R: This year, Postopolis was a five-day event, where bloggers of the built environment came back out from behind their keyboards, convening in a real, live urban environment. For me, this trip out west was a follow up to the first Postopolis that Storefront for Art+Architecture hosted in the unseasonably sweaty June of 07. I glowed my way through that, when the Masters of the Built Environment Blogs (BLDGBLOG, City of Sound, Subtopia and others) descended on NYC to curate several days of talks by their favorite urban/tech thinkers-and-doers. This week, Alissa and I joined the Postopolites again, this time shivering through its second coming last week in LA, outdoors on the fifth facade – aka the roof – of the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
A: It was disturbingly, unseasonably cold. I believe I coined the term Frostopolis.
R: Nice. Did you feel like this was primarily a celebration of blogging or of architecture or urbanism or something else all together?
A: I think it represented a very interesting convergence of information and urbanism. I think blogging as a phenomenon is kind of boring to talk about, but what it represents is really just a faster way of disseminating good ideas about where and how we live (and Twitter is maybe even better). Maybe the point of all this is that we’re able to affect cities more intelligently by understanding them better, and now, thanks to our ability to share this information more efficiently, we will? What do you think?
R: I absolutely agree that the draw for me was far more the subject matter, than the format – I’m taking the ‘it’s the content, stupid’ approach, as usual. Converging on shared interests creates community, and that’s one reason I made the trip out here – to participate, instead of just reading about it. When I’ve described Postopolis to others, I’ve made a point of saying it’s about urbanism and technology: the intersection of physical place and information space, not just about blogging about cities.
That said, there’s definitely a quality to this that’s defined by the format – something appealing about seeing some of my favorite online foragers coming out from behind the screen to put faces to what and who they’ve gathered on their blogs. I mean, when I scroll through archive lists of months and years of posts, my mind boggles that there’s a real person, with bills to pay and a life to lead, behind these editorial ziggurats that the rest of us gobble up and trade with others. But more impressive than the discipline of maintaining that curatorial role is what they’ve documented: Yes, your idea that we’re able to impose ourselves on the city by understanding it better is key; how better representations of cities improve our understanding, experience and engagement with cities is of particular interest to me – I’m here for the dynamic data visualizers, the graphic storytellers, the spoken word poets, pretty much anyone who forsakes PowerPoint.
A: Right, like Eric Rodenbeck’s super-conversational whiskey-drinking delivery of his work for Stamen Design. I love how they see the city as data to be sliced and diced at will: they made heat maps of Manhattan showing where all the upwardly mobile single ladies lived and also slurped all the information about where Oakland crimes were located into this beautiful, easy to read web-based application. It just wouldn’t have been possible to see the city that way before, and it can all be used to improve the urban experience.
R: Yup, can’t get enough of what Stamen has been up to, and the implications of others’ work like that. Coming back to Postopolis this year after the first one, it’s struck me this time how much has changed in just two years. From Bush to Obama, the economy tanked, and perhaps a shift from peak blogging to peak Tweeting. Graphics of dry data are now sexy – or at least better looking to regular people: pictures are indisputably a compelling way for fact-chasers to view and make sense of the ec-crisis. Oh, and we headed west for this one. I like that we’re in SoCal, not SFO for this one – it resituates the tech vibe of the discussion significantly. And there’s no escaping the urbanism here.
A: True, it’s obvious for anyone who knows me that the fact this event focused on LA was the single biggest draw, seeing as I’m a rabid defender of Los Angeles as the Greatest Unfinished City on Earth, and I’ll deliver a beat down to anyone who says otherwise. I was interested to see what about LA they found compelling, as (mostly) outsiders.
R: So what, to you, felt distinctly ’09 and West Coast to you about this week’s talks? And what’s noteworthy about the blog culture of this event?
A: Well, if you’re going to be discussing any issues of the built environment, LA is like one big gaping wound of a case study. We have some pretty awesome problems to deal with right now, so if you’ve got radical new ideas, our situation puts you in a good frame of mind to express them. There was a lot of talk of community, whether it’s designing a building to encourage it, or using technology to map it, or even the community that’s this connective tissue that binds all us design and architecture bloggers. I think 2009 was a sign that we’re moving from the era of posting a rendering first (First!) to becoming something much more substantial. We’re so closely networked now, we share and comment on each others’ ideas in a public forum, we can reach a lot of people who are engaged with their own communities…so what do we do with this phenomenon?
