New Urban topologies:
The Desire for Public Place in the Age of Virtual Geography

Michael Jenson


September 15, 2006

While citizenship and civility depend not only on 'blood' and 'soil', as we keep being told, but also, and perhaps especially, on the nature and proximity of human groups, would it not be more appropriate to come up with a different kind of ecology? A discipline less concerned with nature than with the effects of the artificial environment of the town on the degradation of the physical proximity of beings, of different communities. Proximity of the immediate neighborhood of different parts of town; 'mechanical' proximity of the lift, the train or the car and lastly, most recently, electromagnetic proximity of instantaneous telecommunications...


                                                                                          Paul Virilio, 'Grey Ecology' [1]



Throughout the history of urban center in the west, the public "square" and "street" have been the predominant locations of participation in the life of the polis. Historically, this has been where political debates and conversations have taken place, domestic turmoil and celebrations have emerged, as well as the expression of unity that comes about when differing individuals begin to develop a common identity often reinforced by the aesthetic qualities and meaning associated with certain places, architecture, or urban forms. Recently, with the rapid rise in influence of telecommunications and other associated technologies, our perceptions of the role of a specific place or urban form in constituting this type of identity have radically changed. This paper will set out to explore the traditional role that these urban spaces have played in the cultivation of a sense of belonging to a group identified with a certain geographical location, how these advances have caused a certain 'placelessness' in modern societies, and how the purpose of these traditionally important spaces might be reconceptualized to produce a new strategy and understanding of urban space.   An agenda that attempts to address possibilities and opportunities within the transformation of urban spaces in the context of globalization. Properly defined, such an agenda could speculate on possible new conceptions of urban infrastructural strategies that enhance both the material and virtual experience of urbanity within the rapid transformations seemingly occurring at an increasingly rapid rate.


The idea for this investigation emerged from two events. The first, was a question from a colleague, who submitted it for a panel discussion that was part of a symposium entitled “Horizontal Urbanism: Design and The Urban University”. Her question was one of five submitted and went something like this:

How is public space defined within horizontal urbanism?   Specifically how are the street and square, the traditional sites of public debate and protest, reconfigured within the context of horizontal urbanism if we understand this new emerging urbanism to be experienced primarily from the perspective of the automobile and the daily commute?[2]

The second stems from a quote in Open Sky by French Theorist, Paul Virilio. In his essay, entitled “Grey Ecology”, a similar question seems to be being asked, but with an added dimension. In this text, he demands the development of a new type of ecology, a Grey one that differs considerably from the familiar green. For it would set out to study “this pollution of the life-size that reduces to nothing earth's scale and size.” [3] In other words, he is asking for an ecology that studies the assault by virtual technologies on our communal and personal relationships. More specifically, he is referring to those relationships that have traditionally been defined through connections to specific places such as neighborhoods or buildings. Virilio asserts that it is these spatial relationships that are being radically redefined by the emergent influence of rapid global transit and instantaneous methods of communication.

Both the assertion of Virilio and the question stated by my colleague, hit upon core perceptions emergent in a large part of contemporary discourse about the rapid transformation of modern life. Some of these discussions find their basis in fact, however a large majority seem to find their foundations in common myths and misconceptions. To truly understand the implications and possibilities of the transformations by these virtual technologies, these preconceptions must be overcome. To undertake this measure, certain definitions and historical lineages must be explored to develop a contextual understanding of recent events and their potential.

In this context, several possible avenues for an investigation into the role that the technologies of virtual reality, telecommunications, and rapid travel have played in the transformation of our conception of the public sphere begin to emerge. The complex nature of their appearance can begin to be simplified somewhat by structuring their study in the form of several questions about the nature of modern urban space, in general. They are: 1) what is meant by the term, ‘the public sphere,' and how does its definition relate to our predominant notion of modern urban space? 2) What are some of the more pertinent aspects of globalization and how do they relate to the notion of virtual reality in the transformation of our conception of modern public life? 3) And finally, what are some possible starting points in the development of a theoretical paradigm that might successfully conceptualize the most beneficial and productive potential for the relationship of the abstract space of globalization and the inhabited spaces of physical urbanity that enrich our daily lives?   To begin an attempt to answer such questions, this investigation will begin by attempting to unravel the complexity of our usage of the term public space.  

