A Theory of Urban Hacking

This essay examines contemporary misuses of urban space, finding theoretical lineages of these behaviors, and theorizing how an intentional misuse of the city and its existing features may be essential for twenty-first century urban life. Yet, rather than only serving as a descriptive theory, which attempts to explain the significance of the misuse of space, this essay also proposes a discursive strategy that can be harnessed by spatial and urban thinkers and designers, so that they may make a self-conscious use of urban hacking as an informed and self-conscious practice that everyday people participate in.


    In the discipline of architecture, the academic institutions and many enlightened publications have witnessed a broad protest to what we call “starchitecture”: typically large budget, grandiose projects designed by a relatively small group of architectural “stars” (folks like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, etc.). Starchitecture, the fascination with which occupies an inordinate amount of the conversation in architecture schools and architectural magazines, is, however, only one aspect of what we might call the “Major” in architecture. If starchitecture is a contemporary practice of the Major, there is a corresponding Major Architectural historical narrative that accompanies and justifies this practice. This narrative, which privileges the ideas and innovations of architecture over various economic, political and technical forces justifies the actions of starchitects, who are viewed as the new authors of the architectural future. But what this Major Architectural perspective ignores is the architect’s relative insignificance in shaping of the contemporary city. As early as 1973, Manfredo Tafuri wrote that “architecture as the ideology of the plan is swept away by the reality of the plan” when the economic forces at work no longer require architectural ideology to justify the plan. It is at this point, he wrote, that architecture would be forced to recede into a disciplinary autonomy that denies its inherent link to processes of production, and therefore becomes something of a privileged art form. As a profession that designs somewhere between 5-10% of new construction in the United States, and arguably much less in many parts of the world, architecture continues to abdicate its role as a shaper of cities when it forfeits its economic and political potentialities in favor of formal and/or technical implementations. When it is not busy producing the fancy wares of the privileged sectors and populations of the world, or creating massive, spectacular symbols to brand institutions (or sometimes entire cities), it is engaged in a futile progressivism (progressive in the sense of attempting to maintain a linear arc of progress in which the basis of society’s organization remains stable) that, equipped with a liberal “do-gooder” attitude, sets out to solve, on a technical basis, the problems set before it. The result is an (admittedly sometimes quite impressive) implementation of pragmatic “design solutions” for systemic issues that are, at best, a palliative, and, at worst, ideological deployments that distract us from our inability to truly tackle the deeply structural causes of the world’s desolation. The Coming Insurrection argued that “Environmentalism’s present paradox is that under the pretext of saving the planet from desolation it merely saves the causes of its desolation.”(1) The same could be said of progressive, problem-solving architecture. Too often, ecological restoration and urban greening have been embraced in many cities where these non-market amenities increase property values and tax bases, leading to gentrification, and to a reinforcement of the very economic dynamics that caused the problems to begin with. But architects, drawing from the Major historical narrative that places them at the forefront of change, believe that they are genuinely tackling the world’s problems when they reduce the amount of hardscapes in a city, or use shading to reduce the effects of urban heat islands, or by adding several transit stops to the public transportation grid. The point is not to trivialize these worthwhile pursuits, but to demote them in terms of their significance. Architecture, in its present trajectory, is not solving the world’s problems; it is merely selectively managing their effects. We should demand more from this discipline of trained spatial thinkers.

    Fortunately, an architectural rejection of the Major is gaining ground. Justin McGuirk, in a recent interview, explained that since the economic crash of 2008, there has been a questioning of the social role of architecture in society, and that architects have become increasingly interested in bottom-up dynamics and processes shaping the city. The most meaningful practices today, he explains, are connecting these “bottom-up impulses with top-down resources.” The feasibility of such a project I’ll leave to McGuirk, whose proposed solutions to Southern Hemisphere’s urban problems remain progressive (in the sense that they attempt to integrate disenfranchised populations into the existing systems), rather than radical (his title Radical Cities would suggest a disintegrative urban strategy, in which the disenfranchised break away from existing systems and form a parallel or antithetical system, or otherwise take control of and radically transform existing systems, but there is no such appearance in the book). In any case, he remains correct that there is a mounting impulse within architecture—inspired by the manifold urban behaviors that are “kicking off everywhere” (in Paul Mason’s parlance)—to address urban issues outside of the conventional disciplinary bounds of “capital A” Architecture, in ways that could perhaps be called “minor architectural practices”.