R: I reckon we keep going with the systemic thinking that networks encourage; the economic crisis demonstrates that bluntly. So I also reckon, as far as urban planning goes, we celebrate that we’re now more aware of interconnectedness and networks offline, whether that’s run-off from nascent internet culture or not: Michael Downing, the LAPD Chief Commissioner for Counterterrorism, brought this home: Communities are at least a match for vertical organizations, joined-up effort makes the efficient and personalized experiences (of all kinds) possible, especially in cities where there’s connectedness through density. From his talk, I also appreciated that interesting relationships emerge as top-down, traditional hierarchies coexist alongside – and even intersect and cooperate with – matrixed communities. So at once, he lent the event credibility – woo, here’s an important guy from law enforcement – but he also appreciated the potency of shared knowledge and collaboration in a city with no center.
A: Right, which is also where something like Twitter came into play, with little bits of ideas drifting out over the rooftop and out into the world like dandelion fluff for anyone to grab onto and act upon. I really liked that part of it. I liked reading into some of the community coverage and analysis more than some of the speakers themselves, some of whom I thought had exceptionally poor presentation skills. But as we discussed, that’s what happens when you invite someone mysterious from the dark realms of the blogosphere.
R. Which leads me to wonder…where are the girls besides Mademoiselle deBatty? There are certainly lots of women blogging, and many in the audience. Did we lose our voice or not make it into the lads pack this time? Who gets citizenship of Postopolis? What kind of community is it?
A: To tell you the truth, I was surprised. I don’t want to dwell on it, but since this is a hot topic, I went ahead and broke it down. Of the 62 speakers only 13 were female. I was actually on a panel with three other women, the most female-dominated moment of the entire event. Thursday was completely bereft of women speakers whatsoever. One can only think that this could have been avoided in the planning stage if the participating bloggers weren’t 5/6 male. But you’re right, there were tons of women who attended and plenty who blog about this stuff. Besides all that, though, what were some of the highlights for you?
R. I liked the Benjamins: Benjamin Ball, of architect duo, Ball and Nogues, presenting Frank Zappa’s axiom, “You can’t eat the recipe” and Benjamin Bratton‘s entire talk (looking forward to Cityofsound.com posting the full transcript) and his phrase the ‘Caliphate of Google’ – don’t give them any ideas! Back to format, and better representations of complex information, I loved Mike the Poet and now that I’ve washed my hands, I liked that my red pen started leaking during Gary Dauphin‘s talk on vampirism and Fort Greene.
A: There were a lot of weird moments like that. Downing talked survelliance as a helicopter circled overheard. And remember when Christian Moeller was talking about his “vibrators”—poles that sent out an electric charge when people touched them—and he kept getting shocked by his computer? Ok, highlights. I already mentioned Stamen Design. The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Matthew Coolidge showed this crazy flyover of the Houston Ship Channel, which is basically an oil metropolis. Christopher Hawthorne talked about Dubai as an example of Bernie Madoff planning. I loved Jeffrey Inaba‘s studies for Volume and the New Museum where they discovered this new culture of giving alongside all the economic collapse. Fallen Fruit is always a treat. And I really liked the casual nature of the event, that you could move in and out of the space without disturbing the program, huddle under heat lamps with someone for a quick tete-a-tete then come back into the conversation. Did you like the format?
R: Yes, though wish I’d had a duvet and better socks with me. It’d definitely lose some character if the main bloggers weren’t moderating, and it feels like a more concentrated dose of inspiration than quickfire multi-city, often mobbed Pecha Kucha. How would a Postopolis ’11 go down in the suburbs, in the periphery, in – heaven forfend – the flyover zone?
A: Sydney has been floated around as the next location, but to be honest I’d like to see this go somewhere like Detroit. And I’d rather see mini-Postopolises spring up in cities throughout the year, with the bloggers from their own cities curating the programs and focusing on action.
R: So, PNY 07 was too hot, and PLA 09 too cold, but now we can all retreat to our respective built environments for another couple of years til the next one throws some other climatic adversity our way. Temperature fluctuations = no impediment: Just a healthy reminder that even bloggers, and their devotees, express sensitivity to physical surroundings not only through WordPress and beard-scratching architectural erudition, but also in flip flops and fleece.
A: And drinking Red Bull Belvederes doesn’t even help you stay warm, unfortunately.
The views expressed are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.