Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Bruce Sterling, Writer

For the second installment in the 2010 Domus interview series, I talked with Bruce Sterling, an American science fiction author, lecturer, and media theorist. Over the course of over three decades of practice, Sterling has established himself as one of the most observant and inventive contemporary writers, launching new conceptual frameworks and coining new terms to describe the mutations of modern life. We talked about the changing status of the city in an increasingly digital world, the global impact of Chinese manufacturing, the need to study the past to imagine the future.

The purpose of this interview series is to try to get a sense of what the future of urban life will be so that architects might get slightly ahead of the curve. In your writing you’ve envisioned possible communities of the future, so to begin could you talk a little about your interest in architecture and how it informs you work?

Well, I’m interested in creative disciplines of all kinds, and I must say that the things that I appreciate most about architecture are things like parametric architecture – computer-generated practice. I’m really more into network culture and this very large transition that has happened through many disciplines – different professions, different nations, different situations. Architects are very expressive about their theories and their ways of approaching the world and I’ve derived a lot of benefits from listening to them.

Speaking of parametrics and computer-generated architecture, one of things that I find interesting about the current technological moment is that it has in a way increased the visibility of computer generation, maybe to the detriment of older, more physical forms of creativity. There was a time, just a few decades ago, when architects could claim to be operating at the forefront of technological and social progress. But it seems that since the digital revolution, as the virtual has come to play a larger and larger role in society and as the evidence of progress has become more closely linked to technologies of that virtual realm, architects have apparently lost their position on the cutting edge – at least in terms of public perception. I’m curious to know how you see this phenomenon.

I think there’s two different problems there: one of them is the actual behavior of the built environment and the other is the profession of architecture. Those two don’t actually map on one another very well. [Laughs] How can I put this?… All of the disciplines live in one another’s laps now, so the idea that you could say, “Well, we architects used to be very high tech and now we don’t seem to be very high tech” is not really true. It’s more like there are aspects of technical performance which are so multi-disciplinary or even post-disciplinary that they can’t be fit into that.

I think that there is some very advanced thinking in architecture and I do not by any means consider them a backward-looking profession. Compared to other professions – like, say, the law or policing or energy companies – architects are actually remarkably savvy. So I wouldn’t dismiss, say, the Norman Foster office. I think this is a very large, very effective group of people who can really change the surface of the planet on a grand scale and they really have very few rivals in their mastery of doing that.

I think that’s true to a large extent, but I also think that due to the high rate of change within businesses and other organizations, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to even find a stable enough condition to enact ambitious, forward-looking – and therefor somewhat risky – architectural projects like you mention.

I think that’s too pessimistic. The difficulties you’re decrying are in many different disciplines. The area in which architecture traditionally works – urban planning, structure building, and so forth – is actually one of the most dynamic we have. The structures of cities are changing very rapidly. If you wander around the planet considering what’s changing on the ground, it’s extremely impressive to see how rapidly they’re transmuting. Now, that may not be worked out through the bureaus of architecture and blessed by architecture critics, but there’s a hell of a lot going on in major metropolises, compared to the situation in national governments, which seem sort of stymied and slow.

Could you provide an example of that? Something you’ve seen recently that impressed you…

I think there’s a lot going on in London that’s pretty remarkable. The texture of urban life [there] is very different. I don’t know if its all the video surveillance or what. Chicago has done of lot of very interesting green stuff that’s changed the texture of urban life. I spend at of time in Turin, Italy. Turin is basically tearing up its city. They have these gigantic urban interventions that are called the Spina, which have been going on for five or six years. Since the Olympics, Turin has been disemboweling and retrofitting that city. I see a lot of things going on in Amsterdam that are of great interest to me – repurposed buildings, the wholesale transmutation of city areas from industrial area to “creative class” areas – old industrial structures just ripped out and replaced with everything from nail clinics and karate studios to web design outfits. It’s amazing: people are living in lofts and factories; factories are turning into retail outlets; retail outlets are being knocked down and replaced.

