Saturday, August 06, 2011

Eye in the Sky

Sometimes while working as professionals designing urban spaces, operating from democratic regions, we often find ourselves designing for regions with dictatorships where mass congregation, demonstrations, spaces of expression are often seen as threats. But still funnily the standards of design and basic Kevin Lynchian assumptions of urban space are uniformly laid out on the site, having ideas of path, edge, node etc all in place matterless of if the site is located in UK, China or Libya. Maybe because this framework seems to be most apolitical and has the necessary simplicity of rationalizing the design without getting into the socio-cultural aspects that may only give rise to 'unnecessary' contradictions that a multinational design office may not be able to reconcile (though examples of designing a military camp for a dictatorial regime after clearing a part of virgin rain forest and getting platinum sustainability ratings for the development are in abundance).
But it would be certainly interesting to see if the arrangement of infrastructure or city forms can be indicative of the nature of administration that 'manages' the region. In other words do cities in Libya or Saudi Arabia show spatial signs of a dictatorial regimes? while cities in India or UK bear witness to democracies? And if not then why is it that the nature of contemporary urban spaces under different systems of governance is more or less the same?
Ofcourse, attempt to understand city geographies through purely satellite images is dangerous but one cannot ignore the difference in the satellite image of Detroit, Venice, Delhi or London is obvious enough to use only this as the most basic tool to start off for now
(At the same time one has to accept the stark similarity of city design and planning of new redeveloped areas across the if there is some process of homogenisation).
Infrastructure Grid:
(image of Nasa earth at night)
On TED talks, Paul Romer's analysis of NASA's Earth at night composite image and how the visible light grid of different regions could be seen as an indication of development facilitated by different administrations. It does not show the nature of governance but certainly provides one a broad overview of the scale and intensity of developments in different regions.
For further detailed urban light spectrum analysis see here.
Axes and Nodes:
In an article titled 'Roundabouts and Revolution: The "Arab Street" Begins and Ends in a Circle' talks about how the traffic circle becomes the most looked after 'open' spaces in regions where mass congregation of people is seen as a threat. But the author optimistically points to how these circles have become the very stages of demonstration.
Interestingly if one were to overlay this analysis on Canary Wharf development in London one can clearly see how the central axes leads from nowhere to nowhere, spanning between two traffic circles. Providing the area with sufficient road infrastructure to provide police access to control demonstrators. This does not really dilute the argument of spatial configuration and governance rather it poses the question why is there such a stark similarity in the spatial configuration of spaces of dictatorial regimes and a Financial Centre in a democracy?
Maybe the architecture of axes and nodes is designed around easy accessibility and readability of the 'local' enabling some kind of centralised consolidated power either financial, imperial, dictatorial or any other form of totalitarian authority to control a geography.
In Greece the tax authorities are using satellite images to catch tax evading rich elites in Athens suburbs through swimming pools. An article here states "Using satellite photos, the tax authority examined the claim of the residents of Athens's wealthy suburbs and discovered that, rather than the 324 swimming pools claimed by the locals, there were 16,974 of them". This may not be indicative of governance but certainly wealth distribution.
Interestingly the Bahrain revolution is said to have started when a set of Google Earth images mapped the 'rich oases' dotting the landscape belonging to various members of the royal family. But then again we converge on the question how did access and visibility of water come to be an indicator of wealth in a democracy as well as spaces formed under dictatorial regimes?
 In present times where democracies have fascist policies and fascists hide behind veils of charities the boundaries often get blurred between the two, with similar requirements expected from the design of urban form like mass subjugation, crowd control, securing class struture through segregated class based developments and finally designing social condensers. 
As a joke, I like to believe that out there in some office or a university our favourite underpaid intern is working on a street section or a built form typology after which the world will never be the same...

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