The Beach Beneath the Streets

finding a fragmentary utopia in the existing city

What’s to stop the urban environment from being a place for realizing our wildest dreams, and experimenting with who we are and what is possible? Even through cities seem to be pragmatic and reasonable on their surface, they are, in fact, infused with fantasy, desire, fiction and fragmentary utopia. Rem Koolhaas — the architect and writer of architectural theory examining the illogical and fantastic in urban space — explores the evolution of the metropolis as a force for empowering increasingly ludicrous ambitions and desires, which, he says, despite the modernist lip-service to pragmatism and rationality, are the real force behind urban development. Coney Island, according to Koolhaas, was a laboratory for experimenting with the bizarre, with the realizations and insights realized there exported to Manhattan, where they could be implemented — perhaps more subtly — into the urban jungle. One of the experiments that was hatched on Coney Island was what Koolhaas calls “electric bathing”: with the advent of electric lighting, the beaches of Coney Island could be illuminated around the clock, with complete deference to the naturally imposed time of the day cycle.

Electric bathing

Electricity “made it possible to create a second daytime — intense electric lights were placed at regular intervals along the surfline, so that the sea could be enjoyed in a truly Metropolitan shift system. Those unable to reach the water in the day, were given a 12-hour extension.” (Rem Koolhaas, “Life in the Metropolis, or the Culture of Congestion”, in “OMA”Architectural Design 47, no. 5 (1977) pg. 320.) Koolhaas examines how new technologies — from electricity to mechanical elevators to steel-frame construction — while themselves reliant on rational procedures of engineering and scientific discovery, were used to realize wholly irrational ends in the metropolis. This use of technology to support fantastic creation is perhaps a core tenet of contemporary society, yet it remains an unsung and understated fact. Aren’t many of today’s digital technologies — themselves products of arduous and highly rational computer scientific research — infrastructures intended for the pursuit of irrational desires? How might a self-consciousness about this fact manifest in Silicon Valley culture? In any case, I’d like to return to the city, before looping back to this matter of digital technology. Koolhaas’s insight about the deep irrationality of the city can be read into many of the urban environment’s features and spaces, and if we take this lens and turn it onto the urban environment, many new readings become available to us.

Urban landscapes can be treated as archeological objects, whose past meanings and fantasies can be found inscribed among the aging relics of these dreams. A past era’s drive-in cinema, motel, baroque theater, or bowling alley may be treated as a window into a past attempt to capture, in a commercial capacity, certain desires of a generation of affective preferences that are no longer with us. A new generation, inheriting this retrograde urbanism, may revive and reinscribe these features of the urban landscape into new systems of meaning and new behaviors. Isn’t every vintage and antiques shop doing precisely this with the garments and furnishings of the past?

Finding old, forgotten dreams embedded in the city

The Situationists sought to discover the beach beneath the streets of Paris, as their graffiti from May, 1968 proclaimed in its rebellious cursive handwriting, scribbled below the windows of a curtained laundromat. Beneath the pavement, a beach. While some within that avant-garde had spent time designing ideal utopias upon the tabula rasa of a future in which the problems of politics and economics had been sorted out, others among them made new uses of the existing city, finding in its streets, cellars and back-alleys a subtext that was hardly the celebrated facade of the European cities that they haunted. Navigating London with a map of Madrid, or just drifting and letting their desires lead the way, sometimes for days at a time, these young creatives sought a utopia of affect emanating from the aggregated strangenesses of the city.

Situationist graffiti in Paris: “beneath the streets, a beach”

Today, some of us imagine a city pock-marked with a million tiny pockets of comfort and affective intensity, and new digital guides for giving access to and direction through spaces that were previously off-limits. If the Situationists had as their atlas the nonsensical ambitions of the Dadaists laid atop of the twentieth century street map, what might be achieved today with the app and the so-called “internet of things”? Suddenly, new labyrinths, new interiors, new traversals are available to us. I am part of a conspiracy to make the most out of these possibilities.

I believe that experimental aesthetics are something that our culture is severely lacking. Just think: how many rooms do you inhabit on any given day? How similar or dissimilar are these from each other? How often are you really impressed by your physical settings? Do the places you spend time really inspire you?

