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Learning from Logistics
Marie Law Adams

Clare Lyster

Logistics networks control and enable the flows of material, people, and data that characterize the contemporary urban condition. Those far-reaching networks and their influence on urbanization are the focus of architect and educator Clare Lyster’s Learning from Logistics. With a nod to Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steve Izenour’s 1972 title, Lyster situates logistics as a phenomenon that is reordering the city, and, like the signs of the Las Vegas Strip, without meaningful involvement from the design disciplines. The key question explored through the book is then how a close study of logistics might offer designers insights and renewed agency in city making today.

Architects have written about logistics in relation to urban and territorial development as early as the 1990s, with Keller Easterling’s Organization Space (on the organizational networks of highways, landscapes, and housing) through the more recent Ecologies of Power by Pierre Belanger and Alexander Arroyo (on the logistical infrastructure of the US military) and Jesse LeCavalier’s The Rule of Logistics (on Walmart’s logistics networks). Like some of these, Learning from Logistics uses case studies but also forges a more direct connection to design through comparisons and a set of original design narratives related to logistics.

Learning from Logistics studies FedEx, Amazon, and Ryanair’s corporate logistics practices (with other brief examples) and their related infrastructure, architecture, and landscapes. Those cases, covering shipping, shopping and entertainment, and transportation, are chosen for their territorial reach and reliance on a combination of digital and physical infrastructure. Lyster also points out that the three transnational corporations were each largely the outcome of a single entrepreneur’s creative vision, a potentially disconcerting detail considered under the rubric of this book.

The case studies on their own are illuminating as signals of broader patterns of change. In the first chapter, for instance, Lyster shows how networks act as “urbanizing agents” through an examination of Ryanair’s practice of offering cheap direct flights between peripheral, underutilized airfields, effectively producing a new map of Europe populated by unknown places, or what Lyster calls an “alternative spatio-geographic indexing of the continent” (22). As an urbanizing agent, Lyster uses an example of how Ryanair has directly linked the British population to the French countryside via the Bergerac airport, causing the area to become so popular for second homes that the Dordogne is known as “the Dordogneshire.” The book includes several such examples of how logistics organizational strategies override perceived notions of distance and time and stimulate urbanization.

A key new contribution, however, comes from Lyster’s practice of relating concepts derived from logistics to paradigmatic architecture, landscape, and urban design theory and projects. In doing this, Lyster outlines a new constellation of work from within the discipline through which to consider logistics. It’s worth noting that none of the work directly addresses the topic—ranging from OMA’s Downsview Park proposal to the writings of Reyner Banham to the floor of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library—but rather illustrates fundamental concepts or scenarios that Lyster derives from the three case studies. Those concepts are delivered as a series of five “Lessons” in chapters titled “Site,” “Plan,” “Zone,” “Circulation,” and “Architecture,” signifying the range of scalar and organizational formats covered.

Returning to the Ryanair case in the chapter called “Site,” Lyster proposes that it represents a new model of urbanization where the “network is context,” as a departure from historic interdependencies between geography, identity, and urbanism. Drawing on work from Christian Norberg-Schulz to Superstudio and Archizoom, Lyster introduces a range of attitudes around geography and place, before concluding with a longer section on Los Angeles and Chicago through the lens of Reyner Banham’s “Autopia” and Alvin Boyarsky’s Chicago a la carte. For Lyster, Banham and Boyarsky’s interpretations of highways and freight rail illustrate the network context concept.

Other chapters go on to relate the hybrid top-down-bottom-up strategies of FedEx and Amazon to the ordered yet indeterminate infrastructural “framework” proposals by the Metabolists, and smart ground surfaces in logistics distribution facilities with the active ground plane as conceptualized through landscape urbanism.

Throughout the lessons, Lyster also draws on historic interrelationships between urbanization and communications, shipping, and transportation technologies to frame future scenarios. The Sears mail-order catalog of the early twentieth century is described as a “mitigator of the urban/rural divide” (131) by its bringing the rural majority immediate access to goods without passing through the city. Discussed in relation to today’s on-demand services that deliver directly to individuals, Lyster foresees a decline in the city’s role as the place to negotiate commercial transactions, and a future “emptying” of urban spaces of commerce. Whether or not Lyster’s predictions that the city will be refilled with new spaces for collective leisure is realized, the discussion calls to mind today’s refilling of the previous era’s industrial spaces with large parks and leisure landscapes.

The final section of Learning from Logistics, called “Apply,” presents a series of seven original design narratives that “leverage logistics to generate new urban formats” (177) and suggest going “beyond mere utility (and engineering) to intensify and revitalize communities, and even architecture itself” (178). The narratives are effective as a set, offering a range of ways to imagine how to apply the lessons—physically through programmatic coupling, conceptually by reappropriating network strategies, and opportunistically by reoccupying voids produced by logistics. Each individual narrative is playful (say, a public hot tub sharing a thermal loop with an underground data center on the Chicago lakefront) and brief, accompanied by just one or two cartoon-esque drawings—reading much like previews or trailers for a main feature that happens not to be released in this edition.

At a brief fourteen pages each, this section and the introduction symmetrically bracket the five lessons that make up the bulk of the book. While the design narratives effectively synthesize earlier concepts, they tend to hover above the challenging and potentially generative questions of implementation that would fill a void in the current body of work on logistics. Nonetheless, Learning from Logistics serves as a uniquely comprehensive collection of case studies, historic references, and design work through which to consider the networks that structure the flows of people, materials, and information.

How to Cite this Article: Adams, Marie Law. Review of Learning from Logistics, by Clare Lyster. JAE Online. December 21, 2018. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/learning-logistics/.

SAH Chicago Seminar: Clare Lyster