And people’s behavior on the streets is changing, the way the walk around. The number of people who are talking into cell phones. People’s urban behavior is uncannily different than it was twenty years ago. Just traveling across a town, people don’t ask for directions, they don’t carry maps. They’ve got urban navigation devices in their pockets. They zero in on one another through cell phones. It’s like, “Where are you friend?” “Oh, I’m over here.” “Well that’s only three blocks away. You walk one block and then you come over here” “Sorry, friend I still can’t see you” “Well, let me look at the window.” “Oh I see you I’ll come right over.” Right? That’s super weird human behavior. It just was not like that before. And I don’t know if that’s architecture; you could dignify that with the term urban informatics. But the city is very different than it used to be, and getting more different faster.

Do you think that’s a phenomenon that’s limited to the developed or post-industrial world or do you consider it a template that you’re going to see enacted in different ways everywhere?

I think it’s about big towns. It doesn’t really matter if you’re in Brasilia or Shanghai or Moscow or Johannesburg. As long as you’ve got the hardware it’s pretty much the same schtick. They all take on different regional characteristics; don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we’re all turning into Des Moines [Iowa] here. But I think there is something going on in these densely-packed and densely-networked urban areas that’s really without precedent.

One thing that I think relates and that I’m curious to discuss with you is “Favela Chic” and “Gothic Hi Tech”, two terms that you introduced last year to describe what you see as the direction of urban life. To start, could explain those concepts?

I like to try to rephrase it every time that I move this thing out, because I see these as cultural sensibilities. For me they’re symbolic: the image of the favela – the cheery, ramshackle slum of the future – and then the gothic decay of the analog past. I was just explaining these things to an audience of scientists and I find that most practitioners, at this cultural moment, have some kind of Gothic Hi Tech element and some kind of Favela Chic element, because we’re in the middle of this huge technical transition.

So, for architects, Gothic Hi Tech would be the analog structures of the past. You no longer know how to build them; it’s the built environment that’s in the way. It’s in the way of architecture, particularly in Italy where they have hectares of UNESCO World Heritage sites. You just can’t do architecture there. You go out ready to knock something down and throw up something cheery and you find this tremendous push back, because you’re gonna knock over something that was built in 1895. So then you’re forced into this steel and glass, Norman Foster, reconversion lucidity where it’s like, “OK, it’s this ugly brick thing, but at least I can go Reichstag it up and put a glass dome on it.” That’s Gothic Hi Tech.

Favela Chic for architecture is something more like parametric architecture or these endless efforts to repurpose steel shipping containers [Laughs]. That’s been done so many times that it’s actually become comic. But there’s a whole school of these kinds of efforts to use breeze blocks and corrugated tin. It’s like, “OK, we’re not really architects, we’re gonna do “Pop Up City” sort of interventions and they’ll be colorful and pretty and then we’ll pull them down and move them away.”

The planet is just covered with illegal buildings. You can dignify them with the term informal architecture, but basically they’re shacks. We’re moving into a world where most of the young people are living in shacks. They’re living in gigantic third world megalopoli – your darabi [slums in India], your Sao Paulo favelas, and so forth. They may not be the most technically-advanced areas, but they are very redolent to the future, because they’re the planet’s nursery! All the young people are in there.

So I see us as caught at this moment between an analog past, which does not meld very well with the digital world that we’re creating, and then this very ramshackle, very poorly organized, socially-networked, collaborative, off shored, parametric style that we’re creating but that does not fit into our professional, political, ethical, legal, or social institutions. So we don’t really have a choice and the two them [Gothic Hi Tech and Favela Chic] are not really opposites; they’re more of a yin and yang. Gothic Hi Tech has the Favela within it and the Favela is built on the scraps of Gothic Hi Tech. It seems to help people to look at it in this way, because it gets us past this cliched notion that computerizing things makes them modern. It did fifteen years ago, but that’s not what’s happening now.

I think that’s also part of the problem: people almost everywhere acknowledge this transition that you’re talking about but the initial reactions to it now seem out of sync with the reality. A few years ago within architecture there was this notion that in order to cater to the increasing interactivity of life you simply had to add an interactive layer onto your building and thus make it modern. But now, particularly as a generation that has been raised in an immersive electronic environment is coming of age, there’s nothing novel or exciting about that.

