Manhattan grid

"How do I get to Broadway? ...I want to get to the center of things" "Walk east a block and turn down Broadway and you'll find the center of things if you walk far enough."

Jon Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer

The continuity of the gridiron gave rise to an open urban frontier that, by definition, extended infinitely. Before 1950, the urban gridiron flowed seamlessly into the continental grid, creating a continuum for which there was no interior and exterior.

Albert Pope, Zone Research, (via

In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas describes the origins of the strict gridiron street pattern of Manhattan, as commissioned in 1807 by Simeon de Witt, Gouverner Morris and John Rutherford. Even though the island was barely inhabited, the grid inscribed upon the island created thousands of city blocks, the future of the city defined and delimited.

"The Grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation. In spite of its apparent neutrality, it implies an intellectual program for the island: in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality.

The plotting of its streets and blocks announces that the subjugation, if not obliteration, of nature is its true ambition.

All blocks are the same; their equivalence invalidates, all at once, all the systems of articulation and differentiation that have guided the design of traditional cities. The Grid makes the history of architecture and all lessons of urbanism irrelevant. It forces Manhattan's builders to develop a new system of formal values, to invent strategies for the distinction of one block from another.

The Grid's two-dimensional discipline also creates undreamt of freedom for three-dimensional anarchy. The grid defines a balance between control and de-control in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos."

Koolhaas describes Manhattanization as a process, an irresistible force of artifice conquering nature.

Manhattan Transfer Manhattan Extended

Manhattan Extended

In 1922, long after the grid had been filled, the famed engineer T Kennard Thomson proposed extending Manhattan island to the south, with a land reclamation project that would add 'Six square miles of New Land' and '12 Lineal Miles for New Wharves. Kennard's proposal was a cut down version of his earlier 1916 plan for a Really Greater New York which planned over 50 square miles of additional land. The plan included filling in the existing East River and building a New East River channel to cut through Long Island.

Extend NY

The conceptual project ExtendNY by Harold Cooper goes even further, extending the Manhattan street grid around the world.

Extend NY

Mapping a rectilinear grid onto a sphere is not a straightforward exercise, but the result is a Google Maps overlay that allows you to see on what NY 'street' you live. (I live on the corner of 63, 696 Street and East 10794 Avenue)

Like Bud Korpenning's futile search for the heartbeat of a city in Manhattan Transfer, the city becomes ever more unknowable, less well defined, fuzzier, it extends everywhere. Everywhere is simultaneously center and periphery.

We are all New Yorkers now.

Red Mars 2

Soviet cities on Mars

"In the bottomless night, glowing brightly out there, Is Mars, my native red star.
But the pull of the Earth is heavy to bear
And its atmosphere weighs on my heart."

Alexander Bogdanov, A Martian Stranded on Earth

"Fifty years ago I got to see Lenin in that same hall, with his broad shoulders and high chest - talking from a small raised tribune. He moved spontaneously and effortlessly on the tribune, addressing different parts of the audience… I recall him now as the flame that burns on the Field of Mars. The revolution came and ascended the stairs."

Viktor Shklovsky, On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

"I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet,"

Hugo Chavez

In the same week (04/11/11) that the "astronauts" in the pretend space mission to Mars emerged from their 500 day solitary confinement, the Phobos-Grunt probe, which was supposed to go to the actual Mars, developed a fault which kept it in orbit around Earth. As metaphors go this is pretty compelling: the Soviet Union/ Russia may be drawn towards Mars, but seem ever to be bound by the gravity of Earth. Twas ever thus. Soviet visions of Mars have always been far more powerful than the sporadic attempts at exploration of the Red Planet.

But why was the Soviet Union so obsessed with Mars? Was the Red Planet the perfect symbol of the dream-myth of Communism? Or was it just the coincidence of the colour red? In this post I will explore the influence of Mars on Soviet art and culture as the canvas for a projected fantasy, a planet wide 'field of dreams'.