Definitions of Urban Space and the Public Sphere

It is hard to underestimate the importance that public space has on the definition of the fundamental attributes of the social/political structures that influence our personal identities. Descriptions on the subject range from the utilization of abstract terminology commonly found in philosophical or political investigations to more concrete terms of an ‘architectural' usage. Due to the inherent interdisciplinary nature of the subject a certain ambiguity of definition arises that needs to be clarified. Habermas defines urban space simply as “a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed.”[4] Other authors have also defined it quite eloquently in the more architecturally descriptive terms of an urban square where significant historical events might emerge:  

"A similar idea is sometimes expressed with the more concrete phrase, Public Square, the place according to Bakhtin, where history is enacted. It stands in contrast to private spaces such as rooms, houses, and gardens, which are settings for the enactment of individual lives.   The public square is a site of conflict, a heteroglossia where ‘the Nietzschean, the peasant or the student speak publicly as such.' This conjures up a useful image. Picture an open plaza overlooked by a regal balcony. In the plaza stand the people, for the moment listening; on the balcony stands the ruler, for the moment pronouncing. The people assembled in the square become public once they are able to debate among themselves and respond to the pronouncements of the state with rational protests and formal petitions."[5]

By this then, it becomes apparent that there is a direct connection between public space and the formulation of civic life. Public spaces then, are settings for individuals to congregate and formulate civil organizations. They are places where people can meet to discuss their respective cultural merits and faults, pasts and futures as equal participants in the societal realm. They are, as Rowan Moore quite clearly describes them, “spaces where a community acquires a sense of itself.”[6]

In an attempt to produce a more coherent and consistent definition of public space, John Gulick in his essay, entitled “The ‘Disappearance of Public Space': An Ecological Marxist and Lefebvrian Approach” outlines three common consistencies or types in the myriad of definitions he has discovered. He defines them, as 1) physical property owned by the state, 2) symbolic sign systems that do not govern but aid in the definition of a culture or society, and 3) the ‘public sphere' of landscapes where citizens interact both socially and politically.[7] The first of these seems to refer to the most familiar notion of ‘public space' that which describes spaces where the rights of wealthy and powerful individuals to capriciously exclude other individuals is suspended, or at least mediated by a governing body. Public parks, squares, streets, playgrounds and beaches are included in this definition. In other words, it refers to all the property that is controlled by some type of state institution. The second definition refers to the description of ‘public space' as a ‘democratic semiotic space'.   What is being referred to with this kind of definition is the majority of the built environment that can be experienced without engaging in a formal exchange of commodities. It is by encountering cultural signage that the latent meanings of the intentions of its individual creators are indicated, as well as the entire social, political, and economic system that inevitably dictates their actions. Features that draw on local traditions and are generally landscapes that contain opportunities to view artifacts that do not require the payment of entry fees or propagate the agenda of a private interest constitute such spaces.  

The third and final type relates to the traditional notion of the assembly; a political body who gathers and rationally discusses with their peers important issues of the day. This is a realm that entails, “A complex mix of celebrating communal existence and partaking in non-instrumental exchanges characterizes social fusion in this milieu, not the abstract, placeless, and instrumental logic of price-based transactions.”[8] With all of these distinctions, one can see how complex any description of a public space can be and all the varying subtle aspects that comprise it. Most of the famous European squares have characteristics of all three definitions mentioned above.

Consequently, in the last quote, an important distinction arises that emphasizes the relationship between the physically inhabited space of our cities and the more abstract space of commerce. Whereas Gulick's definitions describe physically inhabited spaces, the type of space he contrasts these to extend the potential conception of public space in a completely abstract and physically less tangible direction. Its parameters are less rigorously defined and based on a conceptual and homogenous Cartesian ideology that ignores both the terrain and the traditions of the physical world.    

To fully illuminate this distinction between these two concepts of inhabited and abstract space, two terms must enter this discussion. In his book, entitled Space and Spirit in Modern Japan , Barry Greenbie develops terms that describe two very different kinds of public space. The more personally inhabited type of setting that conveys cultural and social meaning he calls proxemic space, the type relating more to the impersonal transactions of commercial activity, he terms dystemic.

