Nicholas de Monchaux’s book Local Code explains how the military-industrial complex ushered cities into the the age of technocratic data.
By Zach Mortice
In his new book, Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design, and the Nature of Cities, the University of California, Berkeley architecture and urban design professor Nicholas de Monchaux develops new tools for the mass customization of underused and vacant urban lots, highlighting the limits of inflexible systems thinking. His book charts a way forward with an eye on past failures, and new possibilities founded in corrective measures that have proved to work.
American cities’ first encounters with data, he writes, happened after World War II. That’s when protocomputing power, developed by the military and Cold War consultancies such as the RAND Corporation, merged with tabula rasa modernist urban planning. These binary solutions to complex built environments (remembered most vividly as Robert Moses-style urban renewal that tore down anything old and dirty) became what de Monchaux calls the book’s “Brothers Grimm villain, appearing in disguises throughout,” across three critical essays. There’s the obvious Jane Jacobs counterpoint, an exploration of Gordon Matta-Clark’s time as a fellow connoisseur of vacant lots with his Reality Properties: Fake Estates project, and the story of Howard Fisher, an early developer of Geographic Information Systems, the standard computer mapping system used for displaying Earth surface data. Early on, de Monchaux lets the reader know that the creep from military-industrial computation to urban infrastructure was inevitable, and blowing from the top. “The techniques that are going to put a man on the moon,” said Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968, “are going to be exactly the techniques that we are going to need to clean up our cities.” Often, the results were traffic-choked freeways running through what had been vibrant neighborhoods. Sometimes the results were just as hapless, but far more inane, like the RAND Corporation’s attempt to model the city of Pittsburgh as a “system of equations.”
The number in the book’s subtitle refers to nearly 4,000 underused or vacant sites across four cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Venice, Italy) where de Monchaux is proposing an array of stormwater infiltration and green space interventions. It’s a landscape architecture tool set he’s engaged to deal with a looming threat. He wants to use data about these sites to aid disaster resilience and sustainability efforts. To do so, he has developed custom software that inputs GIS data and uses an algorithm to assemble simple diagrams of water cycle flows and vegetative filtration for each dusty lot, back alley, and interstitial nowhere space included in the book. Using city databases, help from academic institutions and nonprofits, as well as his own knowledge of 60 vacant islands in the Venice lagoon, he’s produced a book that couldn’t have been assembled a generation ago.
Local Code is an infographic encyclopedia, with photos documenting vacant lots in-situ, dot maps of various social and ecological pathologies for each city, and thousands of postage stamp-sized renderings of each underused site swept up in the author’s investigation. There’s a digital sheen to these renderings, but the book’s black and white documentary photos and its intense grounding in history make it a fascinating historical document. De Monchaux’s epigraph for Howard Fisher’s career might be a fitting one for his own book: “Maps remain at their most powerful when used not as instruments of unattended action or procedure, but rather as devices to change perceptions of the world, and understanding of its possibilities.” LAM took some time to ask de Monchaux about the perceptions and possibilities of mapping envisioned in his own work. (This interview has been edited.)
Why create new design software to critique how data has been applied to cities in the past?
When I started this project in 2008, there was a lot of talk, at least in architectural circles, about parametric design and the use of digital design tools. But what most surprised and alarmed me about that work was that there was talk about parametric design in the context of the city, but there was no use of the enormous amount of information we actually have about landscapes in the city. So you’re taking a kind of data-driven process, but you’re not feeding any interesting or useful data into it. And so it was an attempt to show what might be possible if you used data-driven tools with usable data.
Can you draw a direct line from post-World War II military system data modules to current GIS systems?
The very first Geographic Information System was the SAGE [Semi-Automatic Ground Environment] air defense console. That was the very first time geographic information was mapped onto a screen by a computer, and it was in order to defend the United States from Soviet invasion. The biggest consumer of GIS throughout most of the 20th century was the military. One of the things that got really baked into the way GIS operates is this series of if-then propositions; if you encounter this condition, you do that. [It] very much comes from the command-and-control origins of the military-industrial organization, and it does not actually reflect what Howard Fisher, the inventor of GIS at Harvard, [was doing]. What they were exploring was the ability of a map to allow human intelligence to apprehend and make intuitive judgments about a situation in a much more complex way. But I think one of the things that happened in the GIS community is that we use maps less and less to understand complex situations as a whole, and more and more to simply drive local decision making.
You’re trained as an architect, but your book proposes a set of landscape architecture tools to fix landscape urbanism issues. Why?
One of the reasons why landscape urbanism has come to the fore in the last decade or two is that the main problem with cities is not the shape of their buildings, but rather their ability to survive and respond to an increasingly unpredictable and extreme natural environment. As an architect who cares about cities, you end up worrying an enormous amount about things that are traditionally the domain of a landscape architect, like how cities respond to heat and water and large-scale environmental variables. And the tools that are useful for dealing with things like stormwater are much more landscape tools than architecture tools. But I think landscape urbanism has already begun to argue that the boundaries between landscape architecture and urban design should be broken down.
Why choose these four cities, beyond practical considerations of already available data? Each of them are pretty exceptional in different ways. Why not formulate proposals for more “average” cities—Kansas City, Baltimore, Houston, etc.?
The problem of vacancy in cities with booming economies like San Francisco or New York is a different problem from vacancy in a city like Cleveland. Having tackled the problem in San Francisco, the problems in New York and L.A. were similar. To talk about what vacancy means in a context like Detroit is an entirely different puzzle that I would be eager to take on, but I’m aware enough of the profound differences that I realize it would be a whole other project.
I presented this work at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design with the mayor of Detroit, and we had such an interesting conversation about all the profound ways in which the work was not applicable there. One of the characteristics of dense, highly developed cities is that there are these thin, but dense, archipelagos of neglect running through them, and those archipelagos of neglect coincide precisely with the areas where the provision of ecosystem services is going to have the most profound effect. That’s a very specific condition. The situation in Detroit is the precise inverse, where you need to build a kind of diffuse but dense network of city, not of ecology.
Are landscape architects more sensitive than architects about paying attention to what’s on a site and not applying simplistic, blanket data-driven solutions to the environment?
I do think landscape architects have an edge in that way, but I also think that the explosion of data about the physical environment does not actually mean it’s any easier to understand a place. It means that instead of not being able to get enough information on a site, we tend to be swamped with too much information and never exactly what we’re looking for. So I think data literacy is a very essential part of design education. How to choose and value all the different kinds of data the world will try to give you is probably the most essential skill in designing [for] cities and landscapes today.