July/August 2011
Marshall Brown

Mashup City

Architecture Steals from Contemporary Music

“The imagination works with eyes open. It alters and is altered by what is seen. The problem is that if we admit this, then the relation between ideas and things turns mutable and inconstant. Such destabilization is bound to affect our understanding of architectural drawing, which occupies the most uncertain, negotiable position of all, along the main thoroughfare between ideas and things. For this same reason, drawing may be proposed as the principal locus of conjecture in architecture.” —Robin Evans

We live in the age of the chimera—a world of relentless mixing in which anything and everything is a potential ready-made object available for copying, sampling, and versioning. Since the turn of this century, mashup has become part of our popular vocabulary; (we think) the term originated when DJs began using digital tools to make new tracks out of existing ones from disparate sources. Danger Mouse’s Grey Album of 2004, for example, combined the Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Mashup is the art of stealing and combining incongruous elements in order to construct new alignments and create new forms of legibility. Mashup is stealth collage, meaning that the cuts and seams between fragments are carefully puzzled together to the point of near disappearance. This tricks us into perceiving the work as a synthetic whole rather than a compilation of found parts.

Despite the acceptance of mashup techniques in nearly every other medium, the dominant practices and theories of urbanism are still ruled by the modernist idea that cities should be built like machines: through the rational assembly of standardized parts. This approach too often results in generic solutions for generic cities. But the Fordist regimes of mass production are rapidly dissolving into networks of mass customization. The world has become a space of endless choices, options, and versions, and this applies to architecture and urbanism as much as to everything else. Variability, contingency, and hybridization are the key qualities of the mashup city.

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Marshall Brown is an architect, urban designer, and former resident of Brooklyn. Now based in Chicago, he hopes to design the Barack Obama Presidential Library. He is currently working on scenarios for the future of Chicago as a center of the world.

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