For the complex array of tribal uses of spaces that human beings exhibit, I have adapted the word proxemic coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall to designate the study of human use of space specifically as an expression of local culture. To match it, I have invented the term dystemic to describe the use of space for more impersonal, abstract relationships that enable members of various social groups to deal with each other amicably. This word is intended to suggest both greater social distance and great physical scale. Proxemic as I use the word is quite close in meaning to the adjective tribal, but proxemic relationships can be very modern, as in a professional society, a scientific discipline, a trendy youth culture or Japanese culture. They include those values, myths, and rituals that bind together citizens of a modern nation, as well as the more ancient traditions that the word tribal signifies … I like to think of dystemic space as the worldwide locale of a community of strangers.[9]

With these terms then, the author describes two predominant notions of space that have emerged in our modern global society. One relates to our traditions and more personal concepts of identity as a member of a specific group through the interaction with physical persons and places. This concept has been with us for millennia and influenced some of our most famous and beloved urban spaces. The second is newly emergent, (over the last 400 years or so) and refers to the impersonal interactions of global economics and politics. The spatial structure of telecommunications and the Internet fall within this description of space.

Public Space, Globalization, and the Virtual Realm: Connections, Myths, and Desires

Though it is now an established metaphor in the description of modern social and political changes, the term, ‘globalization' has been so widely utilized and misapplied that it risks being drained of all of its descriptive power. This largely economic process has been widely held to be the instigator of such far ranging events as the demise of the nation-state, the death of history, and the end of the socialization process that has spawned one of humanity's greatest achievements, the artifact of the city. The process of globalization's emergence as a force of epic and uncontrollable proportions is generally seen as a recent occurrence. In reality, this view is misguided considering, for instance that it was globalization that actually created the modern system of nation-states.[10]  Actually, cultural globalization has been around since the sixteenth century, spreading its influence through any military, political, or economic means available.

If globalization then is not a recent phenomenon, its much-anointed sibling – virtual reality – likely shares a similar historical lineage. The virtualization of our existence didn't suddenly appear during the second half of the 1980's as common belief holds, it was actually heralded by the invention of the telegraph which dictated, more than any other technology of its day, the separation of transportation mechanisms and communication networks.[11]  In his text, “Cyberspace and the Globalization of Culture”, Jon Stratton describes this event with his statement:

It is…not the introduction of computers which marks the beginning of the production of cyberspace, but the increase in the speed of communication over distance to the point where time taken for the message to traverse that distance reduces to a period experienced by the sender and receiver as negligible.[12]

It is at this stage that the dominance of the mobility of actual physical beings and messages by various modes of existing transportation of the time was subverted by the transport of messages in a non-material form. This new emergent technology contained the potential to travel across space at abbreviated periods of time formerly only imagined in the most creative fictional writings of the time.[13]

With the emergence of this new technology, strangely familiar descriptions also began to surface concerning the increased pace and competition of the contemporary life of the times. In fact, George Beard wrote in his book American Nervousness (1881), it was the telegraph and railroads that had intensified the tempo of life at the time to such an extent that a influx of medical and psychological problems had arisen. Hence, at the end of the nineteenth century there was an anxiety in the air that was not dissimilar to the feelings expressed today at the beginning of the 21 st century. These then-new technologies of the railroad and telegraph created a paradigm shift in the common perception of the temporal-spatial conditions of the day. Over the course of the nineteenth century, individuals also had to deal with disjointed and unfamiliar urban spaces, the rise in industrial production with its detrimental side effects and an overload of visual information in the form of printed material.

