A picnic near the lakeside by Buffalo is the start of a lazy afternoon, early one October. We begin with a scene 1 meter wide, which we view from just 1 meter away.… So begins, more or less, the seminal film Powers of Ten, produced by Eames Office for IBM in 1968 and adapted from the 1957 book Cosmic View, by Kees Boeke. Nearly fifty years after its release, the film remains fresh and worth mining for so many reasons, not the least of which is its seamless stitching together of many technologies of visualization that enabled viewers to understand “the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero.”
Today we add different visualization technologies and different relationships to the zoom. In lieu of a method like splicing, we have multiple and shifting practices, and complex sites where scales of influence coalesce.
PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH PLAZA
Consider the lowly, increasingly unstaffed tollbooth, and more, its entire peri-urban landscape—what we might just coin a “Phantom Tollbooth Plaza.” In 1961, author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer published the novel The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s book in which the eponymous roadside shed and architectural work of mini-infrastructure was recast as a gateway to another world. Something like a latter-day rabbit hole for the America that had been borne of midcentury automotive development, or a black hole on the asphalt, the humble tollbooth was suddenly imbued with magical powers to transport the book’s protagonist to a parallel universe. This book reached enduring popularity with youth of its time and in the decades thereafter, likely embedding itself in the cultural consciousness of a generation now long since grown: people such as myself. In hindsight, it seems to have been an ingenious vehicle for the story, not in its timelessness but rather in its fleeting timeliness; these sheds had their roots in the Middle Ages, but their particular formation with highways, cars, not to mention the growing coordination of interstate law enforcement, was an utterly fresh and foreign appearance. The tollbooth seemed otherworldly even before the story imagined it as a portal to another world, and the ubiquitous toll collectors—often experienced as a disembodied outstretched hand—already ghostly in their impersonality.
Land areas at the largest twenty-four border crossing plaza sites around the Great Lakes alone total 2,903.85 acres, or more than 4.5 square miles. By comparison, this is more than one-tenth the land area of Buffalo (40.6 square miles). They also dwarf some of North America’s largest urban parks (Toronto’s High Park is 398 acres, Central Park is 843 acres, Boston’s Emerald Necklace is 1,100 acres, and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is 1,017 acres, to name a few).
Toll crossings and pass control stations are last century’s familiar polyps in road development, the ubiquitous spots where two lanes expand to ten. Inverse diagrams of automotive speed on the ground, these add up to surprisingly vast tracts of sacrificial lands at the gateways of cities and, indeed, of nations. The entire conurbation that goes without sarcasm under the rubric “plaza” has nonetheless performed as a vacuum on social interactions and relations between urban center and periphery. As such, they are also something like social inversions of plazas of yore.
Today, our real-world tollbooths, and in fact entire toll plazas, offer an immediate and emergent chance to transport us to new netherworlds
state of exception
: not merely into the city but to transitional zones at the hazy boundaries of cities and even nations, where the ecological and social fallout of last century’s infrastructure can be rethought and remade with new digitally inflected public space interactions. Thanks to the gradual introduction of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, NEXUS cards, and other electronics for toll payment and border services, tollbooths grow derelict, and these lands are now open to being rethought. These amount to a mammoth public zone where the toll plaza once served: a Phantom Tollbooth Plaza.
As it grows increasingly devoid of humans, a redevelopment of the Phantom Tollbooth Plaza can open potential for new peri-urban and bi-national zones, and new forms of land use for new kinds of public interaction. These sites—each a hybrid architectural/landscape object enabled by a sensory and database infrastructure
—are suggestive of new forms of shared space, urban boundary and mobility to enter the city. These are the subject of a series of ongoing case studies I have initiated around the Great Lakes.
INFRASTRUCTURE VERSUS VERY LARGE ORGANIZATION
In order to grasp the opportunities for mobility at the Phantom Tollbooth Plaza, it must be understood as an emergent form, no longer a mere infrastructural object but now the space of a Very Large Organization. Today, human–computer interactions in the built environment are marked by the rapid development of Very Large Organizations (VLOs), a term I have elsewhere proposed to describe a phenomenon of our day, as the built environments of work, public assembly, agriculture, incarceration, trade, travel, education, even death join global financial and communications networks.1 The planning and implementation for VLOs command unprecedented resources – logistics, capital and new orders of population magnitude. To function, they must coordinate these resources to accommodate volatile shifts with spatial and computational stability. Adaptability is at the crux of dealing with diverse users or publics and unprecedented technical, cultural, social, and ecological challenges; and it is where control can give way to engagement and participation.
