April 27, 2007

Mapping the beauty of cows

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Roam, meet, share, map. There's only a week to go before a gorgeous array of teams assemble in Durham for Mapping The Necklace (5-7 May). One group is interested in mapping the most beautiful cows in the park. Other teams will do Audio Mapping (using ambient and verbal cues as waymarkers along the riverside); Busking (a map of performance spaces in the Park); Chaos Mapping (mapping of "chaos vs tranquillity" by award-winning Venezuelan multi-media artist Cipriano Martinez); Dog Tracks (to help you understand what your dog is thinking about on the journeys you take together); GeoScrooting (share your experience and memories of hidden gems in the Park through photos, art, sound, music, story, poetry... ); Gimme Shelter! (What is a shelter? something physical or psychological, natural or man-made?); Honey I ate the map! (investigating and eating the foods of the Necklace Park); Orimapping (a map of temporary origami sculptures); Tree Testimonials (the Durham Necklace Park has some beautiful and distinctive trees); Park-Parkour (Is it a sport? Is it dangerous? Do you need a special place to do it?); Vennel mapping (an architecturally-trained theatre producer is creating a sensory map of Durham’s vennels); Wild about food (mapping the edible Park bounty– whether it be garlic, elderflower or fungi). You can't afford to miss this! Join us at Old Durham Gardens, Sunday 6 May. Details from: beckie.darlington@dott07.com

Posted by John Thackara at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2007

Water garden

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This was the most interesting exhibit for me at the Milan Furniture Fair. Hidden away in a small courtyard, “Aqva Garden” functions as a distributed rain collector and water storage system. Unlike conventional recycling systems, which tend to be hidden away in clunky boxes, Aqva Garden's unique branching system, which exploits the ways that water evaporates, is visibly present. And that - I cannot lie - is pretty much all I know about it; (the website is a Flash nightmare). But don't you agree it looks amazing? The project is by ecoLogicStudio whose principals, Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto, work in Milan and London. They collaborated for this project with Francesco Brenta and Laura Micalizzi. They also have a blog, Tropical London.



Posted by John Thackara at 06:56 AM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2006

Talking Cities

Too much media coverage of architecture focuses on the banal excesses of Shanghai and Dubai. The more interesting story these days concerns marginal, residual and abandoned spaces left behind when industry disappears. A new publication, Talking Cities is all about “Guerilla Architecture”, “An-Aesthetics”, and “Architecture on the Edge’. Later in the year, a spectacular series of exhibitions called Entry is planned at a vast coal washing plant at the Zeche Zollverein – a Bauhaus masterpiece now designated as a world heritage site. The Entry project is an example of how a cultural action can, by focusing attention on a disregarded site, stimulate regeneration. Curator Francesca Ferguson, of the Berlin-based organisation Urban Drift says her project is about “re-activating existing structures” in ways that can inspire business and urban agencies. “Urban waste land, empty buildings, dusused products, and forgotten brands, are valuable resources that can be awakened to new life and fresh use” she says. Fresh, and in unusual combinations: The maps in Talking Cities portray vast landscapes in which "town" and "country" are no longer clearly separated from each other. There’s a seminar about it all on 29 September at Zollverein School of Management and Design. (Talking Cities will be launched in London on 22 June, on the occasion of the London Architecture Biennale, at ®edux Unit 303, Third Floor, Lana House, 116 Commercial Street, London E1 6NF)

Posted by John Thackara at 08:00 AM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2006

Learning from steel cities

“Steel City awakens a longing for for authenticity in of a world where networks and technologies are no longer palpable. Steel City is a place of physical presence, the presence of body, of the haptic, of patina and aging. Steel City can be touched and felt”. Thus, poetically, Professor Wolfgang Christ, in his preview of next week's conference on Steel Cities in Sheffield, UK. As China and India race to modernise their economies with imported steel, the focus of the conference is the ways in which lives, landscapes and relationships continue to be, transformed by steel. A sad-sounding post-conference excursion takes you to a former steel works that has been turned into a "science experience" where the arc furnace building is animated by a "rock and roll sound and light show". Respectful silence as a trigger to the imagination would have been a better design strategy.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:20 AM | Comments (0)

April 01, 2006

Homeless urban designers

Cluster is running a series of pieces on the spontaneous cities, favelas, bidonvilles and squatter cities that grow independently "creating their own networks without the help of traditional planning or design". In the new issue Frederica Verona describes her visits to numerous dormitories, day centres, and soup kitchens in Milan. She discovered that a number of homeless sleep in hidden corners where they will not easily be found by social workers and volunteers. One result is that dormitories, showers and food kitchens - which sound grim anyway - are not located near the people who use them. Mobile units deliver care to street people, but Verona was "amazed at how a mobile service could interrupt the stability of a setting".

Posted by John Thackara at 01:48 PM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2006

Some enhanc-ed evening

AV Festival 06 is the UK’s newest, and largest international festival of digital arts, music, games, film & new media. With the theme of Life, it explores what happens as expectations rise that we might be able modify and improve our bodies and/or minds. More than 90 events will take place in NewcastleGateshead, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, between 2-12 March. I am moderating a symposium, on Friday 10 March in Middlesbrough, which analyses the artistic, ethical and social aspects of robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology as they aspire to modify humankind. Dr Tom Shakespeare is a keynote speaker in our session; it also includes discussion panels on the social and ethical critique of enhancement technologies, and the geopolitics of food production. For more information see the website (click through a couple of screens to find the programme) or ring the information line on +44 191 260 3875 or email info@avfest.co.uk to request a guide.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:52 AM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2006

Is sprawl good, after all?

I have always assumed that sprawl is a Bad Thing. For Jane Jacobs, in ‘Dark Age Ahead’, urban sprawl is something that "murders communities, and wastes land, time, and energy". Sprawl is frequently blamed for environmentally-damaging transport intensity, the collapse of communities, even obesity. But James Woudhuysen, for one, thinks density has been over-sold, and that land in many countries is under- not over-used. The author of "Why is Construction So Backward" is a speaker at an intriguing seminar in London on 3 March. He appears with Ken Yeang (international architect and author "The Green Skyscraper") and Tristram Hunt, historian, broadcaster and author of the excellent Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. The seminar is organised by Austin Williams, Director of the Future Cities Project.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:01 PM | Comments (2)

February 20, 2006

Corrupted by cool?

Have cultural producers and designers become the stooges of property development? Guy Julier has invited me to stir things up in a talk at the inauguration on 2 March of DesignLeeds, a new research and consulting centre at Leeds School of Architecture, Landscape and Design. Invitations are available from Jean Horne: Telephone +44 113 283 3216. Email j.horne@leedsmet.ac.uk

Posted by John Thackara at 09:45 AM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2006

Automatic eco architecture?

SOM, the global architecture firm, believes that we are entering an age of comprehensive, pervasive, simulation of the physical world. It has appointed a Digital Design Director, Paul Seletsky, to develop its expertise in Building Information Modeling (BIM). With BIM, models of all a building's physical components are stored in a report-generating database that produces what Seletsky calls "smart geometry". Other simulations are being developed for lighting, energy, wind, pedestrian circulation, construction processes, fabrication, code, material, and security conditions. For Seletsky, these trends amount to a “complete cultural and procedural shift…architects will now have to think in terms of producing and assembling building components, as opposed to sheets of drawings or seductive renderings". I'm not sure the trend is all that new. Archigram speculated about machine design in the 1960s, and Dutch architects such as UN Studio and Winy Maas have been engaged in real-time design for quite a while. What's still missing from automatic architecture is what might be called Green BIMs - the compulsory integration of environmental requirements into the information models of all development. According to Seletsky, Singapore is well on the way to such a condition with a country-wide system called CORE that integrates building regulations into construction, development and real estate systems. This level of integration is helped by the fact that Singapore is small and not overly democratic. Green ratings in the US such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) remain voluntary. The principal barrier to the integration of environmental standards into building development is less an IT one than organisational. As James Woudhuysen has written in Why-is-construction-so-backward?, the main barrier to innovation lies in the fragmented nature of the construction sector.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:06 AM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2005

The diminishing spaces of childhood

A fascinating essay by Henry Jenkins explores the changing spaces of childhood. In the nineteenth century, children living on America’s farms enjoyed free range over a space which was ten square miles or more; boys of nine or 10 would go camping alone for days on end, returning when they were needed to do chores around the house. Henry did spend childhood time in wild woods, but these are now occupied by concrete, bricks, or asphalt. His son has grown up in apartment complexes and video games constitute his main playing spaces. (Thanks to Brenda Laurel for the lead).

Posted by John Thackara at 01:24 PM | Comments (2)

December 01, 2005

U and Non-U cities

(Seoul). In my car from the airport I am disconcerted by what sounds like someone drowning a dog in a bucket of water. It turns out to be the ringtone on my driver's mobile phone. The traffic here is worse than ever so he probably has time in jams to source the weirdest downloads. More startling still are plans for Korea's new administrative capital. The government is considering modeling the city on a doughnut. Two of eight finalists have proposed de-centered design concepts: Spanish architect Andres Perea Ortega; and Swiss architect Jean-Pierre Durig. The latter suggests a doughnut-shaped urban area with central areas dedicated to public parks and other green areas, and residential and commercial areas circling the center. I hope these radical concepts are taken seriously. Critics here and in the US had earlier lambastedthe government for emphasizing the city's technology over its sustainability. New Songdo has been described as the world's first "U City" where the U stands for ubiquitous computing. (A ubiquitous city "is where all major information systems (residential, medical, business, governmental and the like) share data, and computers are built into the houses, streets and office buildings").

Posted by John Thackara at 01:44 AM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2005

Doors of Perception get-together in Seoul

I'll be in Seoul next week (to speak at Design Korea 05) and would be delighted to meet any friends (or friends-of-friends) of Doors, who are also going to that event, or who are in town, the evening of Wednesday 30 November. Go to the Grand InterContinental Seoul, 159-8 Samseong-Dong, Gangnam-Gu, Seoul 135-732, South Korea Tel: +82 2 555 5656, Fax: +82 2 559 7990. This will be an informal self-paid drink along the lines of the get-togthers we've had recently in London and Helsinki. Let's say between 20h and 22h at one of the hotel bars: ask at Reception and I'll leave a message. Feel free to bring or send someone who might be interested in Doors' work.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:46 PM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2005

Young words happening in Turin

I generally hate the Olympics but it does sometimes generate curious and interesting side events. Turin, which is hosting the winer Olympics, is hosting the the first electronic Town-Meeting in Italy. In "Young words happening” (great title by the way) young (under 35) people from all over the world will engage in three days of dialogue on key issues of access to information, economic development, and cultural integration. The programme contains some highly questionable definitions of 'development' which alone are worth taking part in order to argue with. The technical platform for this elaborate exercise includes a 200 computer wi-fi net and participatory tools used in the debate about the reconstruction of Ground Zero in New York. It is organised by which is organised by Avventura Urbana (Urban Adventure) If you are interested in taking part you can sign up until Friday the 18th (it starts on the 22nd).

Posted by John Thackara at 06:21 AM | Comments (1)

September 01, 2005

2-D cities

A quck reminder about the conference Urban Screens being organised by Mirjam Struppek in Amsterdam in three weeks from now. Presentations address the growing acreage of large digital moving displays that increasingly pervade our public spaces. Can the mainly commercial use of these screens be broadened to include cultural agendas? A question I hope will also be discussed: Do culture people have any more right than commercial types to fill up the visual landscape with push media? Struppek has collected an interesting array of images and project profiles at the website; if we all add to the collection, it will become a very useful resource.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:17 AM | Comments (0)

August 29, 2005

Urban planners in Fused Space

Can new technology improve the quality of public space? We know that technology changes the ways we use public space, but the most important ways tend not to have been consciously designed - they just happened. The widespread use of text-2-meet, for example, was not anticipated by the people who invented text messaging; and many of the egregious phone services dreamed up by marketing agencies disappeared without trace - in most cases deservedly. In this context, it was a lot of fun to be a juror on last year's Fused Space design competition. Fused Space was inspired by the question: can artists and designers do a better job than the marketing industry in creating new application for ITC in public space? The 300+ entries satisfied this juror, at least, that the answer is yes. Fused Space has now become an exhibition - confusingly re-named Fused Space Database - at the Stroom arts centre in The Hague. Using a barcode scanner or a database, visitors can follow several trails through the many ideas raised by the competition’s proposals. On 21 September, a meeting will be held for city and regional policymakers to discuss whether the ideas raised in Fused Space might be used in real-world planning and development.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:15 AM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2005

Creative communities in view

For the past year a network of six design schools in different parts of Europe has been collecting real-life examples of social innovation for a project called Emude, in which Doors of Perception is a partner. A lot of work has still to be done analysing these stories to figure out what lessons they might yield for policy makers, infrastructure providers, and other social innovators. But the raw material photographs of the first 70 cases have been put online at the website of the Sustainable Everyday project, and we thought you'd like to see this early material as pictorial evidence of what a post-hypertechnological (Ezio Manzini's word) Europe might be like.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:29 PM | Comments (1)

July 27, 2005

Urban burble

This podcast thing is a boon for bloggers. My interview with Carol Coletta, host and producer of the nationally-syndicated (in the US) public radio show Smart City Radio is now available online. I've said it once to Carol so I don't need to say it again here: Apparently one in five of you will benefit.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:54 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2005

Street art pro and am

If you prefer interacting with people to gazing raptly at perspex building facades, you'll enjoy the amazing street art festival in Chalon-sur-Saône, 21-24 July. Later on (23-25 September) Label Rue is a B2B street art festival in Ganges, South of France. Label Rue, a smaller and more intimate event, brings together interesting artists and groups, with commissioners from cities where festivals and events are planned. In addition to a parade and performances in the old town on the Friday evening, there's a debate among the pros on the Saturday morning. You need to speak basic French to participate and/or to communicate with the organiser: lecalm@wanadoo.fr. (The reasons I bring these events to your attention are explained in this piece I wrote for Icon magazine about Arts De La Rue).

