Technology vs Geometry at the Venice Biennale

For the Venice Biennale later this year, the Audi Urban Future Award asked six prestigious architecture firms to come up with visions of what cities might be like in 2030.  The preliminary responses, as reported in the Economist, had a disturbing common theme: cars.

Pretty much all of the presentations assumed that cars would be self-piloting within 20 years, and that their interiors would, to some extent, be transformed into extensions of living spaces.

Some suggested a sort of descendant of the iPad offering an interface between car and passengers, an idea that seemed to emphasise the way in which the vehicles would feel like blank slates. … How the notion of power and autonomy built into the car and its associated desires can be domesticated in ever denser cities will be a crucial matter for at least some of these practices to deal with in their finished projects.

Well, these are visions of the future sponsored by a car company, so I suppose we might cynically have expected this, although the Award website’s summary of the challenge certainly sounds like it took a wider view.  After the usual summary of the problems of expanding urbanism and affluence, they say:

In order to be able to actively shape the future, the intellectual, social and technical principles of the present must be reconsidered. …because all areas of life today are interconnected and mutually dependent, it is every bit as important to think about innovative concepts for mobility as about energy supply systems … In this context, the complex and sometimes chaotic urban structures of the metropolis constitute a laboratory for the advancement of a critical examination of architecture, transport policies, mobility concepts and urban development.

Some jobs are just too big for mortals, and this sounds like one of them.  Human beings can “reconsider” some of the “intellectual, social, and technical principles of the present,” but not all of them at once.  It’s like rock climbing:  The more you extend your speculative reach in one direction, the more firmly you have to hold onto some other assumption.

In this case, it appears that while overturning “the intellectual, social and technical principles of the present,” none of the architects overturned the centrality of the car.  Instead, that was one of their anchors, a solid conceptual foothold that let them imagine in other ways.

This is tool-fetishism, but it’s an instructive mistake because we’re all tempted to fetishize tools.

Technology can do a lot of things.  It can make some headway against our biological and physical constraints.  It may even solve the crises around energy and emissions.  But the problem of cars in cities is not a technology problem, it’s a geometry problem: a problem of space.

Every car takes up 12-15 square metres.  In 2030, there will be a lot more people, and a lot more people will have money.  If they all buy cars, no iPad interface or
in-seat stereo system or self-driving computer or green-powered motor is going to solve the real problem, which is that a major city doesn’t have room for them all.

So it won’t happen.  Rich people may have self-driving cars, but they won’t be the basis of the city.  So we need something else.  That’s really what the architects — and even Audi — should be planning for.

14 Responses to Technology vs Geometry at the Venice Biennale

  1. Alex B. June 7, 2010 at 7:40 am #

    Great post, Jarrett.
    One thing I’d add about the space problem is that the diffused nature of the car network – offering point to point travel – means that you need that terminal space for every single car destination. It’s not just a one car, one space relationship – one car then requires many spaces.

  2. EngineerScotty June 7, 2010 at 8:02 am #

    Well, there’s always this

  3. Danny June 7, 2010 at 8:25 am #

    The problem with trying to win an award that is sponsored by Audi is that you are trying to please Audi, not anyone else.

  4. Brent June 7, 2010 at 9:19 am #

    These visions reminds me of General Motors’ “Futurama” exhibit — imagining the world of 1960 — at the 1939 World’s Fair (YouTube has the videos). They might have gotten some parts of the future right, but in retrospect seems more like a warning of impending dystopia.
    We won’t have self-driving cars in the future, humans won’t want to give up control, and companies won’t want the liability for computer decisions gone awry. But I do wish that future sponsors of these sorts of imaginings would constrain their participants with more probing questions: How do you envision a world with $25 per gallon gasoline? How do you envision a world with population densities three times what they are now? How do we resolve the problem of the commute?

  5. Nick June 7, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    @Jarrett The obvious technological solution to the geometry problem is a shrink-ray!
    @Brent With respect, self-driving cars are already here, it’s just that we don’t call them that; a number of luxury models currently offer lane-keeping assist, auto-brake assist, and parking assist.

  6. Joseph E June 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    Self-driving buses would be valuable, and due to their fairly constant routes, are a much easier engineering problem than self-driving private cars. Driverless trains are a trivial problem next to these.
    Yet many transit systems continue to delay switching to automated metro operation, due to the cost, risks and complexity of automated operation on existing lines, and many new rail lines continue to be built for human-driven vehicles.
    I have trouble believing that cars will be driving themselves in 20 years, when grade-separated trains still usually “require” human drivers. Once I see driverless, at-grade light rail, then perhaps we can work on driverless buses.
    As far as cars that drive themselves… at taxi costs $3 a mile around here. How’s that for you?

  7. Joseph E June 7, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    @Alex B: Re: “It’s not just a one car, one space relationship – one car then requires many spaces.”
    Yup. There are at least 3 parking spaces for every driver in many areas, according to this study: Also see:
    There were 11 parking spaces per family in the midwestern states surveyed.
    The study surveyed parking lots via satellite photo, and does not include street parking or parking garages, which might up the ratio to 4 or 5 parking spaces per driver, or up to 20 parking spaces per family.

  8. dejv June 8, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    @ Joseph E –
    Rotterdam’s Parkshuttle is driverless unguided “bus” operating since 2000.

