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Container Riff
Michael Sorkin, 1996
Published in the exhibition catalogue Present and Futures. Architecture in Cities. Barcelona: Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 1996

 

I have a bad reaction to the idea of "containers." It seems a despairing word, a link in a dispiriting etymological chain: containers, containment, contamination... The word problematizes content and privileges the membrane and its impermeability, raising anxiety about leakage, about the uncontained, about too spontaneous events.

The word also seems to belong to a critical lexicon that has come to overcharacterize the discourse of urbanism. We are eager to describe the city with a certain fatality. To be sure, our urbanism is out of control, driven by globalizing systems and exponential leaps in scale. The metropolis becomes the megacity, becomes the continuous urbanization of the planet. We revert to the convenience of systems, defining cities in the technocratic language that is the death of the accidents and differences that make city beautiful, democratic, and productive.

I will briefly try to flesh out my feelings about this word, riff through a few associations. I think of first Chernobyl, its containment vessel breached by explosion, releasing its invisible poisons to waft on the air around the world. The failure of the container results not simply in thousands of lingering deaths but in the invidious destruction of an enormous territory, removed from the possibility of habitation or production for an age. The failure of the system to keep its harmful byproduct in its place is the ruin of its surroundings. A ghetto for Strontium, the reactor functions like any other ghetto. Its force ―constantly marked as dangerous― is useful only if it is contained. Released, its ineffable potency pollutes.

The failure of Chernobyl ―which took place at the moment of the collapse of the Soviet system― was a vindicating inversion of the success of another container, that of post-war American foreign policy. This, as you know, was long predicated on the idea of "containment", the erection of an impermeable membrane designed to thwart Soviet expansionism, the growth of the "evil empire". Chernobyl provided a chillingly telling metaphor for this enterprise. Schooled since the war to believe that the iron (though lead might have been more suitable) curtain concealed the manufacture of insidious demo-toxins. Westerners could plainly see that when the Soviet system crumbled (of course our nukes ―products of a different system― posed no such threat) there was an inevitable leakage of the poisons that had constituted the very substrate of Soviet power.

Let's withdraw from the fulsomeness of this metaphor for a moment to consider a system of containers of even more directly architectural character. I am thinking, of course, of shipping containers, of the system of modularized containerization that is one of the great enablers of the global economy. This impressive system, designed to efficiently integrate road, rail, ocean-going, and (in another modularization) air transport is the quintessential model of modernity. Existenzminima for goods, the stackable, hoistable, boxes ―which, jettisoned, often become housing for the desperately poor― fulfill a historic dream of a kind of democracy. Predicated on a meticulous fidelity to an outward sameness, they define the territory of difference with inviolable exactitude. Any colour at all as long as its black when the early motto of the Ford Motor Company. Any content at all, as long as it fits.

Urbanism ―at least its currently sanctioned discourse― is in recovery from this same fantasy. There's a little distinction though. In the dreams of Le Corbusier or Hilbesheimer, the Cartesian sameness simply reproduced itself everywhere: the transmission of ideas resulted in the transformation of culture, resulting in an inevitability of construction. The container system goes this one better by collapsing at least two of the terms. The creation of a universal spatial particle which can itself be freely transmitted imparts a kind of physics to the system. The circuit of ideas, the circuit of capital, and the circuit of space become homologous, in a great reverie of globalized consumption, a vindication of the module.

I do somewhat overstate the originality of this system and must refer to a familiar production on the cusp of postmodernity. In the sixties and seventies particularly, many of us collaborated in various guises on inventing images of pod housing, choppered from LA to Marseilles for insertion in the voided maws of waiting megastructures. That fantasy died on the shoals of the banality of its foral vision, the economics of transferring so much weight, and a market unready for real property to be so unfixed ―although the idea that property could have a life independent of land has a charm that will be much revisited. One of its more suggestive contemporary reincarnations is the model of the time-share condominium. Here the mobility of capital is paired not with the mobility of space but with that of ownership. Space is shared through the medium of time in a magic formula of real estate relativity that puts us in the condo in Boca during March and the chalet in Vail late in May (no snow, alas, but really cheap.)

Certainly, the notion of the container exists to sit athwart a staggering increase in personal mobility. As we flow faster and faster across the globe, how are we to be organized in relation to events and activities. One possibility ―suggested by the shipping container― is that we become attached to a kind of universal space particle which we bear ―turtle like― with us, ready to be inserted in some available slot at our destination. The logic of this system must be predicated either on the availability of some meaningful set of differences at that destination; on a religion of pure mobility, perhaps an expansion to that current totem of self-importance, frequent flyer miles, to frequent mover miles; or on a physics of aggregation which allows these mobile particles to be assembled into space molecules of meaningfully variable form and purpose.