Posted by John Thackara at 11:15 AM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2005

Brabant bound

Another day, another new European city-region. Yesterday I was in Breda, one of five cities in the south of the Netherlands that are joining forces (and 1.2 million citizens) to form a new entity, Brabantstad. The format of the day was interesting. Delegates were grouped into three blocks – investors/property developers; policy makers and city government people; and members of the “creative class”. The idea was to stimulate interaction among the three groups and thereby to foster a “Creative Revolution”in Brabantstad. Some policymakers were irked that the creatives seemed more interested in Brabant’s pigs, than in nanotech; we then debated whether pigs are a knowledge-based industry. Mind you, I don’t think my own first proposal – that Brabantstad should create large design-free zones filled only with free WiFi – was well-received by the developers. We did agree, though, that ‘creativity’ in abstract is a hard thing to implement. Rather than simply assert that it is creative, I proposed that Brabantstad should select an interesting aspect of daily life (such as food systems); commission collaborative, real-world innovation projects; and thereby create new domain knowledge that could be branded “innovated in Brabantstad”. This food-related proposal seemed to go down better. The lavish (and therefore most un-Dutch) lunch served at the conference confirmed my prejudice that the farmers and Catholics in the south of the country are more hospitable than their Calvinist neighbours to the north.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:53 PM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2005

Palace of everyday life, anybody?

The Argentine government has launched a competition to find a new use for its spectacular Palace of Mail and Telecommunications in Buenos Aires. One dearly hopes it will not become another bloated and tedious Gugghenheim - so maybe we should join the competition? Doors of Perception will provide an embryonic programme and business plan, but we need a design partner to add the look-and-feel (this is an ideas competition) of a Palace of Daily Life - a social innovation hub for the continent. Suggestions to editor@doorsofperceptionj.com

Posted by John Thackara at 03:48 PM | Comments (0)

May 20, 2005

My chances of survival

Is there something in the air in this town? Seattle’s W Hotel has more features than I need and they don’t all work. A 64-page catalogue in my room lists an extraordinary array of services ”masterfully orchestrated to surround you with style, service and comfort”. A menu for pets is available 24 hours. So too are newspapers from Algeria, Croatia and Iceland. A tall vase next to my bed contains artesian water from Norway. A basket under the tv contains a teddy bear, a hat, and an “intimacy kit”. I am nonethelesss bothered, at 3am, by the sound of running water.The taps in my bathroom are turned off, but it transpires that earlier, whilst searching the room for light switches, I had inadvertently turned on the electric water sculpture fountain artwork thing on my table. The thing was probably meant to sooth me. By now I am fully awake, so I decide to make a cup of coffee. Bad move. I can't open the plasticated coffee sachet because my scissors were confiscated at JFK. Then, to set up the KitchenAid coffee machine, I have to follow pictorial instructions that are printed on its back - and the machine sits inside a gloomy unlit hole in the wall. Twenty minutes after I press “on”, the machine sounds exactly like the Tardis in Doctor Who when it’s taking off. But no coffee emerges. I return with a sinking heart to the W's services catalogue to search for “cup-of-coffee”. I am distracted by a 400-word essay, on page 34, entitled “fire”. The text, which is printed in small grey type, instructs me:“Your chances of survival increase with your level or preparedness and ability to act with a clear head. Count the number of doors to the exit and any corners or obstacles along the path so that you can find your way in thick smoke. Feel the door before opening it to see if it is hot. If it is cool, leave. But be sure to take your room key. If you stay in your room, fill the bath and wastebaskets with water. If you are in an upper floor, wait. People who jump from the third floor could be injured”. I contemplate calling the front desk to complain that I can’t jump from my window because it won’t open. But the memory of a divine Copper River salmon at dinner the evening before stays my hand.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:51 PM | Comments (3)

May 06, 2005

Creative class on the run

A trouble-maker sent me a copy of Richard Florida's new book, The Flight of the Creative Class - hoping, no doubt, that I would be rude about it. Perish the thought. Florida's new book has two virtues. First, Florida argues for "a broadening of the definition of creativity that will ennoble and encourage the everyday efforts of 'ordinary occupations'...from housekeeper to fieldworker". Now a class, by definiton, is a subset of a population, not its entirety; extending the concept of "creative class" to cover the entire US population destroys the (hated by me) notion that there is such a thing as a creative class at all. Which is a welcome outcome. Second, the book argues powerfully that diversity and immigration are the lifeblood of (America's) economy - a progressive policy aim that we should all support. Citing many examples of foreign-born entrepreneurs who have played central roles in the US economy - from Google's Sergey Brin, to Vinod Khosla of Sun Microsystems - Florida argues that "the real foreign threat to the American economy is not terrorism; it's that we may make creative and talented people stop wanting to come here". The book ends with a ghastly sounding proposal for a "Global Creativity Commission" - but, with luck, that will not prevent the book dampening the enthusiasm of urban planners for creativity ghettos.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:11 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2005

Are cosmopolitan cities creative?

Do mixed societies innovate more than homogeneous ones? How do new ideas and innovations emerge when people of diverse cultures interact? Comedia has launched an eighteen month project across cities in several countries called The Intercultural City to find out how interractions between cultures might be formed into new products, services, and styles - and how these then spread. The idea is to provide policy makers in city development, business, and innovation management with evidence and a toolkit of techniques with which to encourage greater intercultural innovation. Comedia have a hunch that "there are certain people who make things happen and provide opportunities in cities, and more so for immigrant and minority groups. Such networkers, intermediaries, catalysts have a greater facility to move within and particularly between communities. They have a higher degree of intercultural networking capacity". That hunch will be tested and results published in a final report, with a conference to discuss it, scheduled for March 2006.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:09 PM | Comments (0)

March 19, 2005

Jugaad and its limits

Indian users of technology-based devices cannot rely on formal networks of distribution, support and maintenance: these are often incomplete, unimaginative or unrealistically priced. They therefore turn to the temporary fixes or ‘jugaads’ carried out by Indian street technicians. An army of pavement-based engineers and fixers keeps engines, television tubes, compressors - and a thousand other devices – working long after their prime. Right outside the Doors 8 office here in Delhi, for example, hundreds of tiny workshops, plus sole traders sitting on on the street, sell (and fix) the countless hardware peripherals that keep office life running. Everything from toner cartridges to USB sticks is available, and gloomy but bustling basements contain amazing arrays of ancient monitors, terminals and motherboards awaiting repair. Mind you, a jugaad for my rapidly diminishing connectivity has stymied even this army: my webmail has now gone on strike in solidarity with my cable connection at home - so I now believe myself to be orchestrating this global event using sms. Seems to work fine.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:34 AM | Comments (3)

February 22, 2005

Architecture as old media

Architecture used to focus mainly on the design of buildings. Nowadays, the spaces between them are also important. Applications such as geocaching make even small real-world spaces easy to locate and access; this transforms once marginal spaces into viable assets. A new variant of this theme, called urban agriculture, converts other kinds of idle and underused resources - manpower, space and land, solid and liquid waste - into cheap, fresh and nutritious food for local populations. Aditya Dev Sood (who trained as an architect) leads a panel on these issues at Doors 8 together with ex-architect Marco Susani, who leads the team developing new service concepts for Motorola, and Usman Haque, who designs haunted spaces which he describes as 'conversant'.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:28 AM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2005

Open Source Architecture

Usman Haque has posted an enticing description of his pre-Doors8 workshop on Open Source Architecture. Please remember that that you need to register first in order to take part in Usman's workshop.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:49 AM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2005

The shadow city

One of the North-South links we will explore at Doors 8 concerns the importance of un-designed urban areas as sites of social innovation. Half or more of the inhabitants of major South Asian cities like Delhi are 'illegal', but they are economically active, too. In Europe interest is growing in so-called 'free zones' as breeding grounds for creativity. An excellent report from Urban Unlimited called 'The Shadow City' compares freezones in Rotterdam and Brussels with other examples in Berlin, Helsinki, Vienna and Naples. The report promotes the idea that some areas be left deliberately unplanned - protected, even, from the predations of politicians, social reformers, and developers. Now there's a thought: Saving cities from design in the name of creativity. The text of 'The Shadow City' may be donwloaded from this page (look at the bottom left for "Shadow City in english").There's a thoughtful article on the complex issues raised by slums and development here.. I also just discovered that Robert Neuwirth has written a book called Shadow City and has a blog on squatters and squatter cities around the world.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:56 PM | Comments (0)

January 14, 2005

Spatial slop

Tristram Hunt's terrific book about the rise and fall of the Victorian city in Britain is full of insights about about infrastructure. One reason for the decline of cities, for Hunt, was the failure to control housing densities. By 1897 the quaker inspired Cadbury Bounville estate was built at 20 dwellings per hectare, and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City was built at a density of thirty dwellings per hectare - the latter being about one eighth the density of a traditonal nineteenth city street. The twentieth century carried on in this spatially sloppy way: Four million houses were built during the inter-war years in low-density suburbs; the greedy waste of land lasted into the 1990s when average density for new dwellings remained at 23 dwellings per hectare. The 1999 Urban Task Force chaired by (Lord) Richard Rogers proposed new build density of 50 dwellings per hectare, but this modest benchamark did not appear in the 2000 Urban White Paper. The developers and despoilers proved too strong. Tristram Hunt. Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004

Posted by John Thackara at 06:49 AM | Comments (0)

December 13, 2004

Clogging up the City: Flows of Fat in Bodies and Sewers

I'm repeating a plug here (published before in our newsletter) for this memorable paper, by Simon Marvin and Will Medd, about the circulation, deposition and removal of fat in bodies, sewers and cities. "Our emphasis is on the metabolisms of fat across the different levels of bodies, infrastructures and cities" say the authors; "We explore three sites of fat (im)mobility: first, the excessive deposition of fat in obese bodies and the rising urban fat count; second, the sewer-fat crisis generated by the blockages of coagulated fat in urban sewers; and, finally the league tables used to rank the Fatness and Fitness of US cities. The paper examines the shifting configurations of flows between bodies, infrastructure and cities. It was published in April, but if it's an April Fool's number it's a truly elaborate one. [Simon Marvin and Will Medd University of Salford, Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures Clogging up the City: Flows of Fat in Bodies and Sewers].

Posted by John Thackara at 05:27 PM | Comments (0)

November 22, 2004

Museum mania in China

The Chinese government intends to build 1,000 new museums across the country by 2015.A scary piece by Elizabeth Casale in The Platform, an e-zine on cultural policy, says that with approximately 100 urban areas with a population of 1 million or more, China's place-based cultural strategy favours buildings as a symbol of cultural sophistication over the other components necessary for a vibrant cultural life: cultural producers, products and consumers. Stories have been circulating about the Shanghai Grand Theatre often half-empty for lack of interesting programming, Casale writes, or of state-of-the-art equipment that few employees know how to use.

Elizabeth Casale: China's New Cultural Revolution

Posted by John Thackara at 08:32 AM | Comments (1)

October 04, 2004

Human scale architecture

Architects frequently complain to me that the architectural models they make for competitions cost them tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. That's curious, because one-tenth scale model of a person standing can be purchased for 75 cents - far less than the $5 it costs to buy a model car at the same scale.
www.howardmodels.com

Posted by John Thackara at 11:18 PM | Comments (1)

September 12, 2003

The post-spectacular city

(This is my lecture to a conference at Westergasfabriek, in Amsterdam, called Creativity and the City, on 25 September 2003)

In Rajhastan, travelling storytellers go from village to village, unannounced, and simply start a performance when they arrive. Although each story has a familiar plot - the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years - each event is unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who hold up pictorial symbols on sticks, the villagers interact with the story. They joke, interject, and sometimes argue with the storyteller. They are part of the performance.

Hearing about these storytellers reminded how much we have lost, in the 'developed' world, of the un-mediated, impromptu interactions that once made cities vital.

We now design messages, not interactions. The world is awash in print, and ads, and billboards, and packaging, and spam. Semiotic pollution. Brand intrusion at every turn.

Our buildings are now about one-way-communication, too. Sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres. Such buildings do an accomplished technical job: they deliver pre-cooked experiences to passive crowds.

And whom do we have to thank for this semiotic pollution, for the catatonic spaces that despoil our physical and perceptual landscapes?

The "creative class". That's who's responsible. In the same way that mill owners optimised mass production, the creative class has optimised the society of the spectacle.

At least mill owners bequeathed us well-made industrial cities. The creative class will be less fondly remembered. Their legacy is meaningless, narcissistic cities.

