TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Stone to phone: from urban legend to urban audience


About Roger 

Roger founded Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design (RSAUD) in 1989. He has personally been the recipient of many honors and awards, including being a finalist for the Ventulette Distinguished Chair in Architectural Design at Georgia Tech in 2004; presenting a paper at the “Pragmatism” Conference at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2000; being a Wheelwright Fellow at Harvard in 1995; and a Skidmore Owings and Merrill Traveling Fellow in 1984. In 1987, he and Edmund Chang earned the commission for the West Hollywood Civic Center by virtue of having won an international design competition from a field of over 300 entrants.


Good morning. This fellow, Victor Hugo, once famously claimed that the book will kill the building. Will the iPhone kill the city? Likely not, but it will transform it in many significant ways.

However, up until this point, most of the conversation about the effects of the smartphone upon the city have really been about making the city smarter, more efficient, faster, and so on. But what about the appearance of the city, the experience of the city, and our appearance in it?

There’s no doubt that the Internet of Things is infinitely more convenient than person-to-person interaction. But what does that say about the future of public life and a public space in the city? Is there urban life beyond food trucks? I hope so. That’s what interests me. I think that we could see them as just being the beginning of something truly revolutionary.


Traditionally, the city was designed and coincident with the events that occurred within it, such as you see on the left in Siena. This happens to be the yearly horse race called the Palio that takes place in the main plaza. That city was considered, in today’s terms, hardware or permanent.

But Silicon Valley tells us that the city of the present or the future, seen on the right, is soft. It’s a city of bits versus bricks. That the hard city, that the traditional city was one that was designed and coincident with the events that occur within it. But today, as many of you know or intuit, events can take place literally any place and any time in the city, sort of like naturally occurring phenomena.

As the yearly once-a-year city of Burning Man demonstrates or attests, the monument, the building has taken a backseat to the event in the making of cities, fulfilling a prophecy of this fellow, Rainer Banham, on the right, who call, who coined the term “great gizmo” as far back as in the late 1960s, referring to the idea that there would someday be a device that could better serve human needs than costly physical infrastructure. He said that we would move from stone to phone.

In yesterday’s city, the city was actually constructed of monuments out of the desire of a few wealthy individuals to constitute a legacy for themselves that would last on into the future. But in today’s city, it develops more out of an interest in addressing and even producing the idea of an audience. Goes from a kind of noblesse oblige of leadership to something that comes up out of the ground, a recognition that the city is comprised of subcultures.

So in this context, then, how do we build not buildings first, but an audience for the city, an audience out of which the buildings of the city will occur?

Well I would argue that it’s through an idea of what I will from now on refer to as The Feat, F-E-A-T. And this notion is completely contrary to that of Field of Dreams, that rather than the kind of “build it and they shall come” paradigm, which is represented in the idea of the legacy, that instead the, the allure of The Feat is in the idea of inviting somebody to fulfill a gambit — a challenge, if you will — and to be witness to something that is in the making while it’s actually happening.

As told in the story of Stone Soup, which many of you may recall reading yourselves as children or telling your own children, about a kind of — a story in which more or less a homeless boy goes around and can’t find any ingredients to make a soup. He’s hungry. So he picks up a stone along the road and starts to boil some water, puts the stone in and starts to kind of pretend that it’s smelling very good. And one by one, those very same people who wouldn’t give anything to produce, in terms of ingredients for the soup, would come in in each contribute something to it.

In that sense, the idea of The Feat that I’ve referred to is very, is barely indistinguishable, barely distinguishable from the idea of the hoax. In the case of the stone soup, the hoax was the stone. In the case of the Trojan horse, it was the horse. Something that appears to be one thing but is in fact another, but it ends up becoming a Feat. It gets the job done through a bit of deception.

So The Feat, The Feat is actually comprised of this kind of conceit, but it actually has six primary ingredients.

The first is the challenge, which is a proposition which requires collective effort in order to realize. How do you move a rocket ship through a city?

Two, the plot or ploy. Not a plan, but a little bit of that trickery. It’s something where it’s a solution, a solution to the problem, to the challenge which is cunning in its orchestration and staging.

Some of you who are of my age will remember the better of the two versions of The Italian Job in which they plotted the getaway, which actually occurred in Milan precisely at rush hour through everything other than the streets of the city. And a more modern-day version of that is the rock and the sensation that the staging of the passage of the rock from Riverside County to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art caused a much greater spectacle and caused more people to go see it en route, through The Feat of getting it to the museum, than actually are going to visit the rock in its final resting place at the museum itself.

Next, participation. Very important because we all talk about participation, but actually participation not as a form of, not out of necessity or convenience, but as experience.

