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Littler boxes: Rohan Quinby on printing the city, & the impact of new technologies on urban planning & design

"Is it really so revolutionary to remove what remains of craftsmanship from our houses and cities? Or are we simply looking at the culmination of a long process that is driven more by money than by imagination."

Book Cover Time and the Suburbs

You know what it's like.

You've finished the arduous work of researching and writing a book. After months of solitary effort you send the manuscript to the publisher and suddenly, the hectic process of editing begins. Facts are checked, grammar is corrected, and entire passages are queried, scrutinized, and rewritten. Finally, the manuscript is ready and the work is sent to the printer. A few weeks later, a small box arrives in the mail with your finished book. It's done, and it cannot be changed.

A few days later, you read an article that changes everything.


The little book I've written is called Time and the Suburbs and it's a political and philosophical critique of the kind of suburban environments that we are constructing across North America. My thesis is that our cities are disappearing as a result of vast, new postmetropolitan environments that are extending across the landscape.These new regions are changing the way we live and interact with each other, not just on the new suburban fringes, but deep within our traditional cities.

Coincidentally, the article I read that morning, after receiving my book from the publisher, had to do with both printing and cities. Back in September, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they were working on a kind of 3D printer that would be able to print not just small objects, but entire buildings. Around the same time, designers and architects began to take more notice of the work of Italian artist Enrico Dini, who, a few years earlier, had developed a machine that can print fantastic, stone-like architectural shapes out of sand.


I was worried that I hadn't addressed this kind of technological innovation in my book. It certainly didn't take long for the implications of this kind of print job to be felt in the architectural and urban design community. Some writers have pointed to the environmental benefits of this kind of construction, noting that this kind of “additive manufacturing” has the potential to dramatically reduce the waste associated with the way we build now. Others feel that printed buildings will allow architects to finally transcend the limitations of traditional materials and techniques, replacing our current boxlike built environment with shapes and designs inspired by nature and the imagination. Eventually, it is possible to imagine that our entire urban fabric could be printed by such machines.


I'll admit that I have my doubts. It's not that I don't think that this technology is amazing. But when you live and work in the contemporary postmetropolis as I do, you start to realize that we are already pretty much printing our landscapes and buildings,  and the results aren't all that pretty. Look a little more carefully the next time you drive on any of the large roadways that connect our decentred regions. On the one side you pass by a development of vinyl houses, while on the other, enormous prefabricated shopping malls and warehouses show that we have already done as much as we can to remove the building from our buildings. Is it really so revolutionary to remove what remains of craftsmanship from our houses and cities? Or are we simply looking at the culmination of a long process that is driven more by money than by imagination.

It is true that in the middle of our cities you can find a few extraordinary buildings designed by star architects like Gehry and Foster. These are the kinds of whimsical and organic-looking buildings that proponents of this new technology might point to as forerunners of what might be possible when we are able to print our cities. But as the 19th and 20th century built environment of our urban areas begins to pass away, these few iconic buildings will be surrounded by many far less marvellous structures. In the end, simply being able to print buildings doesn't necessarily mean that we'll do a good job of it. As these kinds of technologies migrate into the world of urban planning and design, we will need to do a better job of demanding that our buildings and cities meet human needs, rather than just technical and commercial ones.


And that, as it turns out, is what my book is about.

Rohan Quinby is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer with a passion for cities and politics. Originally from Vancouver, he has lived in Yukon, Montreal, and Auckland, New Zealand. He is the author of Time and the Suburbs (Arbeiter Ring Press), and is the photography editor for carte blanche, the literary journal of the Quebec Writers' Federation. Currently, Rohan is based in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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