Luckily, the era of the creative class is over. Point-to-mass advertising, onanistic art, and big-ticket spectacles, are over.

We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture. Our cities, from now on, will be judged by their capacity to foster collaboration, encounter, intimacy, and work. Much like cities used to be judged, before they fell into the hands of the creative class.

I'll explain more about these design criteria for cities in the second half of my talk. In the first half, I explain just why it would be foolish to dedicate our cities to 'creatives' and the impoverished, sender-receiver model that informs their activities.

SPECTACLES MAKE US BLIND

There are three reasons why it would be foolish to entrust the future of our cities to the creative class.

The first is its autism. Autism is defined in Webster as "absorption in self-centred subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by a marked withdrawal from reality".

An example. A week ago I attended a meeting here in Amsterdam on the subject of "Hosting" The invitation posed an interesting question: ”What is the relationship between art biennales, and their host cities?" Many international art powerbrokers turned up for this meeting, which was hosted by an organisation called Manifesta. Ten or 12 of them sat round a table.

In the event, the meeting was a waste of time and space. All the curators and critics and producers discussed were 'viewers' and 'audiences' and 'publics'. They banged on endlessly about the business of biennales, but lacked any insight into the changing nature of business.

It dawned on me, as I struggled to stay awake, that Art has become most attractive to the interests it once ridiculed.

The tourism industry loves art because its events and museums are 'attractions'. Property developers love art because a bijou gallery lends allure to egregious projects. For city marketers, an art biennale bestows glamour, and an aura of intelligence, on a city.

"Our events are not summer camps", pleaded Franco Bonami, director of the Venice Biennale. (Mr Bonami invited more than 500 artists to this year's event). But he did not mention one single word about what, if anything, these 500 people had to say - or why the rest of us should care.

After two hours I had to leave. "Hosting" felt like a sales meeting for Saga Holidays.

So then I went to Japan where Prada, which is said to be 1.5 billion euros in debt, has lavished $87 million on a new Herzog and de Meuron-designed store, in Tokyo. Now for Aaron Betsky, (a previous speaker, Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute) the Prada building would be a right and proper thing to do. Shopping, he just told us, is the fundamental purpose of cities today.

For me, the whole Prada project smells like the last days of Rome. The Plexiglas exterior, which is like bubble-wrap, certainly stands out. The new shop is on the Tokyo equivalent of P C Hooftstraat. (Amsterdam's fashion street). I popped in for a look.

Ten minutes. Quite nice. Been there, done that.

Prada spent 87 million bucks on a clothes shop that contained nothing I wanted to buy, but that's their right. A creative consultant called Christopher Everard told The Economist that, "by using iconic architects, the label is building brand equity". Mr Everard's firm is called "InterLife Consultancy". I emailed him the suggestion that he change its name to "Get A Life Consultancy" - but he has not replied.

Besides, Pravda’s investment is chickenfeed, a mere grain of corn, compared to Tokyo's Roppongi Hills tower. This 800,000 square metre monster had just opened when I was there. No expense has been spared by Yoshiko Mori, its developer, to compensate local people for the sacrifice of their old neighbourhood to progress and creativity. Several traditional features have been retained, I was told, including a Japanese garden, a Buddhist temple, and a children's park.

When I visited Roppongi Hills, these human-scale traces of old Tokyo proved hard to find. They were hidden among the 200 shops, 75 restaurants, and a zillion square feet of office space and apartments that fill the building.

The Zen garden may be lost, but compensation and enlightenment await you at the top of the tower: the Mori Museum of Art.

A Who's Who of the global art establishment - including Nicholas Serota from the Tate, and David Elliot, its British Director - have joined this lavishly funded enterprise. Glenn Lowry from the New York MoMA is also on board, apparently unperturbed by his client's appropriation of the Moma name.

The museum opens next month with a biting and critical look at the modern society which begat it. The show is called, ”Happiness: a survival guide for art and life".

Only people with a 'community passport' are admitted to this Xanadu of art-as-happiness. The passport, curiously, closely resembles a credit card. But still: it gains you access to all those shops and restaurants and - piece de resistance - an orange bar designed by Conran Associates.

The art museum itself was not yet open when I visited, but six museum shops were. They were doing a roaring trade.

"Art, design and happiness" says the brochure, "the kind of place that we want to become".

Not of all of us, Mori-san. "Tourism - human circulation considered as consumption - is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal". Guy Debord wrote that more than 40 years ago, in The Society Of the Spectacle. He would not have warmed to Roppongi Hills.

In much the same way that that tourism kills the toured, 'cultural industries' like museums-and-shopping destroy diversity and desolate their host environment. CIs are like GM crops: bland, tasteless, and a threat to the ecosystem.

I do not deny that the economic case for the creative class is strong. After all, designing all those spectacles is big business.

A new trade fair and exhibition in Philadelphia, which calls itself "Exp", announces itself as "The Event That Defines The Experience Industry". I didn't go to Exp, but I did go to the website. The middle-aged, white male speakers boasted a remarkable collection of jowls and bad haircuts. They promised to tell me, "how to gain a greater share of your guest's discretionary time and disposable income"; how to "destroy the myth that great experience need huge budgets" (sic); and, "how to surf the generational shift".

The website did not mention a session on how to speak English, but this omission did not deter the creative classes. They flocked to Exp - enthralled. no doubt, by its convenient clustering of four key themes: Corporate Visitor Centres, Retail, Casinos, and Museums.

The other big spectacle business is sport. Sophisticated Paris, in its bid for the Olympics, says that sport is replacing culture as an attractor in urban regeneration. "The role that investment plays in the Games of the 21st century will be comparable to that played by industrialisation at the end of the 19th century", burbles their bid.

Claude Bebear, chairman of the Paris Olympic Committee, does not think of sport as kicking a ball around a field. He thinks about twenty million dollar sponsorships, and the well-being of the people who provide the spectacle. Claude's plan for a sporty Paris features private road lanes for the exclusive use of athletes and officials. A travel time of 12 minutes, from bed to track, is promised to the muscle-bound sportspersons and their crypto-fascist paymasters. If the bed-t-track journey proves too taxing, an internet and electronic games centre will be provided to "help athletes relax and get in touch with the outside world". Le Moniteur, eds, 2001, Paris olympiques: twelve architectute and urban planning projects for the 2008 games, Paris, Editions du Moniteur

ACTION MAN

But I digress. I've made the point that pre-programmed cultural 'attractions' and 'experiences' are on the wane. The nightmare of "art and design as happiness" is nearly over.

And I should also stress that the "creatives" who make them are not personally to blame. They - we - are the symptom, not the cause, of a cultural affliction that touches us all.

So what are alternatives? This brings me to the second part of my talk.

Tor Norretranders, in his book The user illusion, explains beautifully what's missing from the mediated, specacular, dis-located, and disembodied experiences that blight our lives. Once we know what's missing, we can put it back.

"Most of what we experience we can never tell each other about" writes Tor. "During any given second, we consciously process only sixteen of the eleven million bits of information that our senses pass on to our brains".
In other words, the unconscious part of us receives much less information than the conscious part of us. We experience millions of bits a second but can tell each other about only a few dozen.

Humans, concludes Norretranders, are designed for a much richer existence than processing a dribble of data from computer screen, or a wide-screen display in Times Square.There is far too little information in the Information Age. Spectacles may be spectacular, but they are low bandwidth.

"I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action, over a life of consumption. Rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to produce and consume, the future depends upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action".

That was Ivan Illich, in 1973. Thirty years ahead of the rest of us, Illich argued for the creation of convivial and productive situations - including our cities. A sustainable city, Illich understood, has to be a working city, a city of encounter and interaction - not a city for the passive participation in entertainment. www.infed.org/thinkers/et-illic.htm

What matters most in a post-spectacular city is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook has said, "It is not a question of good building, and bad. A beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life, while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place. This is the mystery of the theatre, but in the understanding of this mystery lies the one science. It is not a matter of saying analytically, what are the requirements, how best they could be organized — this will usually bring into existence a tame, conventional, often cold hall. The science of theatre building must come from studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people."

Tame, conventional, cold. How many buildings do those words recall? Torsten Hagerstrand has studied dysfunctional spaces - and good ones - and how people use space and time for thirty years. He says it is the ability to make contact with people that determines the success of a transport system or location. Hagerstand [q in Whitelegg) Hagerstrand T, Space time and the human condition, in Karlquist A, Lundquist L, and Snickars F (eds) Dynamic allocation of urban space, Saxon House, Lexington MA 1975

Peter Brook, too, as I said, asked us to focus on what it is that what it is that brings about "the more vivid relationships between people."

One of those things is the mobile phone. It's impacting remarkably on our interactions with space and community. Mobile phones stimulate connections between people who already know each other, or have something in common. They can also help crowds assemble, as we saw in Seattle, in 1999.

That's not major news. The more interesting change is the way wireless communications connect people, resources, and places to each other on a real-time basis, and in new combinations. Demand responsive services, as they call them in the (service design) trade.

Traditional city planning designates different zones for different activities: industrial, residential and commercial. Telecommunications are changing the nature and inter-action of activities that "take place" in these three types of location.

Think of the taxi systems you have encountered. They are demand responsive services, to a degree. The old model was that you would ring a dispatcher; the dispatcher offers your trip all the drivers on a radio circuit;
One driver would accept the job; and the dispatcher would send that taxi to you.

A better way, now being introduced in many cities, is that you ring the system; the system recognises who you are, and where you are; it identifies where the nearest available taxi is; and it sends that taxi to you. Dynamic, real-time, resource allocation.

Now: replace the world "taxi" with the word sandwich. Or with the words, "someone to show me round the back streets of the old town". Or the words, "a nerd to come and fix my laptop" Or the words, "someone to play ping pong with". Or suppose you feel like helping out in a school, and hanging out with kids for a day.

In every case, networked communications, and dynamic resource allocation, have the potential to connect you, with what you want. It just needs to be organised.

You could be a supplier, too. Perhaps you have time on your hands. Make good sandwiches. Know the old town like the back of your hand. Have a nerdy daughter who's looking for work. Know there's a ping-pong table in Mrs Graham's garage, which they never use. Or perhaps you don't feel like dealing with Form 5 on your own this week.

What do you do? You call the system. Or the system calls you.

The reason I've jumped from the creative class, to mobile phones and networks, is this. If the post-spectacular city is about person-to-person encounter, technology can help us achieve that. The consequence can be a profound change in the ways that we operate, and live, in cities.

With networked communications we will be able to access and use everything from a car, to a portable drill, only when we need it. We won't have to own them, just know how and where to find them.

Did you know that the average power drill is used for ten minutes in its entire life? Or that most cars stand idle 90 per cent of the time? The same principle - of use, not own - can apply to the buildings, roads, squares and spaces that fill our cities.

But the killer app is access to other people. People is what makes cities different from other places. The creative city will be the city that finds ways to strip out all the transaction and infrastructure costs that make it expensive to hire people to help us do stuff.

In retrospect, we got the information age completely wrong. We thought it would be smart to remove people from services: we called it 'disintermediation'. It reads as it was: a pain in the nexk.

We also thought we couild do without place.Nicholas Negroponte stated in Being Digital, the dotcommer's bible, that "the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will depend less and less on being in a specific place,at a specific time". Lars Lerup,dean of the architecture school at Rice University - and a dotcommer manque - proclaimed in a book approriately named Pandemonium that "bandwidth has replaced the boulevard. Five blocks west has given way to the mouseclick. After thousands of years of bricks held together by mortar, the new metropolis is toggled together by attention spans." Brandon Hookway, 1999, PANDEMONIUM Princeton Architectural Press New York.

All that stuff was, in retrospect, piffle. But we all did it, including this speaker. He apologises, and pleads only that he is a tiny bit wiser after the event.

The point is that the information age has been added to the industrial age. Telematic space has been added to Cartesian space. The one did not supplant the other.

And mobile phones and networks do not make the city disappear. On the contrary, they render the city itself more powerful as an interface.

Sometimes this is at the level of tools. Experiments are under way in which mobile phone act like a remote control to activate technology in our surroundings. You stand at a bus stop, and summon up your personal web page on one of the panels. J C Decaux, or Viacom Outdoors, control millions of such urban surfaces which could be used for such an application.

Researchers at Interaction-Ivrea, in Italy, had another good idea: connect these displays to the printers in ATM machines. You could print out SMS messages, or a local map, on the ATM printer.

Other projects treat the whole city, not just its furniture, as an interface. A project called New York Wireless, for example, has identified more than 12,000 wireless access hot points throughout Manhattan alone, and put their location on a website."The result is a new layer of infrastructure", says co-founder Anthony Townsend."But no streets were torn up. No laws were passed. This network has been made possible by the proliferation of ever more affordable wireless routers and networking devices. Mobile devices re-assert geography on the internet".

Marko Ahtisaari, a future gazer at Nokia, says that enabling proximity - getting people together, in real space - has become a stratgic focus, the killer application of wirelsss communications."Mobile telephony might seem very much to do with being apart, but a lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically in the same place", he says.

Proximity and locality are natural features of the economy. Worldwide, the vast majority of small and medium-sized companies - that's most of all companies - operate within a radius of 50km. Most of the world’s GDP is highly localised. Local conditions, local trading patterns, local networks, local skills, and local culture, are critical success factors for the majority of organizations.

