This post originally appeared in May 2012.
We know that by choosing to rely on the private vehicle as the primary means of movement in a city we are choosing the single most expensive way for us all to get around. It makes for a largely unseen but nonetheless real additional tax on everything, especially through inefficient land use. And because in Auckland alternatives remain stunted through under-investment this ever increasing tax remains unexamined or is considered unavoidable.
But there are other costs too. There is one that just creeps up on the auto-dependant place until it dominates and has become our whole world. This is the quality-of-place cost, the aesthetic deficit of auto-dependency, and with it a very difficult to measure economic burden; one that is hard to overstate yet all too easy to overlook. How to measure the loss of value of places like the Hobson/Nelson corridor for example?
The best term I have found for this phenomenon was coined by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in 2006 in his fabulously energetic essay of the same name; Junkspace:
If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, junk-space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built product of modernization is not modern architecture but junkspace.
Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fall-out. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown… Although its individual parts are the outcome of brilliant inventions, lucidly planned by human intelligence, boosted by infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment , its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory… Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than all previous generations together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids. According to a new gospel of ugliness, there is already more junkspace under construction in the 21st century than survived from the 20th…
Koolhaas has a record of pretty daring contemporary architecture so it may seem surprising that here he is clearly expressing disappointment and disgust at the contemporary built environment. But read carefully it is clear that he is not advocating a Prince Charles-like bogus theme park world of replica McBuildings. That is to mistake the surface for the substance, to aim for an inauthentic life; one only really possible on a make believe economic basis, like for someone with a vast fairy-tale inheritance. No, Koolhaas is making a really interesting distinction between the dream of Modern architecture and the much more common outcome he calls modernisation; between the designed world and the world of unintended consequence, and bemoaning the fact that it is in the latter that we are forced to live.
What does this mean? A useful way of illustrating this is through the work of one of the great American photographers of the modern era; Lee Friedlander. There are plenty of others that we could use here too; William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Garry Winogrand, to name just a few. This is no surprise as showing us the world we live in afresh is a core role of good photography, and in the twentieth century, especially in the US, this often meant the urban world, the built world. Friedlander’s work is especially good for this purpose; his whole oeuvre can be read as one long enquiry into this world; into Junkspace.
His approach is rich; there’s a lot of humour, a lot of tenderness, but it also adds up to a comprehensive and sorry description of the under-designed but over-built aspect of modernisation. In particular we can see in his streetscapes and motel interiors the clear role of the car complex in forming this world. These are documents of the sad little universes of pavement and signage that we all try to ignore but that add up to our disappointment in the fabric of urban life.
It is especially well brought home in his 2008 work America by Car:
This is a fantastic collection of images made all across the States from the interior of a series of bland late model cars using the windows as an additional framing device [shot with a Hasselblad SWC, in case you’re interested]. Not only has the car formed this world but it is now as if it completely contains it as well, while also entrapping its artist-critic.
It is my dissatisfaction with the dominance and endless growth of Junkspace across the whole of Auckland that has led to my involvement in this blog. It is a result of my passionate engagement with the built environment through the discipline of looking long and hard at it in my work as a photographer that has led me to this position. In the same way that good transport infrastructure is not an end in itself, but rather a means to better connection and accessibility and therefore a richer and more successful city my interest in this work is not primarily about transport at all; but rather its effects.
The tragedy of the modernised world in general and Auckland in particular is that the dominant place-making that has gone on since the mid 1950s, and continues today, is undertaken by people with no training in or understanding of the effects of their actions on place, who are not charged with any responsibility for the places they alter, and, in fact, deny that they are even doing it [the closest they get is conceding the need for mitigation for some of the local dis-benefits of their labours]. For a grand example see this post but it goes on in much smaller ways all across town.
By giving billions of dollars a year to an agency of doubtless efficient and hard working engineers and charging them with one task only; to enable more and more vehicles to move as fast as possible through an ever bigger city is basically to ensure the decline of that very place. This has very real outcomes not only in the quality of people’s lives but also in the vitality of its commercial performance. That this occurs gradually but relentlessly and in the belief that it is serving the very opposite outcome does not make it inevitable, or indeed unfixable.
Until quality of place as well as efficiency of movement are given equal consideration in Auckland it will remain suboptimal and therefore a less economically effective city. This is my challenge to Auckland Council and Auckland Transport: Do they have processes to make the consideration of place outcomes as well as movement ones right down to each intersection, each footpath? Are the needs of humans not in vehicles given the same weight as those behind the wheel?
But equally importantly, because all the biggest decisions are all still made by central government, this needs to happen at the national level. We need cost benefit analyses that count the full impacts of their big transport decisions, not just narrow and selective equations. As well as more regional input to these decisions or perhaps even more devolved spending authority?
At the core of this is need for our national agencies and the government itself to recognise that what works for the countryside and the provincial town is not going to be the same for our one city of scale.
A last word from Rem, nothing escapes his tirade but I couldn’t resist this small bite:
Traffic is junkspace, from
airspace to the underground; the entire highway system is junkspace, a vast potential utopia clogged by its
users, as you notice when they’ve finally disappeared on vacation.