Mars as Utopia

Mars has always been a metaphor for an alternate Earth. Since HG Wells' War of the Worlds, the premise of alien society on Mars has been a common literary theme. In Soviet art and culture, the planet of Mars often became a world to be conquered or colonised, or most interestingly used as an example of a Communist utopia . Whereas HG Wells used the Martians as part of an anti-imperialist revenge fantasy to represent his disgust at British Empire atrocities in Tasmania, others used Mars to imagine a post-imperialist society. It was a theme that Russian writers and artists would turn to repeatedly.

poster by Prusakov and Borisov for 1919 film A Journey to Mars

The first Bolshevik Utopia in literature is widely regarded is Bogdanov's Red Star. A rather turgid novel, it was written in 1908, shortly after the 1907 coup which saw Csar Nicholas resume Imperial power, after the Russian Revolution of 1905, which is when the novel is set. In it, a Earthling revolutionary Leonid is taken to Mars to be taught their ways, where he meets one of the most important members of Martian society, Menni, and falls in love with a Martian called Netti.

Whilst perhaps not a Utopia, life on Bogdanov's Mars is fairly idyllic. It is a socialism based on abundance, not scarcity, yet the Martians do not aspire to materialism. A planned economy and advanced cybernetic control and communication systems for a population of billions allows Martian's to only work when they want, own as much material possessions as they desire, and eliminate the needs for money. Spatially, most of the surface is either inhabited or left as parkland, there is no genuine wilderness, and a complex system of irrigation is required for agricultural land. There is little detail on the degree of urbanisation of Mars, and little depiction of the rural culture. The capital city, Centropolis, houses the majority of people, and Leonid also travels to another city on the other side, but there is no mention of suburbs. Martians fly between major cities at tremendous speed.

As Daniel Gerould writes:

"Drawing upon Wells and Western SF for the myth of superior beings on Mars with advanced technology, as well as upon the then popular theory of Martian-made canals, Bogdanov in Red Star uses the already classic formula of the visitor from outside voyaging to the alien country and then returning home. During the revolution of 1905, Martian agents on Earth choose the social revolutionary Leonid as the human most fit to come with them to their planet and see the future in operation, both because Russia is the country most attuned to the times to come and because Leonid personally is endowed with "as little individualism as possible" and therefore stands a chance of adjusting to a collectivist and egalitarian society. Just as in the 1920s and '30s the Soviet leaders would bring leftist visitors from the West to show them how well communism worked, so the Martians offer their guest a model for subsequent human social organisation."

Dramatic tension in the book is introduced by way of failing resources, due to overpopulation. The Martians have to chose between waging war on the barbaric people of Earth, or braving the storms of Venus to secure the supplies of 'minus-matter' they need. While concepts of recycling and conservation are barely considered by Bogdanov, nor what happens to all the waste they must have produced to have completely exhausted Mars' natural resources, he does at least consider the issues that may face a post-revolutionary society.

poster celebrating Soviet space exploration

Bogdanov wrote a further book set on Mars, Engineer Menni, written in 1913 as a prequel to Red Mars. Engineer Menni details the creation of the communist state on Mars and the over through of the feudal house of Aldo. It is possible to read Engineer Menni (who also is a central character of Red Star) as an allegorical tale, with the evolution of the socialist society on Mars predicting the coming revolution on Earth. Through the lens of the society on Mars, Bogdanov was able to show what post-revolutionary Russia might look like, and indeed a planet wide Soviet Union.

Before he dies, Engineer Menni has a series of apocalyptic visions--of the exhaustion of energy, of the dying Sun, of the end of life, of the engulfing void--and he must somehow overcome his nihilistic despair.

"We have exploded and cast into the sun all of our planets in turn, except the one upon which we stand at this moment. The energy released gave us an additional hundred thousand years. We have spent most of that time trying to find the means to resettle in other solar systems. Here we have failed utterly. We could not completely conquer time and space."

The third book was meant to be based on the poem he wrote called "A Martian Stranded on Earth', but Bogdanov died before it was completed. As a pioneer of blood transfusions (a theme which is also present in Red Star) he exchanged blood with a student who has both malaria and TB - he died but the student lived.

Stalin was a big fan of Engineer Menni and Red Star, and drew inspiration from these novels in his zeal to build the disastrous White Sea Canal. Stalin's interpretation of Engineer Menni is remarkable. In Loren Graham's "The ghost of the executed engineer: technology and the fall of the Soviet Union", he writes:

"Stalin was a great admirer of canal projects, and he was fascinated by the role of engineers in their construction, especially engineers whose expertise was necessary but who could not be trusted because of their political views. Two of his favourite novels before the Revolution were Aleksandr Bogdanov's Red Star and Engineer Menni. In these works of science fiction, the builders of socialism on the planet Mars have to rely on an engineer named Menni, educated before the Socialist Revolution, who is both brilliant and traitorous, Menni recommends a path for a canal that purposefully delays construction and causes the deaths of many labourers. Menni is arrested, the mistakes are rectified, and the canal is completed. Stalin believed that, if kept under surveillance, even hostile technical specialists could be forced to yield their expertise for the benefit of the state."