Mobile phone and wireless-enabled gadgets enable us to access people, or resources, or services - just-in-time, and just-in-place.

By doping that, they also design away the need for mobility, or much of it. Demand-responsive services, combined with location-awareness, combined with dynamic resource allocation, have the capacity dramatically to reduce the mobility-supporting hardware of a city: its roads, vehicles, malls and car parks.

Imagine there's a kind of slider on your phone. You set it to "sandwich" and "within five minutes walk" or "within a five dollar cab ride" - and use those parameters to search for whatever it is you need.

You don’t need to own it. You don't even need to go far to get it. You just need to know how to access it.

MONDAY MORNING TO-DOS

Talks like this one are supposed end with a list of things you might do on Monday morning. But I just criticised creatives for over-designing our cities, so it would be hypocritical of me to give you a list of things to do.

So let me summarise. I have said that we are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture. It's for this reason that it would be foolish to hand over our cities to the "creative class".

They just don't get it. More to the point, their business model drives them on. Our cities are over-designed because the creative classes get paid for designing things.

'Creatives' don't get paid for leaving well alone.That's a conundrum we'll need to resolve.

The second part of my talk touched on some of the ways wireless communication, and networks, enable people, places, and things, to be connected in new and often unexpected ways - and times. I also explained that the information age has not replaced the real-word age - but it is certainly transforming the ways we use and live in it.

I do have one suggestion for what you can do on Monday morning. Go out and buy Italo Calvino's wonderful book, Invisible Cities - of which the following is an extract:

“The Great Kahn contemplates an empire covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed with wealth and traffic, overladen with ornaments and offices, complicated with mechanisms and hierachies, swollen, tense, ponderous. "The empire is being crushed by its own weight” Kublai thinks, and in his dreams,cities as light as kites appear, pierced like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness”

Posted by John Thackara at 08:47 PM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2003

Chain gangs: reinventing the Hanseatic League

In which I talk to Winy Maas about the design of webs, networks and archipelagos of cities and regions. This story was published in July 2003 In Domus magazine.

Sustainable cities, working cities, are necessarily complex, heavily linked, and diverse. As the English writer Will Hutton has commented, just as local knowledge and information was key 150 years ago, when there were 80 different steps in the button-making industry, so, too, complex local knowledge and linkages are also key today if you are a software, media, care, or educational enterprise.The ideal city needs to contain a rich mixture of craft-based workshops, consultants, law firms, accountants, distribution and logistics companies, advertising agencies, universities, research labs, database publishers, and local or regional government offices. Unique skills, clusters of specialised suppliers, local roots, and a variety of human skills that are unique to a region - all these are a powerful advantage for local cities and regions on today's economic stage.

This picture confronts smaller cities with a dilemma: they cannot realistically offer the same density and complexity of knowledge skills that a large metropolis can. The metropolitan centers have their own problems, it is true, but they will always win on diversity, which is a key to evolutionary success. So how are the smaller ones to compete?

According to Winy Maas, a principal of the Dutch bureau MVRDV, the answer lies in webs, chains, networks, and ‘archipelagos’ of cities and smaller regions. By aggregating their hard and soft assets, collective cities - or multi-centered cities - can match the array of functions and resources of bigger centres, while also delivering superior social quality. The ability of small cities to offer a context that supports intimacy and encounter - what the French call ‘la vie associative’ - is where small-city webs will win out over the big centres.

City alliances are not a completely new idea. City networks date back to the thirteenth century when, in the Hansa League, an alliance of more than seventy merchant cities collaborated effectively for their common good in order to control exports and imports over a wide swathe of Europe. A powerful network of trading partners, with its own accounting system and shared vocabulary - the Hansa League became one of the major economic forces of the Middle Ages. At one stage it controlled much of Scandinavia, the Baltic states, northern Germany and Poland - and outposts can be found even today as far apart as Scotland and the Basque country.

TERRITORIAL CAPITAL

Today's urban and regional networks can be traced back to the formation of the International Union of Cities in 1913. The Treaty of Rome, in 1957, accelerated the emergence of networks of cities and regions as supra-nation state actors in Europe. Increased globalization has put considerable pressure on cities to network among themselves - sharing, partnering and learning. Globalisation has also driven smaller cities to re-discover Hansa-style alliances, and to market them using new business techniques. According to Philip Kotler, a marketing professor in the United States, some ten per cent of business-to-business advertising - a vast amount - is now spent on marketing places, regions and nations. Kotler has identified 80,000 communities within the EU which, in one way or another, need to differentiate themselves from each other. Place marketing - or, more properly, place and regional design - aggregates and networks complementary functions and core competiencies of a region. In Europe the concept of ‘territorial capital’ is used increasingly to describe the synthesis of these hard and soft assets of a region.The hard assets include natural beauty and features; shopping facilities; cultural attractions; buildings, museums, monuments, and so on. Soft assets are all about people and culture: skills, traditions, festivals, events and occasions, situations, settings, social ties, civic loyalty, memories, and capacity to learn.

For networked, multi-centered cities to succeed, these different kinds of territorial and social and intellectual capital need to be linked together by a combination of physical and informational networks. The hubs, links, and physical and informational flows of a region need to be proactively designed in ways that help a working culture flourish.

The biggest pressure of all on cities to collaborate is environmental. Bigger cities guzzle more energy and resources per head than do smaller ones. Smaller cities, which are located closer to resources, and in which people and goods need to move less, are lighter. Cities also guzzle land. A German Federal Statistical Office forecast in 1997 that Germany would turn into a 100 per cent settled landmass within 82 years if three per cent economic growth persisted.

MULTIMODAL MOBILITY

Mobile communications are already transforming time-space relations in favour of smaller towns, working together. Where this author lives, in the Netherlands, planners hope that transport telematics will make it possible for me to to think more, and drive less. They expect to reduce so-called vehicle hours (the time spent by vehicles in traffic) by an ambitious 25 per cent. A key concept in Dutch policy is the multimodal or 'chain approach'. The idea is that information systems will help me work out the best combination of walking, bicycle, private car, train, bus, plane, or boat - before I set off. Right now, individual transport information systems are pretty good - train and bus websites are reliable and reasonably easy to use. But they don't work together. The next step is so to connect systems that I will enter the beginning and end points of a journey (in place, and in time) into the programme, and be offered a menu of ways to complete it.

As Nokia future-gazer Marko Ahtisaari explained at Doors of Perception 7: Flow, mobile phones can enhance proximity and reduce the allure of ‘far’. “Although mobility and mobile telephony seem very much to do with being apart, in fact the evidence is quite to the contrary,” he said. “A lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically - I mean, quite simply, physically close, the stuff that happens between the one-to-ten centimetres range and room-size interaction. While we talk about devices being connected, and everything being connected in a technological sense, social interaction will be a prime driver in the future as well, even in technologically enhanced social interaction.”

CLUSTERS OF COMPLEXITY

Architects and spatial planners started thinking about clusters in the 1960s. In 1963, Christopher Alexander and Serge Chermayeff wrote that, in designing on a large scale, "We must look at the links, the interactions, and the patterns." Following that initial insight architecture and planning evolved rather slowly - but in recent years the sustainability agenda has given the networked approach new impetus.

According to Winy Maas, "The magnitude of information concerning a region is overwhelming: complex, and constantly changing. This multi-scalar approach is new for design. It is nearly impossible to represent all the relationships, and the webs of interdependencies, of a region. The integration of hard and soft factors is complex enough - but planners, policy makers and designers now also have to deal with a new dimension of complexity: a variety of new actors. Privatised network industries, such as railway companies, airports, electricity supliers, and telecommunications operators, are influential actors. So, too, are citizens who, with growing confidence, are demanding that social agendas - such as social inclusion, or sustainability - are factored into planning processes.

"As the speed of spatial, economical and political developments and processes accelerates, we need a more dynamic approach and tools for planning", says Maas. " Such tools turn massive volumes of raw data into visualizations. This is not about broad-brush visions of the idealised futures, says Maas. "We keep getting asked to make 'visions' for cities and regions", Maas explains, "but I want to make planning, design and thinking tools that people can really use. We are measuring an increasing variety of things, and collecting vast quantities of data. The question is: how to use it. How are we to perceive and connect all this information in ways that add value and meaning to the raw data? Increasingly, that means how do we represent the data, visually, in order to work on and with it. We also need to make these tools more accessible and usable by non-specialised actors and stakeholders".

THE REGIONMAKER

Maas and his colleagues have therefore become toolmakers. They have developed a family of software tools, called the Regionmaker, which was first devised by MVRDV for a project called RhineRuhrCity .The Kommunalverband Ruhrgebiet (KVR), a union of cities in the region, has invested in a series of initiatives to improve its post-indstrial situation, and today fewer than six percent work works in coal and steel. But perceptions remain that this is the Detroit of Europe, a landscape dotted with ghost towns, overgrown industries and polluted areas. "The region is very well connected logistically," says Maas. "It has incredible water resources, a dense university system, and successful media and computer industries. But these assets are fragmented. As you find in so many places in Europe, it's a mosaic of competing municipalities, rather than one entity." Hence the project to reposition the area as one place, one city: RhineRuhrCity.

The Regionmaker, which combines the function of search engine, browser, and graphical interface, brings together a variety of existing information sources and flows - for example, demographic data, or outputs from Geographical Informations Systems (GIS) or ‘geomatics’, as they are now called. "In a nutshell," says Maas, "the idea is that within the context of a globalizing world, international databanks, advanced computers, internet and intranet systems, game technology, global monitoring and information systems, can be integrated in ways that convincingly represent regions. With the Regionmaker, there is no limit to visualization. You can look at maps, study charts, access databases, export images, import video feeds from helicopters or satellites, connect to the internet, use CAD drawings, and so on."

Maas anticipates that the Regionmaker will evolve as a tree-structure of sub-machines and routines. MVRDV have plans to add representations of knowledge on the movement of people, goods and information. A housing sub-routine could develop scenarios for optimal housing designs. A light calculator could optimise the need for and control of, natural light in built spaces. A ‘function mixer’ would propose optimal mixtures of activities according to economic, social or cultural criteria.

Maas speculates that systems such as the Regionmaker could become decision support systems in a more pro-active and critical sense. "We could add an Evaluator, or an Evolver that can suggest criticism of the input we make," he speculates. But there will never be a single programme for everything - and Regionmaker will never be finished. "We think of it not as all-in-one Big Brother software, but as an intricate network of different software programmes operating at different spatial dimensions."

Posted by John Thackara at 06:00 PM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2003

Chain gangs: reinventing the Hanseatic League

(In which John Thackara talks to Winy Maas about the design of webs, networks and archipelagos of cities and regions. This was published in July 2003 in Domus magazine)

Sustainable cities, working cities, are necessarily complex, heavily linked, and diverse. As the English writer Will Hutton has commented, just as local knowledge and information was key 150 years ago, when there were 80 different steps in the button-making industry, so, too, complex local knowledge and linkages are also key today if you are a software, media, care, or educational enterprise.The ideal city needs to contain a rich mixture of craft-based workshops, consultants, law firms, accountants, distribution and logistics companies, advertising agencies, universities, research labs, database publishers, and local or regional government offices. Unique skills, clusters of specialised suppliers, local roots, and a variety of human skills that are unique to a region - all these are a powerful advantage for local cities and regions on today's economic stage.

This picture confronts smaller cities with a dilemma: they cannot realistically offer the same density and complexity of knowledge skills that a large metropolis can. The metropolitan centers have their own problems, it is true, but they will always win on diversity, which is a key to evolutionary success. So how are the smaller ones to compete?

According to Winy Maas, a principal of the Dutch bureau MVRDV, the answer lies in webs, chains, networks, and ‘archipelagos’ of cities and smaller regions. By aggregating their hard and soft assets, collective cities - or multi-centered cities - can match the array of functions and resources of bigger centres, while also delivering superior social quality. The ability of small cities to offer a context that supports intimacy and encounter - what the French call ‘la vie associative’ - is where small-city webs will win out over the big centres.

City alliances are not a completely new idea. City networks date back to the thirteenth century when, in the Hansa League, an alliance of more than seventy merchant cities collaborated effectively for their common good in order to control exports and imports over a wide swathe of Europe. A powerful network of trading partners, with its own accounting system and shared vocabulary - the Hansa League became one of the major economic forces of the Middle Ages. At one stage it controlled much of Scandinavia, the Baltic states, northern Germany and Poland - and outposts can be found even today as far apart as Scotland and the Basque country.

TERRITORIAL CAPITAL

Today's urban and regional networks can be traced back to the formation of the International Union of Cities in 1913. The Treaty of Rome, in 1957, accelerated the emergence of networks of cities and regions as supra-nation state actors in Europe. Increased globalization has put considerable pressure on cities to network among themselves - sharing, partnering and learning. Globalisation has also driven smaller cities to re-discover Hansa-style alliances, and to market them using new business techniques. According to Philip Kotler, a marketing professor in the United States, some ten per cent of business-to-business advertising - a vast amount - is now spent on marketing places, regions and nations. Kotler has identified 80,000 communities within the EU which, in one way or another, need to differentiate themselves from each other. Place marketing - or, more properly, place and regional design - aggregates and networks complementary functions and core competiencies of a region. In Europe the concept of ‘territorial capital’ is used increasingly to describe the synthesis of these hard and soft assets of a region.The hard assets include natural beauty and features; shopping facilities; cultural attractions; buildings, museums, monuments, and so on. Soft assets are all about people and culture: skills, traditions, festivals, events and occasions, situations, settings, social ties, civic loyalty, memories, and capacity to learn.

