Continuous Monuments and Imaginable Alternatives
In 1969, Superstudio, a radical Italian design group, made a proposal for what they called the ‘Continuous Monument’. It was a homogenous block of architecture that would encircle the earth depicting the global and total dimension of design and architecture of that time. We currently live in the time of a similar monument that harvests and feeds off ‘data’ – the golden ambrosia of the 2010s.
It seems that the belief that this data has the potential to reshape and perfect the world might follow the same path as other gargantuan projects aimed at human excellence, which throughout history had the tendency to do more damage than good. Today the Smart City, as an idiosyncratic plan for a completely data-driven urban environment ruled by IT firms, becomes the pinnacle of the contemporary version of The Continuous Monument.
This essay aims to connect the world of global homogeny that Superstudio were critiquing with their seminal work ‘The Continuous Monument’1  Featured image above: “New New York” from “The Continuous Monument” series – Superstudio (1969). Superstudio 1966-1986, Florence: Adolfo Natalini, Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, Roberto Magris, Gian Piero Frassinelli, Alessandro Magris,with Alessandro Poli (1970-72). Source: Archivio Superstudio with the modern project of the Smart City and suggest that, particularly with the activation of imagination of technologists, designers, architects and urbanists, this new homogeny might be challenged and alternatives might be imagined.
A little history
The 1960s saw the birth of design as we know it now. Following the Second World War, an explosive growth in new technologies, materials, distribution infrastructure and manufacturing techniques were trickling through the cracks opened up by burgeoning industrial wealth to create modern consumerism. Designed objects were no longer just practical and functional, they were beautiful and desirable. Chairs, cars and kitchenware became symbols of status, taste and luxury more than simple household goods. The work of Charles and Ray Eames in some ways best encapsulates this period. Through their experience of pioneering new manufacturing techniques for civil and military applications, they created some of the most iconic commercial furniture and architecture of the modern world. It is a great credit to their skill that their stunning creations possess the same vital desirability as they did over 50 years ago.
At the same time as the growing US middle class was celebrating the Eames’, a cadre of modern designers was growing in Italy. Superstudio were creating what would become an almost equally iconic design for very different reasons; Il Monumento Continuo – The Continuous Monument.
The Continuous Monument, designed in 1969, was a conceptual proposal for a monolithic, faceless structure covered in reflective glass that would encircle the entire earth. Of course, the project was never meant to be built and instead served as a critique of the contemporary state of architecture and design. Superstudio soon found themselves at the centre of a growing group of European design discontents; the Italian Radicals in particular. Adolfo Natalini, one of Superstudio’s founders, commented: “If architecture is merely the codifying of bourgeois model of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalization of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities. . . until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then, design must disappear. We can live without architecture.2  Adolfo Natalini, Superstudio (1971) Source unknown”
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a tumultuous time. 1968 itself saw a year of almost constant popular unrest around Civil Rights, growing Cold War tensions, independence movements in Northern Ireland and Palestine and hundreds of other causes. There was a broad sweep of radicalization across all swathes and professions of society almost globally.
The concerns of Superstudio and the growing post-modern design movement, were that architecture and design failed to respond to this radicalization. Instead acting as ostentatious objective market tools, devoid of politics that were being used by the global status quo to homogenize and globalize. As a result, The Continuous Monument became intentionally anonymous, faceless and culture-less. It possesses no marked features of its history or heritage and erases them from the places it encounters. It is a huge amorphous object that appears the same to everyone. These features are obviously a critique of globalization, mass manufacturing and post-colonialism but one of the most interesting properties of The Continuous Monument is in its legibility.
The Project of Making the World Legible
Besides the growing success of the modernist design the post-war period also saw the rise of technocracy, bureaucracy, the superstate, the corporation and total statecraft. The Continuous Monument was constructed as a comment on the ruling ideology of its times – an ideology that relied on making the world legible in order to rule it: If we zoom in close on The Continuous Monument we can see that it is constructed of grided squares. Superstudio’s films on the project also show families eating at dining tables covered in the same perfect mathematical grid, on simple chairs with the same grid. Thanks to this grid system the whole world of The Continuous Monument is measurable, readable and divisible to those who control it, be it the aforementioned super-state or corporations. This unprecedented drive to control through recording, tracking and measuring the activity of every human on the planet was well summarized by James C. Scott in his seminal work ‘Seeing Like A State’:
‘The utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations.3  James C Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) ’
The project of making the world legible, he says, takes place in three stages: Firstly an institution or and organization filters what it needs to know. That can be the type of data, facts or readings. A farm for example, could be described as a break down of tonnes of crop yield and running expenses, disregarding the lives and needs of the people who live and work there, the complexity and expertise of farming and the wider social economic context in which the farm is situated. Secondly, the filtered information needs to be abstracted, flattened and spread out in a way that will make it readable, like in a spreadsheet. Then, to make this information useful, the body performing the analysis will reform the world in the image of that abstraction to resemble the ‘. . . administrative grid of its observations’.