Which brings me to another container, a container of milk in the cooler of the American supermarket. Poignantly, for the last several years, these containers have often been printed with photographs of missing children, accompanied by further description and the particulars of his or her disappearance. These containers harbinger what will surely become a characteristic crime in this future of circulating containers and trackable particles, the loss of a subject in space. Such crimes of course cut both ways. Kidnapping and rebellion both result in a disappearance from the sight of the system, a losing track. The container (with its bar-coded rune) is the instrument for assuring that things and people are in their place. Postmodernity, in its panoply of simulations, its eviscerations of difference, its confusions of geography, has created a titanic vexation of place. Containers seem to be the medium for sorting this out, substituting a unifunctional science of activity for the unsurveillable leakiness of tradition places. We know you're at the Mall because you used your Mastercard to buy those size 34 jeans at the Gap. And weren't you a 32 last month? How much space do you think you're entitled to?

If anyone ever tested that particular limit, it was Walter Hudson. At the time of his death three years ago, Hudson weighed close to 1200 pounds, somewhat down from the 1400 pounds that established his Guiness-certified record as the world's fattest person. Hudson was so large that when he died a wall of his house had to be torn down and a fork-lift brought in to remove his corpse.

Hudson is the paradigmatic citizen of post-modernity. What makes him exemplary, however, is not so much his bulk as his immobility: except for a tragically brief period of slimming Hudson was unable for years to leave his house, unable even to leave his bed. He was sustained in this stasis by a kind of minimum apparatus of contemporary personhood: flanking his specially constructed bed were refrigerator and toilet, computer and television set. With a Big Mac in one hand and the TV remote control in the other, Hudson led his contracted life.

For me, Walter Hudson represents the next step in the culture of containerization. In a sense, his bulk is coincidental. He was, to be sure "as large as a house" (indeed, he occupied more space than anyone in history) but this is merely an irony. In his enormity Hudson simply makes visible a kind of containerization to which we are all susceptible, the idea that the body, positioned at a nexus of surveillability, immobilized by the possibility of continuous observation and regulation, becomes the modularized degree zero of architecture.

We are everywhere beamed incitements to the immobility for which Walter Hudson was poster child: tribalism, fear of epidemics and criminality, uncontrolled population growth and diminution of resources, and especially the continuous assertion of the equivalence of life on the Net to the old experiences of spatiality, all suggest a reduction of the territories of freedom to the confines of the skin, a neutralization of the idea of the city that threatens ―should the technical resources become available― to make even bodies irrelevant. Our intimacy with the Net, our willingness to submit to the constant vetting of the global electronic system, harbingers a day in which the line between the last bastion of private space ―the body― and public sphere is finally obliterated.

Perhaps I run a bit ahead of the story. Walter Hudson's immobilization by excess spatiality is, for the moment, ironically reflected in our own enormous mobility. Here we sit in Barcelona, gathered from the corners of the world, to issue cautions to one another about the generic mechanisms of the world city. As members of the class which enjoys the privileges of both the old Newtonian style of mobility and the new, electronic, virtual mode, we experience this condition of intermediacy as a kind of pleasure, as a supplement, not a constraint. However, the zero sum character of the equation seems unmistakable. As the persuasiveness and convenience of virtual relations rises, there is a corollary decline in the meaningfulness of differences in physical space. The trope of placelessness (we watch CNN both on the airplane and at the Hilton) is too much with us and too much true.

As I suggested before, a container is defined by the character of its membrane. There are those which are designed to keep things out and those to keep them in. If I seem to be carried away with the panoptic, carceral, model, it is because that is the model that is closest to my own experience. The reemergence of a culture of national, ethnic, and sectarian separatism is surely also a projection of this idea of the container into political space. The breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic enclaves and the parallel efforts of the United Nations to create a series of "Safe Zones" impermeable to the violence (if not the hatred) all suggest that paranoid, regulatory, character of the notion of containment, as well as a blurriness of the difference between utopia and imprisonment.

