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Undesigning the Emergency: Against Prophylactic Urban Membranes

Developing Markets
Location: Gold Room Level: Novice
Presentation: external link
Average rating: *****
(5.00, 3 ratings)

Constraint-the Conference’s theme-is not only a set of conditions against which design must struggle, to constrain is also itself a design strategy. Cambrian lurches forward in design ecologies tend to occur in response to an emergency, often a war. Today design is asked to choose between two meta-emergencies: ecological deterioration or the war on terror (now intertwined by the vaporization of finance). Lines are drawn. Bratton’s talk is about the need to undesign the second of these emergencies, to specify a post-war on terror vision for contemporary urbanism, here and abroad.

Our cities are our most important technologies, but they suffer today from a kind of auto-immunity disorder by which we ourselves disfigure them and attack them with defensive measures in the inverted image of a potential threat of future criminal or terrorist violence.

This is a critical problem for the broader open source movement interested in open systems. The pairing of urban software and urban hardware becomes a blended medium through which the city is accessed and made social. For this, the city’s hardware, its partitions and pathways, its smart and dumb platforms, must be further opened to public access, initiative, and innovation. The design of the open polis is dependent on the design of the open software that is, increasingly, dependent on the design of open cities.

Among other examples Bratton considers Green Zones, #Mumbai, Hummers, borderlands, bunker embassies, disputed camps, private-themed space, the West Bank Wall, Morphosis’ decorative camouflage, Virginia Tech, and why “designing like you give a damn” may do more harm than good.

Photo of Benjamin Bratton

Benjamin Bratton

University of California, San Diego

Benjamin H. Bratton is an Associate Professor of Visual Arts at University of California, San Diego where he teaches political philosophy and media aesthetics. He is also director of the design and society project at CALIT2, faculty at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

His research, writing, and practical interests include contemporary social theory, the perils and potentials of planetary computation, architectural theory and provocation, inverse brand theory, software studies, systems design and development, and the rhetorics of exceptional violence.

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Picture of Benjamin Bratton
Benjamin Bratton
03/13/2009 6:54am PDT

Thanks for the comments. Raw text is at I look forward to more feedback, once people have had a chance to read the text.

Picture of Jeremy Douglass
Jeremy Douglass
03/13/2009 6:21am PDT

Bratton’s talk was dense, challenging, and punctuated by compelling images and pithy one-liners.

Ond essential metaphor was very convincing and fit well with the larger conference conversation—that an open architecture for an open civil society has similar advantages to open software and open hardware.

A common reaction I heard after was “now that I heard it, I want to reread / rewatch it so that I can digest it.” I hope Ben follows through and makes his material available online for more contemplative engagement.

Picture of John Fitzpatrick
John Fitzpatrick
03/12/2009 4:37am PDT

this session rocked! a slow start, and lots of big words, and well worth the time.

Picture of Liz Henry
Liz Henry
03/11/2009 10:50am PDT

This was great! I’d love to read the entire paper; is it online? It is beautifully and densely written! Like the Howl of architecture, urban design, and politics!

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