    Jill Stoner, in Toward a Minor Architecture, describes minor architecture as an architectural practice that rejects the language of the masters—that is, it rejects the very conception of totality and determinism in architecture. The master’s discourse plays a significant role in reinforcing the momentum of the systems that it seeks to describe, and today’s very discourses reinforce an assemblage that Stoner calls ‘symbolic capitalism’. By failing to comprehend the contingency at the very heart of this dominant assemblage, which specifies a narrowly-defined, professionalized role for architecture, discussions about architecture can only reinforce discourses that maintain the illusion of its infallibility, perpetuating the powerful myths that have continued to restrain the spatial imagination. Despite professional practice’s seeming hegemony over the discourse about architecture as a discipline, alternative modes of practice, infinitely existent in the virtual, may be actualized through different discursive apparitions. But which of these minor discursive apparitions should be taken seriously?

    It seems unlikely that we are going to be able to shore up the productive capacity to build a utopia from the ground up, even if we somehow, magically, gained total political control.  Such tabula rasa grand utopian schemes were the stuff of twentieth century notions of social transformation (helped along by the Major Architectural narrative) which sought to either politically take over control of existing territories (and the infrastructures contained therein), or to form and construct their own. Imagine the difficulty that the Soviet Bloc faced as it attempted to produce an alternative society, using many symmetrical techniques to those being employed in the West: building their own parallel versions of the manufactural infrastructures, agricultural systems, roads, housing, the space program, nuclear arsenals, passenger aerospace technologies, and the consumer kitchen (with all its attendant ideological implications)(2). A similar challenge was faced by Cuba, and by North Korea, and, although qualitatively very different, even by the hippie communes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and all of these attempts failed to realize their intended goal: to produce a more effective, more abundant civilization than the dominant nations of the capitalist West. The process of social transformation was meant to take place in the parallel construction of an entire civilization. Such a redundancy of efforts may never be possible again. It was an inherently heavy and difficult process to generate and to manage, and the resulting structures, so tiresomely created, nevertheless were contingent and threatened to “flip” back into the service of old social structures anyway, for reasons identical to the contingency of usage that this essay is attempting to expose.

    A more realistic and agile strategy for social change would attempt to transform existing structures socially, symbolically, economically (though not in the reformist sense), rather than attempting to rebuild redundant versions of these. The city we inherit is like a trove of retrograde, wonky jewelry and garments, tools and hardware that have been passed down to us from our grandparents, and which we will need to remix and recontextualize in ways that make sense for our own times. American suburbia is a very clear example of a prolific and inherited conurbation that will be impossible to use according to its operating instructions through the twenty-first century. How, under conditions of changing energy and other resource availability, and within a shifting and often turbulent economic landscape in the twenty-first century, are we expected to operate our auto-dependent and consumerist suburban behavioral softwares, designed at the height of American economic and political control, in a time of cheap and abundant fossil fuels? The built form—our urban hardware—itself is unlikely to go anywhere. Suburbia is here to stay—at least for the next 50 to 100 years—so what do we do about it?

    Some of the most insightful theories of architecture’s potential recognize the discipline’s trained ability to spot patterns and networks, operating across space, and some, like Keller Easterling, suggest that architects attempt to design “fittings” that alter the “active form” embedded in spatial configurations, such that these serve different dynamics:

“Few would look at a concrete highway system, an electrical grid, a suburban housing tract or a single building and perceive agency in their static arrangement. Agency in networks might only be assigned to the moving cars on the road, the electrical impulses in the fibre, or the behaviour of humans who inhabit them. Yet with the active forms of infrastructure space . . . objects are often less important than what they, for instance, inflect, ignite or suppress. Verbs may be more consequential than nouns. Active forms establish a set of parameters or capacities for what the organisation will be doing over time. Active forms might describe the way that some alteration performs within a group, multiplies across a field, reconditions a population or generates a network. The designer of active forms is designing not the field in its entirety, but rather the delta or the means by which the field changes—not only the shape or contour of the game piece, but also a repertoire for how it plays.”(3)

The city, in this sense, exists as a series of ongoing flows of actions and events, which various interests attempt to influence through the shaping of the physical urban environment. Stratification is not flawless or permanent, however, and therefore semiotic slippages in the meaning of spaces constantly threaten the cyclical relationships structured by the architects of order. Bernard Tschumi argues that while it may be true that form has a tendency to shape function in most cases (that is, to set into motion “ritualistic” uses of space that are consistent with the hierarchical needs of the current social formation), “in today’s world where railway stations become museums and churches become nightclubs, a point is being made: the complete interchangeability of form and function, the loss of traditional, canonic cause-and-effect relationships as sanctified by modernism. Function does not follow form, form does not follow function . . . however, they certainly interact.”(4) This is the inherent contingency of space and form. 

