In rethinking scale, a first move is to shift away from scale as a noun, describing a mathematical function or geometric transformation, towards scaling as a verb. In her ethnographic study of the office of OMA, anthropologist Albena Yaneva writes of scaling as “an experimental situation… an apparatus” by which designers configure and inquire into what they’re designing. “[T]he rhythm of scaling”, she says, “relies on procedures for partial seeing: scoping, rescaling, extending and reducing the material features of scale models.” In other words, scaling operations are not simply about controlling size, they are also about editing, filtering, omitting, and framing. Working across scales, or jumping between them allows a building to exist simultaneously as abstract and precise:

“The final building is never present in any single state or model, but in what all of them together project. That is why the building is a multiple object: a composition of many elements; a ‘multiverse’ instead of a ‘universe'”

Yaneva, A. (2005). Scaling Up and Down: Extraction Trials in Architectural DesignSocial Studies of Science35(6), 867–894.

Scaling differently

Scaling — the technique of working with proportionally reduced (or enlarged) representations — is one of the fundamental tools in a designer’s toolbox, especially when working on big things like buildings, landscapes, or territories. It would be easy to think of scale as purely technical, a matter of applying a mathematical function. But historian of science Deborah R. Coen suggests there’s a bigger picture:

scaling is also something we all do every day. It is how we think, for instance, about how one individual’s vote might influence a national election, or whether buying a hybrid car might slow global warming. It can also be a way of situating the known world in relation to times or places that are distant or otherwise inaccessible to direct experience. Scaling makes it possible to weigh the consequences of human actions at multiple removes and to coordinate action at multiple levels of governance.

Deborah R. Coen, Climate in Motion. Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale.

What if designers thought of scaling practices more broadly? How do we and others participate in worlds beyond the scope of our bodies? How do we (try to) reach distant or inaccessible places and times, and coordinate actions?

Some assumptions about public space

It seems to me the most important thing I could work on right now is public space and how we produce it. So many of the issues that face us — climate change, racial justice, poverty, social alienation — are tangled up in how we share space and the various ways we compose, construct, or configure it.

As a designer trained as an architect I’m predisposed to immediately start inventing things and finding solutions, but I’ve finally started to understand that there are some pretty fundamental problems with design. Specifically, theres an inadequate model of agency implicit in the idea of designing and embedded in the techniques and practices of design.

I want to unpack some of these techniques and practices to understand this better, but I thought the best place to begin is making six initial assumptions explicit (and signalling a fraction of my debts). So here goes…

Assumption 1: Dissent is as important as consensus for public space. This doesn’t just mean that public space provides a forum within which we might disagree about this or that. The disputability of the forum itself has to be part of its definition. (I learned this particularly from Jacques Rancière, Bonnie Honig, and Sara Ahmed).

Assumptions 2: Public space doesn’t exist by default. It’s not natural or inevitable, but has to be achieved somehow. It also has to be kept going, which is why care and maintenance are so important. (I came to see this by reading Hannah Arendt, Peter Sloterdijk, and Noortje Marres).

Assumption 3: Public space is made up of buildings, organisms, objects, affects, infrastructures, stories, machines, programs, credit facilities, networks, policies, media, archives … To understand public space, we’re going to need some pretty clever charts, diagrams, and travelogues. (Thanks Keller Easterling, Shannon Mattern, and Bruno Latour for making things more difficult).

Assumption 4: Public space isn’t made only by professionals and experts. Public spaces are constantly being made and remade in informal, amateur, ad-hoc, and illicit ways. (I learned this from the anonymous barricaders of Paris, archaeologist Arthur Evans, and from conversations with my friend, artist Layne Waerea)

Assumption 5: Public space and design are culturally-specific and historically-situated conceptsthat need to be relativised. Indigenous understandings of being in a shared world, anticapitalist and decolonising perspectives, and voices from the margins are essential for this. (Among many, thank you Jade Kake, the SOUL Campaign to protect Ihumatao, the Vā Moana research group at AUT University, and Anna Tsing’s mushrooms)

There are probably lots more assumptions I’ve made! For now, I’m writing these down to serve as a reference points marking where I’ve arrived at so far, and where I’m setting out from.

Courtney Humphries, “The city is an ecosystem, pipes and all”

Courtney Humphries, “The city is an ecosystem, pipes and all” — “Cities may strike us as the opposite of “the environment”: As we pave streets and erect buildings, nature comes to feel like the thing you find somewhere else. But scientists working in the growing field of urban ecology argue that we’re missing something. A city’s soil collects pollutants, but it also supports a vast system of microscopic life. Water courses beneath roads and buildings, often in long-buried streams and constructed pipes. And city ecosystems aren’t static; they change over time as populations grow, infrastructure ages, and different political structures and social values shape them. Seen this way, the city is a distinct form of “environment,” and an important one.”