Playback Forever

June, 2017. Article by Igor Bragado & Miles Gertler Published in University of California Berkeley's Room One Thousand Architecture Journal.

The biological end of life is no longer the end of your existence. Death exerts itself in home décor, in your fitness regime, and in virtual space, yet architecture has so far failed to acknowledge the potential posed by the latent social situations and infrastructural networks around death, and failed to recognize these entities as a site for action. Today, the increasing extent of what constitutes the urban ecosystem has made the sites of death ubiquitous yet less evident. What we lack is the architectural and urban protocol to engage the body whose very subjectivity is shaped by—yet extended beyond—biological death. How can a greater embrace of death’s potential as body and city builder yield a more productive, socially active, urban ecology, at the scale of the everyday? How might death be evolved as an architectural technology to more fully serve society? How do we equip the ceremonial and material business of death with an urban platform?

After all, the heat of the crematorium can be used to activate living rooms, swimming pools, and the urban terrain ; Alkaline Hydrolysis makes possible the dissolution of the dead body into a potent fertilizer; and your bio-capital could pay the mortgage on your house.

That being the case, preparations for your death, are already underway.

Chapter Two: Closer Each Day.

Seoul’s newest housing development, Itaewon Necro-City, is built on death. It happened bit by bit. The first processing lab was set up in one of the last real hanok courtyard houses up the hill from Hoenamu-Ro. The government was desperate for new solutions and in any case Korean families in the US kept on sending their bodies back for burial. The lab was operating for a full year before any public announcements were made, and even when the officials from the Ministry came to cut the ribbon—inscribed with “Mom” in gold script —it was yet again under construction to excavate more madang and build up the first block of new apartments. Funded by Playback Forever, a consortium built on the energy and material values produced from bodies processed in the United States and abroad, the site is under constant redevelopment: a reconstructive urban surgery, that conflates the ceremonial and social potential of the commons with the processing potential of the death industry. The development was designed to operate in an ecological mode: on-site death processing fulfills the critical need for new facilities to alleviate the pressure and environmental impact of the eight hundred Korean bodies that are otherwise cremated, stored, or frozen in wait countrywide each day. All the while, the outputs of several processing techniques are re-directed to other productive ends. Apartments designed for a number of Seoul’s resident archetypes —multi-generational families, the body-conscious, and those who live and die alone—are heated, rendered lush and verdant, and immersed in a 24-hour leisure district. The tarmac, in continuous expansion over the existing site, organizes green space, leisure program, water filtration, and ceremonial functions as a new terrain able to accommodate an expanded range of possibilities constituting daily life.

The complex is the site for local processing, foreign destination-based funeral parties that were already returning to Seoul, and for virtual connectivity between transurban audiences. The site mines and manages value, here defined in material, virtual, and ceremonial terms. Value produced through ceremony, then, is as much a priority as that generated in financial terms, and contributes to the culture of the district.

Chapter Four: Meat.

Broadly speaking, death is a wasted effort. Decades of technological progress have distanced the material business of death from everyday life. Sanitization, disease-control, and body processing have kept death neat and tidy, and out of site. The rising price of urban real estate and the drive for high-rise density have obviated many of the urban typologies that once played host to the social activities surrounding death. Massive processing infrastructure has been built to address the rising numbers of the urban dead and relegated body disposal to spreadsheets and itineraries. But all this came at a loss.

The last half-century of architectural discourse too, has contributed to the distancing of death from the urban, elaborating the metaphysical poetics of death as an island, apart from the everyday. In contrast to the post-modern, Sigfried Giedion’s chapter on death in Mechanization Takes Command might be the first architectural account of the techno-social implications of the development of industries around death. He is arguably the first architectural historian to acknowledge the role of death industries as critical contributors to the construction not only of a new history of architecture , but also, as was the case with nineteenth century Paris. New technologies in meat processing and the assembly line necessitated new forms of connectivity that spanned city and countryside and shaped entire landscapes and neighborhoods.

New projects like the Necro-City aim to reverse the recent distancing and re-constitute the processing of bodies as a productive and social element of everyday life. Prototypical projects like this one have emerged across the globe, infiltrating existing operational channels and adopting new technologies to reorganize and concentrate processing potential, layering the ceremonial, onto the infrastructural. Processing, then, is understood as both memorial and industrial cultural practice.

Projects such as this one take advantage of the spate of new technologies available for the extraction of ceremonial and material value from bodies. Technological innovations in body processing have a colorful history in Itaewon, adjacent to the US military base at Yongsan, where military infrastructure has long since been re-tuned for broader civilian use. The tarmac, an idea spawned by Yongsan and the airstrip of the US Military’s lone American port mortuary at Dover, is now the host for parades, markets, parking, fertilization, water filtration, and leisure. In building for a city for people both dead and alive, an operative surface that can accommodate infrastructure is required. Tarmac is the surface of convenience for staging, moving, storing, and occupation of all bodies. The tarmac is your virtual afterlife.