In recent times, new technologies have spawned a techno-world order that replaced the cold war order of the late 20 th century. Where recent trends in globalization have defining technologies such as computers, miniaturization, digitization, satellites and a virtual web in the form of the Internet, and it replaced the imagery of the cold war whose manifested symbology was that of a wall. The latter system focused on division and difference as the foundation for its defining ideologies, while the former utilizes the metaphor of integration and attempts to circumvent the differentiating aspects of the cold war. In this context, the ‘merger' has replaced the treaty. The clear and precise dichotomies that so effectively neutralized at every level the complexity of world relations with oppositional symbolisms such as East/West, capitalism/communism, and bear/eagle, has unraveled as symbolic “walls” have been replaced by “expansive webs and networks”.[14]

This complexity, which in many ways is unprecedented in both its scale and speed, has sent many individuals clamoring for the seemingly more stable times of the past. Under the constant bombardment of visual imagery by the media, a loss of direction/purpose for many has occurred and causes a desire for stability, security and equilibrium to emerge. This “turning away” from complexity as the rate of acceleration increases and the tempo of change moves faster to the point that the attribute of speed emerges as an end in itself. For many, the confusion of contemporary times, leads to futile attempts to reinvent obsolete mores or traditions, connected to a romanticized notion of a simpler, yet wholly bygone era. As Mark C. Taylor asserts; “ In today's world, however, simplicity has become an idle dream that no longer can be realized.”[15]

This characteristic of desire emergent within this context relates to a concept of desire that Gilles Deleuze (with Guattari) proposes in the text, Mille Plateau: Capitalisme et Schizophrenia [16] (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). Here, desire contains both a creative and socially productive component. Groups of individuals begin to consciously believe that they lack something that constitutes an essential need. This “lack” is a subjective perception which may or may not be actual in the objective sense, but is appropriated by the social reality anyway. Desire and the perception of “lack” that accompanies it are seen not only as positivistic and investigational forces, but also as an instrumental drive that allows the formations of connections that increase power of entities within the context of these newly formulated associations.[17]  Thus, desire is a more formidable force than its traditional conception involving its depiction as mere fantasy.   As Eugene Holland explains:

“Desire is just not a fantasy of what we lack; it is first and foremost the psychical and corporeal production of what we want — even though under certain conditions what we want subsequently gets taken away from us by the repressive figure of a castrating father or the oppressive figure of an exploitative boss.”[18]  

In short, desire produces and defines the parameters of the structures (both social and psychical) that we take to be our reality.[19] 

This is similar to Marx's notion of ‘false consciousness', where the forces of capitalism plant “a need or desire ” in an individual's mind for enslaving them. It follows the dictum in the German Ideology that “the nature of the individual depends on the material conditions determining their production”.[20]   Both are similar, though in the Deleuzian version, desire is not necessarily reinforced by existing needs and the power of individual's desire to change the current conventions of production is markedly more substantial.   In Marx, the desire found in individuals within the system seems to be more passive, facile, and manipulated by the predominant means of social production.   The concept of schizoanalysis is more formidable in that it contains the potential to incur the developmental lines of production that can move beyond capitalism towards greater freedoms and the end of an enduring servitude to this system.[21]   Thus, need emerges from a reality that is created by desire, as a counterpart to its movements. In short, desire creates reality, then the predominate belief and social representational system qualifies, channels, and removes much of this reality.[22]

It is the revolutionary potential of desire which schizoanalysis carries with it that spawns a counter, more facist-type of desire.   The latter type is not so much a product of false-consciousness in the sense that individuals are “duped” by a system, but it emerges under its own volition in certain social/political/economic conditions.   Corresponding to this trait, fascist desire longs for the stability of fixed codes and images to replace rampant “decoding” that occurs continuously within the fluctuations/movements of capitalism.   These codes outline clear and rigid boundaries within both thought and action.   This locks individuals into pre-established “patterns of flows” that seem stable and easier to navigate.[23] 

Within the Deleuzian concept of desire then, there emerges two facets that describe the condition that we are encountering in this era of great technological advancement.   The first, is our desire for an ever greater drive for the integration that globalism demands, while the second emerges within the chaos generated by the rapid transformation of existing political, social, and economic conditions brought about by this very same drive.   Though we desire the benefits that such movements bring and demand that this integration occur at an ever more rapid pace, we also “fear” the uncertainty endemic to the new conditions that are created in its wake.   As one system is “deterratorialized” or “comes undone”[24], and the process of “reterratorialization” by another system begins to emerge with the radical social changes that occur within such a context, the uncertainty created facilitates the romantic urge to gravitate towards perceived fixed and stable conditions/ideologies.     