It is important that we also recognize what these are not. VLOs are distinct from both the built realms of globalization and of infrastructure, although they may include both. Instead, they reflect the intersection of numerous physical and nonphysical orders—at minimum, spatial and administrative, but frequently also legal and technological. To elaborate, one might look at typical aspects of infrastructure and how they are augmented in the spaces of VLOs. Entry to a city or nation might have historically been monitored and regulated from the citadel, with functions of law
, control, and governance; or through an arch or portal within city gates that served to protect and control passage. These, along with familiar associated constructions like the roads and bridges that lead to them, would historically fall under the rubric of infrastructure. Less visible, but equally essential, is that they would all be constructed and maintained by the single authority that was served by them. By contrast, many stakeholders come together with sometimes competing interests in the formation of a VLO. The built environment of that VLO carries an associated burden to service all those demands. For example, a passenger bridge that crosses national borders today is financed, maintained, and managed by two neighboring countries, regulated by their import and immigration policies, their regional traffic regulations, and any private partners that are contracted to local port authorities or transit agencies on both sides. Passage might be invisibly controlled by a digital infrastructure to verify identity for regular commuters, all under the purview of a private vendor. Tolls might be collected both ways via electronic transponder and routed from banks worldwide; a third party could hold databases for automotive registration that is cross-referenced as a vehicle passes and possibly alerts law enforcement agencies. Hence the bridge, an old infrastructure, might serve as substrate to the administrative, technological, legal, and material amalgam that is border crossings as a VLO. Further, unlike the relatively limited burden on and top-down concerns of an Arc de Triomphe past, the border VLO, as we shall see, hosts cultural and environmental events generated by any person who crosses it.2
At places around the U.S./Canadian border, the Phantom Tollbooth Plaza’s ongoing mutation as a VLO is marked by recent political and technological ripples at the Peace Bridge. Located where the city of Buffalo meets Fort Erie, Ontario, across the Niagara River, this site has many salient characteristics of U.S./Canadian land crossings today. It handles heavy but fluctuating traffic across a land and water border, sometimes concentrating plumes of air pollution from idling engines right above the airspace of one of the Great Lakes. In contrast with the U.S./Mexico border, these stations are many and grow increasingly streamlined in their handling of automotive traffic, because economic and political relations encourage the easy passage of regular commuters and therefore a highly porous national border. Until 2009, crossing was permitted with an ordinary driver’s license check. Today, that same crossing requires a passport control, but its cumbersome and time-consuming process has in turn given way to the advent and increasing subscribership of NEXUS cards: electronically read, biometrically referenced ID for prescreened regular commuters in both countries.3 Between RFID toll collection and facial recognition used with NEXUS cards for border control, the plaza grows “un-tolled”—unprogrammed and left to tell or host new stories.
Shown here are recent studies of highway toll plazas that tie together ubiquitous computing (here, RFID and its successors) and ecological impact (enabling automotive commutes) to a large set of toll crossings around the Great Lakes, all landscape-architectural objects similar to the Peace Bridge. These cases have global implications and represent perceptual shifts in spatial practices, all predicated on understanding the broader implications in the changing makeup and protocols of automotive border crossings. RFID-enabled toll crossings are not only the familiar convergence of diverse personal data such as banking records, automotive registration, and law enforcement info. A driver
crossing a border also identifies mentally as a visitor or commuter and carries a personal role in the areaʼs air quality. Hence the toll plaza is the locus of more than just physical entry and data transfer, but of cultural and environmental events too. Clearly, since the growth of RFID use, tollbooths are growing unstaffed and obsolete. But thinking further, it isn’t enough to conclude that systems such as the NEXUS card represent a mere streamlining of pass control
to satisfy demands for security yet speed passage for regular border commuters. This is because the protocols and technologies remain in transition. Just as RFID transponders obviate tollbooths, RFIDs themselves may soon vanish too: in Germany, for example, truckers are already charged tolls perpetually by GPS.
The Phantom Tollbooth Plaza is therefore a new peri-urban and bi-national zone for new forms of public interaction. Its sites must be taken as suggestive of new forms of shared space, urban boundary and mobility to enter the city for anyone in transit in the thickened leftover spaces between borders.
MOBILITY ACROSS SCALES AND BETWEEN NATIONS
This brings us to grapple with understanding roles of technology across scales: from RFID transponder to car to city to the potentials for a new bi-national zone, one that redresses the same tangle of personal, urban, and supranational interactions that are already rife with potential at such fringe conditions today. Recent battles over the Peace Bridge hold a great resolution in the potential to create something previously unimaginable: a bi-national “grey zone.”4 The greyness of the zone is constituted in its liminal status, as it exists in transit, straddling borders, both architecture and landscape, and often across land and water. In this proposal, the zone is a salvaged remnant and made greyer, capturing a permanently transitory character in its physical and legal makeup but also serving fleeting social encounters in which visitors are also grey, not defined by their passport.