Other technologies transfer as well. Even plastic surgery was first introduced to Korea by military surgeons in Yongsan in the early 1950s. This is itself a form of body processing, of the modification and preservation of tissues and youth in the face of death. This begins to describe the actions of the prosthetic subject, for which developments like the Necro-City serve as prosthetic, processing-savvy urbanisms. That is, an urban apparatus that works as an extension of, and as a self-reflexive tool for the design of the human body. Many of the Korean funerary traditions were aligned with those developed by the US military to the point where information and aspects of each began to exchange fluidly across borders, both urban and transnational.

Chapter 11: The Virtual Afterlife.

To this end, the international telecom giant, and US-military-contracted service provider, Verizon, stores the virtual archives of those processed in Itaewon’s Healing District alongside the material refuse of New York’s dead in the Intergate tower in Lower Manhattan. The tower has been retrofitted for multi-modal storage and mass playback across its outward facing screens. The interior floors are open for the public to wander amidst fish tank death scene encapsulators, processing cases, ceremonial arrangements, and the preserved vestiges of the daily lives of millions.

Among the leading solutions in body processing is Alkaline Hydrolysis, also known as resomation or bio-cremation. The process liquefies the body into a lye solution capable of plant fertilization. It produces less carbon dioxide than cremation and is less ecologically harmful than traditional burial. It works 35% faster with highly filtered water, slower when dealing with more hair or excess weight in the subject, and small doses of the fluid remains are regularly released into the municipal sewage system for the drain-cleaning benefits of its highly concentrated “bug particles.”

On the street below Intergate Manhattan, a tarmac forms the staging area for visitors and new materials entering the tower on massive exterior elevators, capable of lifting even small buildings. Last year, over four hundred thousand unique physical items were uploaded. Leading eastward from the tarmac is Park Row, a marshy pedestrian terrain fertilized by the nearby Alkaline Elevator Apparatus, and populated with urban follies. The terrain is sowed not only with fluid remains, but forms a Digital Elysium embedded with server gravestones. When visiting the site, family members of those whose data or material remains are stored in the tower, or those whose remains contributed to Park Row’s fertilization, are sent random digital fragments to their mobile devices through the Intergate Digital Afterlife App. Thus, random encounters with your loved one’s virtual remains are generated on the last site of their material existence. You’re more active dead, if you like.

Alkaline Hydrolysis offers a person extended agency in the fertilization of the landscape, flower, or food of their choice. Like Mineral Extraction and Tissue Exchange, it opens new doors to economic yield post-mortem. The heat used to dissolve their body might well be harnessed to warm homes in their neighborhood, or to electrify a ceremonial platform, or shared amenities, as is the case at the Necro-City in Itaewon, and at the consortium’s first partnered development, the Beachbody Apartments in California’s Santa Monica neighborhood.

Chapter 9: Digital Muscle, Digital Building.

The apartment complex, Values Matter, developed with the Santa Monica-based fitness multinational Beachbody, clusters shared body-processing facilities and provides spaces for the translation of bodies to the virtual realm. Many of the building’s inhabitants have an active engagement with the internet, like Beachbody users and coaches. Beachbody videos tend to be filmed in living rooms for fitness routines, and in kitchens for nutritional segments, reflecting the sites of their re-enactment the world over. In that spirit, the Values Matter complex is comprised of a dense clustering of only these spaces. Beachbody averages over 5 million unique monthly visits across digital platforms. Mass uploading demands high server capacity. The heat from the computer activity at Values Matter is captured and contributes between 60 and 70% of the energy required to warm alkaline solutions to 160 degrees centigrade for the processing of dead bodies also handled onsite. This of course makes these desirable beachside apartments the cheapest site for body processing in the state of California. Statewide, about 640 people die each day, 50% of whom will soon be expected to go liquid. Each apartment building like this can be expected to generate gigabytes of uploads each day, in turn assisting in the processing of more than fifteen bodies every twenty-four hours. All this produces more heat, so slabs are staggered level by level to maximize cross-ventilation, which also offers radically diverse backdrops and programmatic inter-exposure in any one space, producing a condition of visual multiplicity in a given room. Your apartment, mediated by webcam, is the cemetery.

Chapter 1: Duke Wellington’s Carriage.

The funeral procession in November of 1852 is a study in the kind of virtual body processing exhibited in Santa Monica. Gottfried Semper’s carriage for the funeral parade through London is an architectural media event. As mobile architecture, it also contributes to the infrastructural processing of the body it holds. It draws audiences of millions along the city streets that forms its route. It is a techno-spectacle that reconstructs its subject as an enactment of the public terrain. This is simply one mode in which bodies navigate the urban realm, not from processing facility to a space of ceremony, but fully engaged in both conditions at once. In its wake, the parade leaves a trail of markets and celebrations spun-off of the core ceremonies. The Wellington Carriage fluid line constitutes an expanded remains navigation system that calibrates visibility throughout its course.

These constitute prototypical sites in an expanding network of death-savvy urbanism. Urban models have been developed for lower density contexts as well, citing death as a pragmatic architectural technology for city building. The diversity of these sites, and the fluidity with which architectural and technological agents travel between them, exhibits an internet condition of transurban migration. That is, the material culture of bodies is producing cities.

Ultimately, in bringing death back into the city, the situation is the site of architectural operation. In circumstances of ceremony and processing, architecture engages the transmutation of bodies as a mechanism for the production of value, society, and the city as a combined action.

© Common Accounts LTD / 2019 /