New forms for a new planet

In setting works on Mars, writers and filmmakers could explore new forms, and new spatial arrangements, and discover a synergy with much of the work of avant-garde artists and architects, both Suprematists and Constructivists.

Owen Hatherley, in the article Delirious Moscow, writes:

"One of the war cries of the Russian Futurists was The War of the Worlds' Martian roar 'ULL-AA', which would in 1919 provide the title for one of Viktor Shklovsky's manifestos for the alienation effect, 'Ullya, Ullya, Martians'. In order to truly estrange , to provide the distance from everyday life’s stock responses and learned indifference that, for Shklovsky, is the key element in great art (be it Tolstoy or the circus), the alienation effect is taken literally to mean the visitation by the alien nation. Shklovsky writes of an avant-garde work being 'worthy of my brothers, the Martians'. This is what much of the Russian Avant-Garde saw themselves as. Like Tatlin's Third International Tower , whose iron legs and perpetual motion are akin to the Martians' walking tripods, this was something as fearsome, uncanny and technologically terrifying as the alien invasion, and intended to be every bit as threatening to existing society."

Svetlana Boym, writing in Ruins of Modernity, also notes Shklovsky's admiration of Tatlin's tower:

"from the very beginning, the Tatlin Tower engendered its double - a discursive monument almost as prominent as the architectural original. Victor Shlovksy is one of the few contemporaries who appreciates the unconventional architecture of the Tower, which for his is an architecture of estrangement. Its temporal vectors point towards the past and the future, toward 'the iron age of Ovid' and the 'age of construction cranes, beautiful like wise Martians'."

Gustav Klucis Dynamic City (1919)

Krutikov Flying City

Malevich - Future Planits, Houses for Earth Dwellers

Krutikov's Space City of the Future, designed in 1928, imagined a floating city supported by a anti-gravity coil. Meanwhile in 1919 Gustav Klucis made compositions for an ideal Dynamic City, Malevich devised his Planits, and El Lissitsky's Proun constructions became ever more otherworldly.

El Lissitsky: Proun

Constructivist visions of Mars

The other pre-eminent Russian work of fiction set on Mars is Aelita, by Alexei Tolstoy, written in 1923, six years after the second Russian Revolution of 1917 and the instigation of a Socialist state. In it the character Los travels to Mars to lead a popular uprising against the Elders. When the rebellion is crushed Los and Aelita, the princess of Mars, seizes control to establish her own totalitarian regime. Again the book can be consider as an allegorical tale, though of course Tolstoy could write from a historical perspective rather than predictive as Bogdanov had to.

It was made into a film Aelita, Queen of Mars by Iakov Protozanov in 1924. The Constructivist style of its film sets, designed by Isaac Rabinovich, and with outlandish costumes by Alexandra Exter, depicted the advanced state of Martian society, as something for the new USSR to aspire to. While it was a major influence on Flash Gordon, Metropolis, the film fell out of favour in later years, perhaps for being a little too accurate in prefiguring Soviet society under Stalin.

Set design for Aelita by Issac Rabinovich

Set design for Aelita by Issac Rabinovich

Stills from Aelita

Also in 1924, an animated film Interplanetary Revolution, was made by N. Khodataev, Z. Komisarenko, and Y. Merkulov. In it capitalists escaping to Mars discover the revolution has spread throughout the galaxy.

Mars in American Science Fiction

In contrast to the early Russian works, early American science fiction saw Mars as little more than an exotic stageset, the backdrop for picaresque adventures such as those of John Carter, in the Edgar Rice Burroughs series of pulp novels. Beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1911, the Barsoom series of ER Burroughs was eventually made up of 11 books written up to 1943. Mars is considered little more than a desert environment, based upon the astronomical observations of Percival Lovell, and beset with warring tribes and ferocious monsters.

Red Planet = Red Menace

But it wasn't just the Soviets who would align themselves with the Red Planet. In the 1950's, American cinema was more than ready to equate Martians with Soviets and the burgeoning Red Scare. The 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds made the Martian invasion an allegory for a Communism invasion, and there were similar themes in 1952's Red Planet Mars and 1953's Invaders from Mars.

