one page assignment


Stim & Dross: Rethinking the Metropolis Author(s): Lars Lerup Source: Assemblage, No. 25 (Dec., 1994), pp. 82-101 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: Accessed: 09/11/2009 20:58

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Lars Lerup




Rethinking the


Assemblage 25 ? 1995 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


assemblage 25


As in stimulation (William Gibson in Mona Lisa Overdrive); Stimme: voice; Stimmung: ambiance.


1. Waste product or

impurities formed on the surface of molten metal during smelting. 2. Worthless stuff as

opposed to valuables or value. Dregs.


To change one's

point of view, find a new vocabulary.


No definition.



I (ttA S4 I I~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

New Babylons Lerup

Houston, 28th Floor, At the Window The sky is as dark as the ground; the stars, piercingly bright, a million astral specks that have fallen onto the city. On this light-studded scrim the stationary lights appear confident, the moving ones, like tracer bullets, utterly determined, while the pervasive blackness throws everything else into oblivion. The city a giant switchboard, its million points switched either on or off.

Yet behind this almost motionless scene hovers the metropolis, and the more one stares at it the more it begins to stir.* A vast psychophysical map rolls out to fill my window like Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass, cut here at midpoint by a bright horizon: a dense band of lights flickering hysterically, a great milky way sending myriad distress signals about its impending demise. Enter the chocolate grinder, the bride and her nine bach- elors, and yet a third field speedily emerges. Pulsating from below, the flurry momentarily draws the attention from Duchamp's frozen figures to the dynamics of their interactions: the abrasive motions of work and the throbbing tensions of sexual strife. Visible patterns in the glass may be few, but the individual points and their vari- ous qualities and constellations are many: cool and warm, red, green, but mostly yellow. Closer - or better, in the lower portion of the glass - the moving lights easily match the intensity of the far more numcrous immobile ones, suggesting the monstrous possibility that none are definitively fixed. All is labile, transient, as if it were only a question of time before these lit particles would begin to move billiard balls on a vast felt-covered table unless

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*Thc city we face at the dusk of the century is infinitely more com- plex than the night suggests. It is time to close the book on the City and open the manifold of the Me- tropolis. Behind this melodramatic pronouncement lies the hypothesis that our customary ways of de- scribin g, anin d designing are novw outmoded. Though the world is mutating at a dizzying speed, we remain mesmerized bv

the passeiste drcam of the city. Contemporary metropolitans must confront a series of givens that radically change the equation of the old citv. Perhaps nowhcre with more intensity than in louston is the full set of these revolutions being cinematically played out: Demographic: tlhe emerging me- tropolis is giving way to a truly multiethnic continuumi. Economic: global integration threatens not

only to extend but to redraw con- tinuously the boundaries of the city's hinterland. IDomestic: both parents have absented themselves from the household semiperman- ently to enter the marketplace, de- spite and because of chronic and massive uncnplopy1ment. While in the shadows hover AIDS, lhome- lessncss, substance abuse, and epidemic violence. Resources: em- phasis has shifted from ras and

manufactured materials to "imimaterials" such as knowledge, services, management. Vlcology: a science, a politic, and an ethics that is simply no longer a fad. (The five points are drawn from a lec- ture given this year at Rice Univer- sity bv Stephen I. Klineberg, "Making Sense of Our Times: Five Revolutionars ''rcnds.")


assemblage 25

the table is not in itselfa fluid in motion? Physicists ab- stract from these flux-fields features such as smoothness, connections to points-particles, and rules of interaction (among sources, sinks, cycles, and flows). "Where space was once Kantian, [embodying] the possibility of separa- tion, it now becomes the fabric which connects all into a whole."' Nothing on the plane is stationary, everything is fluid, even the ground itself on which the billiard balls careen. The bio-vehicular, electro-commercial, socio- electronic, and opto-ocular metropolis knows no steady state. In a city predominantly constituted of motion and temporalities, space itself is about deformation and veloc- ity - constantly being carved out in front of one and aban- doned behind - the end, definitive now, of the Corbusian promenade and the Corbusian subject as the gentleman puppet on the architect's string.2 The post-Corbusian subject emerges here as a complex amalgam of Benjamin's Angelus Novus - "a storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm ... we call progress"

-and an omnigendered drifter - the wo-man-vehicle - whose subjectivity engulfs both the futurist reflections of Duchamp's descending nude (and the subsequent bach- elors) and the tuned-out yet wired-in driver cruising along the superhighways of the Metropolis. The European metropolis-without-crowds has skipped westward while radically transforming itself into a new creature, leaner, meaner, and more superficial, but harder to catch, at once simpler and less bearable to live in. This shift was prefigured by Robert Smithson in 1972 (in an interview with Paul Cummings) while discussing his ar- ticle "The New Monuments": "I was also interested in a kind of suburban architecture: plain box buildings, shop- ping centers, that kind of sprawl. And I think this is what fascinated me in my earlier interest in Rome, just this kind of collection, this junk heap of history. But here we are confronted with a consumer society. I know there is a sentence in 'The Monuments of Passaic' where I said, 'Hasn't Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?"' Back at my window, the palimpsest of a new city flaunts its hypertextuality in black and light; its mental map of diverse subjectivities rarely operates while one is on foot, a

