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Monday, January 28, 2008

Book Review: Two Books on Networks

The Rise of the Network Society by Manuel Castells
Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries by Reinhold Martin and Kadambari Baxi.

The term network expresses an interconnectedness created and furthered by the proliferation of technologies like telecommunications and computers. This complex idea seems to hover on the surface of the physical world, as bytes move across wireless, cable, and phone lines, culminating in what is popularly known as the Information Age. But networks -- be they financial, computer, or the flow of goods and services -- are physical. They not only inhabit physical space, they shape it and the social relationships that occur within it.
The now landmark, three-volume study by sociologist Manuel Castells analyzes these social changes that came about from the incorporation of computer and other technologies by governments, universities, and corporations. The last have the greatest impact, with the first structuring the ability of corporations to move and work freely across international borders, and the second as training ground for those studying to redefine the global economy. Castells' thesis revolves around an observed transformation of capitalism towards a not only global, but informational focus. One need only turn on the TV and watch the numerous advertisements proclaiming a global transformation in the way we do business or the closing of physical gaps via communication devices to see the now widespread effect of the network society on business practice and many people's lives.
For those readers willing to trek through this first of Castells' three volumes of The Information Age and its myriad statistics, the most rewarding section will most likely be "The Space of Flows," a term Castells coined to describe a space of technical, topological, and social layers. As the author states, "the global city is not a place, but a process," it is clear that traditional physical notions like center, periphery, hierarchy, or density are not as important as more abstract considerations like resilience, flexibility, and connection. Perhaps connection is actually the word, shared by these two extremes, that encompasses the direction of the network society's future course: the still important physical connection of the body alongside the propinquity of sustainable urbanism and the real-time, global connection of the internet and other information technologies.
Arriving over ten years after Castells' thorough analysis is Reinhold Martin and Kadambari Baxi's take on the space of flows, a mix of historical research, analysis, and architectural design. The duo (who practice as Martin / Baxi Architects) look at three cities (Silicon Valley, New York, and New Delhi) as "monuments of corporate globalism" towards a "science of the imaginary" that could influence the design of future working environments. Their focus is on corporate office buildings or complexes, as today these places resemble less the traditional, single-function workplace than a cross-section of the city. Amenities like gyms, cafes, playrooms, and landscaped plazas are some of the examples of how corporations have molded the workplace into a city in miniature. While Martin and Baxi focus on the physical make-up of the Multi-National City (MNC), they ultimately aim to make the book about the networked connections of these and other places, where each city is just a node on an infinite loop of the world in process.
From an architectural standpoint it must be said that the majority of structures that Martin and Baxi research and present are just plain ugly. They are the suburban office parks, the less-than-stellar Midtown skyscrapers, and the contextually insensitive brutes of the periphery. Perhaps this historical lack of imagination sparked the duo to take on unsolicited projects for sites in the three locations: the "dense sprawl" and folded facades of Coyote Valley, the inverted offices and park of Ground Zero, and the pixelated cubes of Delhi Land & Finance. Their projects tend to be strong on implementing their research via siting, programming, and massing, while the architectural beauty is only a notch above the existing context. This is less a critique of their abilities as designers, than an acknowledgement of their focus on those things that really affect change.

Speaking of design, it must be noted that the book is wonderfully designed. Not only does the graphic design of the text reinforce the connected loops of the global network, but the book itself "opens" into two, so the reader can take in the text with or without the photographs of the ugly structures mentioned above. What could be seen at first as a gimmick and a bit excessive (it is one book with four covers, after all) is integrated into a cohesive whole, a closed loop in essence.

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