    Jeremy Till, in Architecture Depends, argues that any account of the architecture of the city must take into consideration not only the contingency of architecture’s development, but also the contingency of how it is used. To begin with, many forces come together to act upon the architect and the design process in producing the work of architecture or the urban plan, etc., and then, when the process finally yields physical instances of the man made environment, the uses of the spaces themselves often evade the intentions of the plan.(5)

    Tschumi, who is in alignment with Till as to the contingency of built form, advocates a “programmatic” approach to architecture that uses literary narrative to explore the uses, functions, activities and programs of buildings. This architecture “explores the disjuncture between expected form and expected use”, “opposing specific programs with particular, often conflicting spaces.”(6) Tschumi identifies a gap between form and function—one that he says can be a site for political and social intervention. This gap is to be located between the form of the architecture, which Tschumi calls “space”, and the “use” of the architecture, which, he says, is not deterministically linked to the intended use of that architecture, as ascribed by the (typically conservative) forces which commission the work of architecture. Tschumi argues that architecture is inherently disjointed by this “confrontation of space and use, and [this] inevitable disjunction of the two terms means that architecture is constantly unstable, constantly on the verge of change.”(7) Even though architecture is typically theorized as being stable and solid, such stratified thinking obscures the fundamental contingency of architecture’s use. For Tschumi, “events” are possible when architecture is misused, leading to productive and novel forms of social activity. What’s more, Tschumi claims that “there is no architecture without program, without action, without event.”(8) Action and event can be thought of as activating space, of that which either “renders operational”(9) the built environment or undermines reproduction. “Architecture,” Tschumi asserts, “is not about the conditions of design but about the design of conditions that will dislocate the most traditional and regressive aspects of our society and simultaneously reorganize these elements in the most liberating way, so that our experience becomes the experience of events organized and strategized through architecture.”(10)

    Reading Stan Allen’s writing on the diagram can perhaps advance some of the concepts introduced by Tschumi’s notion of program one step closer to providing a cogent theory for urban hacking. For Allen, “[a] diagram is . . . not a thing in itself but a description of potential relationships among elements, not only an abstract model of the way things behave in the world but a map of possible worlds.”(11) The spatial thinker (the architect, in Allen’s case) is prime as an agent of such a “diagrammatic practice” because such thinking “is already implicated in a number of media, and [the spatial thinker] is out of necessity constantly moving from one medium to another, transcoding from virtual to actual and vice versa. . . . A diagrammatic practice . . . locates itself between the actual and the virtual”, intentionally exploiting this “transactional character” that such a multi-medium practice calls for.(12) Allen’s use of the terms “actual” and “virtual” is a direct reference to the tripartite ontological scheme of Gilles Deleuze(13), in whose philosophy the virtual body without organs (the not-yet observable and still-abstract) acts upon the actual strata (existing and observable) in a process of disarticulating movement called “nomadism”, operating through what Deleuze, collaborating with Felix Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus calls “abstract machines.” Intensive processes actualize the virtual, but the virtual is also shaped by the actual. This “nomadic”, “intensive” actualization of the virtual, and virtualization of the actual is precisely the fundamental transactional quality that architecture plays, according to Allen.