predicament that hints at the possibility of a new visibil- ity, a new field with emergent, unexpected megashapes newly apprehensible but only at vastly different scales of motion. And we can expect megashapes to be quite com- plex. On the one hand, we have the Zoohemic Canopy constituted by a myriad of trees of varying species, size, and maturity and, on the other, we have a Downtown formed by the tight assembly of skyscrapers. Both shapes rely on repetition, one of many small elements, the other of a fairly small assembly of large elements. Though these two megashapes seem different, both are apprehended and appreciated only through shifts and distortions of scale and speed. The Downtown relies less on speed than on distance. Both require modern mathematics for ana- lytical description. The Canopy demands a special kind of attentiveness since it operates truly on the periphery of everyday vision. Once focused on, however, trees "get counted" and form with time and repetition a zoohemic appreciation - even the pedestrian gets a sense of the forest. The Canopy, moreover, is understood from within, from the counting of trees, not from the realization of the whole; more correctly, there are two ways of seeing it, one from within and the other from the perspective of the Aerial Field. Radically different, they do not suggest the same appreciation (form?): one is close and intimate, the other cool and distant. This double reading brings Canopy and Downtown together conceptually since driving inside the Downtown may prompt an appreciation of its megashape - again, this would be quite different from the shape gathered from a distant position in the Aerial Field (such as from the 28th floor). There seems, then, to be at least two readings of any megashape: one from the inside leading to an appreciation of the algorithm of the shape (or its taxis, to borrow from classical thought) and one from the outside, leading to an understanding of the whole - the figure (the result of the algorithm, once solved). The inside appreciation may well be the more interesting because it suggests that a megashape may be imagined through a fragment and thus does not require completion, while the outside view requires both the more traditional perspective as well as a literal apprehension of the whole. The fieldroom, for example (literall! simulta- neously a field and a room, as will be discussed later), thus


Rachel Schenk

New Babylons Lerup

consists of one actual dimension - the room-and one imaginary or extrapolated dimension - the field. How we reconstruct or think about the megashape of the Down- town may be similarly developed.

The task at hand is, in a most rudimentary way, to trace the lineaments of this city. The desire to capture this

elusive creature forever on the run is, however, both auda- cious and presumptuous, offered in the spirit of the great Rcyncr Banham whose ruminations on the four ecologies of Los Angeles serve as a constant inspiration.* Because Houston, most perplexingly (and despite its deeply con- servative and isolating tendencies) is still a Metropolis waiting and poised for the great adventure.

"It is ironic that at the end of a century characterized by the most dizzying urban transformations in human history academic readings (apart from writers like Banham and Koolhaas) and projects of the city (particularly in postwar cities like I ouston) remain haunted by the irrelevant ghost of the histori- cally outdated European center city. A distinctly European view of our cities has made them em- battled, ridiculed, and flat - too often conceived as mere Monopoly games. The hegemony of the pe- destrian, the plaza, the street, and the perimeter block must be chal- lenged not because the "values"

they embody are no longer valid, but rather, because they are suf- fused with a set of fundamental misconceptions about the nature of contemporary civilization and its outside, leading to a false under- standing of the whole. More point- edly, even the most sophisticated readings (and the occasional build- ing) of the American city and its postwar expansions, whether haunted and paranoid (as in Baudrillard's America) or openly nostalgic for the eternal return of the bourgeois pedestrian (Krier, Duany & Platcr-Zyberk, Calthorphe, Solomon) are predi- cated on a more or less hidden

positivity that, if fulfilled, would bring us "community" - or better, bring us back to the American ver- sion of the European city. Yet the City is forever surpassed by the Metropolis and all its givens (a steadily globalizing economy, de- mographic changes, AIDS, unem- ployment, violence, and so on), which will make any return to the past both impossible and undesir- able. The obsession in valorizing the pedestrian over the car hides and ignores the presence of a driver (and passengers) in the car, a roving subjectivity whose body phantom apprehends the world in a vastly different manner. A manner

that, in turn, will, and must, have consequences for the way the Metropolis is designed. More im- portant, however, to hinge all judg- ments about the city on the forlorn pedestrian and his requirements avoids tackling the fact that the Metropolis is driven in and driven bv not only the pedestrian and the driver but a myriad of subiectivi- ties that include the old (and pos- sibly infirm) and the young (and equally vulnerable), men and women, African-American and white, as vwcll as less human "ob- jectivities" such as the economy, public opinion, and the market place.


