progress might not always derive from growth, but from subtraction, is a dynamic challenge to all who work in the built environment.
Walking the reader through models of new activism is healthy for design readers, but not new. Her typologies of Pandas and Exaggerated Compliance were elegantly used during the Civil Rights movement, as well as Ai Wei Wei’s recent polite protest over his police arrests.
By bringing forward this idea of infrastructure space, Easterling describes the mechanics of Extrastatecraft, the term she coins as an umbrella for anything from the physical “Zone” to the intangible “Disposition.” With this word, she shows us a fertile, almost novelistic, imagination. But what is our place as makers of cities? My hope is that Easterling has provided a guidebook, a call to arms to tackle these prevalent spaces in an unorthodox manner, to hack, to double, to comply, in order to codify and harness the potential of Extrastatecraft.
Event: Oculus Book Talk: Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.16.15
Speakers: Keller Easterling, Professor, Yale School of Architecture, and Author, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space; and Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY and Center for Architecture (introduction)
Organizer: AIANY Oculus Committee
Oculus Book Seller: McNally Jackson Books