    In a diagrammatic practice, Allen writes, “the primary utility of the diagram is as an abstract means of thinking about organization”,(14) “the notion of an [diagrammatic] abstract machine sees the building as a component in a larger assemblage that can be recontextualized according to the progressive rearrangements of the other components in this social/technical/urbanistic machine.”(15) Here, Allen agrees with Easterling about the power inherent in shaping space, and also with Tschumi about the contingency of this power: the physical form of the built environment can, and often does influence behaviors, but such behaviors are, ultimately, contingent. Yet what Allen introduces, with his particular concept of the diagram, is perhaps the mechanism at work in Easterling’s “active form”, and which Tschumi hopes to deploy in his programmatic architecture. But the diagram, in Allen’s formulation, seems to have to potential of operating independently from the process that produces the physical form of space itself, and so what we are left with, then, is a very real and justifiable possibility for an architecture that does not engage in the production of buildings, but which instead routes flows and makes new connections and disjunctions. If “[a] diagram is . . . not a thing in itself but a description of potential relationships among elements, not only an abstract model of the way things behave in the world but a map of possible worlds,” then this kind of diagrammatic procedure, which reinterprets the existing built environment could achieve “maximum performative effects with minimum architectural means”(16)—that is, abstract means—by largely dematerializing architectural practice altogether.

    There have been examples of this kind of diagrammatic and non-productivist misuse of urban space, as practiced by the Situationists and the San Francisco Cacophony Society, to take two clear examples. The Situationists, in their production of situations, or events, sought to generate difference as a means for combatting the frozen history that Guy Debord decried in Society of the Spectacle. The situation “would stimulate new sorts of behavior, a glimpse into an improved future social life based upon human encounter and play.”(17) The Situationists engaged in what they called “détournement”—a strategy for scrambling the top-down meanings of media, advertising, and the city itself. The images or moments of these would be hijacked, misappropriated, embezzled and misused, and deployed in a freely circulating, decontextualized (or recontextualized, as the case may be) fashion. The urban manifestation of détournement resulted in what were called “dérives”, which, as Simon Sadler has asserted, for Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, “were radical rereadings of the city.”(18) The dérive was an unplanned and meandering stroll through the streets of a city, encountering the urban fabric and the people and smells and other sensations of the city in a combination that could only ever have unintended results. For the Situationists, the city could be experienced in an “open, contingent, and shifting” narrative that broke out of the deterministic narratives spun by city planners, who “have tried to make the city into a mnemonic (memory aid), mapping into it chains of monuments or sites that would act as a sort of text, reminding the pedestrian of official history and knowledge.”(19) Against this, the dérive would achieve a sort of urban détournement by weaving a nonsensical route through the city that ignored the cues and monuments planned as guides for navigating the urban streets. The point, then, of a dérive, was to transcend the deterministic significations of the capitalist city whose purpose was to ensure the reproduction of the status quo by canalizing human behaviors into predictable and exploitable circuits. By recombining its elements through “psychogeographical” experimentation, this misuse of the city would generate truly novel and non-capitalist sentiments and experiences, uncontrolled by the media or “culture industry”, and this would occur architecturally, yet without the production of buildings.

    Similarly, the Situationist-inspired San Francisco Cacophony Society played games and threw participatory events all around the city. Even though the Society was less spatially focused than many of the Situationists, the events held in various parts of the city definitely engaged with the physical spaces of their environment. Wanda Hoberg, reflecting on her experiences in the Society, quoted one of her compatriots: "'I've always looked at this city as an urban environment, an urban playground,' says Melmoth. 'You look at places that people don't even think about, that are completely negative places in the daily life of commerce living. Those are the places that I look for—underground, behind buildings, on top of buildings, in abandoned buildings, in between [sic] freeways, under freeways. Places that you don't even know exist. I think about what I could give there.’”(20) The Society would throw impromptu black tie parties in laundromats, host events on BART trains, take blindfolded taxi rides, and explore the many off-limits facets of the city of San Francisco. Behind such prolific events as Burning Man and Santa Con, the group has been charged with introducing the counter culture of the 1980’s and 1990’s to such ideas as the flash mob, culture jamming, and urban exploration.