The Plane, the Riders, and Airspace Houston is a different planet. Here space in the European sense is scarce, perhaps nonexistent. With neither sea nor confining walls to define it, it consists only of a mottled plane to navigate. By turns smooth, undulating, and choppy, this surface medium appears endless and oceanic; literally so during a downpour - a periodic, torrential "pouring" constitutes one of the critical affects of this (en)Gulf(ing) city. Its plane is also crude and wild, marked by fissures, vacated space, and bits of untouched prairie, aptly described by what Smithson found in New Jersey: "Passaic seems full of 'holes' compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid, and those holes ... are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures."3 Pa- tently unloved yet naturalistic, this holey plane seems more a wilderness than the datum of a man-made city. Dotted by trees and criss-crossed by wo-men/vehicles/ roads, it is a surface dominated by a peculiar sense of on- going struggle: the struggle of economics against nature. Both the trees and machines of this plane emerge as the (trail or) dross of that struggle. In New York and Paris such a precarious, unstable status of the city is unthinkable. There nature has been defeated, erased, or domesticated to a degree that ensures it will never return. In Houston, however, schizophrenia rules: By proximity or synomorphy

(similarity of form), the riders of the plane drift along (in contradistinction to the pedestrian, the ruling subject of the old city) as morphing extensions of the machines, forming with technology a shifting and uneasy coalition. Yet the same drifters coalesce with the biota and trees, particularly when (even for the briefest of moments) they walk the plane. The trajectories along which riders move follows at least two speeds, both of which are ballistic in nature: along the first, bullet cars with their cooled interi- ors push through the thick, humid phlegm; along the second, even more viscous one, that of fear - urban fear (driving one to the false safety of closets, behind the barri- cades of one's enclaves) - another kind of bullet propels the action, now aimed back at the rider. It is no wonder that the commanding machine of this plane is the Chevy Suburban, named, appropriately, for all but achieving the dimensions of a suburban house, providing a protective, mobile, exoskeletal enclave (almost safe) along this tortu- ous trajectory of fear.

Fields The commingling of nature and machines, be they houses, cars, or skyscrapers, set on a prairie, on this crudely gar- dened version thereof, results in a IIouston that is fully neither city nor tree. Yet all the things that constitute this

*The city must be seen as an or- ganismi, but a deeply perplexing one because it is simultaneously a machine, or rattier, a series of dis- connected (nano-)machines run- ning their own determined and reckless courses - the combined result of which we will never fully fathoim. Drifting, the procedure of preference for this reading, is umlbilically connected to the Me- tropolis via Baudelaire and that ul- timate fldneur \Valter Benjaminin (although he would agree that in I louston the car is the drifter's ve-

hicle par excellence). Benjamin be- gan his drifting across the Me- tropolis on the back porch that overlooked the inner court of his parents' apartment in Berlin. Icre he had his first encounters with the Other. And learned that the bright lights of the city are also to- kens of the many pistons that drive its motors - the multitudc of lan- guages at work - whether the light under his bedroom door (wheln his emancipated Jewish par- ents entertained friends on Satur- day night) or the mesmierizing red

light signaling the district of pros- titution. Despite the semantic lu- minosity of the many citv lights, there is no sense that Benjamin found anything but tensions, rup- tures, and catastrophic leaps. 'lhe more he seei-ms to have grasped of the Metropolis the faster he saw it slip away, until he finally escaped, by his own\ hand, in distant Port Bou. This text is ostensibly a drift along Houston's many physical tra- jectories; like gossip or commen- tary, the many oddities and kinks on the hide of this otherwise "lite

city" (Koolhaas) leads to descrip- tions that warp and bend, while at- temipting to make the plhysical reverberate sith all the other not- so-physical frameworks and con- structions that shape the Metropolis, ranging from the IIouse to the Office to the circula- tion of Moncy. I)rifting-as-tcxt is more about departures tlhai arriv- als, more about movement and change than fixedness, but it is also about a desire to cover more with less, to leave lacunac to bc filled later - with the help of others.


New Babylons Lerup

specific territory are more or less organically related, such that we can assume that it is, if not strictly or classically a city, then certainly an ecology - or more theatrically, a flat planet. Which suggests that it is the powerful web of organic relations that make Houston a palpable, cohesive reality.* I ere variously gendered machines rather than pedestrians are the predominating species, and clean and cool air (rather than the atmosphere of Paris or the energy of New York) is the determinant commodity. The plane, with its Zoohemic Canopy of trees, forms a carpctlike subecology dominated by dappled light, the collective purring of a panoply of machines, the invincible sting of mosquitoes. The planetary impression becomes even more compelling as the reader ascends: suspended overhead in a skyscraper two distinct strata or fields are apprehensible, one sandwiched atop the other: the Zoohemic Field below, the Aerial Field above. This huge bag of air is articulated by airplanes, helicopters, and the grandiose machinations of Gulf weather, which rolls into this upper strata quietly to surprise the drifters in the green sponge below or with terrifying fanfare. Unlike the lower strata, the bag

seems underdeveloped - almost begging for more towers, more air traffic, more lights - the perfect setting for lofty speculations. Two ecologies, two modalities of circulation and appear- ance (speeds). The two strata touch, as do the two speeds, when the freeway hews its way through the green carpet to merge with the airspace. In these gashes the two worlds are sutured together, or more precisely, the motorway adjoins the airspace by delaminating from the plane. Sub- merged in the lowest strata of a major freeway intersec- tion, literally driving (at warp-speed) on the underside of the ground ecology of the city, the rider is brought to a realization. In fact, all brushes with the outer margins of the various ecologies of the city, whether here at the base of the hierarchy or at its very top, hovering in an air ve- hicle while rapidly traversing both ecologies, tend to throw the whole into focus. Such realizations, frog's-eye or soar- ing-eagle perspectives, are shapeful and at least partially extraspatial. They bring out of the scattered suggestions of wholes, or megashapes, that the rider senses while operat- ing on freeways or arriving at large openings in the ground

THE WEATHER * - - /Xs 7-/t_^-^^ ///[?