Red Planet Mars

Expanding the scope further, alien invaders as a metaphor for the red menace was a common theme of many sci-fi movies of the time, Them (19954), This Island Earth (1955), and 1956's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Earth vs The Flying Saucers).

Operating in stark contrast to the Hollywood melodrama of Martian invasion, Pavel Klushantsev's Road to the Stars (1954) is a serious attempt by a Soviet filmmaker to show how the Soviet conquest of space would play out. A young man learns about spaceflight, before a sequence shows a lunar landing. The final sequence shows a lunar base, manned explorations of Mars, the moons of Saturn, and 'beyond the infinite'. The film was rushed to completion and released shortly after the launch of Sputnik 1 shocked the world.

A Red City for a Red Planet

The lure of the Red Planet to the Communists was surely the chance to begin afresh with a tabula rasa, where Communism did not have first to overthrow an incumbent capitalist society, and sweep away its aristocratic past. If there had to be a Socialist Revolution (as in Red Star), it was a total, world revolution.

In 1929, the sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich, part of the radical Constructivist architectural group OSA created a plan for a Red City of Planet of Communism. This disurbanist plan reimagined a city not as a series of concentric rings radiating out from a central hub, which owed its typology to the urbanism of a feudal era, but as a series of rhythms, a distribution of resources, functions and occupancies.

Mikhail Okhitovich Disurbanist proposal

Mikhail Okhitovich Disurbanist proposal

"The whole world is at our service, and first and foremost, transport and communications… We ask ourselves, how shall we resettle all the urban populations and economic activities? Answer: not according to the principles of crowding, but according to the principle of maximum freedom, ease and speed of communication."

Okhitovich saw further than any other contemporary urban theorist, that distributed electrical power, advanced telecommunications and high-speed transport networks created new possibilities for human habitation, and could eradicate the tension between the urban/rural that bedevilled the Soviet Socialist project. The disurbanist proposal was not anti-urban, it was a continuous urban field, city as network, city as process. Thus Okhitiovich prefigured contemporary dialogues on infrastructure ecologies, network displacements effects. As Catherine Cooke writes:

"'The City', wrote Okhitovich, 'is not some kind of sum of people living in "one" place. The city is a socially, not territorially, determined human entity … It is an economic and cultural complex'. Moreover: 'The question to be elucidated now is, must the different functions of the city exist in one physical body; will they become estranged by separation, as the parts of a biological organism would be? In other words, is the ever increasing crowding of people, buildings etc on one spot inevitable or not? Let us examine by what means people are fastened to one place; from what does this attraction to one another derive, this mighty centripetal force?'"

Okhitovich's utopianism matches that of Bogdanov completely, the potential to build a new class consciousness by rejecting the forms of the past, and build a worldwide Socialist settlement. Ultimately, Okhitovich was too much the post-Marxist visionary, unable to scale back from the grand plan, too open to be attacked for failing to directly address the immediate issues of peasant dwellings. Under Stalin, visionary design that did nothing for the common man was considered itself bourgeois, and Okhitovich's fate was sealed under the Stalinist Terror, betrayed by rival architects Mordvinov and Alabian.

Okhitovich didn't specify which planet this Red City might be built on. It was a city reaching around the world, one that could not be confined to national boundaries. Could it be that Okhitovich planned his utopian city not to be on Earth at all? Could it have been meant for Mars?

In Soviet Russia, Mars travels to you

As with so much in Soviet society, the theoretical vision was far in advance of the practical application. As Phobos-Grunt's orbit slowly decays, dooming it to crash back to Earth later this month (January 2012), its destiny is also to be a Martian stranded on Earth.


Rotterdam hexagon urban identity

Hexagon Rotterdam

In 1972, Wim Crouwel and his Total Design company created an identity system for the Municipality of Rotterdam. The Gemeente Rotterdam identity used a hexagon grid to visually represent the city in an abstracted way.

Hexagon Rotterdam

At the recent exhibition of the work of Wim Crouwel at the Design Museum, there are some more examples of the identity and its application. These images are mostly taken from the fantastic book TD63-73 about Total Design, by Unit Editions.

Hexagon Rotterdam

Hexagon Rotterdam

As the book TD63-73 puts it:

"Rendering the entire shape of the town (sic) with 'honeycomb" shapes was a way to future-proof the identity: it could easily be adapted and able to respond to respond to any further development of the town's borders and harbours."