Yes, exactly. I don’t think this should be read as disillusionment or cynicism. This is more like an adult issue. The digital revolution is about 25 years old, and now it’s like a big, grown-up girl with some serious personal problems. [Laughs] It’s not like five year old child who is carrying futurity on her back. We’re dealing with the consequences of this digital revolution.

I know that architects are particularly keen on the long-term dignity of their profession, and they’re one of the few groups that can quote Vitruvius, for instance. The classical heritage is part of a living legacy that they have. And as a litterateur, I can identify with that, because we’re also very big on the Iliad or Shakespeare. But, in point of fact, architects are directly responsible for a lot of this stuff, and they have been at the forefront of this, even when they talk about the idea of 200 year old buildings. It’s a discussion that’s been carried out by architecture critics over a long time and it boils down to, how much high tech can you take on board and continue to call yourself an architectural professional, as opposed to a systems administrator or a technician or simply a parametrics monkey? This problem I think replicates itself across all professions, really.

One thing that you notice across professions is a kind of reflexive reaction to the virtual where a newspaper, for example, says, “Things are becoming more virtual, so we have to become more virtual” and then they make an online version of their paper which incorporates a few of the interactive elements that virtuality allows, but basically keeps the same overall approach. That hasn’t worked very well for them, and I wonder if taking the opposite path might lead architects somewhere better. In addition to incorporating more virtual aspects into buildings, they might lead a movement that takes virtual organizations and communities – like Facebook, for instance – and gives them a physical presence so that they contribute to the built environment in a way that almost none of the forces of the digital economy currently do.

I think you’re quite right. The difficulty of trying to build a skyscraper palace for Google is that Google is not going to live that long. And Google has its own construction projects, which are fiber optics and clean energy. So if you you’ve got a boatload of solar panels, Google is good to go, and they’re absolutely covering the planet with fiber optics and these gigantic server farms – huge, industrial data crunching farms.

But, it’s true that all these new Web entities – and Google’s only, what, eleven years old now? – they live in crap architecture. Google’s “Googleplex” is built on the bones of Silicon Graphics, the workstation outfit. And if you go and hang out in London where they have “Silicon Roundabout,” which is a collection of all these interaction design firms that have sprung up, you’ll find that they’re all living in these horrible Edwardian, decayed, Nazi-bombed, retrofitted structures. I’m cool about cheap rents, but these guys are really pretty low. They’re basically squats. But the problem is that these institutions are not going to last long enough and the turnover in personnel is such that you’re not gonna be able to build them the Sears Tower. Sears is dying, and the day in which you had a gigantic corporation that had enough institutional continuity to commission a major work of architecture – to build it, stay in it, and keep it up for the lifetime of the building – is just gone. They’ll be off-shored, they’ll be disintermediated, they’ll be captured by a shareholder revolt, and you just don’t find the cultural continuity necessary to build the pyramids. We’re kind of low on Pharaohs.

Right, but do you see any viable counter-strategy to that for architects, because it would seem that that sort of endemic instability fundamentally weakens them.

I agree that it does fundamentally weaken them, and it fundamentally weakens a lot of us. It fundamentally weakens corporations, governance, and the public. The lack of institutional continuity that we have is very difficult, but there’s basically two kinds of things that architects do… Well, three if you count Dubai where you can run over to the desert, suck up a lot of oil money and throw up some Shanghai Pudong-style giant, mirror-clad shacks. But that’s not the Louvre. So what you can do is basically Gothic Hi Tech – you can go and fix up the Reichstag, because the Reichstag is there, everybody agrees it’s not going anywhere, and it’s going to need a lot of interior design work for it to function. Doing that is basically declaring yourself to be a Gothic Hi Tech restorer – that’s one option.

The other is to go out and build some better damn favelas. That’s where I see a real lack. It would be great to see Google in a structure that fits Google’s purposes, but it would be even better to see guys like these little Silicon Valley startups able to survive and it would be better if such huge numbers of the planet’s population weren’t living in absolute misery. They are ill-housed, ill-fed, and precarious. The problem is that that’s not a very top-end thing; that’s much more like Shelter for Humanity, some kind of Cameron Sinclair schtick. But I could imagine some sort of architectural network style that could become a gigantic and grand enterprise. It could be like modernism in Britain after the blitz: something like, “Our housing is falling apart, gasoline is no longer going to work, there’s been a real estate crisis and we must house people in walkable cities.” That would be a lot of work for architects. Absolutely. It might not be particularly glorious and Medici-like, but you’d be out on the site all day everyday.

