In Mario Carpo's brilliant study Architecture in the Age of Printing , in which he traces the origins of modern architecture back to Gutenberg and the invention of moveable type, Carpo makes the point that publishing and printing are two different things and have not always been connected. There was publishing before printing, he says, and now there is, through electronic information technology, publishing after printing.
In the context of the thunderous impact of last week's publication of the long-awaited Urban White Paper, this observation by a professor from California might seem highly irrelevant, but it turns out to be anything but.
For Carpo uses his unusual insight to open many doors. For a start he claims that the whole of modern machine production was derived from the 500-year alliance of publishing and printing that stretches from Gutenberg to ASCII, and that part of it concerns the evolution of a Modern architecture of interchangeable parts - a theory that has the potential to stand art history on its head by placing Modern architecture at the end of an old process of development instead of at the beginning of a new one.
The rest of Carpo's analysis puts us squarely on the cusp of the huge changes that will come about because of the obsolescence of print. These are the changes that begin to illuminate the issues addressed by the White Paper.
For Carpo, another industrial behemoth born out of the development of the printing machine was the motor industry, whose product was destined to undertake the destruction of the city as the pre-Gutenberg era knew it. But if the architectural response to the car was the high-rise office building, then the personal computer has brilliantly countered it, not only by deconstructing the office building into a fistful of outsourced home working contracts, but by removing the need for large concentrations of employees in central locations - thus undermining the raison d'etre of the motor car. 'This small thing, ' says Carpo of the motor vehicle, 'has destroyed the city.' To which he might have added that this tiny thing, the PC, can destroy the motor car.
The logic behind this apocalyptic conclusion is interesting. Even as the Urban Task Force's famous 106 recommendations seek to shore up the economics of the city by increasing its density and suppressing the so called hypermobility associated with its dispersal, the very link between urbanity and economic activity may be collapsing as a result of new technologies that make anywhere as good as anywhere else.
It is not necessary to enumerate the number of call centres in Ireland or the number of distribution centres in south-east England to see that dispersed settlement no more feeds hypermobility today than publishing feeds printing. In a small, highlydeveloped country such as Britain, the only realistic boundaries are geographical ones (offering an admirable opportunity to replace the contentious term 'British' with the undisputed name 'London' instead). In any case, in an age of satellite communications the idea that 'London' stops at the Circle Line, the North Circular road or the M25, where 'the country' then begins, is an absurdity made ridiculous by history, millions of e-mails, Internet hits and articulated lorry trips a day.
As Frank Lloyd Wright prophetically put it at the RIBA 61 years ago: 'The great implements that science has put into the hands of humanity are themselves carving out this new city that is to be everywhere and nowhere. Architects are not going to build it, I fear, because I see that, as they are educated, they are not competent even to see it. And so these natural agencies, these tremendous scientific forces, will build it without them.'