After Zero Tropes

I’ve been mulling over zero tropes for a couple of years now, basically as a conceptual locus for the inherent reductivism of sanctuary in militant thought and practice.  Think patient zero, suspect zero, ground zero, all of which actually have very technical meanings in various specialist fields: as index cases in criminology, medicine and disease control; as hypocentres in seismology and nuclear science; as vanishing points in art and architecture.

They also have fascinating political relevance, via popular culture and historical memory: think Francois Ponchaud’s account of the Cambodian genocide in Year Zero (and John Pilger’s documentary on the same subject); Hiroshima and 9/11 as “time zero” for apocalyptic revelations in historical consciousness; the cognate implications of Aum Shinri Kyo’s underground sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, and its impact on the Japanese psyche.

Serendipity. I was in Naples North over the last few days, and wandered into the Eaton Centre Indigo bookstore to pick up a copy of CTlab friend Geoff Manaugh’s excellent new release, The BLDGBLOG Book. One of the first things I spotted on the racks was a pulp fiction thriller entitled Patient Zero (so of course I picked it up, along with Geoff’s book). Today, while sifting through my RSS feeds, I noted that Geoff has just flagged the latest theme issue of the Harvard journal New Geographies. Entitled “After Zero” (unsurprisingly, not a new idea among architects and designers, who are much much better than the rest of us at conceptualizing abstract spaces), it explores the zero point:

Design disciplines are challenged by the condition of the zero point. “Zero-context,” “cities from scratch,” and “zero-carbon” developments all force designers to address important questions regarding the strategic relevance and impact of a design intervention. As much as the zero point presents naïve innocence and embodies contradictory notions—such as crisis versus abundance or context versus model—it also creates a ground for doubt, self-critique, and rejuvenation for architecture and urbanism. As projects, indeed entire “new” cities, are built before they can even be imagined and then repackaged and replicated as models for any context, what do these projects suggest for the design disciplines? Rather than reductive aestheticization, or total rejection, what are possible critical ways to reflect on this condition? Beyond a focus on the vast scales and ambitions of these projects, it is important to see them as symptomatic of a much broader condition within contemporary architecture and urbanism. Along with the challenges inherent in the zero point, perhaps more meaningful are the provocations of the AFTER the ZERO condition. The idea of an AFTER ZERO is crucial for us; not only to assert the need to reflect on the future following the zero condition but also in acknowledgment of the release of this volume after our previous volume zero. If the zero condition presents crises of form, context, and social relevance for architecture and urbanism, perhaps one way to deal with this is “to redefine crisis, not as crisis but more simply as symptoms of larger urban trends whose logicis revealed only when judgment is suspended,” as Albert Pope writes in the volume. If we assess the current moment of crisis as a zero point, how can we think about the social, political, and formal significance of design after the Meltdown?After an era of reality mapping or iconic formalism, this volume aims to investigate possibilities AFTER crises, AFTER mapping, and AFTER signature architectures. Without relying on totalizing narratives, naïve morality, or escapism, AFTER ZERO is an opportunity to imagine alternative futures and a revitalized project for the city.

Indeed. Looking forward to reading this.

3 comments

  1. And ‘zero tolerance’, of course, which has always sounded like a rather anti-social form of social policy…Hard to believe that early maths didn’t even have a zero. The Babylonians indicated it with a null, a space. Big numbers lacking a final numerical ‘placeholder’ could only be differentiated by context.

  2. Mike Innes

    Memory fails me – as usual – but I think it depends on whose earlier maths we’re talking about. For the Babylonians it meant one thing, but there were other – I want to say Eastern, though not only – traditions in which it meant something else or was indicated in some alternate way. For some it was a void, for others that void was full of meaning. There were also philosophies of zero, rather than maths per se, in which its meaning was further debated and tweaked.

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