There is a new representational reality whose underlying structure is an ‘other time', one of electronic transmissions and other high tech apparatuses. Paul Virilio describes Man's existence within this time as not physical, but in the capacity of a programmer who does not actually reside there.   In this state, an individual can only program this space in his/her absence. Therefore, it is not the space/time of humans, but a “speed” space constituted by machines. This spatial continuum is not a place where time is manipulated, but is actually a different form of time. It is not a means as was our traditional conceptual framework of space, but a milieu. It is a milieu where change occurs at an accelerated rate and much of its changes occur at a speed beyond our capacity to comprehend their implications fully. It is also a structure that we can only navigate indirectly, for we can never completely exist within its boundaries. This causes a fundamental disjuncture within our existence. The complexity and change that occurs within this continuum instigates a desire that demands a connection to a fully comprehensible order.[25]

Individuals caught within this torrent of meaningless media images and rapid technological advances desire the emergence of a period of stability and legibility, especially within the social sphere. They long for the historical imagery and spatial/ temporal structures that have traditionally provided security. This yearning for simplicity and equilibrium is misguided and can be deceptive. In this respect, eras are merely momentary lapses in the complex and temporal turbulence that constitutes history.[26]

This emergence of new technologies in the last century has heralded a new type of spatial structure that varies from the more traditional, urban one found in the cities of the day. A structure was based, not on traditional spatial configurations of the square and the street found in many American and European cities, but on the notion of the vector, the Cartesian grid and the point. These attributes ignored landscapes and were constituted specifically to allow for communication over great distances.   It was a spatial structure built solely for the purposes of commerce and in the United States it instigated the cool, detached colonization of an expanse of wilderness and an indigenous population that spanned an entire continent in a short period of time. It is not a coincidence that the modern version of the railroad, the Internet was first developed by the American military and then quickly adopted by this country's most influential captains of commerce.

It is the detached rational space of industry and telecommunications that Barry Greenbie [27] is referring to with his notion of dystemic space . Where proxemic space seems to be describing the space of culture and ritual boundaries on a personal scale, the rational basis for dystemic space seems to contain the ability to control rather large and chaotic fluid systems. The author is not, however, willing to go as far with this assertion of the potential for large-scale control as Virilio in his claim that the Internet constitutes a new spatial empire bent on annihilating the space of the old, thereby eventually replacing it as our primary mode of existence. Since the function and purpose of dystemic space is quite different from that of proxemic , there seems, at least in the mind of Greenbie to be room for both types. As our brief and very limited peruse through history has shown, both types of spatial structures have existed together for some period of time.   The key then is to move past the propaganda that surrounds both of them and develop a strategy for how each typology's strengths can be understood and utilized to the benefit of both environments. However, before this can be done several myths concerning virtual reality and its relationship to the urban realm must be addressed and overcome as well.

In his essay, “Telecommunications and the Future of Cities: Debunking the Myths” [28], Stephen Graham lays out five common myths that must be dispelled before the complex and fluent relationship between the virtual realm and our modern cities can be appreciated. The first myth refers to the notion of technological determinism. In a majority of the studies concerned with technological changes and the city, telecommunications are seen as a driving force behind urban transformation because of its ability to transcend space through non-physical communication channels. This concept of determinism is generally presented in an oversimplified linear cause and effect diagram that attempts to mark current changes in the urban structure and predict future ones. However, such assertions are generally limited because they depict these emergent technological developments as developed separate from the urban sphere and then overlaid, instigating a transformation. Technological advances are formulated within a set of specific social/economic contexts and the relationship between the two is of a reciprocal nature, not a linear one. Since these relationships are incredibly complex and fluid, one must assume that it they are indeterminate, and can emerge in very different forms according to time and place.[29]

The next myth consists of the speculation that cities in their present state will simply dissolve and become non-hierarchical formations of sprawl. As the traditional hierarchy of urban formations gives way to uniformed nodes of information that allow access to anyone at any time. The need for and role of the city as a type of center will just melt away. Actually, if the recent trend in some American cities involving a renaissance in the urban center that has occurred in places like Denver, Colorado or Fort Worth, Texas keeps building, then it would seem that quite the opposite is occurring. Urbanization has actually accelerated over the last quarter of the twentieth century globally and this occurrence of this type of activity does not seem to be lessening.   Sprawl is still one of the most pressing problems of contemporary urbanity, but other more dense urban paradigms have begun to emerge.   Whereas these technologies may not lead to their demise, they do have a profound effect on the way the modern city is formed.[30]  A move away from compactness to the facilitation of polycentric urban regions has been an influential trend for decades and does pose a threat to the quality of life in the urban sphere.