Do you have any experience in China?

I do. I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but I’ve been to Pudong in Shanghai. I once went to the Moon Tower and interviewed the Mori Corporation guys who were putting that up. I also went out to the Xiaolangdi Dam, which is out on the Yellow River, while it was under construction. So I’ve seen some Chinese construction. It’s been a while, but I know what is happening on the ground there a least a little.

I ask because it seems to me that, for the moment, China is one of the only places on earth that can provide the stability necessary to do major architectural works. At the same time, there are parts that are still undeveloped and suffer from the same material deprivation that you described earlier. Could you imagine that this combination of enormous state controlled wealth and enormous material needs stimulating its own architectural or urban approach?

Well, that’s essentially asking, does the Chinese state make a good patron of architecture? I think the Chinese state makes an excellent patron for engineers. But there’s something else: there is an enormous showplace competition between major Chinese cities. As soon as Hong Kong joined the rest of the regime, and people were able to go to Hong Kong and look around, I suspect that a lot of Chinese officials were overcome with shame. They felt like hicks, and so they kind of turned on the skyscraper tap. They basically did what New York and Chicago did at the birth of the skyscraper and that showed a certain urban pride. It’s encouraging and pleasant, but the signifier for me would not be if [foreign] architects could get jobs in China; what would be really interesting would be if China actually started building gigantic, monumental skyscrapers that were the envy of the world architecturally. Not just giant showplaces that show a nervous attempt to catch up with Hong Kong and Taipei, but really advanced structures that were clearly leading the world from an engineering perspective and also in aesthetics. Those would be truly great architectural accomplishments, as opposed to a chance to go out and get a longterm contract.

Now, I question whether the regime has got it together to do that. I don’t think that’s very high on their to-do list, and I don’t think they have very good taste. So the question is, who would commission a thing like that in China and I’m coming up a little short. The place is crawling with moguls; it’s not like there aren’t people with money in China. But there don’t seem to be people with money in China who are in a position to go out and hire the Frank Lloyd Wrights on the ground. I could be wrong. And if they were to do that, I would be extremely impressed. They’re in a position to do it, but if they’re going to do Chinese architecture as a kind of soft power thing, they need to do a better job. Because, basically now the cities are trying to cow other cities, and what they need to do is rise to the world class level and really innovate and outperform other people’s structures.

When it comes to the Favela Chic thing, I’m extremely impressed by Chinese material manufacturing. Especially clothing, shoes, and housewares. You go to practically any major third world city now – anywhere from Mexico City, Brasilia, Naples, Belgrade, Nairob – and it is absolutely full of Chinese domestic manufacturers. Thirty years ago the poor were in rags, now the poor dress in Chinese clothing. Clothing now is so cheap and so well made, and that’s entirely due to Chinese advances. Some of it is cheap labor, but a lot of it is advances, economies of scale. They are clothing the planet and really alleviating a lot of suffering.

So can I infer from that the possibility that just as the Chinese have clothed the planet, they might figure out a way to house the planet?

I think so. Every favela in the world is full of Chinese gear right now. There’s just tons of it. There’s bales of used Chinese clothing in Africa. The most remote village in the world gets the stuff. I don’t think [the Chinese] are doing particularly well at housing their own civil population; they would want to take care of that first. But in theory they could do some kind of intervention along that line. If they wanted to class up people’s material surroundings architecturally, they could do it.

I read an interview with an African businessman once who said that the single greatest development in African transcontinental communication and commerce was the introduction of cheap cell phones from China. He said that the Chinese, having already developed inexpensive phones for their own population simply extended this outward and made mobile communication possible for millions who had been virtually ignored by the big Western companies and in the end had had a bigger impact than railroads and that sort of hard infrastructure.