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plane (such as an airfield) a sensation of traveling along the tangent of the very definition of the ecological enve- lope. While this may appear more evident in an airplane, it is in fact more sensational when you dip underneath the ground ecology (as in the great freeway cloverleaf), possi- bly because the vehicle operates along a curve whose ori- gin is somewhere above the driver swinging him out of, yet against and into, the crust of the earth that serves as the carpet's ground.

The clashes between the Zoohemic and the Aerial may be putting the drifter in touch with what Baudrillard calls the "astral."4 This may also be particularly European (eastern too?), but the sensation one has when, for the first time, a tumbleweed crosses the highway somewhere on former Route 66 with no other car in sight makes one's ancestral home burst, releasing the rider within or from its (oppres- sive) security into the open - never to return. "How can anyone be European?"' The sensations referred to here cluster around the notion of speed, or better, the notion of motion. In Houston, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the alien prosthetic is neither the car nor the air ve-

hicle but the drifter's legs. Thus coming from a pedestrian past bursting onto the scene of the vehicular (and its asso- ciated velocities) clearly demarcates a takcoff that is beside reality as one once knew it; it lurches one not just into a more rapid disappearance of what is seen in the rearview mirror but also into the future (Virilio). Not withstanding Baudrillard's point that "driving produces a kind of invis- ibility," the shape of the setting for those "pure objects" become more visible.' This is, of course, more truly the case when the trip is repeated over and over again - a sensation Baudrillard the European clearly never experi- enced. The shapes of the city's ecologies appear at its margins but, maybe more importantly, during the repeated trips along these same margins. Yet this exterior shapcful- ness is more conceptual than actual, held in place by men- tal constructions made up of sporadically gathered shape-fragments rather than actual physical continuities. These external visions of shape are propped up, however, now from the inside by additional visions of shape, both more contiguous and more pervasive. To drive inside the zoohcmic ecology - which includes trees, incessantly drawn at the periphery of one's vision - builds an addi-


New Babylons Lerup

tional understanding of shape that may not be exactly synomorphic with the external shape of the ecology. But counting the particles of a field, rather than establishing the parameters of the field itself, touches on another grammar of shape - a grammar that has been called oce- anic. However fractal and seismic the oceanic experience may be, it is also smooth and voluptuous. The almost continuous underside of the leafy canopy supported by the countless tree trunks form an inverted mountain chain of green that begins to build - once again through repeti- tion - a conception of an inside. This inside is in no way trivial, particularly since it substitutes structurally for the actual loss of European city form. As city form, the Hous- tonian interiority is very different from, say, the Parisian. Where the latter is constituted by the street, the vertical- ity established by the perimeter block, and propelled by a pedestrian subjectivity, the low-slung green canopy estab- lishes a pervasive almost-domestic intimacy that in the European city can only be had inside the residential block

in the warmth of a house. Thus Houston is at any one location both a giant room and an ocean of endless sur- faces. This inner field-and-room, produced through a trajectorial subjectivity, is held in place by two planes: the ground and the canopy of trees. Both planes undulating, the fieldroom is not a space in the European (Euclidean) sense but a constantly warping and pulsating fluidity. The pedestrian, painstakingly, circumscribes the blocks of the old city, harbors no doubt about what moves and what is fixed. In Iouston, however, the speeding car projects itself into a space that is never yet formed, forever evolv- ing and emerging ahead, while disappearing behind. This creates a liquidity in which the dance and the dancer are fused together in a swirling, self-engendering motion pro- moted by the darting of the driver's eyes, touching (be- cause so intimate, so familiar): street, canopy, house, adjacent car, red light, side street, radio station Tejano 106.5, car upon car, instruments, tree trunks, joggers, barking dogs, drifting leaves, large welt and dip, patch of sunlight. This is a navigational space, forever emerging, never exactly the same, liquid rather than solid, approxi- mate rather than precise, visual but also visceral in that it is felt by the entire body - not just through the eyes and the soles of the feet. The body in this liquid space is sus- pended, held and urged on by the trajectory.