For networked, multi-centered cities to succeed, these different kinds of territorial and social and intellectual capital need to be linked together by a combination of physical and informational networks. The hubs, links, and physical and informational flows of a region need to be proactively designed in ways that help a working culture flourish.

The biggest pressure of all on cities to collaborate is environmental. Bigger cities guzzle more energy and resources per head than do smaller ones. Smaller cities, which are located closer to resources, and in which people and goods need to move less, are lighter. Cities also guzzle land. A German Federal Statistical Office forecast in 1997 that Germany would turn into a 100 per cent settled landmass within 82 years if three per cent economic growth persisted.

MULTIMODAL MOBILITY

Mobile communications are already transforming time-space relations in favour of smaller towns, working together. Where this author lives, in the Netherlands, planners hope that transport telematics will make it possible for me to to think more, and drive less. They expect to reduce so-called vehicle hours (the time spent by vehicles in traffic) by an ambitious 25 per cent. A key concept in Dutch policy is the multimodal or 'chain approach'. The idea is that information systems will help me work out the best combination of walking, bicycle, private car, train, bus, plane, or boat - before I set off. Right now, individual transport information systems are pretty good - train and bus websites are reliable and reasonably easy to use. But they don't work together. The next step is so to connect systems that I will enter the beginning and end points of a journey (in place, and in time) into the programme, and be offered a menu of ways to complete it.

As Nokia future-gazer Marko Ahtisaari explained at Doors of Perception 7: Flow, mobile phones can enhance proximity and reduce the allure of ‘far’. “Although mobility and mobile telephony seem very much to do with being apart, in fact the evidence is quite to the contrary,” he said. “A lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically - I mean, quite simply, physically close, the stuff that happens between the one-to-ten centimetres range and room-size interaction. While we talk about devices being connected, and everything being connected in a technological sense, social interaction will be a prime driver in the future as well, even in technologically enhanced social interaction.”

CLUSTERS OF COMPLEXITY

Architects and spatial planners started thinking about clusters in the 1960s. In 1963, Christopher Alexander and Serge Chermayeff wrote that, in designing on a large scale, "We must look at the links, the interactions, and the patterns." Following that initial insight architecture and planning evolved rather slowly - but in recent years the sustainability agenda has given the networked approach new impetus.

According to Winy Maas, "The magnitude of information concerning a region is overwhelming: complex, and constantly changing. This multi-scalar approach is new for design. It is nearly impossible to represent all the relationships, and the webs of interdependencies, of a region. The integration of hard and soft factors is complex enough - but planners, policy makers and designers now also have to deal with a new dimension of complexity: a variety of new actors. Privatised network industries, such as railway companies, airports, electricity supliers, and telecommunications operators, are influential actors. So, too, are citizens who, with growing confidence, are demanding that social agendas - such as social inclusion, or sustainability - are factored into planning processes.

"As the speed of spatial, economical and political developments and processes accelerates, we need a more dynamic approach and tools for planning", says Maas. " Such tools turn massive volumes of raw data into visualizations. This is not about broad-brush visions of the idealised futures, says Maas. "We keep getting asked to make 'visions' for cities and regions", Maas explains, "but I want to make planning, design and thinking tools that people can really use. We are measuring an increasing variety of things, and collecting vast quantities of data. The question is: how to use it. How are we to perceive and connect all this information in ways that add value and meaning to the raw data? Increasingly, that means how do we represent the data, visually, in order to work on and with it. We also need to make these tools more accessible and usable by non-specialised actors and stakeholders".

THE REGIONMAKER

Maas and his colleagues have therefore become toolmakers. They have developed a family of software tools, called the Regionmaker, which was first devised by MVRDV for a project called RhineRuhrCity .The Kommunalverband Ruhrgebiet (KVR), a union of cities in the region, has invested in a series of initiatives to improve its post-indstrial situation, and today fewer than six percent work works in coal and steel. But perceptions remain that this is the Detroit of Europe, a landscape dotted with ghost towns, overgrown industries and polluted areas. "The region is very well connected logistically," says Maas. "It has incredible water resources, a dense university system, and successful media and computer industries. But these assets are fragmented. As you find in so many places in Europe, it's a mosaic of competing municipalities, rather than one entity." Hence the project to reposition the area as one place, one city: RhineRuhrCity.

The Regionmaker, which combines the function of search engine, browser, and graphical interface, brings together a variety of existing information sources and flows - for example, demographic data, or outputs from Geographical Informations Systems (GIS) or ‘geomatics’, as they are now called. "In a nutshell," says Maas, "the idea is that within the context of a globalizing world, international databanks, advanced computers, internet and intranet systems, game technology, global monitoring and information systems, can be integrated in ways that convincingly represent regions. With the Regionmaker, there is no limit to visualization. You can look at maps, study charts, access databases, export images, import video feeds from helicopters or satellites, connect to the internet, use CAD drawings, and so on."

Maas anticipates that the Regionmaker will evolve as a tree-structure of sub-machines and routines. MVRDV have plans to add representations of knowledge on the movement of people, goods and information. A housing sub-routine could develop scenarios for optimal housing designs. A light calculator could optimise the need for and control of, natural light in built spaces. A ‘function mixer’ would propose optimal mixtures of activities according to economic, social or cultural criteria.

Maas speculates that systems such as the Regionmaker could become decision support systems in a more pro-active and critical sense. "We could add an Evaluator, or an Evolver that can suggest criticism of the input we make," he speculates. But there will never be a single programme for everything - and Regionmaker will never be finished. "We think of it not as all-in-one Big Brother software, but as an intricate network of different software programmes operating at different spatial dimensions."

Posted by John Thackara at 08:53 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2003

Trophy buildings are over

Three developments are putting an end to the boom in landmark buildings. The first is over-supply. This year's Venice Architecture Biennale show-cased literally hundreds of large, glamorous buildings that will be built in the next few years. But, precisely because they are conceived as spectacles, these signature buildings have started to cancel each other out.

We accord them the same perceptual status as an Armani ad on a wall in New York or Milan: we look at them, judge them in a glance - and then move on. That's not a great return on all the time, work and money invested to bring these totemic edifices about.

A second development: buildings conceived as tourist destinations are hard to sustain in business terms. City-hopping tourists seldom re-visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao, for example, where visitor numbers are now in decline.The UK, too, is awash in landmark cultural buildings - conceived politically as large and expensive signs, and paid for with lottery money - that seem doomed to go out of business once their novelty has worn off.

The third development is the emergence of "sociability" and "liveability" as new criteria for urban design. The French - who with their Grands Projets invented the craze for trophy buildings - have gone off in a new direction - towards the development of live, participatory events as ways of adding value to a place.

Describing itself as the "land of festivals", the region of Provence-Aples-Cote d'Azur, alone, published a 194 page catalogue for 2002 that lists more than 300 events and festivals.These range from land-art and arborescence, ancient music and falconry, to festivals of laughter, rythm, and fanfare http://www.laregie-paca.com

Formal cultural festivals have been booming in France for years, but the new craze if forles arts de la rue. So popular has street art and performance become that festivals on the subject are now staged every summer - in Chalon-sur-Soane and Aurillac. These events, which bring together street-level theatre, circus, music and dance, have spawned now well-known acts such as Royale Luxe, Iltopie, and Generik Vapeur (http://www.generikvapeur.com/)

Eyebrows were raised this summer when the French minister of culture, usually the epitome of high (read: expensive) culture, attended the Chalon event for the first time. And a professional asssociation for street arts has been formed to represent the artists and producers, and festival organisers. http://www.lefourneau.com/lafederation

Jean-Marie Songy, director of the Aurillac festival, says these events expemplify what he calls the "open city - the utopian ideal that a city as an open stage that supports freedom of expression". http://www.chalondanslarue.com/

Some artists have mixed views about the growing attention. Caty Avram, founder of Generik Vapeur, warns that "these festivals are indispensable for bringing performers and programmers together - but we must take care that our street-level interventions do not evolve into spectacles observed by a passive public.We should always be looking for new locales, and for people not accustomed to our kind of actions".

Olivier Brie, Director of Art Point M, agrees: "there are two real risks for a festival such as Chalon: the rain, and paying visitors". (Source: Le Monde 20 July 2002)

"Street artists are rightly suspicious of passive spectacle" confirms another producer, Catherine Lemaire, director of a dynamic Ganges-based agency, Eurekart. "The trend is away from set-piece performances towards smaller, more intimate interactions. The thinking now is that every spectator can also be an artist". eurekart@club-internet.fr (00 33 (0)4 67 73 98 40)

Lemaire observes that street theatre is becoming less aggressive and provocative. "Artists seem to have become less confrontational and more humane - less hard", she says."We are seeing smaller, more intimate events - and the emergence of troupes of one, two or three people - in contrast to the 15 or 20 we'd have seen a year or two ago. It's not unknown now for an artist to provoke an interaction with just one person on the street".

A second tendency, says Lemaire, is that street art is finding new types of locations."Performers seem to be moving away from decorative balconies in the town square, in favour of the workplace, the shopping centre, or the factory",

Every November, Lemaire organises the equivalent of a Cannes Film Festval in Montpellier - Label Rue - which brings together a selection of artists, and commissioners of events from throughout France. Lefevre, who has realised street art events in dozens of towns throughout France, Spain and Italy, selects about 40 acts and invites city and festival programmers to come and view them.

The artists do their thing in car parks, outside cafes and on the streets of Montpellier. There is music of all kinds - jazz, steel drum, morooccan fanfare, yeti chanting. There are graffiti artists, fire performers, and a sculptor, Patrick Lefevre, playing the saxophone a top a 15 metre pyramid of his own construction.

end

Posted by John Thackara at 08:57 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2002

Trophy buildings are over: French turn attention to arts de la rue

Bad news for aspiring Frank Gehrys: buildings conceived as spectacles soon turn into white elephants. Mayors around the world are looking for alternative ways to develop their locality - ways that do not involve spending vast sums of money on trophy buildings designed by brand-name architects.

Three developments are putting an end to the boom in landmark buildings. The first is over-supply. This year's Venice Architecture Biennale show-cased literally hundreds of large, glamorous buildings that will be built in the next few years. But, precisely because they are conceived as spectacles, these signature buildings have started to cancel each other out.

We accord them the same perceptual status as an Armani ad on a wall in New York or Milan: we look at them, judge them in a glance - and then move on. That's not a great return on all the time, work and money invested to bring these totemic edifices about.

A second development: buildings conceived as tourist destinations are hard to sustain in business terms. City-hopping tourists seldom re-visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao, for example, where visitor numbers are now in decline.The UK, too, is awash in landmark cultural buildings - conceived politically as large and expensive signs, and paid for with lottery money - that seem doomed to go out of business once their novelty has worn off.

The third development is the emergence of "sociability" and "liveability" as new criteria for urban design. The French - who with their Grands Projets invented the craze for trophy buildings - have gone off in a new direction - towards the development of live, participatory events as ways of adding value to a place.

Describing itself as the "land of festivals", the region of Provence-Aples-Cote d'Azur, alone, published a 194 page catalogue for 2002 that lists more than 300 events and festivals.These range from land-art and arborescence, ancient music and falconry, to festivals of laughter, rythm, and fanfare http://www.laregie-paca.com

Formal cultural festivals have been booming in France for years, but the new craze if forles arts de la rue. So popular has street art and performance become that festivals on the subject are now staged every summer - in Chalon-sur-Soane and Aurillac. These events, which bring together street-level theatre, circus, music and dance, have spawned now well-known acts such as Royale Luxe, Iltopie, and Generik Vapeur (http://www.generikvapeur.com/)

Eyebrows were raised this summer when the French minister of culture, usually the epitome of high (read: expensive) culture, attended the Chalon event for the first time. And a professional asssociation for street arts has been formed to represent the artists and producers, and festival organisers. http://www.lefourneau.com/lafederation

Jean-Marie Songy, director of the Aurillac festival, says these events expemplify what he calls the "open city - the utopian ideal that a city as an open stage that supports freedom of expression". http://www.chalondanslarue.com/

Some artists have mixed views about the growing attention. Caty Avram, founder of Generik Vapeur, warns that "these festivals are indispensable for bringing performers and programmers together - but we must take care that our street-level interventions do not evolve into spectacles observed by a passive public.We should always be looking for new locales, and for people not accustomed to our kind of actions".