Hexagon Rotterdam

It is reminiscent of the hex maps of many board games, the hexagon map of London (previously written about here), and also the NikeGrid London:

Nike Grid London

Related posts:
• Branding the Boroughs 2 • Learning from Niketown • Het Nieuwe Bouwen

Het Nieuwe Bouwen

Het Nieuwe Bouwen in Rotterdam, book jacket

Back in the day, I probably knew more about the modern movement in Dutch architecture, Het Nieuwe Bouwen, than just about anything else. Had I been asked to select a specialist subject to appear on Mastermind, it's probably what I would have chosen. These days I've forgotten more than I can remember, but the recent sight of these posters by Wim Crouwel has rekindled my memory, and why I was (and remain) so fascinated by it.

The Dutch experiment with Functionalism seemed to be much more engaged than the brief flirtation of the UK. The evolution of ideas and form works of precursors such as Berlage, van de Velde and Dudok, through to Duiker, Oud, Rietveld and onto to Brinkmann, van der Vlugt, Bekama etc. to my eyes form a compelling continuum of experimentation, openness and shared ambition, and established a platform for the confidence of Dutch architecture throughout the course of the 20th Century.

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, CIAM poster

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, posters

These posters, created by Crouwel's Total Studio in 1983 to accompany a series of exhibitions across museums Holland including the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Kröller-Müller at Otterlo, and the Gementesmuseum in The Hague. Each of the exhibitions was accompanied by a book, also designed by Crouwel/ Total Studio, and these are well worth tracking down for both their beautiful design as well as their content.

The beauty of the covers/ posters, with the axonometric view of the signature buildings, on a silvered background with the roof picked out in white, and with the helvetica type set at a 45 degree angle, reflects a total synthesis between graphic design and architecture. It doesn't get better than this.

(The images shown here don't really do them justice - I will scan and photograph the covers of my book copies to replace them shortly, if anyone has any decent images of the posters please let me know).

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, books You can pick these books up second hand but you can also download 4 of them from Scribd (links: Previous History, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, De Stijl, CIAM). If you're feeling rich you can also buy the posters, try here.

This post sponsored by Portakabin:
Modular construction

Unit: Design/Research 02: Space and structure

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Recently I picked up the second issue of the design newspaper Unit: Design/ Research from Unit Editions, edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy.

The second issue, titled 'Space and structure' is devoted to the magazine Form, which from 1966 to 1969 published 12 issues in an uncompromisingly modern format, and filled with avant-garde material in the fields of art and architecture.

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Unit: Design/ Research 2

U:D/R 2 includes an interview with Philip Steadman, co-editor and designer of Form, as well as facsimiles of much of the content from Form itself. So you'll find bits of articles from Van Doesburg and Rodchenko, articles about structuralism, essays by Roland Barthes, and plans for Black Mountain College by Gropius and Breuer, amongst others. It's hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when everything wasn't instantly at your fingertips, and little gems like Form were therefore that much more precious.

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Form, with its Swiss-influenced modernist design, square format and use of white space, was unusual for an English publication at the time, and Steadman struggled to find a printer who held the Helvetica typeface it was set in. Form represents an early synthesis between typography and architecture, something that seems increasingly relevant today, and this publication is a great celebration of this pioneering magazine.

The ballet of iPod City


Two news items aroused my disurbanist instincts last week, and in my paranoid modus operandi where everything is connected, thought that they represented two aspects of an identical process: the continued fragmentation and mutation of the urban condition.

Firstly, in a great article in The Atlantic, entitled "Gentrification and its Discontents" Benjamin Schwarz reviews two recent books, Naked City by Sharon Zukin and Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by Michael Sorkin, looking at life in New York, each in part bemoaning the "Disneyification' of Greenwich Village. With the full title of "Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places", it's not hard to guess where the jumping off point is for the Zukin book. Schwarz considers both books to be consciously in a dialogue with Jane Jacobs, the doyenne of urban writing ever since her 1961 book Death and Life of Great American Cities, and compares their relative positions.