  9. Anon June 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    Regarding geometry, what sort of solutions do you think should be applied when the amount of space in the central city is too low for conventional mass transit like rail and buses? This is sometimes the case in older European cities, where streets designed for a few people on foot and horseback are now required to handle the traffic (pedestrian, auto or transit) of a growing metro area. Bikeshare and tunneling are possible answers, have you seen any others that work well?

  10. MB June 8, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    Jarrett, it’s not just dead storage for cars that take up space, but roads.
    The land area for publicly-owned freeways, arterials, collectors, cul-de-sacs and lanes probabaly approaches 40% of a city’s average land mass in North America and Australia. Include the private driveways, parking lots and parkades and you’re well over half.
    Think about that kind of acreage for a minute. It’s absolutely astounding, and a very wasteful way to manage land.
    Regarding cars in the future … well perhaps we’ve already eaten that cake. The land base for public transit (let alone housing, urban farming, etc.) could very well consist of former road allowances.

  11. anonymouse June 9, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    @Anon I would say that it’s fairly rare for a central city not to have enough space for a streetcar line. Look at Lisbon, where they managed to fit a streetcar line into some very narrow and steep streets with the help of some single-track and interlaced sections. You can also divert the larger flows of through traffic around the city core with its narrow streets. But beyond a certain point, you’re going to need tunnels anyway.

  12. Misha B. June 11, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    It looks like these future “visions” are extrapolations of trends from the sixties…
    @ Joseph E – I agree driverless buses would be valuble, but I’m not sure that technologically they will come sooner than cars. The smaller a vehicle the easier it should be to allow it drive itself, and less dangerous as well. Furthermore, other things being equal, it’s more valuable to make small vehicles driverless rather than large because you save more driving work. Fixed route vehicles should be easier if they stick to one lane, so fixed route driverless minibuses could allow cheap and frequent transit in the future on the not-very busy corridors. Navigting a complex route is however not a problem even now.
    I don’t think we might expect very usable driverless cars in the near five or seven years, but making negative predictions further seems a bit stretched, considering how fast some technologies develop. If this technology will be delayed by fear it will be probably the fear of politicians rather than car companies.
    I’d also bet it won’t be developed by a large car company but by a small start up, since such technology demands understanding how driving works, not how cars work.
    If indeed we have driverless cars. I think it will revolutionize much in cities.
    1. Death and injury in car accidents will pass away from the world. Driving is very unnatural for humans, as the risks involved with it are not apparent when driving (as they are in more physical activities), I’ll be happy if drivi ng will go away for that reason alone.
    2. congestion related with human behavior will go away. I think it’s widely accepted that most (highway) traffic jams are caused by driver behaviour rather than by physics. The elimintion of the human factor from driving may then allow a given amount of (inter-urban) car trips be made on narrower roads with less complex interchanges.
    3. the attitude towards parking would completely change. When cars can just drop you at your destination and go park themselves 500 or 1000 meters away, the need for a parking place everywhere will be gone and a new equiberillium will be estblished between the cost of parking in a spesific spot (by your destination) and the cost of the car driving a bit further. Many streets may become narrower and allow only pick up and dropping by cars. Parking structures may become much more efficient and be really treated as car storage.
    4. Short-term car rental will merge with taxis and become significantly cheaper. It may even be more economical not to own a car even if one has to make car trips every day, since one will only have to pay for the cost of a trip rather than a cost of a car plus parking. In that case, much of the need for parking will be eliminated altogether.
    5. For transit, as I suggested, the not so busy corridors can be served by frequent minibuses. Since taxi rides will be so much cheaper, the routes with least demand (the lossy ones) can be abandoned and transit attention be concentrated on what it does best – moving many people on busy corridors and creating efficient networks in dense areas.
    Just to sum up, I think when a technology of driverless vehicles becomes real, it will have huge positive impacts on quality of life in cities and on mobility – definitely much more so than futuristic technologies like electric cars or PRT.

  13. Scott June 23, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    Don’t worry Jarrett architects are working on this! At least some of the ones that are in universities today. It’s a very interesting problem. One of my architecture professors had us redesign a Chicago residential block in a low income neighborhood in such a way that maximized land area but still using the 1 residence 1 lot convention and maximizing solar exposure for winter months. We were able to get 2 – 2.5x current density easily while including a 1 car garage minimum and the required alley access for that. It was eye opening to see how big a garage really is, about the size of a living room. The alley additionally takes up about half of the land area of the house in front of it.
    Without garages houses could be bigger, or there could be more of them. Additionally land used for alleys and street parking could be built on or planted over and that opens the doors to many more possibilities.
    I agree with you that the only real future we have for transportation is densifying it and self driving iCars and PRT pods are going to be as common as Ferrari’s, helicopters and personal jets are today.

  14. Daniel Sparing July 5, 2010 at 1:56 am #

    Very true post.
    Also, I wouldn’t like rich people driving automated cars either, as this pretty much sounds like
    1. rich people killing cyclists and pedestrians just because they can, or
    2. rich people building elevated structures from public money in our cities, or
    3. both.
    The false vision of green and/or automated cars is clearly a huge disruption in designing cities with high quality public transport and walking/cycling infrastructure.