Olivier Brie, Director of Art Point M, agrees: "there are two real risks for a festival such as Chalon: the rain, and paying visitors". (Source: Le Monde 20 July 2002)

"Street artists are rightly suspicious of passive spectacle" confirms another producer, Catherine Lemaire, director of a dynamic Ganges-based agency, Eurekart. "The trend is away from set-piece performances towards smaller, more intimate interactions. The thinking now is that every spectator can also be an artist". eurekart@club-internet.fr (00 33 (0)4 67 73 98 40)

Lemaire observes that street theatre is becoming less aggressive and provocative. "Artists seem to have become less confrontational and more humane - less hard", she says."We are seeing smaller, more intimate events - and the emergence of troupes of one, two or three people - in contrast to the 15 or 20 we'd have seen a year or two ago. It's not unknown now for an artist to provoke an interaction with just one person on the street".

A second tendency, says Lemaire, is that street art is finding new types of locations."Performers seem to be moving away from decorative balconies in the town square, in favour of the workplace, the shopping centre, or the factory",

Every November, Lemaire organises the equivalent of a Cannes Film Festval in Montpellier - Label Rue - which brings together a selection of artists, and commissioners of events from throughout France. Lefevre, who has realised street art events in dozens of towns throughout France, Spain and Italy, selects about 40 acts and invites city and festival programmers to come and view them.

The artists do their thing in car parks, outside cafes and on the streets of Montpellier. There is music of all kinds - jazz, steel drum, morooccan fanfare, yeti chanting. There are graffiti artists, fire performers, and a sculptor, Patrick Lefevre, playing the saxophone a top a 15 metre pyramid of his own construction.

end

Posted by John Thackara at 05:54 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2002

Architecture and flow

An introduction to flow issues for the October 2002 issue of Archis, the main media partner of Doors for its conference.

What happens to public space when there are hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet – and when most of these chips talk to each other? What are the implications for buildings in a world suffused not just with sensors, but also with responsive ‘smart’ materials, and actuators?

Right now, the military are providing most of the answers to those questions. They are driving developments in the use of sensors, tags and remote monitoring in the physical world. Military-funded researchers are developing an operating system for smart dust’s self-organizing sensors and effectors; these tiny devices, that can manipulate matter, will be able to form wireless networks without human intervention. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle "smart dust" over battlefields – clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders.

Meanwhile, in business, companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations: IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products. The aim is to be able to monitor everything important in real-time. Companies are developing 'dashboards' that will measure key indicators and compare their performance against goals - and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action. Control-obsessed firms – among them GE, the world’s largest - aspire to convert their information flows into a vast spreadsheet. They aspire to create, as Ludwig Siegele put it in The Economist, not a new economy but a "now economy".

This new wave of technology confronts us with a design dilemma. We are filling our world with complex technical systems - on top of the natural systems that were already here, and social/cultural ones that evolved over thousands of years – without thinking much, if at all, about the consequences. During the 1990s, we were told that complexity was 'out of control' - too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But ‘out-of-control’ is an ideology, not a fact.

Flows can be designed. The design agenda for flow has two parts: designing ways to perceive flows, and re-designing the design process itself. Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We need dashboards for cities and buildings. We need to experience the systems and processes on which we depend, in order to look after them. We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy - but we don’t ‘see’ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. Designing experiences won’t be easy: systems are, by their nature, invisible, and we often lack metaphors or mental models to make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. And as Malcolm McCullough points out in this edition, geodata industries are exploding.

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside – it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from designing things, to designing systems – and from a project-based to a continuous model of the design process. Systems and processes never stop changing, so neither can design. As we move from a project model, to a continuous model of design – which is increasingly the norm in information technology, and in management consulting – we need new metaphors for what we do: games, simulations and play may be more appropriate modes of designing flows.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:05 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2002

Real-time design in the "world as spread-sheet"

In which John Thackara talks to Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio in an interview and article for the October 2002 edition of Domus Magazine.

For thousands of years, most buildings and products were designed for a single purpose - but our task is becoming more complicated. We are confronted by the need to design hybrid environments that encompass space, place, time, and interaction. We have filled the world with complex systems and technologies - on top of the natural ones that were already here, and social-cultural systems that have evolved over thousands of years. These systems are, by their nature, invisible - so we lack the clear mental models that we might otherwise use to make sense of the bigger picture.

A new change is now under way: pervasive computing. Pervasive computing has many names: ubiquitous computing; ambient intelligence; the disappearing computer; things that think; things that link; smartifacts. The buzzwords describe the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive and smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man; woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other, in languages such as 'Bluetooth'. Nobody knows what the consequences are going to be, except that these chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us - buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing - even our bodies.

The US army is a big spender on wearable computing, for example. The military is also driving developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle "smart dust" over battlefields - clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. Military-funded researchers are developing an operating system for smart dust‚s self-organizing sensors and effectors; these tiny devices, that can manipulate matter, will be able to form wireless networks without human intervention.

Meanwhile, in business, companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations: IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products. Their aim is to be able to monitor everything important in real-time. Companies are developing 'dashboards' that will measure key indicators and compare their performance against goals - and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action. Control-obsessed firms, among them GE, the world’s largest - aspire to convert their information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, as Ludwig Siegele put it in The Economist, not a new economy but a "now economy".

This new wave of technology push confronts us with a design dilemma. The design of Large Technical Systems, pervasive software, and the inaptly named 'ambient intelligence', is an almost unimaginably complex process. To be effective in such a context, design needs to be renewed, and transformed. But in what ways? And how? During the 1990s, we were told that complexity was 'out of control' - too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But out-of-control is an ideology, not a fact. Flows can be designed.

The design agenda for flow has two parts: designing ways to perceive flows; and re-designing the design process itself. Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy - but we don’t see‚ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. We therefore need ‘dashboards’ for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. We need to experience the systems and processes on which we depend, in order to look after them.

Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems and flows are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. And as Malcolm McCullough points out, geodata industries are exploding.

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside - it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from designing things, to designing systems - and from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Systems and processes never stop changing, so neither can design. A continuous model of design is increasingly the norm in information technology, and in management consulting. Architecture as a service, rather than an art? Now there’s a thought.

UN Studio

Many of these trends are evident in the work if UN Studio. Its principals, Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, have particular expertise in the design of transport interchanges in projects that can last years. These have become epicentres of extraordinarily complex spatial and building design processes. Increasingly, in the design of these complex places, high-tech simulations and physical structure influence each other. The design of multi-modal, multi-functional, multi-temporal transport intersections is particularly advanced in the Netherlands, where van Berkel and Bos have been ‘designing inside diagrammes’ since the mid 1990s.

“The diagramme functions for us as a sort of mediator” van Berkel explains; “we see it as an external element, in between the object and the subject, which we use to introduce other themes and organizations into a project with the aim of escaping from pre-existing typologies”. Right now UN Studio use diagrams two ways. First, for what they call the “the proportioning” of information – representing visually, and where possible in real-time, variable phenomena for a specific location such as climate, budget, construction processes, orientation, and activities. “The aim is to have a generative, proliferating, unfolding effect on the project…not only during its development in the studio, but also afterward, in its public use”, explains Caroline Bos.

A project like Arnhem Central exemplifies this convoluted type of public construction. The high-density project concentrates 160,000 m2 of mixed programme (transfer hall, underground car park for 1,000 cars and 5,000 bicycles, tunnel, shops, offices) on a 40,000-m2 site. Six different transport systems converge on the station area. Every weekday 55,000 travellers move through the location as they transfer from one system to another. Movement studies [PICS] are the cornerstone of UN Studio’ design proposals: the analysis of the types or movement on location includes the directions of the various trajectories, their prominence in relation to other forms of transportation on the site, duration, links to different programmes, and interconnections. The “Klein Bottle” diagramme [PIC] served as a reference for the spatial transformation of a surface into a whole.

Van Berkel and Bos describe as “deep planning” the process by which they scan a site for its flow structure. “These scans reveal its real problems and potentials,” says van Berkel; “the flows of the physical movements of people and goods reveal the relations between duration and territorial use”. The typical product of deep planning is a situation-specific, dynamic, organizational structural plan, using scenarios, diagrams, parameters, formulas and themes, that encompasses the mapping of political, managerial, planning, community and private relations.

Recently, van Berkel and Bos have looked outside architecture for inspirational images and diagrams. “Francis Bacon called his paintings diagrammes”, recalls van Berkel, adding that Gilles Deleuze was fascinated by the ways Bacon transformed the human figure into abstract forms. “Diagrams are instrumental”, he emphasizes; “they refer to something. They are kind of map. Maps may look abstract, but they always point at something. Diagrams are maps that point at organization - which can be the organization of space, or time, or movement, or any abstract but no less real phenomena”.

Diagrams are also a way to involve clients in the design process, and to modify the way a building is used through time. “When designing for people are in these perpetual motion environments”, says Bos, “ it’s a matter of combining circulation, with experiences they may have along the way. It’s not enough to design for pure movement: you have to build-in spaces, activities and intersections where people will leave the flow”. Pure movement is indeed bad for business. I recall an anecdote by Jan Benthem, master architect of Schiphol Airport, in which the commercial guys insisted he remove an area of seating to make way for another corridor of shops. The result was the opposite of that intended: revenues per square metre in the new shops, and in existing ones next to them, actually decreased. It transpired that the re-design had created a kind of canyon through which passengers rushed like white water in the Rocky Mountains - too fast to stop and shop. The seats were put back.

UN Studio pay attention to what they call “kaleidoscope moments” - the turns in flows where movement is tighter or more compact, or where you cross over other flows. “We are beginning to realise that obstacles to flow can be functional and add value, too” says van Berkel.”We work closely with infrastructure and traffic managers” adds Bos; “who usually have deep expertise about the possibilities, but also limits, in reconfiguring the flows of large numbers of people” Bos recalls a typically arcane piece of advice, that the heat generated by 20,000 people in an art gallery can damage paintings.

For their project to develop a pier in Genoa, Italy, UN Studio have transformed a 23,000 m2 harbour pier into a three-dimensional piazza. Four main clusters each address a different theme: entertainment, well-being, technology, and commercial experience. The design uses time-based planning represented diagrammatically as a circle of experience. Programmes in the piazza are organised around clockwise activities clustered on the basis of views, time of day, and time of year. Coffee can be taken in the morning sun with a view towards the sea; midday shopping offers shadow; evenings are spent watching the sunset. [PIC 24-hour distribution of active programs].

Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, principals of UN Studio in Amsterdam, are among the speakers at Doors of Perception 7 on the theme of Flow. The conference takes place in In Amsterdam on 14,15,16 November 2002.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:01 PM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2002

Architecture, spectacle, performance

A chapter for the catalogue of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2002, edited by Deyan Sudjic (who was also overall Director of the event).

A few years ago I met a woman in Bombay who was completing her PhD in social anthropology. She had just returned from her last field trip to Rajhastan where she had spent time with a group of travelling storytellers. This particular group went from village to village, unannounced, and would simply start a performance in the village square. Although each story would have a familiar plot the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years ˆ each event would be unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who held up pictorial symbols on sticks, villagers would interact with the story. They would be part of the performance. I commented to the woman that with that depth of knowledge about interaction, and the combined use of words and images, she could get a job with Microsoft tomorrow. 'What's Microsoft? ', Was her reply.

This encounter confirmed my prejudice that we have forgotten how to design for communication and interaction. We know how design messages, yes: the world is awash in print and ads and packaging and e-trash and spam. And we know to design one-way-communication buildings: hundreds of sports stadia, museums, theatres, science and convention centres have been built in recent years. Most of these buildings do an adequate technical job in delivering spectacles to passive crowds - but they are all about one-way messages. In the open air, as in the Indian villages my friend described, people cluster around a speaker. Children wriggle through to kneel at the front. As the crowd grows, the more distant and adventurous will seek a higher vantage point tree, rock, wall, or balcony. The courtyard form of theatre evolved from there and remains the root form for most later theatrical development. It simply grew in size and sophistication. Today's monumental, overblown and inhospitable theatre and arena architecture is the creation of a point-to-mass mentality that lies behind the brand intrusion and semiotic pollution that despoil so many of our perceptual and physical landscapes.

A lot of the push towards a post-spectacular culture - perhaps surprisingly - comes from business and technology. The chicken breasts in my supermarket have started to bear a photograph of the farmers who rear the birds, plus a little story about their place. Globalisation promoted 'anytime, anywhere' as a value - but attention is shifting back from space to place. Even telecommunication companies see location as the next big thing. The new business thinking is that mass things - mass production, mass communications, and large public spectacles - are relatively easy for upstart competitors to copy. Abuzz with talk of closed and open systems, large firms now believe that the best way to compete is by making things more complicated, not less. Complex services, and customised experiences, will be harder for newcomers to imitate. Business has decided that there's money to be made in customisation and authenticity. The idea is to make a real-time 'now economy'. Vivek Ranadive, author of the power of now, has a rather precise vision of what he calls the "event-driven firm”. Business is also responding to spectacular erosion in brand loyalty, which calls into question the fundamentals of modern marketing.

A similar change of mood is evident in the traditional worlds of performance. In theatre, for example, big is over. Big concepts, big-ticket productions - and the big marketing budgets needed to make them pay - are out of favour. Tony Graham, Director of the Unicorn Children’s Theatre in London, looked at more than 100 buildings in London before deciding to commission a new theatre on the River Thames. "Scale is crucial in theatre" he says; "300-400 people is the maximum size at which you can be both epic and intimate, and we simply could not find a space that would allow us to those in the way we need to do". A 1500 person audience creates a differerent sense of what theatre is about. Prosaic issues to do with access play an important role: where do coaches park, how far is it to the tube, and so on. But. Graham's brief to Theatre Projects, who lead the functional design of his new theatre, was to move away the proscenium arch model, with its picture-book illusion of looking into a room. "We are moving back to the amphitheatre model which thrusts the stage into the body of the audience", says Graham; "audiences today don't want trickery, special effects and illusion. They want to see things as they are, without artifice". The amphitheatre model favoured by Graham "heightens the human figure and strips things back to the minimum".