Greenwich Village with Lower Manhattan Expressway (Image showing Greenwich Village if Robert Moses plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway had been built, by Vanshnookraggen)

What has come to pass in Greenwich Village? The vibrant mixed-use community that Jane Jacobs wrote about so affectionately and campaigned to save from the tyranny of Robert Moses has, lo-and-behold, turned into a kind of bo-ho theme park, in the process losing its soul, or 'authenticity' as Sharon Zukin would have it. I'm sure the same thing applies to other renowned neighbourhoods in great cities across the world - Haight-Ashbury in SF springs to mind, and here in London Carnaby Street, Portobello Road and much of Notting Hill are pale shadows of what made them unique in the first place.

But what does 'authentic' mean in this context? Schwarz argues convincingly that the Greenwich Village that Jane Jacobs depicted in the most oft-recalled part of DALOGAC was at a transitional point between the old industrial usage and a largely residential usage, under the forces of gentrification, and that what Zukin wants is for the city to remain in this transitional zone, forever teetering on the cusp of the future. It's a nostalgic, highly sentimental view and one that Jane Jacobs writing is also guilty of. She observed a city that was already changing, and presented a series of matronising, personal opinions as an indisputable analysis of what makes cities work.

Jane Jacobs

We know where this leads. Jacobs founded a powerful myth of urbanism, that the sine qua non of urban form was to found in the 'ballet of Hudson Street', and with it created such as narrow definition of what represents vitality in cities that it can only be achieved with the values that Jacobs proscribed, and that conversely, anything that ignores any of these principles must be doomed to failure. The New Urbanists have taken a set of observations from Death and Life of Great American Cities, and turned them into design guidelines, a form of environmental determinism that in many ways is the exact opposite of what Jacobs wrote and stood for. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a compelling read, but it is deeply flawed book.

Such a narrow depth of field seems increasingly less relevant in today's globalised economy and accelerated culture. The forces of gentrification move ever faster. The city districts that Jacobs wrote about so evocatively/cringingely can now be seen as a mirage, or at least a frozen moment in the evolution of a neighbourhood. Even New York, arguably the definitive city of the 20th Century, seems increasingly irrelevant as the hothouse for urbanism for the 21st Century. For this we need to look beyond Greenwich Village, outside the western cities of Europe and the US, and look at Asia and South America. Jane Jacobs principles seem increasingly irrelevant to the raging economic and urbanising forces at work in say Shanghai, Dubai or Sao Paulo.

The urban landscape of 21st Century China is not somewhere that a 1960's treatise on diverse, walkable neighbourhoods in the US has much relevance. The forces of globalisation, and the transformation of Chinese society under Deng Xioping's plans for economic reform have led to the situation where almost all goods are manufactured in China, and unprecedented urban growth in Special Economic Zones (SEZ) such as Shenzhen and across the Guangdong province.

China has become literally the workshop of the world. In parts of the Shenzhen SEZ, giant manufacturing complexes represent a new set of local urban conditions, factory cities on a vast scale. Many employ hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have travelled in from rural areas to try and earn money for their families, living and working in tightly controlled and highly regimented communities

Recently the news has been full of stories about working conditions at the Taiwanese owned manufacturing corporation Foxconn, anchored by the Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, an electronics assembly firm building computer and electronics hardware for US and Japanese owned corporations like Dell, HP, Microsoft, Sony and most notably Apple 1. In the past 6 months alone, 10 Foxconn employees have committed suicide, leading to an increased scrutiny in the West to the living and working conditions inside these factory cities.

Foxconn's walled Shenzhen factory complex, the Longhua Science & Technology Park, is a citadel, within a city within a megalopolis of 14 million people and growing. The Daily Mail dubbed it iPod City back in 2006 - since then its size has nearly doubled. Here Foxconn employs over 420,000 people - more than the population of Bristol (in fact there are only 9 cities in the UK with more people). With such a large migrant workforce, lacking residency permits (hukou), most employees live in company owned dormitories, and travel to work on company buses. The streets, buidlings and infrastructure are all Foxconn built and owned. Yet there are few good intentions on the pavements of Foxconn city, no Cadbury Brothers or Titus Salt looking to build model communities for their workers. A soft blend of commerce and utopian socialism has been replaced with a schizoid mix of global capitalism and hardline Communism.

In a satirical piece, IT journalist Dan Lyons [who publishes online under the moniker Fake Steve Jobs] writes:

"But the Foxconn people all work for the same company, in the same place, and they’re all doing it in the same way, and that way happens to be a gruesome, public way that makes a spectacle of their death. They’re not pill-takers or wrist-slitters or hangers. They’re not Sylvia Plath wannabes, sealing off the kitchen and quietly sticking their head in the oven. They’re jumpers. And jumpers, my friends, are a different breed. Ask any cop or shrink who deals with this stuff. Jumpers want to make a statement. Jumpers are trying to tell you something."