assemblage 25

The Zoohemic and the Aerial fields, invested by various velocities ranging from Suburbans to helicopters, pop out and disappear. On rare occasions nature itself draws the two strata clearly and distinctly, and for a brief moment their innate fluidity is arrested. 7 A.M., 29 December: a weather front has drawn a blanket of clouds across the Metropolis, so low that the tops of skyscrapers brush it. Not yet completed, the blanket gapes to the East and the sun, like a child's flashlight, illuminates (not his nmomen- tary tent but) the airbag between the top of the zoohemic and the underside of the cloud cover. The light from the sun paints all the eastern facadcs of the skyscrapers giant pilotis-candles supporting the sky. The huge window to the East burns bright red, while the sun rises up and out to create an eventual arctic-scape of the cloud cover's upper surface. The sun has literally drawn a new section of the city. The similarity in form between the two assemblages (tree trunk/canopy and skyscraper/cloud cover) posits the first determining structure or shapefulness of the two ecolo-

gies. First, like stacked tables, one sits on top of the other, then at closer scrutiny, the upper table pokes its skyscraper trunks down through the Zoohemic Canopy to the ground, thus originating in the lower ecology - literally growing out of it. The clear definition of the two fields, and the air space in particular with its momentary ceiling, forces the intimacy first established under the trees now to include the entire Metropolis. Air and biota are merged to form a double space in which elements (tall buildings and certain vehicles) and fluids (air, sound, and smell) circulate freely. Back on the ground, driving across the Zoohemic Field, the conceptual mingling of ecologies provokes addi- tional crossreadings but now horizontal: the freeway un- derpass, laminated away from the ground (that barren forest of concrete columns-and-canopy), takes on new value as the petrified token of the dominating ecologies of the metropolis - the concrete columns as so many artificial limbs mending the rift in the green hewn by the freeway itself.7


New Babylons Lerup

Entortung J. B. Jackson's Westward-moving House haunts Houston.8 While driving east-west along a street of modest houses two remarkable rhythms occur. The street begins to roll like an ocean. Long shallow swells threaten to bounce riders from their seats while the houses, many of which are partially overgrown with vines, tilt ever so slightly, (fur- ther) revealing the tropic instability of the ground. The combination of the rolling street and the tilting houses is deeply unsettling. Everything moves (as in a sped-up geo- logical flow). Every element is detachable, ready to go. The Westward-moving House could have originated in some Heideggerian clearing in the Schwartzwald, but Jackson chose to begin the story on America's East Coast. At the beginning of its trajectory, the house still had a basement. As it migrated further West, and it often did so literally because the settlers brought their houses with them, the more it was modified to respond to the next move. Among the first modifications, the cellar was left behind, replaced by rocks set simply on the ground to serve as point supports. The final transformation of the frontier Urhaus is the contemporary mobile home, still the cheapest and fastest way to "own a home," since, like a car, it can be delivered the following day on the basis of a ten-year amortized loan. The tendency to make things lighter and more mobile goes hand in hand with what Karl Popper called the "ephemeralization of technology," the suggestion that all technology will evolve from clocks to clouds. The tilting houses encountered at the outset (they sit on the same type of supports as the Westward-moving House, today made of mass-produced concrete blocks) are both an expression of this ephemeralization and an uproot- ing of the house, here literally severed from the ground and thereby shifting its status from building to furniture. The rolling street (a reminder of the swamp out of which I ouston arose) gives the experience of driving in this flat city a quality of being held hostage on a subdued roller coaster. The rolling is not at all confined to the poorest parts of the city but characterizes the entire secondary street grid - and every house has had or will have "a bad foundation day." Unsettling as it may seem, the rolling rhythm of the road and the racking of the houses (real or

imagined) produce a strange echo of what in New York would constitute a city beat, though here it is not that of be bop but blues, zydeco, and cumbia; at the same time, this rolling of the ground suggests not only that the ele- ments upon it are unstable (and rhythmic) but that the very field itself is the ultimate demonstration of the Met- ropolitan Entortung (uprootedness) that Georg Simmel began to map out in his famous essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life" and that Massimo Cacciari used as one of the bases for his book Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture.9

In Houston, the entire foundation of the ground-level ecology is soft, rhythmic, and unstable, held together by the roots of the canopy of trees, creating the absurd im- pression of a city suspended from the treetops, its cars, riders, and roads gently swinging. At any rate, the ground is a detached ground, the house, an infinitely migrating detached house that follows in a slow attenuated progres- sion the same Brownian trajectories as do its associated deputy paraphernalia - the car and the dweller - em- blems of a restless urban matrix continually on the move.

Dross Space is granted little physical presence on the plane of this planet. Dominated by motion, time, and event, all components of this complex hide an essential vulnerabil- ity - trees die, cars and markets crash, and the air slowly kills. In fact, in Houston, air functions much like our skin, an immense enveloping organ, to be constantly attended to, chilled, channeled, and cleaned. Pools of cooled air dot the plane, much like oases in deserts. Precariously pinned in place by machines and human events these become points of stimulation - Stims - on this otherwise rough but uninflected hide, populated only by the dross - the ignored, undervalued, unfortunate economic residues of the metropolitan machine. Space as value, as locus of events, as genius loci, is then reduced to interior space: a return to the cave. In these enclaves or Stims, time is kept at bay, suspension is the rule, levitation the desire - be it the office, the house, the restaurant, the museum, or the ever-marauding Suburban. Outside, the minimization of