I completely agree with the cell phone thing, but cheap phones are only one part of it, because the Chinese are really great at cheap electronic components, but there aren’t really great Chinese cell phone service providers. That service is being provided by companies like Nokia. Nokia is all over Africa and they’re manufacturing is offshored to China, but there isn’t really a great Chinese cell phone company. But I think it’s very true that this percolation of cell phones into the hands of the bottom billion is radically transformative. I think it’s transformative in ways that we don’t understand and I grant the Chinese a lot of credit for making it affordable and they will make it more affordable. We’re in the baby steps stage of that particular revolution I think.

That’s something I wanted to ask you: Over the next twenty years or so, what do you think will be the technologies that have the greatest influence on urban life?

I hate to say this, but fossil fuels is absolutely going to be number one. In twenty years, the consequences of having trifled with these things are going to become quite gothic and horrible. People don’t see that as “technology” but of course that is the technology. The birth of the industrial revolution was with coal, and we’re still burning coal. The Chinese are burning coal; they just went in and kicked Copenhagen [Climate Conference] over because they wanted to burn more coal. And there’s going to be a terrible price to pay for that, and it’s going to affect people’s daily lives massively. So, the energy systems that underlie all of this are going to be extreme. Then we’re going to have water problems that are also based on climate change and those are going to press on people quite a lot.

But I do really like the cell phone spread, and the business has by no means run its course. It’s continuing to intensify and calcify quite a bit. I’m also interested in things like space-based video surveillance, GPS systems, geolocativity… I think these are very strong technologies with a big role in the next twenty years.

I think there’s going to be a lot of action in what people called “urban informatics”, which is a grab bag term for a lot of different urban interventions – everything from logistics to services, HV/AC, sewers, transportation, etc. I keep my eye on a lot of these. I’m very interested in computer fabrication, 3D fabrication that manifests itself in architecture as parametric architecture. Anytime you have a new means of production which is divorced from early ones you’re going to see a lot of hurry and scurry on the ground.

How do these trends that you monitor make their way into your work as a writer?

It took me quite a while to realize that the things that were important were not necessarily interesting. [Laughs] Naturally, as a fiction writer and a journalist, you want to write things that seize people’s attention and looks NEW! NEW! NEW! WOW! WOW! WOW! But by studying material culture and by learning from design and architecture I came to realize that the things that we valorize and pay attention to are not necessarily the ones that effect the ways in which we carry out our daily lives. There’s this guy David Edgerton who wrote this book Shock of the Old [Profile Books, 2006], which makes some very strong cases for separating ideas of modernity from what is really going on. When I came to understand that, it changed my approach.

Basically my outlook on these matters is not technical, it’s historical. I’ve come to realize that futurity is quite old [Laughs]. The things that we call futuristic actually have very old roots. The best way to understand what’s happening in the future is to study what went on in the past, and to trace these Fernand Braudel, long duration developments of four hundred and five hundred years. That’s the spectrum through which I look at things: I tend to look at technology as techno-social developments over a period of time. They’re not progress and when they pass from our radar that does not mean that they lose their consequence, it merely means that we stopped talking about them in a particular tone of voice.

To expand on that a bit, since the purpose of this interview series is to get a sense of what the future might hold for urban life and architecture, I was wondering if you could provide your techniques as a futurist. Is there a kind of formula that you use to estimate what might happen in a few decades time?

Well, there’s a good trick. You cannot say anything useful about an absolute future. In order to say anything useful you have to specify the period of time. Because the future of China in twenty years is not the same as the future of China in two years. So it depends on the nature of the person asking the question and the period of time that you’re being asked to forecast.

If you want to know what’s going to happen ten years from now, your best bet is to go back twenty years within that same location and identify developments that have some direct connection to the person asking the question. You have to phrase it in their tone of voice, using their language and their interests, because otherwise they don’t get it. If you ask, “What’s the future?” and you’re a plumber and I then tell you about the future of architecture in ten years, you’re lost already.

China has a very long period of time and there are certain things that have happened there that are well-known to Chinese people that don’t really affect the lives of outsiders very much, things like regional rivalries. Those are always underestimated by people. If you were to ask what Shanghai is going to look like in ten years, I would tell you to go back and look at Shanghai twenty years ago and see if you can find any particular change drivers that seem to be affecting the person asking the question and if there is anything that has not changed in that period. Then you would come up with some scenarios that would equip this person to get his head around what’s happening.