Allan Kaprow, since the 1960s, has been conducting things that he called “happenings,” something that causes you to actually want to be there when something happened. And more recent and more familiar to you would be the yellow umbrellas of the Grapevine project by Christo and Jean-Claude, in which not so much was the spectacle, though it was truly an incredible spectacle was the design itself, but equally was the participation of hundreds of volunteers who wanted to be part of the making of that piece of art, not just the witnessing of it.

Immersiveness. The idea of that first, in a day of the Internet, when things are so easily consumed electronically, that the power of firsthand direct experience has an allure that something that one has to experience to believe, to verify in field, the kind of conjuring of an ambience that exceeds reproducibility in pictures, is irresistible.

As in the Weather Project by Olafur Eliason at the Tate, in of all places London where it’s barely ever sunny, you create a place where people can sunbathe — in a museum, no less. More people came to visit this exhibit than any other exhibit in the history of the Tate to that point.

Wonderment. An undertaking that seems impossible to believe. Something that that elicits, as the artist Ed Ruscha would say, a kind of, “Huh? What is that?” Followed by a kind of “wow.” Or a “huh?” followed by a “how did they do that?”

Or in this case, simply what I refer to as the estrangement of the pig in the parlor, something that belonged, that is somewhere where it does not belong. As we saw in the case of the rock or the spaceship, of the space shuttle moving through the streets of LA, very reminiscent of the scene from The Italian Job where, where as part of the getaway, the cars are moving through the palaces of Milan.

And lastly, gawkability, which is actually a term that originated amongst teens in Asia, a colloquialism that refers to the idea of posing, the suitability of a place to make, to pose in front of it.

And the idea that with, I suppose that we call them now “selfie moments,” but in fact, posing is something of a form of artistry where you actually have to lift your body up and jump and create a kind of effect. People do it, you know, when they’re leaning against the Tower of Pisa in a photograph, appearing to be holding it up. So there is something about the quality of the place itself that elicits an opportunity to actually participate and interact.

Altogether, these six ingredients challenge, plot/ploy, participation, immersiveness, wonderment, and gawkability, equal The Feat. And The Feat basically is something that exercises the agency of the smartphone in a way that capitalizes upon the ability to both support, to solicit, and broadcast collective action that rivals that of the pharaohs of Egypt.

This actually is an Egyptian obelisk being raised in Central Park. It’s probably an obelisk that you never notice once it’s up in its proper place, but actually was one that, in the, in the act of erection and the difficulty of getting it up there, attracted quite a crowd.

Finally, I’d like to conclude, I’m leading, I’ve been leading up to a very brief video that I’d like to show you that, for a project that we undertook at City Lab here at UCLA for, that was intended to catalog, use, utilize all of these lessons as a means of catalyzing the revitalization of Westwood Village by calling upon stakeholders there to to organize themselves to accomplish a Feat that would both require and demonstrate the power of collective action, feed the imagination, and at the same time incentivize them to fulfill it.

So here’s Westwood Village. What in effect we did was we created, we set up a series, placed a series of inflatables throughout Los Angeles, inflatable puzzle pieces that were geocached and needed to be found using a smartphone, such as here in Little Tokyo. People would find them by virtue of their smartphone and thereby register for the challenge, or The Feat.

They would then, by tweeting, inflate these pieces that were otherwise compressed in a cartridge and drive them to Westwood. Imagine like many little rocks. So people would all get to Westwood, all roads lead to Westwood, as in all roads leading to Rome, and at this point, here they are arriving on Broxton. People don’t know what to do.

But we had a series of three challenges. The first one was called The Auto-Mat. We organized the groups of stakeholders into nine teams that were each responsible for assembling these like a jigsaw puzzle. But none of them actually knew what the whole would actually end up assembling into. And it became their dance parties through the tweeting and music that were played through actuators, and it became for Broxton like a kind of a cross between a maze or labyrinth and an urban living room.

After two weeks, the teams reorganized to undertake a second challenge called The Pipeline in which the same the very same parts were retweeted and would play tones that enabled people to figure out how to reassemble the pieces through different adjacencies with one another. And those came together, as you’ll see, to form a very long kind of performance venue slash exhibition gallery also running down Broxton.

And the third and final challenge called The Non-ument was one which involved the kind of pulling upward of the pipeline, and it’s in a recollection of the kind of symbolic reconstruction of many of the towers that used to actually be built, used to exist in Westwood Village, but have since been taken down. It act — the shape is actually one which is a negative of the, of one of the towers that existed there and one that you could see from the 405 freeway.

Finally, in a reverse of all roads lead to Westwood, people would be able, who are participants, would be able to take each of the pieces as souvenirs back to their homes and find them as a kind of personal piece of history.

So in conclusion, I simply wanted to leave you with this question, whether perhaps next time that you open your phone, you might think not, “who might I call,” but “what might I build?” Thank you.