As an analogy, Scott references the German forestry science movement of the late eighteenth century. At the time, Germany was woefully unproductive when it came to timber, a necessary precursor to industrialization. The German forestry scientists believed in a system of scientific management to maximize the efficiency of timber production. They ordered the forests to be replanted as plantations; clearing away undergrowth and bushes and planting a rigid grid of trees where each one was given the optimal amount of space in order to grow as quickly and healthily as possible, ordered in rows to make progress and yields legible and measurable. The forestry scientists broke up the natural ‘chaos’ of the forest ecosystem to focus on what they saw as its sole purpose; the production of timber. The idea worked brilliantly – for the first two or three yields. For the purpose of producing timber, destroying the natural biodiversity of the forest and stripping the land of extraneous factors such as the need for a varied and healthy ecosystem, the project had the long-term effect of stunting tree growth and sterilizing the soil.
When we move forward to 1935 we can observe a similar attempt at legibility on the scale of a city in Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse – The Radiant City. Paris, because of its tumultuous, revolutionary and political history was for many years the catnip for city planners. The Radiant City was a plan for a tree-lined grid-city that would resolve the chaos of Parisian slums. It was based on the cult of the machine: If a machine is so knowledgeable, understandable and repairable, then why not build a machine in which people live?
The Legibility of The Smart City
Now, 80 years later, renderings of smart cities bear huge resemblance to the visions of Le Corbusier. Their images are eerily devoid of human beings. Rigid and measurable structures are almost always presented from a gods-eye-view. They worship the cult of Big Data – a kind of Cthulu Mythos4  The Cthulu ‘Mythos’ refers to the sprawling collection of stories by HP Lovecraft and successors about a race of god-like sea monsters worshipped by human cults. The mythos itself has its own cultish following. of the 2010s. While the machine was the savior of the age of Le Corbusier, Data would be its equivalent of today. Similarly as in the example of the German forestry project, the IT companies backing the smart city projects base their success on the ability to abstract, process and read data about our lives. They are so successful in fact, that much like with the German forestry scientists, Fordists, Taylorists, centralized nation states and master-planners that went before them, they seek to impress this supremely efficient abstraction back upon the world.
Much like Superstudio saw in the late 1960s, designers and architects now often find themselves in a position working – often not by choice – as indentured servants to the globe-straddling demi-gods of data. The consumer market is bloated and heaving with products and projects promising streams of data that will turn your sleeplessly hellish, austerity-riddled corpse-life into the stuff of Silicon Valley dreams. Cups that can measure nutritional content, armbands that tell if you are too fat, apps that can tell you if you have had the perfect amount of sleep. Not to mention, as I have been careful to avoid, the ceaseless and oppressive surveillance brought in to prop up the modern state under the auspices of anti-terror measures. And, at the top of our new Continuous Monument is of course the Smart City masterplan.
These dreams of a utopian-datascape-as-city are flawed in too many ways to count. The primary complaint has to be that, much like the German forestry science and the thousands of unbuilt masterplans littering architecture museums, they simplify the complex and entangled nature of reality. If to be described cynically, they serve as a Douglas Adams-esque living mainframe in which the harvest and deployment of data is to be made as efficient and profitable as possible. In that respect the financial growth can be understood as their natural rhetorical follower. Less cynically, they are the cold lifeless shells of cities lacking the histories, fallibility, love, excitement and passion that make a great place to be. Jane Jacobs, that legendary oft-quoted urbanist once wrote:
‘A city cannot be a work of art. . . . In relation to the inclusiveness and literally endless intricacy of life, art is arbitrary, symbolic, and abstracted. That is its value and the source of its own kind of order and coherence. . . . The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither life nor art. They are taxidermy. In its place, taxidermy can be a useful and decent craft. However, it goes too far when the specimens put on display are exhibitions of dead, stuffed cities.5  Jane Jacobs, Visual Order: its limitations and possibilities. in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961)”’
The smart city is a nullifying territory, not an empowering one. The science fiction author and future-tech community spokesperson, Bruce Sterling would probably comment upon them by shouting out something about cattle ranches. It seems that humans, like cattle, are progressively herded into these physical spaces and digital systems by vague promises of greener pastures.