Many in the theatre world question whether new buildings are needed at all. Big theatres, in particular, tend to sap energy out of productions and money out of their producers. Some producers have taken literally to the streets in so-called 'promenade' and site-specific theatre. In these Chaucer-like journeys, players and audience move together around cities, through forests, up mountains, or into resonant but abandoned or found spaces. The significance of place, and the localisation of knowledge, is now taken as seriously by companies as by theatre people. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid emphasize in The Social Life of Information, a lot of what we learn is remarkable local: History. Agriculture. Politics. Art. Geology. Viticulture. Forestry. Conservation. Ocean Science. For the writer Charles Hampden-Turner, too, we learn through participation in collaborative human activities. "Knowledge as it grows is necessarily social," he writes, "the shared property of extended groups and networks".

What matters most in a post-spectacular world is activity, not architecture. As the director Peter Brook once said, it is not a question of good building and bad; "a beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life, while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place. This is the mystery of the theatre... studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people." In biology, they describe as choronomic the influence on a process of geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value; a lack of context destroys it. We all deserve to spend time in safe, pleasant and comfortable surroundings, rather than their opposite; but, beyond that, most buildings will surely do - for performance, for learning, for all forms of social connection.

Given that more space is needed for shared learning activities, many involving performance and interaction, where will it come from - and who will pay for it? Happily, large, expensive, centrally located informal environments, suitable for learning and performance, already exist in most cities in the form of museums, science, and media centres. The majority of these facilities were conceived and are now run as leisure facilities, spectacles for public and tourists who only ever visit them once. These buildings are therefore ripe to be commandeered and re-purposed as sites of informal learning.

Some of their Directors are eager for such a change. James Bradburne, for example, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Frankfurt, despairs that exhibition design ever since the 1950s has been "obsessed with the message - the storyline - and has seen itself as one of the broadcast media, reaching out to the masses with its messages". The apotheosis of this approach is the Guggenheim, whose director, Thomas Krens, turned the Guggenheim into a theme-park-like franchise operation and that now competes with Disney for the property and leisure developer's dollar. The word 'exhibit' is at the heart of criticisms of the museum and science centre model where, once again, a point-to-mass model of communication prevails.

Instead of looking at the design task as creating exhibits, modernisers like James Bradburne have shifted their focus from the exhibit as an end-in-itself to the exhibit as a setting for interaction between and among participants: discussion, dialogue, debate are the goal. Just as with theatre. At NewMetropolis in Amsterdam, where Bradburne's ideas were first implemented, the emphasis was not on science and technology, per se, but on being human beings in a world rapidly being transformed by science and technology. "Our aim was to foster skills of experimentation, abstraction, collaboration, and systems thinking", says Bradburne, who led the design team there before moving to Frankfurt. Puzzles, challenges, simulations and role-playing games were at the heart of his design strategy. "Our goal was to stimulate self-initiated exploration, encourage sustained engagement, and repeat use, and provided a framework in which competence demonstrably increases". Bradburne uses the metaphor of the piazza - in contrast to the arena - to describe this kind of museum as a resource to be used, rather than visited, or looked at.

The best collaboration environments provide the opportunity to meet, share ideas, discuss, and learn from each other's experiences. Seen in this way, anyone who plays a role in shaping a learning or performance environment - whether they are by training a researcher, a teacher, a multimedia specialist, a programmer, or an industrial designer - is a designer. Design must allow the user the shape her experience. "Design doesn't end with the opening", says Bradburne, "it begins with the opening".

Theatre and museum people are not alone in their search for a more rooted, animated context in which to work. Richard Sennet once complained, „When public space becomes a derivative of movement, it loses any independent experiential meaning of its own. On the most physical level, these environments of pure movement prompt people to think of the public domain as meaningless... It is catatonic space‰ The word catatonic is horribly apt as a description of the way many great modern spaces make us feel - arenas and stadia designed for passive crowds, as much as airports and hub wastelands such as Eurolille.

The problem is not new. Throughout the twentieth century artists intervened in a variety of ways into man-made space: futurism, cubist collage, Duchamp‚s ready-mades, Dada, constructivism, surrealism, Fontana‚s spatialism, Fluxus, land art, arte povera, process art, conceptualism: in all these groups the deadness and catatonia of modern public space were perceived to be both as a rebuke, and a challenge. They prepared site-specific installations and events whose meaning was to be gathered by the viewer over time. (Performance art itself was born in a fistfight in 1910 between Italian Futurists and Venetian townspeople reacted in anger when 800,000 manifestoes "Against Past-Loving Venice" were scattered upon them). The tradition has persisted that, in Marinetti's words, "there is no artifice here: this is happening now, in real-time".

Today, even real-time is mediated. In the age of the rave, street-level events have become big productions. Festivals, concerts, corporate events, church pageants, and fashion shows vie with each other tin the quality and sophistication of their production. The supply and use of technology for live performance is a large speciality business in itself: hundreds of companies specialise in every conceivable variety of lighting, sound systems, staging, video walls, and endless special effects. The rapid evolution of digital media, advanced materials and other technologies has further opened the way for technology to penetrate live performance. The design and evaluation of alternative musical and lighting controllers is currently the leading edge of an ongoing dialogue between technology and musical culture

It is not just real-time performance that is mediated. So is "here". With the advent of broadband video, satellite and wireless, and fixed networks, live performance has entered the realm of the reproducible and in the words of one critic, "barriers between the televisual and the performative are breaking down". The human actor who shares the same space and time with a body of spectators can now, to a degree, share other spaces and other times with different actors - in so-called electronic arenas in which spatial technologies, especially multi-user virtual environments, are coupled to new forms of artistic content and an understanding of social interaction.

But even in virtualised, networked contexts, the cultural drive is to support interactive performance and interaction, not passive spectacle. A European project called eRENA, for example, investigated a range of inhabited information spaces in which participants would be mobile and socially active. Audience members as well as performers and artists would explore, interact, communicate with one another and participate in staged events. Through concepts such as 'dynamic crowd aggregations', the aim was to support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous participants, bridging the gap between current small scale, real-time communication technologies such as video conferencing, and current massive-scale non-participative broadcast technologies such as television. The Erena consortium brought together digital artists, experts in multi-user virtual reality and computer animation, social scientists, broadcasters, experts in expertise in CAVEs and other projected interfaces, networking expertise, spatial technologies and novel artistic content. Avatars, both as individuals and in potentially large and dynamic crowds.

The point-to-mass age of big ticket spectacles is ending. We are in a transition to a post-spectacular, post-massified culture in which performance environments will be judged by their capacity to foster interaction and learning. The trend is towards spaces, places, and communities in which complex experiences and processes combine in new geographies of learning and experience - while also exploiting the dynamic potential of networked collaboration. A division persists between designers who believe that experiences can be systematically designed, and those who feel that the designer can only set the stage for what is experienced - but the consensus is clear: we are all actors now.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:48 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2000

Nine surprising new job titles for facilities managers

Summary of a lecture to an international meeting of Facility Managers in 1999.

How are we to design modern space? saturated with information and systems; complex but incomprehensible; an exhilarating human achievement, and a terrifying prospect, at the same time.

Management of work environments, in particular, is moving centre-stage in discussions about innovation, learning, and the knowledge economy.

We are beginning to understand that innovation is a social process that involves complex interactions between individuals, communities of practice, and customers.

Fostering these complex interactions - designing the context of innovation and learning - brings ‘soft’ aspects of workplace design to the fore.

These ‘soft’ aspects concern the constantly changing flows of people and ideas that characterise a dynamic learning organisation.

Facility management, in such a context, becomes the ‘placeholder’ of the activities, interactions, and encounters that lead to innovation and knowledge.

Looking a year or two ahead, and following our visit to Rover and the discussion afterwards, I decided to speculate about new roles for FM.

NEW ROLE 1 - "SPEED MERCHANT"
"Speed is God, Time is the Devil", goes Hitachi’s company slogan. But it’s hard to accelerate when you’re big. For many big companies, too much dispersal of places and people may be counter-productive. "Mobility is starting to backfire", says Lufthansa. Large organisations can emulate the dynamism and speedy decision-making typical of smaller firms by using IT and space in new ways. The designer’s new role is to manage the relationship between place, time and distance. Which is why Rover decided to put all those people in one facility.

NEW ROLE 2 - "ALBATROSS KEEPER"
Expect to hear more alarming comments like this one: "The physical assets owned by most corporate giants represent an albatross hanging around their necks. Ownership of any kind of asset other than information is becoming a liability. You gain flexibility by not owning physical assets, by concentrating on ownership of intellectual property and moving that around". These words were written (partly as a provocation) by Bill Mayon-White, a professor at the London School of Economics. But even albatrosses have their uses. If it is indeed the quality of interactions with other people and communities and customers that determines the success of an innovative, knowledge-nurturing organisation, then heavy material assets like buildings are ok so long as they contribute to that.

NEW ROLE 3 - "IMAGINEER"
Psychologists describe as "catatonic space" an environment that is so devoid of the contextual clues(daylight, heat, wind etc) that we fail to make sense of where we are. The Walt Disney Company employs "imagineers" to ensure that its supremely artificial environments do not become catatonic. I learned at the post-Rover discussion that we are beginning to see something similar emerge in FM - ‘office clowns’, ‘animateurs’, ‘showbusiness impresarios’ and other jobs whose role is to generally ‘liven the place up’.

NEW ROLE 4 - "DWELL-TIME MANAGER"
I did an interview with John Worthington maybe 10 years ago in which he alerted me to Marshall MacLuhan’s observation that airports are ‘universities of the future’. Since then I’ve become a minor expert on the phenomenology of airports, and see many connections with workplace issues.. ‘Dwell-time’ is the time spent by passengers milling around waiting for flight connections : it is also the time when they spend money - which is why airport managers (who are not the same as flight operations people) love it. My conceit is this: in knowledge-based organisations, managing space and time for reflection becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. ‘Dwell time’ will be time to think, time to reflect, time to process all the information poured over us in high tele-density workplaces.

NEW ROLE 5 - "KNOWLEDGE ENGINEER"
Knowledge management is the new imperative - driven by the shift away from a world of goods and services towards one of information and relationships. The keyword here is minds in the in the plural - and in particular the capability of a group. Traditional workplace design emphasised the individual worker; space and equipment for teams has more recently been given attention. Workplace design that fosters continuously changing and complex knowledge relationships and flows is the new priority.

NEW ROLE 6 - "CHAOS THEORIST"
Relationship between FM and mobility is a paradoxical one. Nothing would appear to be more immobile than a building - but if you look close-up, you see that everything moves - in a swirl of unexpected and unpredictable connections. The task for FM becomes ‘design for emergence’ - creating workplaces which can adapt themselves to cope with constantly changing configurations. The designers of ‘SimCity’ have, intriguingly, tied up with the SantaFe Institute (and been bought meanwhile by George Lucas’s Electronic Arts) to offer ‘design for emergence’ simulation tools for e.g. ‘SimSainsburys’.

NEW ROLE 7 - "LANDSCAPE GARDENER"
The Spanish economist Manuel Castells talks about the networked economy as a "space of flows" (a great slogan for workplace design, I’d say). Castells observes that connections can indeed be multiplied by IT - but understanding needs place, and time. FM can learn from this and decide to provide navigation tools (maps, electronic sign systems, human guides); learn from psychologists (who talk about ’liminal space’) ;and work with architects who have started to talk about ‘slow space’ and ‘landscape’.

NEW ROLE 8 - "SOCIAL WORKER"
The mephor of the workplace as a machine, or a factory, is breaking down as we realise that work and learning are social activities. The FM as social worker will understand that learning happens best when people participate in different ‘communities of practice’ :the role of FM is to maintain a sense of community and to use such skills as proxemics to link capabilities and optimise the collective intelligence of individuals and groups.

NEW ROLE 9 - "ENTREPRENEUR"
The original meaning of the word entrepreneur is ‘someone who brings two parties together’. But if workplace design is to be taken more seriously (than it already is) to by top management and the rest of the organisation- the motto has to be: "don’t tell me, show me!". This is why I commend the tool of design scenarios as a way to show people new ways to design and inhabit tomorrow’s workspace.
END OF SUMMARY

Synopsis for the book (another book I never seem to have received!)

Designing the space of flows: success factors in workspace innovation

Management of the work environment is moving centre-stage in discussions about innovation, learning, and the knowledge economy.

The Spanish economist Manuel Castells talks about the networked economy as a "space of flows" - a metaphor which for me perfectly describes the new domain of workplace design. But this new understanding is a mixed blessing for facilities managers. Consider this alarming comment: "The physical assets owned by most corporate giants represent an albatross hanging around their necks. Ownership of any kind of asset other than information is becoming a liability. You gain flexibility by not owning physical assets, by concentrating on ownership of intellectual property and moving that around". These words were written partly as a provocation (by Bill Mayon-White, a professor at the London School of Economics); but they describe the growing pressure on all kinds of organisations to invest more in immaterial than in material assets.