assemblage 25

time is the dominant force that both draws lines on this erratically littered surface and gathers its pools of energy. Because once the time lines are seen to coincide and over- lap, they begin to curl and twist. Our plot thickens at the Galleria - Houston's giant shopping spree, where the pistons and cranks of the Metropolis have compressed more buying power into a single horizontal concatenation than in the entire region - and at the oil company office park euphemistically known as Downtown - where again the metropolitan muscle is flexed, but now vertically to sculpt the ultimate urban physique. The entire Down- town becomes one megashape, a token for all of America's downtowns. In a less obvious manner, time dominates still other forms of thickening in the ecology. Many of these bulges are less physical than virtual, noted in remarks by the rider: "here, another Exxon' station, another Tar- getT" - subtle, ever-multiplying as market bytes whose recurrences follow the logic both of the cash flow and the bayou or catch basin. Outside, these Stims, at once retinal and rhythmic, like mild electroshocks on the plane, now join to become the extended skin of the rider.

The new space emerging from the impulses of this huge envelope is transient, fleeting, temporary, and biomorphic rather than concrete, manifested, or striated. Barely visible to the classical eye, these forms appear as expanding ripples in one's consciousness, swellings, bumps, and grinds coursing through the nervous system. Erratic, un- predictable, the time line for the spatial event jumps, twitches, hums, and wiggles like an erratic hose in a gardener's grip. Yet the flow encourages, the speed comforts,

the ride heals. The chorus of the multitude of familiar Stims forms a signifying beat, tapping gently on the rider's visual domain: the optic pouch.0l This pouch is always changing its size, sometimes confined, as when throttling through a tunnel of trees, at other times expanded to amorphousness, as it fills out an abandoned lot, a leftover plot of prairie, or when, in a flash, it explodes like a para- chute to include a stretch of sky. Yet urban threats prevail in this huge ecological envelope. Largely hiding out in the spaces between, the threats are kept away from the Stims. (They must not be implicated or soiled by any harsh realities.) Consequently, clandestine at first, yet ultimately as palpable as the humidity, the threats rush to the surface - environmental ones - made apparent by the Metropolis as a large unified ecology, an envelope with its own air, a sloppy organ whose precarious health is clearly in question. Here the fear of miasma is real; Houston is one of the most polluted cities in the nation. And urban fear: the insidious force that atomizes the city like a scatter bomb into a myriad cells each surrounded and enclosed by various forms of callused protective tissue (physical prowess, power in numbers, rent-a-cops, walls, gates, distance, electronics, guard dogs, lot size, borders, rail-road or freeway barriers) - an entire physics ofenclavism. We are talking warfare here. This strife propels and animates the ecology, much more than Ecology itself, perhaps as much as the market force. Like a myriad invisible nano-machines clandestinely at work undermining metropolitan sanity, fear has delaminated the Stim from the plane - Entortung efficiently at work.


New Babylons Lerup

In gaggles, Stims agglutinate, skip, and leapfrog once the barometer of fear passes the critical mark of 103 degrees. Yet among the middle class, the fear remains unspoken, silenced, merely illustrated in passing by the antiseptic crime statistics of the news media. In the street it speaks loud and clear. In fear's wake, in addition to the great suburban escape, come deed restrictions, restricted num- bers of sewer hook-ups, zoning, alarms, and armaments- one hundred thousand four hundred registered guns. Guns and gas are the propellants of the Metropolis on the run. To what end all this paraphernalia, when according to recent polls, Houston ranks as the fourth most livable city in the United States? The answer surely leads us to the Stims themselves, to their internal strength, and, alas, to their vulnerability.


A sudden glimpse, a distant bearing. A momentary stop on the eye's endless loop: roadway, neighboring traffic, instruments, your passenger. The optic pouch explodes into the distance instantly to envelop the megashape of downtown, retrieving it for short-time storage, mapping onto the construction site of memory, only to cut the shape loose until the next recounter.

Lifting out of the ground the freeway abandons its base to join, ever so briefly, the air- space. Helicopters join Subur- bans in the Minor Airshow.

Preparation and Promise: The prefigura- tion of the Metropolis. Holey space soon to be filled. The clean slate: the city floor, the weather system, and the facsimiles of what's to come (or what could be). The Warwick Hotel at the edge of Hermann Park.


Sick City, Texas Medical Center: An arsenal of air and ground vehicles, elevators, stretchers, deliver the medical body. The ecology of prevention, care, and intervention operates on world time - twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Bodies come and go, live and die. Free Parking at First Visit. Brain scan, bone scan, MRI, PSA, hopes, illusions, and the eternal wait. Statistics vs. self.

Depth & height. The oil gusher transfigured and petrified in the priapic tower - the emptying of the earth and the filling of the sky.