The Designer Now
So what should be the role of a designer in the context of the above criticism towards the Smart City and the data-driven political discussion? Where does the Italian Radical style backlash come from? I do not want to make broad, sweeping statements about what designers are and should be because it is easy and inevitably somewhat fickle. The world shifts and slides every day as new niches and opportunities open up. There should be lots of talented people doing everything from developing mobile games to mine consumer data who will build earnest and promising platforms for genuine human improvement and survival. And godspeed to all those who can make a quick buck in an age of precarity, failing startups, austerity and cuts.
What I would impress on designers, architects, urbanists and theorists is the chance of the imaginable alternative.
An imaginable alternative is a proposal, a system or a creation that seeks to challenge the status quo. The imaginable alternative can often be wildly unachievable, serving to highlight the failings of the current proposals for our futures. The Continuous Monument is just one such example. But others are entirely plausible, quiet and hiding on the fringes of the dominant technological narrative but full of promise.
Looking around the modern technological landscape, I’ve become enamoured by enabling technologies such as mesh networks, just to name one. Mesh networks already have existing implementations in places like Athens, Catalonia and Seattle where they’ve proven to be effective at activating new polities among the general populace. A mesh network is a form of a digital wireless network that unlike a traditional network is not focused around centralized servers and hubs. Connections in a mesh network are evenly distributed to everyone connected to it in a peer-to-peer fashion. This topology provides several benefits. Firstly, and most importantly, it is incredibly difficult to take such a network down. It has no key centralized nodes, that if removed would stop the connection. Each node is independent and the greater whole is not harmed by the removal of any one them. Secondly, such a topology lends itself naturally to a horizontal democratic political distribution.
Without any centralized authority that would determine who can or cannot be a part of the network and what they can or cannot do in it, the responsibility is passed to the network as a whole to make decisions and act in favour of the greater sustainability of the system. Thirdly, and most interestingly, the very nature of having to run your own slice of the network means that you have to understand how it works. Mesh networks do not, at the moment, readily lend themselves to plug-and-play-no-questions-asked hookups and require a wider knowledge of the system and an engagement with the community.
All of these factors also contribute to the failings of the popularity of mesh networks. Without an impetus for a mass community action they will fail to materialize because the entrenched network system we have at the moment is so accessible and omnipresent. That is why mesh networks are most common in places that either have poor Internet infrastructure like in Athens and Catalonia or have a strong history of network activism like in Seattle.
In an ideal situation the model of a mesh network has the potential to become a platform for broadly horizontal networked politics as defined by its inherent structure. It could bring a new type of commons in the face of the death of network neutrality, government and corporate surveillance and exploitation as embodied by the current network structure.
Too often we are confronted with visions and stories of the future that say: ‘In the future everyone will live this way or that way. In the future everyone will have these things. In the future everyone will want that thing.’ This can often lead to acceptance of the idea that the future has been predetermined by powers greater than us. We need to imagine instead, what futures might bring. There are dozens of other small, niggling but significant alternatives that can challenge the theoretical basis for how the future might open up to a plethora of possible imaginable alternatives. Take for instance; domestic solar power, crypto currencies, end-to-end encryption or personal manufacturing. They are but a few that have the potential to either become incredibly empowering or to be sucked into our current continuous monument.
It is often said by military strategists, business leaders and alike that knowledge is the most powerful weapon. But imagination is also a significant one.
The political theorist David Graeber writes about how, since the protests of the late 1960s, the same entities pursuing the project of legibility have pursued a ‘. . . relentless campaign against the human imagination.’ It has resulted in ‘. . . the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future.’
Activating imagination in everyday practice is hard. Financial imperatives and competition do not give space and time to explore alternatives and freely play with ideas without consequences. But there is a great reward in giving time to exploration. Inspiration can be found in things like mesh networks, but there are other examples. Jugaad culture – the repurposing of technology predominantly occurring in India is an excellent example. It provides an alternative by giving a particular design a different lifespan and shows how, in William Gibson’s words – ‘the street find its own uses.’ The speculative design cannon proposes objects and systems that are not intended for our world. They aim to stimulate our imagination about the hidden effects and repercussions of our design culture.
The purpose of such design and of introducing imagination is to widen the scope of possibilities. It could prevent the carte blanche master plan of the Smart City to become the inevitable endpoint of the current technological narrative. Furthermore it could perhaps lead to the development of real, functioning designs, such as mesh networks that will work better for people.
Knowledge of the systems, structures and technologies at play in our own continuous monument is vital for technologists, designers, urbanists, architects and everyone involved. It is impossible to be a wholesome practitioner and to remain ignorant of the wider context in which one situates one’s work. But what is equally as important is the activation of imagination; imagining beyond the given context to what could be, not just what, as is often presented, inevitably will be.