As an act of architectural performance, Foxconn's suicide jumpers are every bit as profound as Jacobs' ballet of the sidewalk. Foxconn's intial responses were architectonic - to put up safety nets; and spatial - to increase rooftop security patrols, before starting to address pay and working patterns.

Safety Nets

Can we begin to understand life in iPod City? Can we even comprehend what it is to live and work here, let alone began any comprehensive understanding of what constitutes urbanism or streetlife here?

In addition to its dozens of assembly lines and dormitories, Longhua has a fire brigade, hospital and employee swimming pool, where Mr. Gou (the founder of Hon Hai) does early morning laps when he is there. Restaurants, banks, a grocery store and an Internet cafe line the company town's main drag. More than 500 monitors around the campus show exercise programs, worker-safety videos and company news produced by the in-house television network, Foxconn TV. Even the plant's manhole covers are stamped "Foxconn."




Foxconn (Images of Foxconn found here)

Guangdong Province and Gotham, Shenzhen and SoHo, are locked in a symbiotic relationship of economies and cultures. If Manhattan was a laboratory of the urban condition during the 20th Century, it is Shenzhen which is the petri dish of 21st century urbanism. The key to understanding the urbanism of Chinese factory cities, isn't to be found in any book by Jane Jacobs.

Some of the most insightful analysis of the urban forces in Shenzhen are to be found in Great Leap Forward: Project on the City 1, by Harvard Design School, and co-edited by Rem Koolhaas. It carries all of the hallmarks of OMA's analytical investigations into emerging urban conditions, and as part of a wider investigation into the Pearl River Delta region of China, explores the origins of the inherent contradictory nature of the Shenzhen SEZ, analysed as a linear city:

"'Three Paths and One Leveling,' the slogan that inaugurated the construction of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, delineates the formula of a minimally yet ambitiously planned city. Along with the necessary erasure - the preparatory 'leveling - Shenzhen is shaped as a LINEAR CITY. Between its first (1982) and second (1984) master plans, the Shenzhen SEZ was laid out as a linear instrument for organising the flow of capital. Although stretching 50 kilometers along the border with Hong Kong, its layout numbers only three east-west avenues (the 'three paths') and twelve north-south cross connections. It is precisely the scarcity of connections and the freedom from a preestablished pedestrian'grid' that forms the basis for all future urban incarnations. Distilled into an 'essential' traffic pattern, the plan of the zone underscores the INFRARED redefinition of the city as infrastructure. Recognizing that Hong Kong owes its prosperity to its infrastructures - container ports, tunnels, bridges, and highways connecting the harbor with the New Territories ( a warehouse hinterland storing containers and people alike) - the Shenzhen SEZ advertises itself as a colossal infrastructure, and link between the financial incentives of the socialist market economy and international capital flowing out of Hong Kong."






(Images from Great Leap Forward, showing, from top, Shenzhen SEZ compared to Manhattan, traffic plan of Shenzhen SEZ, the 1982 masterplan, the 1984 masterplan, the 1996 masterplan.)

But the book seldom comes down from the macroscopic view to look at life at street-level in Shenzen. This post at Polis blog shows that within the explosive growth of the Shenzhen megapolis are engulfed and assimilated a number of smaller villages. These Villages in the City are to Shenzhen as Greenwich Village was to New York - perhaps a Chinese Jane Jacobs will emerge to champion their unique qualities, but it is more likely they will eventually be swept away on the unstoppable tide of progress and Five Year Plans.

Schizophrenic Shenzhen has replaced Delirious New York.

1. I say most notably because it always the Apple connection that attracts the press headlines. Part of this is due to pure linkbait - publishers know that mention of Apple leads to more eyeballs and web links. But I think that the press love to explore the dichotomy or the irony (and possibly the schadenfreude) - that those lustful consumer electronics products (of which the iPod, iPhone and iPad are perhaps the most visible examples) we enjoy in our western homes or Greenwich Village coffee shops could be the product of a toxic workplace, unsavory working practices and inhumane living conditions. That products presented as liberating pieces of lifestyle tech come from one of the most secretive, regimented and restrictive working environments is a delicious, tempting irony few hacks can resist.