Gulfgate Shopping City: Born To Shop, the stimmers spill off the freeway to evaporate in the parking lots. The assemblage of car/ credit card/shopper makes it the hypodermic of the shopping stream. Just as the medieval stirrup allowed the power of the horse to be transferred to the horseman's lance, the shopping assemblage composes and releases pure buying power. Hour, day or night, the stimmers' time is always now, and as place, the mall is a feverish monad held up by its intoxicating inside only.


assemblage 25

Stimulators A colleague invites us to a reception given by an art pa- tron. We traverse the plane and navigate the dross: A mental map, an address, a curving road, large lots and gigantic houses, the de rigeur smiling rent-a-cop. Our destination is a marvel of a house, a fantasy sustained by a spectacular architectural scenography, various addenda (arresting decoration, whimsical furniture, subdued mu- sic, etc.), and the glamour of the party itself. Truly stimu- lating. The collusion is in fact a perfect one, between architects (the curved interior street), decorators (the towels arranged on the floor in the bathroom), caterers (the glutinous loot of shrimp), the art patron (her son's taxidermic hunting trophies) and her own overflowing enthusiasm. Suspended, the audience hovers in the fan- tasy. The house itself is a miniaturized Siena, (turning abruptly I search for a glimpse of the Palio), though not Siena at all, a marvelous polyphonic concoction that threatens all analogy in favor of the authenticity of the bristling Stim itself. Here critique and skepticism must fade in favor of the materiality of this specific event. It is an audacious one, surely costly, and marvelously intoxicat- ing. Yet how does it hold up, or rather, how is it held in place? Where are the invisible wires, the conceits of this theater of events? I ow and where does the dross come

into play? After all, this fragment of Siena is held in place not by a city, by streets, piazzas, walls, or a city-state and its culture. Dislocated, the Stim is suspended in the ocean of the city, but also suspended in time and out of context (Tuscany is far away)."' When toggled on, the Stim's shimmering lights attract its participants like moths sucked out of the darkness of the city. Yet the smiling guard suggests that the suspense is not only momentary but precarious. And when the lights are turned low, the guests and caterers departed, the Stim is turned off and the house and its occupants are again mere dross on the littered city floor. Indeed, light and darkness are inextrica- bly bound together. Like a cyberspace, the Stim is an- chored in place by much technology and machines of every type, mechanical, electronic, and biological.12 The imbroglio is vast, ranging from the Mexican laborers tend- ing the gardens to the architects' studies at the academy in Rome; it gathers, in a single sweep, lawnmowers and airplanes, but also sewage pipes, floral designers, pool installers, electrical power grids, telephone calls, asphalt, automobiles, the birds drawn to bird feeder hubs, deathly silent air conditioners, mortgage banks, hunting rifles, and the little pink shrimps from the Gulf of Mexico. Many of these components and interlocking systems have, in com- mIon architectural practice, been taken for granted and ignored, while others have been dealt with as a kit of parts, each component neatly defined and rendered indepen- dent. This array forms a complex body that must, in the wet of the postwar city, be seen for what it is, a partially self-steering, partially spontaneous, yet cybernetic aggluti- nation of forces, pulsations, events, rhythms, and machines. The neglect of any of its interlocked systems may, despite a multitude of checks, locks, gates, and balances, threaten its existence. The Age of Integration has come to call.

Stimdross Like the surface of a lake during a rainstorm pocked by thousands of concentric ripples, the Metropolis is bom- barded by a million Stims that flicker on and off during the city's rhythmic cycles. These Stims steam and stir, oscillate and goad, yet each specific stimme, or voice, re- verberates throughout the Metropolis in a most selective


New Babylons Lerup

manner: the "art party" visited above draws a very narrow audience just as do the zydeco dance halls in East HIous- ton. Both are essential, vital elements of the full-fledged Metropolis. The Stimmung, or ambiance, projected by each Stim is fully understood and fully had by insiders only. Although as a stimulus the zydeco dance occasionally draws a group of (slumming?) upper-middle-class guests (and they are graciously tolerated), they remain aliens, however touched and moved they may be by the dance and its inert stimulantia. And there is IIugo's Garage, a stim that lasts for a brief hour or two on Friday afternoons when his clients come to pay their respect. Hugo is the much-beloved and respected mechanic (he works on im- ports, too) whose greatly diverse clientele come to stim: beer and cars, the car-as-transport is parked and briefly elevated to the car-as-art, setting aside all class and money distinctions between the aficionados. Simultaneously, a block away the trunk hoods on a dozen cars go up (and the tiny lights turn on) to wire the iron-clad Hlispanic Parking Lot Stim. Men gather around, the echo of a cumbia pro- jected from several car radios envelops the momentary

brotherhood Like open treasure chests the stationary cars now project back in time and place (to a common culture and history) - El Bulevar de Sueiios. A telling balance to the carro's otherwise futuristic prowess. A tiny sampler from the menu of "a million Stims."

