Rob Walker | Essays

Postcards from Portfoliopolis

Proposed climate-change-ready Lower Manhattan.

You’d think that after three major moves in the span of six years, I’d prefer to stay in one place for the foreseeable future. And you’d be right. But I’d still pack my bags tomorrow if I could figure out how to become a citizen of Portfoliopolis.

Proposed Paris: "What modern city wouldn't benefit from more green space, cleaner waterways, or more accessible public transit?"

Portfoliopolis is, in a word, ideal. It’s urban and walkable, convenient yet sustainable. The inhabitants are content and fit and statistically diverse; they jog, walk hand-in-hand, stroll in business suits and casual-wear; enjoy their dogs and their children.

Proposed BIKE center would hold 690 bikes in former parking garage. 

Why wouldn’t they be happy? They move through an environment consisting of nothing but “design solutions.” A parking garage converted into a bike storage facility. A supermarket that’s part of a “sustainable community complex” (including not just shops but “ adaptable housing for senior citizens”). A light-rail line with “pedestrian friendly developments” clustered around its stations, providing “a catalyst for positive change in the community.”

Even the suburbs of Portfoliopolis seduce:

Proposed “Entrepreneurbia,” turning “residential neighborhoods into entrepreneurial incubators.”

Proposed supermarket/sustainable community complex.

Those are random examples, of course. Portfoliopis sprawls across mental landscapes with no boundaries and no limits whatsoever. Greenspace is everywhere; former vacant blocks become “archipleagos of opportunity;” ecology is ever maximized, responsible and on a human scale. Citizens collaborate in reshaping robust urban infrastructure for the benefit of all. The sun always shines, and the grass could not possibly be any greener.

Proposed transit solution.

The proposed Low Line, via A Bit Late.

The political structure of Portfoliopolis is unclear, but one assumes it manifests principally via “charette.” (At the least, it’s a place where every citizen knows what a charette is.) No litter mars the streets or sidewalks of Portfolioplis, nor are there public protests. I can’t recall spotting evidence of graffiti, razorwire, blight, or traffic. Nobody smokes in Portfoliopolis. Nobody panhandles, either. As far as I can tell, there is no need for law enforcement there, or at least none that's visible.   

I've begun to collect the postcards from Portfoliopolis that pile up in designworld, winning contests and filling exhibitions and blogs — and of course portfolios — with their seductive visions. Judging by the proliferation of the evidence, it’s a place that grows faster than any 21st Century mega-city — but always “smart”-ly, neatly anticipating environmental catastrophe and never beset by the ad-hoc peripheral slums so familiar to us here on Earth.

The road to Portfolioplis, I imagine (and obviously I can only imagine) is paved with the creative solutions. It is designworld’s El Dorado, constructed, or perhaps I should say fabricated, from the best of intentions. It often draws its power from the clean grid of potential career advancement, the ultimate renewable resource.

Proposed (existing?) ingeniuos  sports complex.

Visitors to Portfoliopolis send back messages that can be difficult to decipher. "A sports complex," one dispatch reports, "increases the amount of usable space by simply elevating one end of the park." Does this exist somewhere in physical space? Will it some day? Where will it be — besides Portfoliopolis, I mean? Answers can be elusive.

How smart growth may be enjoyed.

From time to time, however, something from Portfolioplis does manifest in the middle (or on the fringes) of more familiar geography, some three-dimensional place where people not unlike you and me live, work, litter, and worry about getting laid off tomorrow. There’s always something uncanny about these structures and spaces. They never look quite like the postcard. The surroundings, the context, are all wrong. And the citizenry suddenly seem so … specific

I find this perversely reassuring. I've visited The High Line, and frankly found it indistinguishable from Portfolioplis to a degree that unnerved me. A visitor moves through such spaces cautiously, half-expecting that it is all mirage — but wondering just the same if might contain, possibly, some kind of portal, some secret passageway to Porfolioplis itself.

How one planned community, and its residents, could look.  

How Astor Place, and area pedestrians, could look.

Portfoliopolis seems so promising, but of course it’s nothing of the kind. Postcards from Portfoliopolis never promise: Instead they suggest, they inspire, they beguile, and they distract. Portfolioplis is truly a place apart. In fact, it’s plausible that the only reason it’s fun to to imagine living there is that I know, for certain, that I can’t.

Comments [3]

Thanks for this post. Portfoliopolis ... a place worthy of Calvino's "Invisible Cities." What's fascinating is a comparing the renderings of proposed buildings from the past generation with those from pre-computer days — and trying to parse out just what the expectations were. Who wants to live in a Hugh Ferriss illustration? (Well, Batman, for one.) I wonder if architecture these days suffers — has suffered, will suffer — in some way from its own "uncanny valley."

Rob, if you are ever planning a visit to Portfoliopolis can I hitch a ride? I'd like to spend some time there before it disappears. Nothing dates faster than visions of the future. Examples from another media form, film, also have the same tendency. I'm thinking of the now sweetly looking streamlined buildings and interiors of the future in a film such as Things To Come (based on a novel by HG Wells). Even dystopian visions of the future, like the exterior city shots in Metropolis, also look naive and disconnected from the real problems that plagued cities when it was made. If your examples from Portfoliopolis weren't real, they would be downright hilarious. But they are real, and I actually find them a little scary. I mean, why do the people in Astor Place look kinda of transparent? Like they were (or are in the process of being) vaporized? The messy, sad and disquieting realities of even that one small corner of a city (forget the people, not even a chaotic tangle of locked-up bikes? Or the flyposters for guys willing to move your stuff for $25?) don't have a place in our visions of a green and sustainable future. How unreal.
Adam Harrison Levy

Excellent post! Hopefully, this won't be seen as self-promotional, but we had a similar thread about this on Cyburbia a while back (http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?37911-Architectural-renderings-a-subtle-deception). I wrote ...

"Just for once, I'd like to see a rendering with:

* A same-sex couple.
* An interracial couple.
* A skateboarder.
* A trustifarian hippie.
* Hipsters.
* Rednecks.
* Goths
* A doughy guy with a neckbeard wearing a science- or Linux-related t-shirt.
* A woman in an abaya (excepting renderings for projects in Dubai). "

The second-to-last photo knocks that off the list.

Portfoliopolis in the 1970s was a quite interesting place. Its residents were drawn like swarms to featureless, wind-swept Brutalist-inspired plazas and squares, and the acres of open spaces buffering the towers-in-the-park projects that began to surround the city.

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