    These diagrammatic practices attempt to reconfigure spatial usage patterns without necessarily producing or even altering physical space. In a sense, then, perhaps what they evoke is an architectural “reprogramming”, which begins to sound like a computer science term. Thinking of the built environment as a kind of hardware, on which certain software programs are run opens up the realm of architectural discourse and theory to network theory and computer science discourses. A kind of “hacking” of the city can be achieved if more open, participatory, subversive spatial uses are coordinated diagrammatically, effectively running new software on the existing hardware of the built environment, perhaps operating as a sort of “Job Managing System” (in computer science, a Job Managing System is a program that routes operations to un- and under-utilized processors). A spatial activity that concerns itself with flows of action across space could design networking software in the form of diagrams (plans for new uses of space) that utilize the junkspace of the existing urban configuration in open-ended use patterns that more effectively meet the needs and desires of the population. Used according to direction, urban environments route flows of desire and productive energies through the commercial and state apparatuses of profit and taxation, the prototypical (though inherently contingent) development of which Walter Benjamin traced in his Arcades Project. The modernization process, according to Benjamin, in Second Empire Paris, both shapes and captures the desires of its populations using physical space. Shop windows, the creation of artificial climates in the vaulted spaces of the arcades (the precursor to the department store and the shopping mall), the hiring of attractive employees in shops—all of these were designed strategies for arousing desires for which commerce would serve as the fulfillment. As Benjamin writes in Convolute A, “The arcade is a street of lascivious commerce only; it is wholly adapted to arousing desires.”(21) Yet such commercially-aroused desires were not free; a third party (capital) would impose a double tax on its fulfillment: first, at the wage level, when the worker is compensated less than the value of their output, and second, at the cash register, where the most desirable products were also the most marked up from their production costs. Fashion plays a serious role here. The constant production of novelty means that consumption never really satiates desire, and therefore consumptive procurement is sustained by the constant shifting of the criteria for desirability of commodities. Fashion puts an expiration date on dreams. Long before planned (functional) obsolescence has time to occur, aesthetic obsolescence will ruin the goods recently procured. As a chaser of ephemerally desirable consumer objects, the producer is made to feel like a consumer rather than as an organ of production. Obscured in this relationship that fashion generates is the production side of consumption. For every consumptive act is the necessary productive act to pay for it, and so fashion plays an important role in keeping the productive engine moving.

    What urban hacking must attempt to do, then, is to tap into the desires drummed up by consumer society and its attendant cultures, and to meet these desires in free (and therefore untaxed), and self-reproducing ways. By equipping the desiring subject with the means for fulfilling their own desires through the act of playing these out through the unsanctioned use of space (projecting their own cinematic experiences on the rear wall of a big box store, making a roller disco in a parking garage, having a mutually-produced meal in some fantastic post-industrial setting, playing games instead of shopping in mega malls and giant hotels, making theaters out of the catch basins of defunct oil storage facilities, etc), the prospect for creating “a world where winning doesn’t depend on losing” becomes a real possibility. Because such a utilization of resources is not contingent on sales or production the way that all commercial activity is, it could be deployed faster and without limitations associated with capital valorization, perhaps outpacing appropriation through its nomadic disposition. This is what urban hacking sets out to accomplish.

    Already, there are populations that are misusing urban space on a wide scale, albeit for a wide variety of often divergent reasons. Take the prolific set of activities that we call “homelessness”. These are a real example of urban informality and the unsanctioned and unplanned use of urban space, arising as a byproduct of the market itself. Yet it is not the only example. The city is full of many more-or-less pathologized examples of urban misuse, which exist on a spectrum of acceptability: At the most legitimate end of the spectrum, there are retrofitted and remodeled buildings, repurposed industrial sites and infrastructures, and the conversion of grand theaters into parking garages. There are street performances and farmers markets, non-conforming “in-law” units garage-based businesses. Alongside these many informal-yet-encouraged behaviors of the city, there are also discouraged underground warehouse parties, place hacking (sneaking into and exploring cordoned off areas of the city), graffiti (which makes a canvas and a game out of urban surfaces), street skateboarding (which uses the city’s physical features as a skatepark), silent discos, illegal card rooms, street racing and sideshows, as well as backyard animal husbandry and subway performance artists. Such a reprogramming of urban space transgresses Rancière’s so-called “partition of the sensible”—that function of the police which constitutes the social through the symbolic maintenance of established meanings:

“The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of 'moving-along' into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein. It is the established litigation of the perceptible.”(22)