As recently as spring/summer 2013, disputes over land use and land values around this area sparked between New York State and Ontarian officials.5 These reflect not so much the economics of the moment per se as the surfacing of increasing tensions over land use redevelopment, symptoms that the two ends of the bridge are becoming destinations at the edges, new nodes of mobility at the borders.6
They also identify the supranationality of these places that straddle borders; and their relation to mobility today, as their protocols in both technological and legal respects are dictated by networked databases to international banking and to numerous enforcement authorities. The very representation of such conditions is growing subject, even in architectural practice, to more and more reliance on satellite technologies.7
Yet the changes at the toll plaza gesture toward the promise of new interactions that can occur at the same spaces they have liberated. If recognition and identity are now conditioned by biometrics, then the architecture and landscape of the Phantom Tollbooth Plaza should likewise become a social space at the interstitial zone between countries, one that lets visitors meet directly and in play with the assistance of biometric indicators.8 These need not answer to the same end goals as homeland security, though. Rather, play and interpersonal engagement should govern interactions in the zone. Can the ground itself grow responsive to one’s weight, to gait? Could it warm or light passages to others, or to views and rest areas? Could the touch of a palm on a handrail initiate a soundscape?9 How might an engagement with nature, with data, and with other people mark the zone between borders? These are some questions that are implicit in the redevelopment of the zone.
With redevelopment, the Phantom Tollbooth Plaza can become both a site of ecological remediation and a field of slow pedestrians rather than idling engines. Ground surfaces for ecological remediation can host plantings that consume carbon oxides and that sequester particulate matter; or serve the existing binational initiatives already working on projects for such goals. Drivers can have a space between lands where they can stop, leave their car, and meet one another in a bikeable or walkable zone that was previously most forbidding, yet most tempting to explore for its diverse conditions. A new form of sociality can be prototyped here within the zone, marked by and engaged with the digital controls that enabled its very creation.
These sorts of changes carry enormous spatial and experiential implications. They promise that boundaries will no longer be about toll plazas as gateways (points) but rather about perpetual sensing on the roads (lines). With a switch from RFID to GPS tracking, the very spatial and temporal performances of mobility are poised to shift further. Borders will no longer appear as lines but as zones and meshes—as durations of space and time to be occupied by diverse publics. This perpetuity, this duration, touches all issues at play here: movement, banking records, ecological fallout, and place-based identity. “Duration” is at the heart of this momentous opportunity, and it is an aspect to a new notion of the calm at hand. If Mark Weiser’s notion of calm technology10 was predicated on invisibility and non-intrusiveness, this one is rather about a regular and conscious engagement—or disengagement—with technology’s place in mobility. Old practices like war driving, used to chalk wireless hotspots and associated information right onto the streets, and many other practices have proceeded from similar impulses to make networks and also their liabilities for privacy visible. These include activist and artistic practices that foreground placement of CCTV cameras, détourned use of bluejacking, and more. But in all these, the space and time of the digital encounter is punctual or linear; it can be chalked as a spot, or traced as a line. Duration-based experiences of sensing and tracking, on the other hand, prompts us to confront, get aware of, and also grow used to how mobility, freedom, and privacy now correlate—at the borders.
The following are very in-progress snapshots from a proposal at the Peace Bridge border crossing as a sort of latter-day agora—built of surfaces supportive of athletic, artistic, spiritual, and political life of the city—on the Niagara. The proposal serves several inquiries around building now at the confluence and many scales of global legal, ecological, technological, and material forces.11 It aspires to a sort of applied research, but reclaimed from a damaging legacy of Thatcherism that relied on a narrow, free-market notion of application. The research and design practices are tentative and multiple: while bridging architectural methods with research into law, finance, and computer science, projects like Niagora also hope to skirt some of the pitfalls of DARism and to gradually use the work—as a state agent (literally, I am a state employee) to advocate for opening the discussion of these spaces and their transformation. As an ongoing inquiry, Niagora has a clear sense of test, a multiple sense of subjects, and a stitching, seeking sense of practices.