The third myth refers to the vision of universal access where in the near future virtual technologies will diffuse evenly and democratically allowing for everyone in a society to become information literate. This newfound literacy would aid in combating the traditional ills found in present urban societies. The utopian quality of this claim is apparent from the beginning. The Internet has widened the gulf between rich and poor even in most industrialized western countries not lessened it. It has created a new class of technologically-deprived societal members that are less worried about the virtual realm as they are about the constant state of poverty that consumes their day-to-day existence.[31]

The fourth myth involves the notion that telecommunications can offer virtual solutions for the many of the ills endemic to the modern metropolis such as traffic, crime and pollution. In actuality, it increases the demand for travel and participation in urban life. It increases the efficiency of many workers by giving them more access to information. Whereas it decreases the need for physical travel in some areas it may very well increase it exponentially in others; for instance, leisure trips.[32] The fifth and final myth relates to the notion of localities being powerless in the wake of the wave of overpowering influence that telecommunications will have on the cities with very little power being able to be exercised to offset the overwhelming driving force of technology. Local political players will have limited opportunities to control this force so their society must learn how to adapt to and live with these changes.   As Graham indicates, the reality of this conventional wisdom is in opposition to its common conception.

In fact, though, there is currently a world-wide upsurge of urban attempts to use telecommunications as policy tools for economic, social and cultural development.   Telematics have become a natural policy focus as policy-makers everywhere have struggled to reinvigorate city economies, physically regenerate urban area, market urban spaces as global sites for investment, address social polarization, and restructure public services to address funding crises.[33]

As one can quickly ascertain, many of the preconceptions surrounding telecommunications and their potential influence are largely superficial and in many cases, erroneous. In many instances, it creates a desire for states that have and never will exist. The image of urbanity is skewed through a process of misguided hope and subjective idealization of urban spaces. It is imperative to move past these initial preconceptions and to begin a new phase of research that attempts to integrate some of the actual potential transformations that these technologies may provide.

Urbanity and Virtuality: A Compatibilist Approach .

When discussing the concepts of both traditional public space and its potential relationship to the new mediums of electronic space, sadly, most of the debates are based on superficial assumptions and misnomers. Too often, these myths are presented as fact and cloud the potential avenues to understanding the true relationship that urbanity has to virtual reality and the potential of this partnership of spatial construct could have, instead of benefiting the discourse. What is clear is that both urbanists and technology experts are woefully ill-equipped to understand the inevitable continued transformation of urban development that will be spur on by this interaction. In this essay, several myths concerning traditional urban and virtual spaces were explored. It has been argued that both media/industrial space (dystemic) and traditional inhabited space (proxemic) are intricately connected, influence each other greatly and will continue to do so in the future.   Thus, it is imperative to understand their potential roles in urban transformations.

To achieve this there are several starting points that could provide a foundation for an alternative strategy. Firstly, we need to accept that the existence of the two types of space discussed above are related to one another, but not the same thing. They inhabit the same plane and continually fluctuate with and influence each other. In addition, one should not be prefaced over the other, nor should the assertion be made that one type is determines the other. Variations of these types of spaces have traditionally influenced and are presently influencing each other in complex and subtle ways.

For example, Times Square in New York City is an urban space with a global presence.   Its recent retrofitting with screens and other digital equipment has allowed its influence as a “place” to not only continue, but to expand.   With the advent of television, Times Square entered our collective Consciousness.   It is now a locale that belongs to the globe as one of the more imageable spaces in the first tier global cities like Paris, London, or Tokyo.   Though the technology that has transformed it has been largely utilized for advertising, the potential for influence in other realms, such as the cultural or political, is increasing.   As the interface between the reality of location and virtual becomes more seamless and sophisticated, its image, temporality, and place in the collective consciousness will become more pronounced.   Here, a historically important locale for New York City has, with the integration of technology, began its transformation to a place of global importance.