The many misuses of space cited above are perfect instances of Rancièrian politics, since they seek to use the city contrary to the way that the symbolic ordering of the “police” would seek to code as its acceptable usages, though, as our spectrum would suggest, certain misuses are far more disruptive than others. On the illegitimate end of the scale, we can see the formation of policing, pathologizing terms and concepts that reveal the systemic aversion to the fundamental threat of disruption that these behaviors pose to urban order: homelessness, vandalism, jaywalking, etc. Take homelessness. Even in our richest cities, massive groups of people have created tent cities under infrastructures and in small corners of public space in an attempt to carve out a habitat for themselves. We call these people homeless, but they are not without a home; they have a home, but it is not inscribed within acceptable, protected, state-defined standards. It’s interesting to speculate about the origin of this particular concept of homelessness, which, like all concepts, has a history. Why do we have this problematized category of person who does not possess a formalized dwelling? What is the utility of the term, when we do not have similar terms denoting the lack of possession of any other commodity (“carless” and “phoneless” are thrown around casually, but there is no car or phone equivalent to the Homelessness Task Force, which exists as a real department of many city and municipal governments) or even for the absence of appendages (legless, armless, etc.)? I believe the term “homeless” exists as the necessary binary opposite of the emphasis placed on legitimate dwelling in the west in general, and in the United States in particular, where massive campaigns were waged at the federal level to standardize home construction and financing options, and to encourage citizens to buy their own properties. The legitimate home, therefore, is maybe the exalted object casting the conceptual shadow which we think of as homelessness—the named exterior of a painstakingly institutionalized practice of legitimate dwelling.

    The concept of homelessness is just one such reveal, which offers a glimpse into the state-sanctioned practices of dwelling in legitimate homes. There are others, for example, the term jaywalking. We have a term for the specific act of walking in which we are violating traffic laws, but no such term for the (arguably more inherently important to humans) act of walking barefoot on hot asphalt or sand, or for walking on crunchy snow, or for walking in such a way that you do not step on any cracks in the pavement. Perhaps the reveal here is the importance placed on maintaining steady, uninterrupted traffic flow, which itself was and is the obsession of urban planners and multiple categories of engineers, an obsession maintained by the state’s need to bolster and enhance the circulation of capital with minimal friction or delay—an economic imperative that informed the design of cities, as economic elites sought the help of city planners in making the commerce function more smoothly and predictably in urban settings.(23) What we call vandalism, too, threatens the order of a system of economic values that rely heavily upon predictable real estate standards that were painstakingly instituted by the Federal Housing Administration and many professional and homeowner’s associations.(24)

    The point is not to comment on homelessness, unrestrained pedestrianism or vandalism (though a walk through any American city ought to suggest that these are phenomena that are literally central in the urban process, and cannot be justifiably ignored or brushed to the side), but to point out that certain terms and concepts reveal past problematizations—resulting in the widespread usage of these terms—that have as the basis of their proliferation (if not at their origin per se) the proper use of space. I call these “reveals”, because in many cases the proper usages are either never formally stated, or else the real reasons for upholding these proper uses are not made explicit. Corresponding to these terms, often, are design features of the city—Easterling’s “active form”—that perform properly political functions through their encouragement of certain behaviors and discouragement of others. This is the power of “extrastatectaft”—it “is the secret weapon of the most powerful people in the world precisely because it orchestrates activities that can remain unstated but are nevertheless consequential.”(25) Yet we can play this game too.

    How can a counter-hegemonic urban strategy be maintained over time that ensures its own effectiveness? As with altruism, there is a naive version and an effective version of urban hacking. Effective altruism(26) seeks to intelligently distribute the gifts of kindness in such a way that it has a positive impact, rather than naively engaging in feel-good gestures that do relatively small amounts of good in reality. Likewise, any effective practice of social change should consider carefully the historical context of the aspects of the social order that it seeks to challenge in order to approximate their role within the larger systemic processes. Urban hacking is no exception, and so an historically-informed effective hacking practice would attempt to alter the uses and meanings of the built environment in ways that are most strategically important for shifting power dynamics and routing vital energies to new economic networks. What needs and desires are most essential to the maintenance of power and capital? How can we bypass the market and the state in providing for these? These are important questions for guiding the most meaningful practices of urban hacking, and, crucially, the answers will change depending on region, on shifting economic, political and cultural dynamics, and as subversive practices are appropriated by capital and by the state. A praxis, if it is to remain dis-integrated from the strategies of the state and of capital, must always remain “de gauche” (of the left) in the sense that Deleuze used this term in an interview with Claire Parnet: “to be from the left for me, that’s a problem of becoming; never stopping to become minority. In fact, the left is never a majority and for a very simple reason. Because majority supposes, even when we vote, it’s not just the biggest amount that vote for something…Majority supposes a standard.”(27)

