Figure 4 Map exhibition / Nathan Kirkman Chicago

Virtual, not so virtual

An interview with Clare Lyster on logistics by Daniele Belleri

Read intro

An interview with Clare Lyster

An interview by Daniele Belleri

Among the many forces that are shaping our world, logistics is probably the most underrated and the least understood. Especially by architects. The mission of Clare Lyster, an Irish-born architect teaching at the University of Illinois Chicago, is precisely this: Bringing the logistics discourse back to the attention of design professionals. A better moment to do this can hardly be imagined. Since the late Victorian age, logistics has never been as powerful as it is now in terms of affecting the built environment we live in. Back in the late 19th century, logistics provided the physical infrastructures required for the foundation of the Modern metropolis, from electricity systems to sewerage and railways, which in turn opened the way for the stunning economic and technical developments of the 20th century. In the last few decades, huge innovations in logistics have been propelled by firms whose names are symbols of the Internet era and whose services are used by millions of people every day: Amazon, FedEx, Facebook, Google, but also the European low-cost carrier Ryanair or the American movie renting service Netflix. At first sight, the power of these businesses could barely seem connected with any urban issue. In fact, according to Lyster, these companies are not just revolutionising the way we shop, travel and communicate (significantly, in summer 2013, Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post company), but also turning upside down well-rooted planning principles. For Lyster, the urban theories of the last hundred years have been based on concepts that are now becoming obsolete. Still architects and planners are struggling to elaborate worthwhile responses on which the cities of tomorrow can be designed.

On the one hand, we have the physical signs of this revolution. We have the enormous warehouses where, at any moment of the day, billions of goods are processed and redirected somewhere else, in a process of unprecedented precision and rapidity, managed by a system able to merge the highest degrees both of centralisation, control and resilience. You have the gigantic data centres, probably the most fitting building typology of the 21st century, storing ungraspable amounts of data linked to the personal profiles of billions of people worldwide. You also have the cargo airports as the new vehicle of urban development, attracting new services and distribution-cities around them.

On the other hand, this story cannot be reduced to single structures. In fact, the scale of the change evokes something as profound as a shift of paradigm. Many planning principles are now challenged by the unconscious urbanism triggered by the logistics of these global flows. Firstly, the principle of context, claiming that a city ought to have some bonds with the area that surrounds it. Secondly, the principle that, in the city, the leading dimension is the vertical one – where the buildings are located – and not the horizontal one – that is the ground, where all the flows pass, either metaphorically or physically. Thirdly, the principle that a discipline like architecture has a bigger stake in urban discourse than its younger sister, landscape architecture.

Regardless of the discipline divisions, Lyster claims, all design professionals should step forward in a field they have marginalised themselves from and envision new ways of living the city more suited to the present, starting from an entirely different vision of space centred not on physical distance but on time. Currently, Lyster is working on a book entitled Learning from Logistics: How emerging networks inform cities (Birkhäuser, autumn 2014) which, according to her, will be “like a design manual, both theoretical and visual”, rich in the many complex maps and infographics that have accompanied the author's essays appearing in recent years in publications such as Cabinet Magazine, Chicago Architect, the Journal of Architectural Education, the Journal of Landscape Architecture, The Architects Newspaper, and Place. Learning from Logistics promises to be a modern edition of Sigfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command, a book that in 1948 extraordinarily encompassed the role of logistics as an engine for innovation and development.

Architect Clare Lyster is an associate professor at the UIC School of Architecture. She has also taught at Syracuse University, the University of Toronto, and Harvard University. She has been editor of Envisioning the Bloomingdale: 5 Concepts (Chicago Architecture Club, August 2009) and 306090 vol. 09, Regarding Public Space, with Cecilia Benites (Princeton Architectural Press, August 2005). She runs the Cluaa studio in Chicago.
Hide intro

Professor Lyster, why logistics?

First of all, because logistic networks are very hard to understand, being either virtual, hidden or very dynamic. It is hard to understand how they work, let alone design for them or against them. But logistics is radically changing our metropolis, and that’s why as an architect I feel it’s definitely worth facing the difficulty of this topic. The fact is that a lot of discussions about logistics and cities are currently taking place in other fields: first of all in sociology, but also in anthropology, economics, even in journalism. My objective is to take back this discussion into design. So my questions are: what are networks doing to the city? How can architects readjust their thinking about the city to accommodate these new realities?

To frame the issue we need a starting definition. What kind of logistics are you talking about? Is there any continuity, say, between the logistics of Amazon and the logistics of the Victorian metropolis?

There is a continuity but at the same time enormous differences. In the Victorian period we had many “hard infrastructures” that were monumental and strategic in how they were conceived: Think of railways, subways or electricity networks. Today’s logistics is defined by information technology. Amazon could never exist without the web, fast computer technologies or satellite communications. However, the fact that technologies have long been primitive does not signify that the means were not sophisticated in the past. Indeed, the precursors of Amazon date back to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, in the US, even if you lived in an isolated town on the frontier, the mail order catalogue industry allowed you to get shipped almost any product, included a prefabricated house, in a maximum of six weeks, which is a fairly quick time if you think there were no computers at all. However, the shift occurred from the 1950s. It was in the year 1960, for instance, that IBM introduced the Sabre, that is the first computerised data-​processing system, whose task was to manage reservations for American Airlines flights.