Study the past to imagine the future – that makes perfect sense, but somehow I think the urgencies of the present distract us from that logic.

You can’t understand by merely looking at the present day. In order to see what’s happening you have to go back twice as far you intend to jump forward. That is the rule. You can’t just say, “This happened today, so in ten years there will be twice as much of this.” You need a feeling for what’s been happening over a longer period and what seems to have some steam behind it and then project that.

Speculating about political things, industrial things, economic things is fraught with trouble. But one thing that futurists can really talk about that’s of general interest is demographics. And in twenty years China’s going to have a very different age structure than it does now. I think that will be one of the major drivers of mid-century China: not that they’ve managed to create a semi-democratic capitalism under a single state system or these other things, it’s mostly that there’s going to be so many middle aged single men. And so few kids.

Right. I just read yesterday that by 2020 an estimated 24 million men will be unable to find wives in China.

It reminds one of Chinese labor camps in the the American west. There were Chinese societies that were male-dominated and were extremely productive. Literally they built the railroads, but then just dwindled and went away. Some managed, because women showed up, but these huge labor camps in the US that had tens of thousands of Chinese men in them accomplished fantastic industrial things and then just sort of dwindled.

If you go read Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, it’s like eleven volumes full of amazing Chinese technical stuff. There was a period where they were way ahead of the rest of the planet technically, and there are good reasons to believe that they can do this, that, or the other, but it’s also very common to fixate on some particular group in our world that seems to be having its moment in the sun and none of these trees grow to the sky.

That reminds me: In the talk you gave at the Reboot Conference last year in Copenhagen, you mentioned in passing the BRIC countries and described their immediate future as I think “progress to nowhere”…

Transition to nowhere, yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, which is made of countries that self identify as “transition countries”. Transition formerly means that the communist regime is over and we’re going to westernize with the ultimate goal of joining the European Union. But places like Poland, Bulgaria, etc. have been in transition for almost half as long as they were under communism… If you go up to Bulgaria, it’s in a state of alternative modernity. It really is a transition country; it’s not a modern capitalist country or a communist country. It’s just in this slot.

China is run by technocrats so they’re not as hapless as a transition to nowhere. China is run by engineers who are very keen on measuring stuff, as all engineers are, so they’re very big on the eight percent GDP growth figure. They’re keen on the eight percent GDP and if it’s 10 or 11 percent then they break out the champagne. But the difficulty with doing that is that it’s not really headed toward any particular social end. It’s just growth. So you might say, “Why do you want growth?” And they might answer, “So that we have less unrest.” “What value system do you have that makes people more restful?” “We don’t really go there.”

The influence of Chinese civilization on the rest of us is much more muted than it ought to be. Most of the planet that’s Sinophilic is into Taiwanese or Hong Kong cultural products. This has been changing some because there’s a flourishing of the arts in a few of major metropolitan areas, but given that China is almost a third of the human race, they really ought to be great at something besides shoes and food. So they’re in a transition to globalization and they’ve made themselves indispensable to the rest of the world, and they haven’t set a foot wrong really. But they’re not leading. And one doesn’t necessarily want to ask them. There’s been periods when they’ve been very ideological and keen to export their revolution and so forth, and so I’m perfectly happy to see them get some lipstick and lingerie. I don’t see any problem with the idea of a contented consumer culture for a society that suffered as much as China has over the past century and a half. But they’re not really leading us into the sunlit uplands of anything in particular. So they run the risk of sliding into crisis, because their value system is not being very well addressed. That’s true of a lot of societies.

There’s two places that I think are more expressive along that line – Brazil and India. I think India has tremendous untapped soft power that they’re just beginning to exercise, and I think Brazil has been diplomatically brilliant over a long period. Brazil is punching above its weight culturally and India is coming into its own bit by bit, but China still gives off the affect of a traumatized people who are trying to cross the river by taking small steps on the rocks. And I’m all for that. My dad was an engineer and I understand engineers and technocrats in power. But they run the risk of having their strategy overwhelmed by concentrating too much on brilliant tactics.

Originally published Domus China 41 (January 2010)