- 1. See, for instance, Jordan Geiger, “Maximal Surface Tension: Very Large Organizations and their Apotheosis in Songdo.” Scapegoat: Architecture | Landscape | Political Economy. Eds. Adrian Blackwell and Chris Lee. Toronto: Scapegoat, 2013. Print. ^
- 2. Here, we revisit Paul Virilio’s prophetic 1983 writings, which crucially identified a “new perspective devoid of horizon (within which) the city was entered not through a gate nor through an arc de triomphe, but rather through an electronic audience system.” “Thanks to satellites,” he wrote, “the cathode-ray window brings to each viewer the light of another day and the presence of antipodal space.” That text looked at effects of airports and CNN on cities and time-space relations globally. Thirty years later, perhaps paradoxically, we now ask what became of those older gateways. Paul Virilio, “The Overexposed City” pp. 12–14, in Paul Virilio, Lost Dimension (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Semioetext(e), 1991). ^
- 3. The NEXUS program is administered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection with the Canadian Border Services Agency since 2009, when a valid driver’s license was no longer sufficient for passage and drivers would otherwise be required a passport check. The program permits “pre-approved, low-risk travelers” to cross land borders more quickly by use of reserved lanes that are equipped with card readers and cameras. Surprisingly, a brief interaction with a border agent is then required, but this appears to be slated for phase-out as the system is debugged and enrollment grows. Pre-approval involves an online or printed application, an in-person interview, portrait photograph, and fingerprint scans. Applicants are approved based on passing checks for criminal history, FBI searches, and immigration status. A companion to NEXUS, SENTRI, is a similar program for border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico. https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/. The emergence of these programs owes to a number of factors that typify the emergence of border controls as a VLO. These seem best explained by Bush administration policies set in place to meet the real and perceived needs for anti-terrorist security measures since 9/11. But economic and other factors vitally coalesce here too. These are seen in rancor over undocumented immigrants and their roles in local employment; the increasing privatization of federal programs in the prison and postal systems is present here as well, as lucrative contracts to collect biometrics and build databases of traveler profiles that can be shared across agencies. ^
- 4. For more than a hundred years, U.S./Canada border relations have been marked by this mix of sensitivities (environmental, territorial, cultural, and so on), in which air and water pose thorny challenges to protocols for customs on the ground. This history can be traced back at least to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which provided a tool for resolving disputes around Great Lakes waters as an economic and ecological asset; it was less concerned with defining borders as with conceptualizing its fluid shifts. In our era, the U.S./Canada Air Quality Agreement of 1991 resulted from pressure applied by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on President Ronald Reagan to take accountability for the considerable acid rain resulting from U.S. industry in the Midwest, particularly coal production. In this case, air as a medium was conceptualized as both asset and liability in border relations on the ground. ^
- 5. Danny Hakim, “The Peace Bridge (What Else?) Sets Off a Cuomo-Canada War.” New York Times, May 27, 2013. ^
- 6. Danny Hakim, “Cuomo and Canada Have Peace Bridge Deal.” New York Times, June 26, 2013. ^
- 7. Refer here to notes on the “Stack” and “Cloud Megastructures” as they are described by Benjamin H. Bratton in his forthcoming book, Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013). Also of central importance is the ongoing work of Keller Easterling with regard to spatial products of international capitalism and technology. Notably, see Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2007) and the forthcoming Extrastatecraft. Parts of this have appeared, for example, in Keller Easterling, “Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft,” Places Blog (2012), retrieved on July 18, 2013 at http://places.designobserver.com/entryprint.html?entry=34528 ^
- 8. Such ideas have appeared before in a different form, in the brilliant “braincoat” that was developed by EAR studio for Diller-Scofidio’s Blur building. Sadly, this clever insertion in the pavilion’s mists was never implemented. But the logic was both timely and surprising: visitors were to carry luminous devices in the pockets of their clear rain jackets, loaded with personal profiles of their wearers. They would glow green or red based on proximity to others they might be compatible or incompatible with, respectively, a sort of digital analog to “blushing.” ^
- 9. Again here, we can look to a precedent project for inspiration in artist Teri Rueb’s “Core Sample” project of 2007 for Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor and the Boston Institute for Contemporary Art’s Founders Gallery. Rueb writes: “Core Sample is a GPS-based interactive sound walk and corresponding sound sculpture that evokes the material and cultural histories contained in and suggested by the landscape of Spectacle Island…. The installation has a corollary presence in the Founders Gallery at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, where a 99-foot sound sculpture appears as an architectural element installed along the length of the gallery, which offers panoramic views of Boston Harbor. http://www.terirueb.net/core_sample/index.html ^
- 10. This was originally framed around a discussion of the work “Dangling String,” by artist Natalie Jeremijenko. Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, Designing Calm Technology, Xerox PARC, December 21, 1995; retrieved July 18, 2013, at http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/calmtech/calmtech.htm ^
- 11. Consulting with bodies concerned at this site range from the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Remediation Database and the Western New York Land Conservancy’s project for a Niagara River Corridor Ramsar Site; the regulations of the TSA, and more. Modeling the site includes identifying surfaces for remediation and recreation as well as zones of compliance: rights of way, border authorities, height restrictions, but also land values, to name a few. ^
Jordan Geiger is an architect and educator. His research, writing, and design work cross architecture and human computer interaction at large shifts in scale and engaging social, legal, and ecological forces on the built environment. At the University at Buffalo, he is Assistant Professor of Architecture and a member of the Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies (CAST).
This project has its origins in ideas first developed in “B,T, & Me,” a collaboration with Shona Kitchen and Derek Lindner, and was developed with project assistants Daniel Barry and David Heaton.