We're all familiar with the rapid rise in the United States of enclaved, gated, high-security communities meant to secure the tranquility of their inhabitants by erecting a cordon sanitaire against the noisome population without. A more ambitious version of such a container has long been a staple of the American lunatic right, the same subculture behind the recent bombing in Oklahoma city. Their paranoia is not completely different in motivation from our own. Anxious about the "mongrel" culture of the "New World Order" these sociopaths propose an Aryan Homeland for themselves in the Pacific Northwest of the United States along with a series of geographical containers ―bantustans― for blacks, Jews, and other undesirables. Such fascists are right, of course, about the existence of a global culture that will inevitably obliterate difference. Their program, though, relies on a conflation of separateness and difference, on a notion of the container sufficiently large (and the idea of bigness is precisely one of the tools of this paranoia) to assure that a fixed pattern of differences will be retained, that the possibility both of "sameness" is avoided but, equally, so also is the uncontained possibility of splicings and mutations, enlargements of the catalogue of differences.

The convolutions of such strategies of containment can be fascinating. One of the historic ―and tragic― geo-political containers in the American experience is the Indian reservation. Within these territories, Native Americans continue to possess a certain degree of legal sovereignty. This limited autonomy allows, among other things, Indians to operate gambling casinos on their lands in many states where such establishments are not otherwise legally permissible. Recently, the city of Detroit, a metropolis in dire financial straits has begun the process of transferring a piece of its downtown to the Chippewa tribe, creating a tiny reservation on which a casino might be built. The municipality envisions this resulting in the creation of a larg number of jobs as well as a considerable tax return on the gambling revenues.

A fair number of inversions are entailed here. Whereas the container of Indian reservations historically erected a membrane that systematically devalued the territory contained, the Detroit strategy relies on the notion that the new Indian reservation become so radically valorized that it would dramatically transform the economy at its periphery. This is a clear distillation of the public logic of so-called "containers" more generally. The inscription of football stadia, shopping malls, multiplex theaters in existing urban and ―more frequently― suburban tissue is precisely predicated on the creation of territories which are cauterized from the continuous fabric of urbanity. These places ―like Indian reservations― are conceptually hermetic, distanciated environments whose peripheral logics are not spatial ―like any good urban architecture― but financial. The flow of capital they generate is bodiless and conceptual, unlikely to stick, unbound by the niceties of physical adjacency, by the kinds of incremental, reciprocal, influencing growth that is crucial to health of the city.

Signs on the New York City subways enjoin the carrying of open containers of alcohol. The traditional strategy for circumventing this injunction has been to carry your bottle in a brown paper bag, placing the container within a container, camouflaging its character and thereby legitimating ―via a kind of discretion― its decanting. The subway signs ―one step ahead of this old ruse― are explicit in pointing out that drinking from bottle in a bag is likewise prohibited. But there's a lesson for urbanity here and it lies exactly in the condition the system seeks to forbid: the open container.

The genius of the city ―which I would distinguish from the genius of a discrete piece of architecture― lies in the tractability of its edges, in its permeability, in its support of accident. As a compound of territories and enclosures, a boundary making and measuring system, a labyrinth of spaces, the city relies on a certain illegibility, on the possibility that it can be read beyond the particulars of any single ―or even complex of― containers. The places to describe are, of course, sometimes physical, sometimes conventional, sometimes imaginary and such zones depend as much on precedent and habit as they do on the instigations of construction. The nuances of such urban definition ―of boundary making― are and must be rich, as rich as possible.

The city is not simply a phenomenon of extent, it is an ecology, a locus both of fixity and of complex and shifting relations. Talk of urban containers participates in a functionalist fantasy of rationalized relations in which a set of predictabilities is offered as a hedge against dysfunction. During the recent outbrak of the Ebola virus in Zaire, health workers imposed a system of "barrier nursing" in order to try to contain the deadly disease. Functionalist urbanism ―still our default discourse― imposes a similar fantasy of prophylaxis, a kind of germ theory of urban subjectivity. This dovetails efficiently with the monadic system of global consumption, the disciplines of uniformity that create subjects as particles, victims of an ever more circumscribed field of choices.

It's time to stop thinking and speaking this way. Both the urbanism of blind traditionalism and the acquiescent urbanism of bigness and replicable containers are out of date. If the container is a hedge against accidental or uncontrolled contamination, a medium of manipulation and control, the redress against such a degrading notion of space is in the fight for intimate, plural and malleable spaces, spaces in which differences are invented and celebrated. The city should be the hot-house of both accident and consent, zone of experiment and site of an infinite variety of consensual forms. The task of urbanism is to help produce such fantasies: the street corner and the neighborhood, the row of restaurants than grew along the meandering greenway where so many of the furniture workshops are located (backing on to the canal), the slowly rotating heliotropic apartment buildings which have sprung up on the southern edge of the city...

The task of inventing the forms of the city ―the settings for its social and economic life― remains fresh and promising. While we must vigorously engage the notion of sustainable urban limits, the urban imagination must remain uncontained.