Figure 1 Ryan Air Map / Courtesy of Clare Lyster

If logistics is “the formal science of spatio-​temporal optimisation”, as the editor-​in-​chief of Cabinet magazine Graham Burnett put it, it is clear how much this discipline shares with the natural territory of architecture. How are the most technologically-​advanced distribution systems affecting our built environment?

There are a number of changes happening. First of all, the city used to be a space-​bound system, namely it was located in a certain area for specific reasons that gave specific advantages to people living there. Now, if a distribution company can deliver anywhere in the world within 48 hours, we are observing a sort of “displacement of place” which cannot but have an impact in terms of planning the city. Urban planning has a direct relation with geography, but this is now broken due to logistics.

On a second level, the engines of urbanisation are changing. A clear example is FedEx, which has been operating in the outskirts of Memphis for the last 25 years. Its cargo airport, which occupies a surface of 210 hectares, has become a magnet for huge investments and developments. All around this facility you can see a whole new city, with a plethora of independent factories or distribution centres piggybacking the services of the main company. Naturally, this gigantic amount of goods moved by plane or trucks on an increasing scale raises also some issues in terms of global sustainability. Now for instance, Amazon is testing drones as delivery devices in urban areas. Indeed, most of the packages sent are so lightweight that this can easily be imagined.

Finally, there is an impact which is more evident in our everyday life. The web allows us to shop online, to communicate online, to entertain ourselves online. Thus there are some physical spaces in the city that we no longer need. It is a sort of dematerialisation of the urban space. We now have whole sectors such as the banking or entertainment industries which have chiefly turned into virtual interfaces.

Given all these phenomena, what are the lessons that designers can take from logistics? Can you tell us something about the Learning from logistics book you are currently working on?

This book is an attempt not just to index the changes, but also to investigate them. It will be structured on a series of different terms which we think of when referring to the design of the city: Size, Plan, Zoning, Circulation, Architecture. Each of these categories will be associated with some case studies from the world of logistics.

Think at Ryanair. When it decided to fly to peripheral towns only, excluding main European hubs, it was like saying: urban context doesn’t matter anymore. The city can be anywhere now

For example, I’m looking at the network of Ryanair. The implications of its geographical policy are enormous. When it decided to fly not to primary gate cities but to peripheral towns outside of the main European urban areas, it was like showing us that the city can be everywhere. This of course has had an impact on the sense of the term ‘context’ which has been discussed in planning for the last century. If the relationship between architecture and context is broken, then the whole design of the city must be rethought.

Another lesson you can take regards the concept of time as a vehicle for urbanism. This deals with the idea that time can be deployed as a criterion for planning as opposed to traditional methods of zoning, based for instance on function or on the principles of the hygienist movement. Logistics operates in microseconds, its premise is to get something somewhere in the fastest time possible. Metric measurements of space are denied in favour of a temporal reading: In FedEx’s deliveries’ schedule, Zagreb is much more distant from Memphis than Beijing. You do already have some cases of projects developed with this approach in mind. For example, at the Freie Universität in Berlin, the building’s internal spaces are organised according to what distance students can cover in one minute by foot.

Figure 2 Freightscape / Courtesy of Clare Lyster

Are these changes happening only in Western cities? What is the scenario of logistics and infrastructures in the young metropolis of Asia or Africa?

The situation is singular because China, and in particular the Pearl River Delta, is already the logistic centre of the world, from which manufactured products are shipped everywhere. Yet the new Chinese cities are being built essentially copying the urban protocols of the modern city from the 1930s and 1940s. I think they could have skipped this and learned from all the mistakes made in the West. China could have leapfrogged us, being far more progressive. It’s a missed opportunity.

A similar situation can be seen in an African metropolis like Lagos or Nairobi, where everybody has a cell phone and these kinds of technological systems are amplifying a very dynamic informal way to live. The physical infrastructures in these city are inferior to what you can find in the West. On the other hand, the ways how the new systems are being deployed are pretty sophisticated. To a certain extent, there might be more new models emerging from those cities than from the Londons, New Yorks and Chicagos of the world.

Let’s go back to the West. When, a few months ago, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post company, one of the most recurrent comments was: “If he has been able to build such a reliable distribution company, he will be able to fix almost anything, included the shaky journalistic sector”. I think this demonstration of trust raises some political questions. How much power are we willing to attribute to the new logistic companies?