I’ve been part of an unfurling spatial experiment in which we create unexpected, designed moments in pockets and nooks scattered around the city. In a recent episode, several of us found a large yard of sealed shipping containers sitting idle in a completely isolated part of town. Deep in the corridors of the stacked maze of shipping containers, we found a space where there had most likely been a container that had been moved, leaving a car-sized gap in the corrugated walls of chipped paint and rusty steel. In this negative space, we laid out furry shag rugs, pillows, and candelabras, hung exuberant vines and fairy lights, and then notified our friends of our newly-created lounge’s location. Perhaps 100 people trickled through the strangely comfortable pop-up lounge, where conversation was whispered over quiet jazz music coming from a cheap portable speaker.

An unexpected lounge in a canyon of steel

There have been many other episodes: in a storefront, a deployment of pool chairs, tropical plants, parasols, towels and a cooler, all situated beneath a wash of warm, sun-like heat lamps. Passersby would stroll past and do a double-take at the swimsuit-wearing, sunglassed loungers, reading books in the warm ‘sunlight’ in the middle of the night! In another instance, we set up a garden with a hot tub in a narrow “canyon” between two Victorian apartment buildings. The tub, sat atop a raised wall and hidden from the street by a thick screen of foliage, was enjoyed by a stream of fortunate and informed users — the lucky few who knew that it was there. Other instances have included setting up a warmly-lit ‘opium den’-style yurt on the cold, windy beach in the middle of the night, and the hosting of dinner parties in alleyways. On all of these occasions, I have had the wonderful experience of being told by participants that they had never encountered space in this way before. For them, they began to dream in new dimensions after having experienced these strange and unexpected spatial deployments, and this has been tremendously encouraging and affirming feedback.

How can we scale these kinds of activities that transform the ways that we view and think about urban space? Perhaps through new digital platforms that mediate access to space while incentivizing the maximum and unique cultivation of the varying spaces of the city. New networks for sharing, co-producing, financing and giving/receiving permission and access are now possible. How to harness these possibilities in order to create a thousand little beaches in the city; a thousand unique oases; a thousand little greenhouses; a thousand hot tubs and saunas; a thousand libraries; a thousand bowling alleys; a thousand zen gardens; and many other, perhaps yet-to-be-invented spatial typologies? What kind of platform would encourage such niche differentiation and creativity? My friends and I are working on building this, and we’re calling it Nookzy.

That is the big idea, but in order to get there, we will need to start small. For now, we are looking for underutilized potential in the built form of the city, and possible ways of harnessing these in ways that are desirable to users who would be willing to pay money for the realization of these desires.

We have identified one very significant underutilized potential: yards. Most cities have a hidden landscape behind their buildings — the interior of city blocks are often a uniquely-shaped void of un-curated and unusually-framed spaces, hidden from view by facades, fences and walls, but typically accessible by means of only one doorway or gate per yard. This ease of access is by design — most urban homes with yards are equipped to accommodate professional gardening and landscaping services, with one locking gate or door separating the rear yard from the sidewalk. What pedestrians cannot see is the beautiful, wild, often lush yard space that hides behind the buildings. A veritable oasis at the center of each block, these little areas nevertheless often go neglected by the residents of the buildings that overlook them. I believe these underrated spaces can be enjoyed by more people in more meaningful ways, but it would take a kind of new ‘social software’ to mediate their use, and to incentivize their curation and availability.

A typical San Francisco block has a green, uniquely-shaped core of yards. Credit: Google Images
A verdant yardscape, visible from a pebbly roofscape.

To begin with, we will be putting hot tubs and saunas in underutilized yard spaces, renting time in these amenities out by the hour, and splitting the proceeds with the hosts of these spaces. The hope is that by giving a market value to these spaces, they will assume an importance and attention that they do not currently possess. Moreover, by making these spaces into a ‘thing’, the ambition is to lend new meanings and new values to all sorts of neglected tidbits of space, routing new behaviors to them and through them. By starting with a minimum viable product built around the enjoyment of heat — the most neglected of hedonistic pleasure, in my opinion — we hope to begin to attract interest in the temporary inhabitation of small urban spaces, and to gradually and creatively branch out from there. A better city is coming.