    Essential to working out answers to the question of effectiveness is a comprehensive set of theories about reproduction: the reproduction of various forms of power, capital, etc., which can be found in classic thinkers such as Louis Althusser,(28) Michel Foucault(29) and Antonio Gramsci(30), but also in the work of more contemporary theorists, such as Silvia Federici(31), Antonio Negri(32) and Eugene Holland(33). Basically, what these theories help to advise about is how to determine what mass behaviors and dynamics are fundamental for reproducing the status quo social, political and economic systems. What external labor processes, specific consumption choices, cultural habits, or subject positions are essential to the maintenance of our dominant systems? How can self-(or mutual-)valorization bypass the taxation and inequities imposed by capital? How can the ongoing process of primitive accumulation, which incorporates yet-unincorporated vital energies, natural resources and labor processes into the dominant economy be halted, slowed down, or reversed? In what way can the refusal of roles (gender, cultural, class, professional, etc.) play a part in this?

    This is the fundamental utility of theory for maintaining an effective urban movement. Yet outside of informing the actual sites and tactics of urban hacking itself, I do not believe that the radical tradition can yield much of a guide for how to produce a public discourse of urban hacking, or how to get large numbers of people to begin adopting contrarian urban behaviors into their everyday lives. The point, of course, is not just to generate and deepen an academic discourse, in which we laboriously and endlessly contextualize urban hacking within a genealogy of concepts and intellectual traditions, but to advance a truly public discourse, that has as its goal not simply the changing of hearts and minds (this is a secondary effect, I think), but of really influencing the behavior of non-negligible numbers of people in their everyday lives. Jeremy Till, quoting John Dewy, explains that the latter “provides a good argument as to both the opportunities and the limits of contingency. ‘Contingency is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition of freedom,’ he wrote in 1929. ‘In a world which is completely tight and exact in all its constituents, there would be no room for freedom. Contingency, while it gives room for that freedom, does not fill that room.’”(34) A mere theory of contingency is necessary but not sufficient for producing social, political or economic change. Till proposes, therefore, a praxis of contingency, in which practitioners—specifically architectural practitioners—embrace the contingency of their discipline and attempt to inject within the real conditions of its deployment fragments of an alternative future. Drawing guidance from Roberto Unger, Till explains that architecture must become aware of the so-called “formative contexts” that act upon architecture and attempt to determine its form. The Progressive Era witnessed a wide series of “reforms” in the built environment, motivated by periodic threats to the reproduction of the social, political and economic order. These reforms were behind the institutionalization of the proper use of space as a way of allaying the various crises of the early twentieth century, which a contingent architectural praxis would seek to undermine. The progressive reformers, organized in various civil society organizations, professional organizations, and government bureaus, repeatedly developed and deployed public discourses on such topics as municipal organization and ownership, city planning, homeownership, and mortgage lending procedures, the cumulative effect of which was a massive shaping of the American public’s urban behaviors, consistent with the requirements of an ever-transitioning set of economic and political dynamics. Counter-hegemonic discourses, then, ought to carefully analyze the institutions spawned by these reformers in order to produce practices that work against the formative orders that the reform discourses created. By being realists about the various political, economic and social contexts that impose constraints and indicate boundaries, one can begin to imagine and deploy transformative tactics against those formative strategies of the reformers, that establish “small-scale, fragmentary versions of the future.”(35) “In every case there is a formative context that can be transformed,” Till explains, “and in every case there is a productive tension between realism and imagination, because ‘we must be realists in order to become visionaries and we need an understanding of social life to criticize and enlarge our view of social reality and social possibility.’”(36)

“In the actual there is always the possible. It is too easy to think that the external forces are so overwhelming that there is no room for maneuver. But in casting a critical eye over those forces and then projecting an ethical imagination against them, gaps open up. In any architectural situation there are freedoms and opportunities to be found, not in terms of wholesale changes but in terms of ‘fragmentary versions of the future.’”(37)

    Urban hacking—the intentional misuse of urban space—seems to be a likely source of such “fragmentary versions of the future”, but also of adaptation strategies for inhabiting spaces unfit for the coming era, especially since the state and large companies are reluctant to introduce contrarian usage patterns, because these would go against both their interests, and the happy fairytale spectacle that keeps the future in their hands. 

