Follow us on Twitter

Junkspace: Rem, Lee, and Me

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.

Lee Friedlander Albuquerque New Mexico 1975

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.

Lee Friedlander New Mexico 2001

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.

Lee Friedlander Pittsburg PA 1980

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.

Lee Friedlander Texas 2006

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.

 

15 comments to Junkspace: Rem, Lee, and Me

  • Perhaps a series of photos of junkspace in Auckland is on the cards Mr Reynolds?

    • I’ve toyed with it….too depressing in Auckland; I prefer the pleasures of looking at somewhere else’s ruin…. may yet. Of course the day job is spent scrupulously avoiding it; concentrating on those diamonds in the sea of manure.

  • Al

    Wow. Brilliant stuff Patrick. Very well written and great use of those excellent photos. If only the people really in charge of Auckland would read and understand this stuff.

  • Bbc

    Great piece Patrick, I like being able to give a name to these urban waste areas that I always become annoyed at when I encounter them – it’s something that is easily ignored however when immersed in your car bubble, leading to the poor urban outcomes we have to endure every day.

  • Patrick, you being a pro photographer and all, definitely go do a junkspace photo essay on Auckland. Pictures tell a thousand words and if those who run Auckland, understand pictures better than they do words, your photos will make a difference to getting things changed. On yer bike laddie!

  • TimR

    Beautifully put, and well directed towards the end as to who really needs to sharpen up the act on this. I get the impression that the AT / AC separation is only perpetuating this general behaviour and outcomes, with a few notable exceptions.

    Ultimately this is the nub of the challenge for anything urban and anything transport related. Which came first – the crossroads or the corner shop? I’m not sure it is an issue of just countryside vs big city – although that is an issue for the NZ government mindset.

    Similar to Koolhaas’ observations, Alan Berger’s Drosscape is a revealing study of these kinds of spaces/effects, set in the process story of urban change. It’s all about bigger spaces and systems generally (try googling for images). What I love about the Friedlander images here is the way they explore the daily impact of drosscape in the places we live in.

    • How did Drosscape get past me? From my favourite publisher too; looks great, ordered. Thanks Tim

      I think the city/country issue is really important as Auckland really is the outlier for institutions that tend to make one policy for the whole nation. AK has suddenly become an actual city , it is not just a large provincial town, but this isn’t understood. Especially by the NatPat and C+R ….

  • Christopher T

    Excellent analysis. I had the disquieting experience of seeing the Prince of Wales’ egregious experiment at Poundbury in Dorset a couple of weeks back. Aside from the freaky, mis-proportioned cardboard quality of the Disneyland architecture, the thing that really impacted was the junkspace of its suburban context: the whole thing was predicated on car access. So, in front of a mock Palladian semi-detached bungalow you had a couple of capacious carparks leading from a wide avenue of tarmac and this scenario was repeated ad nauseam, effectively tripling the footprint of the place. Needless to say, there’s virtually no public transport provision; the whole thing is predicated on the car. The tragic thing is that this freak show is adjacent to Dorchester, a rather pretty if run-down county town. If half the money that’s been spent on Poundbury had gone into modernising Dorchester, renovating what’s there and making it more liveable and sustainable, then the world would have to deal with significantly less junkspace.

    • I do wish we could all get a little more sophisticated about streetscapes and the important role of heritage buildings in them, not as a reason to stop the continued lifecycle of the built fabric, but as a way to keep what’s good alive and encourage the new to add its own layer…. Clr Coney’s call for more laws is a retrograde step in my view. A changing streetscape is a viable and alive one, too much fear and narrowness in this idea that good design stopped at the bungalow [or whenever]. Replicas are bogus and subtract from the heritage value of real old buildings. Built lies.

      Poundbury; Ha! sounds worse than I’d feared… and you went there, good work.

  • morecityplease

    AKA “SLOAP” Space Left Over After Planning” via Trancik i think

  • Geoff Houtman

    Thanks Patrick,

    I take an equally valid meaning from Koolhaas’s “Junkspace” comments, although opposite to yours.

    “We do not leave pyramids.”

    We don’t, we leave rapidly aging bland designs. Last century people still constructed buildings of beauty, sometimes to uplift the common man, sometimes just to appear pleasing to the eye of passers by. Nowadays they seem to be constructed merely to use up a presumable mountain of “fins” and faux-rusted metal.

    Back in the day things were built to last (not to last fifty years). The Ramesseum in Thebes was known as “The House of Millions of Years”, it didn’t of course last that long undamaged, but at least the builders were striving for greatness rather than aiming for mediocrity.

    The famous “Ozymandias” was composed merely about some of the ruins of the Ramesseum, I doubt Shelley would be inspired to pen an ode to any recent structures, ruined or intact. The closest thing that comes to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s ode to failed transport in Fight Club-

    “… the air will be so clean you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand mile.”

    The Egyptian architect Imhotep was a “Renaissance Man” a mere 4,000 years before the Renaissance. He was so popular as an architect (and doctor) that he became worshipped as a God. I don’t see that happening to any of his current crop of descendants.

    “According to a new gospel of ugliness, there is already more
    junkspace under construction in the 21st century than survived from the 20th…”

    I read this as very damning of contemporary architecture…

    I’m not saying you’re wrong Patrick, just that an equally defensible case can be made for the opposite. While replicas and “inauthenticity” as they say are not to your taste, they sure are to a whole bunch of other people.

    Architecture, like any other Artform, is inherently subjective no?

    • Doesn’t the subjectivity argument cut both ways: For example I don’t see the Cook house in Franklin rd is anything other than an improvement to the street, as a fine example of domestic architecture of its age. And a fine addition of texture and richness. You don’t. Fine. That is a taste argument at least in part.

      But when it comes to replicas I do disagree. If you can’t see that the addition of faux 21st century Victorian villas in a real Victorian street doesn’t undermine the authenticity of that experience i don’t think i can help you. A contemporary building is at least being true to itself, and in time will become as much of the street as those shocking innovations bungalows were to the pre-existing villas. Isn’t this where future heritage comes from? Weren’t all those old buildings new once? And in art as in life is there really any greater goal than authenticity?…. often lost in pursuit of the lesser achievements such as virtuosity or originality, just plain old incompetence. And no I don’t like all new buildings at all.

      You still have the problem that streets like Franklin rd are already a wonderful jumble of different periods and accretions of varying quality and taste. Things we can all have opinions about. I just don’t think your, mine, or Ms Coney’s taste should be enshrined in law that’s all.

      • Geoff Houtman

        Yes, subjectivity definitely cuts both ways.

        As to authenticity being the greatest goal of Art? That may be “Authenticicist’s” view (if such a word exists), but to me the goals of Art are more in the entertainment/ provocation/ social commentary/ experimenting areas rather than authenticity. But, again, subjective…

        As to who’s taste should be enshrined in law? Surely that is where democracy comes in?

  • Andrew

    Blatant plug for my work – we sell this awesome Rem Koolhaas doco: http://www.madman.co.nz/catalogue/view/12836/rem-koolhaas-a-kind-of-architect

  • john

    People get so used to auto-ugliness that I suppose it becomes normalized. Then they complain about light rail proposals because of ‘those ugly wires’, never reflecting that the ugliness of the car dependent city is a hundred times worse.

Leave a Reply