Given this, theoretical paradigms need to be developed that attempt to conceptualize how the social, political and technological aspects surrounding this relationship can be exploited to the greatest benefit of both realms.   Secondly, it must be stressed that the need for physical human interaction cannot be simply replaced by telemediation.   Face to face interaction and telenetworking are both necessary and desirable to navigate our complex and varied modern lives.   It also needs to be acknowledged that these two types of human interaction (physical and electronically mediated) influence each other in a positive manner.   In other words, as is commonly believed, they are not counter to one another or in competition, but actually stimulate and reinforce the existence of each type of spatial structure. Finally, sophisticated mediated networks are utilized in the exercise of power over less affluent groups and this will only worsen present urban conditions, if the situation is not directly addressed in the very near future.[34]

The geographer Kevin Robins summarizes this emergent relationship between our virtual and material existences needing cultivation in his statement:

"… through the development of new technologies, we are, indeed, more and more open to experiences of de-realization and de-localization. But we continue to have physical and localized existences. We must consider our state of suspension between these conditions.   In other words, the contemporary city, while housing vast arrays of telematic ‘entry points' into the burgeoning worlds of electronic spaces, is still a meaningful place economically, socially, and culturally."[35]

It is imperative that we return to the city to address the consequences of what Virilio has called the landscape of speed. As cited earlier, a new type of spatial structure has emerged that is called the dromosphere or speed-space. The city has traditionally been the primary technology creating our relationship and connection to the element of territorial space and it potential concentration. Our social cultural institutions as well as our fundamental concept of politics is linked to that of territory.   Its foundations are always brought back to the land, to the spatial demarcation of physical territory. In this present landscape, traditional ideas of politics, rights, and even the city itself are becoming problematic. A majority of urban theories concerning the constitution and design of contemporary cities are based on a set of largely outdated premises. When addressing the global question of political rights that are not connected to the concept of place, not tied to a certain locale, there is something lost for they bring about the de realization and de territorialization of the traditional city. Global cities, such as London, Paris, and Calcutta, whose size, complexity, and influence have exploded under the technologies of speed space, far surpass the conventional conception of rights that were based on notion of lineage connected to territory. Hence, loss of place constitutes a loss of rights, which forces an uneasy questioning of the social/political institutions that created a unified identity been connected to the city.[36]

Thus, conventional political paradigms and practices must be reinvented in a world where new economies of thought are replacing the old and dramatic change is always on the next horizon. Connections to physical space are no longer primary, yet in ways still necessary. Through many traditional ideologies are waning in influence, as new work cultures and web links form, entangling individuals in structures that are continually morphing and hierarchies of control are convoluted at best. As these connections and their technologies emerge and solidify, if only seemingly for the moment, change seems to accelerate almost to the moment of chaos and collapse. What is to become of our traditional indicators of identity and connections such as urban space? There is logic to the technological flux of this deterritorializng world, one whose dynamics we have not yet come to fully understand. There is an angst caused by the uncertainty of this brave new world.   One so new, yet so steeped in the parameters of the world that it attempts to supplant, that it creates desires for the old world order that are based largely on fear. These desires and the energy surrounding them must be channeled to address emergent issues surfacing as the material world of history and the virtual world of new technologies collide.[37]

Virilio sums up the problem concerning the coexistence of the material and virtual realms in regards to the formation of modern urbanity with his statement:

"We will have to find a way of housing virtual space in real space.   The virtual is the antithesis not of the real but of the actual.   The new technologies are not the devil, but to use them properly we need to understand and counter their negativity."[38]

The challenge is not to speculate how one reality may usurp the other in power or influence, but how each can interact to increase the effectiveness of the other in reaching their full potential. The end game winner in this technological gamut could be our modern existence. This existence could also be the loser, for the jury is still out as to whether or not global technology and the web culture that it has spawned can make good on their promises. It is clear, however, that way forward is integration of these systems of reality, not their division.  