Ranging from the Family Dinner to the Card Game, all Stims are held precariously in place, in intensity, and in motion by the metropolitan physics of "walls, particles, and fields." Metropolitan Life is concentrated in all these Stims, and we live as if our life depended on them.' The common tendency to focus all attention on the Stim itself ignores that it is a living organism, machines, a behavior setting, in short, a manifold shale of wonderful complexity. As such, it is dependent on its talons and its backwoods: first, the ocean of the Metropolis, then the world. The inadequacy of the binary opposition of Stim & dross is becoming evident (the legacy of our stale language and its profound grammatical limitations). Only in the hybrid field of stimdross may we begin to rethink and then to recover from this holey plane some of the many potential futures.


assemblage 25


This essay would not have been possible with- out Sanford Kwinter's inspiration, support, and editing. I would also like to acknowledge Dung Ngo, the Director of Publications and Exhibitions at Rice, Stephen Fox, Michael Bell, Mark Wamlble, and those students who helped with the research: Sommer Schauer, Lonnie I oogeboom, and Branden I ookway. 1. The entire section on the relationship be- tween physics and the metropolis is drawn from Martin Krieger's Doing Physics: lHow Physicists Take H-old of the World (Bloom- ington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 25.

2. Lars Lerup, "At The End of the Architec- tural Promenade," in Architecture & Body, ed. Scott Marble et al. (New York: Rizzoli, 1988). 3. Robert Smithson, The Writings of Robert Smithson: Essays with Illustrations, ed. N. I olt (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 55.

4. Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1988), 27. 5. Ibid., 105.

6. Ibid., 7.

7. The two dominating ecologies harbor a multitude of subecologies, or biotopes (lim- ited ecological regions or niches in which the environment promotes and supports certain forms of life). 'T'hcse topoi arc often the grow- ing grounds for the Stim, whose biotic poten- tial (the likelihood of survival of a specific organism in a specific environment, especially in an unfavorable one) is, as I hope to show, highly dependent on both Stim and sur- rounding dross.

8. J. B. Jackson, "The Westward-moving Hlousc," in l,andscapes: Selected Writing of 1. B. lackson, ed. Erwin 11. Zube (Boston: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1970), 10.

9. "In the Ent-ortung it is the destiny of the West itself that runs from the rooting of the Nomos in the justissima tellus, through the dis- covery and occupation of the new spaces of the Americas ('free' spaces, that is, considered to- tally available for conquest, totally profanable: devoid of places), up to the universalism of the world market ... (a total mobilization of an intensive kind, a universal displacement)" (Massimo Cacciari, Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture, trans. Stephen Sartarelli [New IIaven: Yale University Press, 1993], 169). 10. What in more mechanistic times was known as a fixed "cone of vision."

11. The issue of appropriateness is evident here. However, the complexity and multitude of cultures and concerns in the manifold of the Metropolis force us seriously to question contextualism, or to elevate this issue to envi- ronmental contextuality, leaving the issue of style to the beholder.

12. The Stim's apparent mixture of program and building, on the one hand, and all the support structures (people and machines), on the other, makes evident that the designer can, but perhaps should not, exclude the latter from the design equation. Interior designers frequently cross the line between hardware and software. T'his attitude be- comies even more relevant when environmen- tal issues arc brought up, since they have direct bearing on the life cycle and life span of the building (and all its elements and sys- tems) and thus directly on its life (use). 13. In attempting to find a narrow definition of the Stim, I have at this point excluded the workplace, although stimming clearly takes place here, too. The subject of the suburban- ization of work and the increased need for Stims to compensate for the loss of the office is a chapter in itself in need of extensive ex- ploration.

Figure Credits 1-3, 8, 9, 18, 20, 27. Photographs by George 0. Jackson. 4, 23. Photographs by Steve Brady. 5. Collage by Bruce Wcbb; photograph by Paul I lester. 6. Courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation. 7, 10, 11, 14, 16, 17. Drawings by Lars Lerup. 12, 13. Photographs by Michael Kuchta. 15. Texas Architect (July-August 1989). 19, 22. Photographs by Lisa Hardawav/Paul I-ester. 21. Photograph by Ester Bubley. 24. Courtesy of John Graham and Company. 25. Photograph by Peter Brown. 26. Lotus 75 (February 1993).

Lars Lcrup is the dean and the I larry K. and Albert K. Smith Chair at the Rice School of Architecture in Iouston. IHe has written several books, most recently Planned Assaults (1987), and is one of the principals of LMNOP. I-e is a Fellow of the Rice Center for Urbanism (ReCurb). By peculiar coincidence, Lerup lives and wrote this article in the same high-rise apartment in which George 0. Jackson lived and photographed, some six years earlier, many of the images used in this article. Jackson is a Houston-based photographer who spends the majority of his time in Mexico, recording ancient rituals and festivals still being practiced by the indigenous population.


New Babylons Lerup


  • Article Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Assemblage, No. 25 (Dec., 1994), pp. 1-101
      • Front Matter [pp. 1 - 5]
      • Urban Pleasures and the Moral Good [pp. 6 - 13]
      • You Are Here: Information Drift [pp. 15 - 43]
      • In the Place of the Public: Observations of a Frequent Flyer [pp. 61 - 79]
      • New Babylons: Urbanism at the End of the Millennium [pp. 80 - 81]
      • Stim & Dross: Rethinking the Metropolis [pp. 82 - 101]
      • Back Matter