    This nexus—existent in the practice of effective urban hacking—between the exciting creation of fragments of the future and more pragmatic adaptation strategies may be the key to prototyping today, under the cover of leisure and excitement, generalizable strategies that make future inhabitation of retrograde urbanism possible. Whereas some of us have the luxury of choosing to live better through the misuse of urban space as an exciting alternative to the script designed to gently but effectively dictate our metropolitan lives, many will have no choice but to harness and redeploy urban assets in different configurations.



(1) The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), pg. 81.

(2) See Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, Cold War Kitchen, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2008)

(3) Keller Easterling. “We Will be Making Active Form”, Architectural Design, Vol. 82, Issue 5 (September/October, 2012), pg. 61.

(4) Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1996), pg. 254

(5) Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009)

(6) Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1996), pg. 147.

(7) Ibid. pg. 19.

(8) Ibid. pg. 3.

(9) This is what Louis Althusser says that the relations of production do for the mode of production: they “render operational” the means of production. But, as such, the mode of production is completely contingent on the proper investment of the productive forces such that productive efforts take place under the right relations of production, “rendering operational” the means of production in a specifically capitalistic way.

(10) Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1996), pg. 259

(11) Stan Allen. “Diagrams Matter” Any 23 (1998), pg. 16

(12) Ibid.

(13) See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)

(14) Stan Allen. “Diagrams Matter” Any 23 (1998), pg. 16.

(15) Ibid. pg. 18

(16) Allen, Stan. Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation. Routledge, 2012. pg. 54.

(17) Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998. pg. 105

(18) Ibid, pg. 98

(19) Ibid. pg. 99

(20) Wanda Hoberg, “Cross Over to the Cacophony Zone”, Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law, ed. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013) pg. 44.

(21) Walter Benjamin. Howard Eiland, Kevin MacLaughlin, and Rolf Tiedemann ed. The Arcades Project. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), pg. 42.

(22) Rancière, Jacques. “Ten Theses on Politics”, Theory & Event. Vol. 5, No. 3, 2001. (English).

(23) See my Progressive Cities Planning, Reproduction and Power in and through Discourse on the American Metropolis. (Yale University Library, 2015).

(24) Ibid.

(25) Keller Easterling. Extrastatecraft: the Power of Infrastructure Space, (London: Verso, 2014), pg. 15.

(26) “Effective Altruism is a growing social movement that combines both the heart and the head: compassion guided by data and reason. It's about dedicating a significant part of one's life to improving the world and rigorously asking the question, ‘Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?’” from EffectiveAltruism.org <http://www.effectivealtruism.org/about-ea/> accessed September 14, 2015.

(27) Gilles Deleuze, “G comme Gauche”, in Abécédaire, translated by Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist, <http://thefunambulist.net/2011/06/21/deleuze-what-is-it-to-be-from-the-left/> accessed Sept. 15, 2015.

(28) Althusser, in On the Reproduction of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014) walks through the indispensable apparatuses for capitalism’s reproduction, contributing to the categories of the material preconditions of capital’s reproduction his own conception of the ideological requirements of the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. 

(29) Foucault, in all of his work, can be read as expanding upon the problematic posed by Althusser, moving far beyond Althusser’s conception of ideology as a source for the stability of forms of power and the maintenance of capitalist relations of production to consider the very means by which subjectivity is formed out of problematizations arising out of motivated discourses that have as their basis “local centers of power-knowledge”. Crucial here are Foucault’s books The Archaeology of Knowledge and The History of Sexuality, along with the end of Discipline and Punish.

(30) See Gramsci’s writings on hegemony.

(31) Federici examines domestic, unwaged labor as a precondition for capitalist accumulation. Unwaged labor in the home reproduces the laborer (biologically and on an ongoing physical and emotional basis), so that s/he can perform his/her labor tasks in the workplace.

(32) Negri, particularly in his rereading of Marx’s Grundrisse, Marx Beyond Marx (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1991) lays out a theory of “self-valorization”, which he poses as having the advantages of markets without the intervention or taxation of capital.

(33) Holland takes this concept of self-valorization even further, considering how non-capitalist markets and valorization processes undermine the process of primitive accumulation, grounding this argument in the theories of Althusser, Foucault, Federici and even certain advocates of free markets. See Eugene Holland, Nomad Citizenship: Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

(34) Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009) pg. 61.

(35) Umberto Ungers quoted in Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009), pg. 193.

(36) Ibid.

(37) Ibid.