The role that architects, landscape architects, and urbanists can play in this ongoing material/virtual infrastructural transformation is an important one. By understanding that the process of urban renewal spawned by this relationship, certain new strategies can be developed. For instance, by understanding that consumer activity on the internet is going to increase ten-fold over the next several years, architects could develop new typologies to reutilize the large retail behemoths on the edges of our cities that are going to be outdated or superceded within the next decade. Retail centers (malls) that may be designed to accommodate both actual customers and the shipping/storage needs of on-line retailers could replace the outdated structures allowing them to be turned into housing, community centers, schools, etc. for underprivileged groups. Likewise, many railway yards in important urban centers around the globe are under-utilized at present, and their role in the city needs to be rethought. What new landscapes could emerge in their place? It may still be possible yet to fulfill the promise of actually decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor by reclaiming the landscapes for the needs of our lower classes. However, designers must understand how and why these changes are taking place as well as how to re envision their usage within the ever-changing modern urban realm. In other words, ask the questions surrounding the potential of transforming urban space through the reuse of those infrastructural parts that technology has made redundant. It is in this way, that innovative urban forms can be visualized that react to actions in virtual space while reinvigorating forgotten ones in the material realm.


[1] Virilio, Paul. Open Sky (New York: Verso, 1997).
[2] Hutchinson, Martha. Question submitted for 10/50 Anniversary Panel Discussion. Horizontal Urbanism: The Role of The Urban University in Design (Boulder, Denver: The College of Architecture & Planning at the University of Colorado, October 1, 2002).
[3] Virilio, 1997, 60.
[4] Quoted in Light, Andrew   and Jonathan Smith (eds.). Philosophy and Geography II: The Production of Public Space . (New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 1999), 2.   
[5] Smith, Andrew and Jonathan Light, ‘Introduction' in Light & Smith, 1999.
[6] Ibid., 3.
[7] Gulick, John. ‘The Disappearance of Public Space: An Ecological Marxist and Lefebvrian Approach' in Smith and Light, 137-38.
[8] Ibid.,139
[9] Greenbie, Barrie. B. Space and Spirit in Modern Japan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
[10] Ibid., 73.
[11] Holmes, David. ‘Virtual Globalization – An Introduction' in Virtual Globalization: Virtual Spaces/Tourist Spaces , edited by David Holmes (London/New York: Routledge Press, 2001),1.
[12] Stratton, Jon. ‘Cyberspace and the Globalization of Culture', Ibid., 254.
[13] Holmes,11.
[14] Friedman, Thomas. L. The Lexus and The Olive Tree (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999), 8.
[15] Taylor, Mark. C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 23.
[16] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
[17] Ross, Alison.   ‘Desire' in The Deleuze Dictionary , edited by Adrian Parr (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 63.
[18] Holland, Eugene. ‘Desire + Social Production', Ibid., 65.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Surin, Kenneth. ‘Marx, Karl (1818-83)', Ibid.,152.
[21] Holland, Eugene. ‘Schizoanalysis', Ibid., 236.
[22] Protevi, John. ‘Facism', Ibid., 98.
[23] Holland, Eugene. ‘Desire', in Gilles Deleuze: Key Concepts , edited by Charles Stivale (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press,2005),   54
[24] Parr, Adrian. ‘Deterritorialisation/Reterritorialisation' in Parr, 2005, 66.
[25] Virilio, Paul. ‘Speed-Space' in Virilio Live , edited by John Armitage (London: Sage Publications, 2001), 71.
[26] Taylor, 23.
[27] See note 10.
[28] Graham, Stephen. ‘Telecommunications and the Future of Cities: Debunking the Myths', in Holmes.
[29] Graham, 158-159.
[30] Ibid.,160-161.
[31] Ibid.,162- 163.
[32] Ibid.,165-166.
[33] Ibid., 166-167.
[34] Ibid., 168.
[35] Ibid., 169.
[36] Virilio, 2001, 80-81.
[37] Taylor, 23.
[38] Virilio, 2001 146




Michael Jenson is an Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at The University of Colorado/Denver and Health Sciences Center where he teaches Architectural/Urban Design studios and theory seminars. He has published in the Journal, Open House International and is a contributing author to the forth-coming book entitled, Design Studio Pedagogy: Horizons for the Future. Professor Jenson received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh; a Master of Architecture from Columbia University; and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Texas (Arlington). He has practiced in various cities including Dallas, New York, Paris, and Denver and has worked on projects in China, France, Portugal, Germany and the USA.


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