The point is that we are underestimating the power of these companies. Now Bezos is buying a newspaper, that in the industrial city was the quintessential access to the public realm for the working man. I think this is historically significant, especially if we think of this sort of misdepicting the contemporary city as a bottom-​up system thanks to the role of technological networks. Actually, I think the distribution companies and online services are giving users a lot of choice, but at the same time controlling this choice. It is a top-​down situation disguised as bottom-​up, as Malcolm Gladwell has reported, talking about the relationship between networks and hierarchy. In the case of Amazon I would say that people are blinded by, “Oh my God, I have so much choice!”. But they do not really recognise the control that is required for such choice. It can be scary sometimes.

How can companies such as Youtube or Facebook, which apparently have no bond with any particular territory, have a real impact on the built environment?

Youtube and Facebook may have few physical bonds with the city in term of commercial services, but they are handling immense amounts of data. And these data are stored somewhere: They do have physical requirements. This leads to the data centres, which are not neutral structures that can be built anywhere, given their enormous energy requirements as well as their necessity to be cooled down in order not to overheat. This is a completely new building typology that has emerged with these new services. Even the most virtual system has a physical implication in the city. Virtual is never completely virtual.

Figure 3 Freightscape Plan / Courtesy of Clare Lyster

In the last few decades, architects have very seldom worked for the logistic sector. The all-​white round logistic building recently designed by SANAA for the German furniture firm Vitra in Weil Am Rhein looks more like an exception than a new trend. So what is the possible place for designers in a field usually regarded as cold, non-​creative, better apt for engineers and technicians?

I see logistics as a way to shift our way of thinking: From a urban design centred on functional, nice-​looking buildings to a urban design leaded by flows and mobility systems

When you look at infrastructure projects in the US in the 1930s, they were not just technical projects but also design ones. Indeed, architecture has been historically clever when dealing with mobility or dynamic systems. What has happened afterwards is that designers have marginalised themselves from the real issues of the city, deeming the logistics projects as not significant enough for them to participate in. This discussion doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to go out and design logistics facilities: I think it is more about a broad awareness that we live differently and that the dimension of flow is now embedded in this change. I see logistics as a way to shift our way of thinking from an urban design centred on functional, nice-​looking buildings to an urban design led by flows and mobility systems.

It seems to me now that you are talking more about landscape architecture or planning than about architecture. Can this convergence between disciplines be a result of a new urban model based on flows?

The systems of the city, including everything from the water supply of your apartment to your internet connection, have become now the most important single factor in the design of the city

I do see this convergence. Many architects are moving into the field of landscape, indeed. That’s why I prefer to use the general term designer rather than architect or landscape architect. First of all, I think the systems of the city, including everything from the water supply of your apartment to your Internet connection, have become now more important in the design of the city than the city’s very buildings. If we contrast these systems embedded in the ground to the architectonic verticality of the buildings’ facades, we can understand how landscape architecture – that historically has dealt with natural flows and with the ground – might be better equipped to confront the new situation. If the ground is now the most significant urban element, this produces a huge shift in how we think about creating the city.

Of course, this is not the only reason why this convergence is happening. From a formal point of view, as our metropolises are becoming more and more polycentric, there is much leftover between the different centres, which brings the architects to discuss these territories. Finally, it is also about infrastructure. In many countries in the West, the infrastructure made during the modern era, fifty or sixty years ago, now needs to either be repaired or substituted. This is an opportunity for designers to rethink the whole system. It is not just a matter of moving people from point A to point B, but also to envision new solutions for living. This is a point in which designers can have a strong stake.

Figure 5 Systemscape Model / Matt Messner, University of Illinois, Chicago

One fundamental difference between the early 20th century and now is that the planning efforts were then mainly put forward by public institutions, while the present changes are almost totally driven by private operators. What consequences this will have on future urbanism?

In the 19th and 20th century, planning was an ethical project. Planners wanted to make the city a better place to live and infrastructures were considered a way to make cities either more clean or more beautiful. Now many of the infrastructures we see are based on economics, and we see also a strong competition between cities. One may discuss the virtues of this economic-​driven competition but I think this will eventually trickle down. I am optimistic that the economic issues will have a benefit for everyone. Of course, economics evolves. But David Harvey has told us very well how capitalism has always defined cities. We are not going to change this suddenly. We are now simply living a different kind of capitalism.

How do you think a designer should act in the new context? Should he react to the changes, countering their possible negative effects, or should he rather lead and encourage the changes?

I think designers should do both: we can react and be critical and even provide some resistance to what’s already going on. But also step above that and lead with new ideas. In order to do that, design has to be pushed further up in the priorities of city planning. Planning is not a design profession anymore, and the design disciplines don’t have the same stake in the city as they used to have. On the one hand, I think there are some really crazy, way-​out ideas of dealing with all these systems in the city: Various kinds of new utopian projects related to the metropolis dominated by the flows. On the other hand, it might work within the system that already exists. I think it can happen at a variety of different levels. Until a few decades ago, architects had big, visionary ideas. The point of these ideal projects was not to make them in the real world, but rather to put something out there for people to think about. I think we’ve somehow lost that ability to think on such a scale. But maybe now is the right moment to make some big thinking again.