The search for the virtual version of the meeting at the well


June 9, 2000

Urban life, Jim," William Mitchell's subtitle to e-topia admonishes us, "but not as we know it." His theme is the effect on urban form and habitation of information technology, and the phrase encapsulates his conclusion, that the digital revolution will change rather than destroy cities. Throughout history, developments in technology or administration have provoked speculation on the future of cities. This revolution has already given us, for instance, Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital and Richard Rogers's Cities for a Small Planet .

As the world becomes one giant computer, digital technology sets the field of possibility for every action and access to it becomes the measure of social inclusion. Virtual environments will assume many of the social functions of traditional cities. With better control and less waste, new urban environments could be genuinely "green". It is not necessary to be a techno-geek to find this familiar, but without being original, Mitchell, who is dean of the school of architecture and planning at MIT, places these predictions in a tradition of writings about urbanism that includes Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs and Peter Hall.

In seeking to splice a Mumfordian view of civil society onto a Negropontean digital future, Mitchell has to give everything a precedent and its digital equivalent. He writes: "the latest wave of urban infrastructural networking will play much the role that its predecessors did... As canals and muscle power were to Amsterdam, Venice and Suzhou... digital telecommunications will be to the cities of the 21st century". His latent teleology becomes explicit when he asks: "What will be the 21st-century equivalents of the gathering at the well?" To expect any presupposes a view of society that Mitchell does not acknowledge, just as searching for historical precedents to modern needs runs a risk of misinterpreting history.

But, as Mitchell puts it, "all that is solid melts in this hot air". Mitchell identifies a larger agenda "to design the future we want, not to predict its predetermined path". This is a reasonable subject for architectural speculation and it has no clear outcome. Yet it is hardly new. Architects such as Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Toyo Ito have produced buildings where virtual technology vies with material form to create effect, and its possibilities have shaped architectural thought at least since the Archigram group produced a series of visionary proposals in the 1960s. Rather than engage with the challenges that such projects evoke, Mitchell merely asserts that the "diverse architectural and urban forms of the future will surely reflect the balances and combinations of interaction modes". Having warned "it is a mistake to generalise", Mitchell is remarkably general in his predictions, and his insight that there is a need for living/ working spaces has already been anticipated by property developers and planning authorities in loft developments.

To say that a reluctance to address specifically architectural issues suggests that he is not writing for architects begs the question of where his audience is. With insufficient history for historians, inadequate visualisations for architects, and written in a breathless journalese that the digital revolution seems to provoke, e-topia amounts to "academic writing, Jim, but not as we know it".

Jeremy Melvin is senior lecturer in history of architecture, South Bank University.

e-topia: 'Urban Life Jim - But Not As We Know It'

Author - William J. Mitchell
ISBN - 0 262 13355 5
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £13.95
Pages - 184

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