But even albatrosses have their uses. If it is indeed the quality of interactions with other people, communities and customers that determines the success of an innovative, knowledge-nurturing organisation, then heavy material assets like buildings can still deliver value so long so long as they contribute significantly to those interactions. Castells observes that while crude connections can indeed be multiplied by ICT, *understanding* requires place, and time, and reflection. Facilities management is the cross-functional process best placed to deliver such intangible qualities - but it will be a tough story to sell in a tightly run organisation.

We are beginning to understand that innovation is a social process that involves complex interactions between individuals, communities of practice, and customers. Fostering these complex interactions - designing the context of innovation and learning - brings ‘soft’ aspects of workplace design to the fore. These soft aspects concern the constantly changing flows of people and ideas that characterise a dynamic learning organisation. In this context, facilities management becomes the placeholder of the activities, interactions, and encounters that lead to innovation and knowledge.

Performance indicators are also changing. "Speed is God, Time is the Devil", goes Hitachi’s company slogan. But it’s hard to accelerate, or change direction, when you’re big. But for many big companies, too much dispersal of places and people may be counter-productive. "Mobility is starting to backfire", says Lufthansa. Relationship between FM and mobility is a paradoxical one. Nothing would appear to be more immobile than a building - but if you look close-up, you see that everything moves - in a swirl of unexpected and unpredictable connections. The task for FM becomes ‘design for emergence’ - creating workplaces which can adapt themselves to cope with constantly changing configurations. The designers of ‘SimCity’ have, intriguingly, tied up with the SantaFe Institute (and been bought meanwhile by George Lucas’s Electronic Arts) to offer ‘design for emergence’ simulation tools for - among other intriguing possibilities - a ‘SimSainsburys’. Large organisations can emulate the dynamism and speedy decision-making typical of smaller firms by using ICT space and real space in new combinatikons. The FM’s new role is to manage the relationship between place, time and distance.

I did an interview with John Worthington maybe 10 years ago in which he alerted me to Marshall MacLuhan’s observation that airports are ‘universities of the future’. Since then I’ve become a minor expert on the phenomenology of airports, and see many connections with workplace issues. ‘Dwell-time’ is the time spent by passengers milling around waiting for flight connections : it is also the time when they spend money - which is why airport managers (who are not the same as flight operations people) love it. My conceit is this: in knowledge-based organisations, managing space and time for reflection becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. ‘Dwell time’ will be time to think, time to reflect, time to process all the information poured over us in high teledensity workplaces.

Knowledge management is the new imperative - driven by the shift away from a world of goods and services towards one of information and relationships. The keyword here is minds in the in the plural - and in particular the capabilities of groups. Traditional workplace design emphasised the individual worker; space and equipment for teams has more recently been given attention. Workplace design that fosters continuously changing and complex knowledge relationships and flows is the new priority.

In summary: the range of disciplines with an impact on workplace design is widening. Psychologists, for example, describe as "catatonic space" an environment that is so devoid of the contextual clues (daylight, heat, wind etc) that we fail to make sense of where we are. We know that buildings can be physically sick; now, it seems, they can be emotionally dysfunctional, too, and will need the help of shrinks. Theatre people are getting in on the act: the Walt Disney Company employs "imagineers" to ensure that its supremely artificial environments do not become catatonic. We are beginning to see something similar emerge in FM - ‘office clowns’, ‘animateurs’, ‘showbusiness impresarios’ and other jobs whose role is to generally ‘liven the place up’.

end

Posted by John Thackara at 05:16 PM | Comments (0)

Tokyo: Begin the next

This was originally published in The Listener, in the UK, in 1990.

In Tokyo, cement trucks sport the slogan, 'Begin The Next'. Buy sellotape at the cornershop, and the bag carries a slogan: 'Perhaps We Are At The Beginning Of A New Renaissance'. Ride Honda's new Dio motorcycle and an entire text on the faring declares 'Movement. The City is a 24 our stage where we act out a life. Be it day or night, we go out anytime looking for something new'.

Hardly surprising that they call Tokyo the Printed City, the Sea of Desires: its citizenry revel in continuous change and innovation. In the West, we whinge about our insecurity and the ephemerality of all we hold dear; in Tokyo, they exhilarate in the perceptual white noise of an information-rich environment.

Small wonder that the city has become the centre for a new phenomenon: post-modern tourism. Tokyo today is like America during the 50s: you go there to wonder, childlike, at a fantastical world where everything works - only in Tokyo's case, it's not just the phones, but a whole new culture.

Getting Real

Scene: the basement of Cleos, a very dingy night-club in Roppongi, Tokyo's fashion and entertainment district. By 3am, Cleos is packed, its clientele almost exclusively Western models, photographers stylists and other camp followers of the fashion circus. They drop ecstasy and acid like popcorn, dress real cool in expensive rags. But their confident, self-contained, manner cannot disguise the sense of desperation: there's panic in the air. Even the hard ones are Tokyo crazy.

Here to take an estimated ú25 million a year from Japanese magazines and ad agencies, this latter-day cultural diplomatic corps is in town to practice the black arts of consumer deception - to make a thousand advertising images in which they frolic, ultra-white, Aryan goody-two-shoes, stars of a fantasy Western culture that would be laughable were it not for the fascistic overtones. But in Tokyo, simulation is in the blood: not for them this fear of a three minute culture or the 'disappearance of the real'. Psychologically, Tokyo is like New York: you have to be born to it, or it takes a toll.

The new geography

Scene: any street. Tokyo lacks a visible plan, of the kind that we choose to find reassuring in London, Paris, or Vienna. Tokyo is the paradigm of the modern de-centred metropolis. It's not so much that it disorients you - you never get oriented in the first place. Tokyo is a place-by-place place - how location relates to the last remains obscure. Lacking vistas, and grand plans, you have no sense of travel between points: rather, you leave one experience, and start another somewhere else. The intervening motion is out of place and time.

Europe's boulevards and ringstrasses were built by tearing the hearts out of the old town; Tokyo, in contrast, has evolved chaotically. From the top of Tokyo Tower, you see none of the neat radial lines that denote the hand of one dictator or another in Europe - the 'Great Weavers', as Giles Deleuze calls them, bulldozing wefts and warps across whole districts and underclasses. Tokyo is a patchwork, added onto bit by bit.

Soft Buildings

Post-modern Tokyo has fostered a remarkable design and architecture revival - but you have to see it in context. Over here we remain in thrall to the stereotype of Japanese design as exquisite minimalism. This idea is the legacy of work during the 70s and early 80s by architects like Tadao Ando, who refined an aesthetics of order and designed perfectly-formed little worlds (and some big ones) as refuges from the chaos and disorder of the street. Ando's stark, concrete walls and interiors are a miracle of spatial control, and they're beautifully finished - one reason his work speaks of heaven to the Western modernist - but it's not what Tokyo, now, is about.

The sea-change was marked for some by a famous row when Nigel Coates was hired to design the interior of an Ando building. Coates represents not just western street credibility, but, more importantly, a less negative approach to change, an attempt not hide from, but to welcome, change.

The new sensibility according to Ke'iche Irie, one of several brilliant new architects to challenge the old guard, 'values the fact that Tokyo is like a computer program that ceaselessly keeps on adding new subroutines. Western language itself, and your aspirations for buildings, which both emphasise order and clarity, seem now, to us, to be like a straitjacket. We don't believe in moulding life to the straight lines of an ideal building'.

The new architects flourish on a diet of theory, fashion, and stupendously rich clients. The reason: so heated is Tokyo's real estate boom (Docklands is like a village fete by comparison) means that any device that can add value to even small patches of land is worth paying for. Hence the concept of buildings as 'news' - objects possessed of sufficient design or fashion charisma that they attract attention to the surrounding area which becomes smarter - and more valuable. In Roppongi, for example, one developer spent $40 million on a night-club, Turia, that 'paid' for itself before its doors even opened - just because adjacent small lots, which he also owned, shot up in price.

Comme Des Fire Hydrants

Another star of Tokyo's building-as-icon boom is Shin Takamatsu, famous for designing a dentist's studio in Kyoto that looked like an aluminium steam engine, and a club in Osaka that looked like nothing on earth. It is extremely satisfying to discover that Takamatsu live matches one's fondest stereotype of a fashionable Japanese architect - dressed from head-to-toe in Comme des Garcons, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful assistants, and ready to drop references to Kafka, Mishima and fractal geometry in conversation. Takamatsu speaks of buildings as objects, well aware that in Tokyo buildings are indeed commodities, bought and sold, made and destroyed in a frenzied bazaar.

But just because buildings are icons, and may soon be torn down again, does not mean they are badly made. On the contrary; although Tokyo's vistas appear confused - cluttered and insubstantial to western eyes - the quality of detail in things small is a miracle to observe. Door handles, fire hydrants, tiling on doorsteps, all can be exquisite. Even Takamatsu, master of the ephemeral building, points out that 'hard materials have power: the problem with western design is the poor quality of the facade - in Japan we believe in the concept of deep surface, no matter how short a building's life'.

Thin Skins and Disappearing Buildings

If the new urban sensibility in Tokyo recalls Marshall Berman's remark that 'the modern project is to make yourself at home in this maelstrom, to make it your own, then another of the key players on Tokyo's urban landscape, Toyo ITOH, is particularly comfortable. Itoh has made flux and ephemerality in architecture the basis of his work. His extraordinary Tokyo Tower in Yokohama, for example, a 100' high membrane-covered structure, software controlled, changes its very mass according to the wind, amount of daylight, even the density of the crowds which surround it. 'Our obsession with walls has been replaced by a search for openness and transparency in buildings, to be positive towards the outside world' Itoh is a leader in the use of thin-skins, or membranes, to make buildings permeable - to make them 'disappear', as he puts it. 'Buildings are like clothes - sometimes we feel sensual, and feel like going naked'.

Modern Movements

Getting to one of Itoh's invisible, naked buildings tends to be a life event in itself. If Tokyo's overall plan is opaque, its transport arteries are self-contained worlds of their own. Tokyo's road system strides over the top of the landmark buildings - huge, thick earthquake-proof legs carrying roadways, some of which are hundreds of feet up in the air: as you crawl along in an interminable jam, you can see straight into the 20th floor of the skyscrapers, where thousands, tens of thousands of identically dressed salarymen work away until late at night. This sight alone must dismay arriving businessmen - a vast human beehive buzzing with effort into the late hours.

Another surprise is that the cars are so big. In the central districts, there are hundreds of 560 Mercs with tinted windows - these belong to the Yakusa; recently, so heated has one-upmanship among the gangsters become that they've started stretching their Mercs, adding six fur-lined feet or more. They leave them in rows outside the clubs, engines running, keys in the lock - a million dollars worth of that nobody takes.

And the taxis. They're all called Cedrics, or Glorias - dumpy great Nissans purring around. You realise that Japan exports all those buzzy little cars to the gullible west, keeping a whole array of heavy, silent, comfortable tanks for themselves. And all so clean: buy a gallon of petrol and a swarm of guys wash the whole car. Taxi drivers wear white gloves - whether to signify hygiene, or as protection from infection, is never clear. Taxi colours, in contrast, are jolly pastels, with Chinese lanterns of the roof. The fancier ones have backlit turquoise numberplates.

Sometimes, when not admiring the cabs, you see - again overhead - the bullet trains heading off for other cities. Twice the size our 125s, the Shinkansen are incomparably more elegant, their rounded brilliant white noses carving through the sky in high speed silence.

Under Ground, Out Of Time

The tubes, as my uncle in California would say, are something else. Tokyo boasts a brilliant, perfectly run system of co-ordinated private lines which is almost completely mystifying to foreigners. Entering Shinjuku Station, a vast 500 acre interchange, you encounter an information landscape of stunning beauty and mystery - tens of thousands of Japanese typographic characters, on signs, on ticket machines, on tv monitors. Beneath them, hundreds of thousands of human Japanese characters move purposefully about, avoiding the foreigners who gaze about blankly, like whales stranded like whales on the icecap.

Even the ordinary tube trains are attractive. Thanks to deregulation, each line has its own company colours - but whatever the livery, trains gleam, as if someone had just polished every handrail. This probably because someone just did. (In department stores, they employ doll-like girls to stand each side of the escalator, polishing the handrails. And you love it. The pathology that afflicts visitors to Tokyo takes strange forms - like turning into your old Auntie Edna who hates litter).

They Nurture Neon

Tokyo's skyline at night is literally flashy, thanks to the remarkable columns of neon that adorn the sides of most buildings - particularly in Shimnjuku, where the commercial nightlife is based. The sharpness and high definition of these neon signs combines with the squareness of Japanese calligraphy to produce a stunning effect. Many of the signs are programmed, so that bars of light pulse up and down the columns of light like heartbeats. The signs are light-filled analogues of the buildings they are attached to: in Tokyo, shops, clubs and bars are stacked up high, story upon story - the pulses of light going up and down the neon columns remind you of lifts.

But just when you figure out some vague correspondence to what things look like, and the way they are, Tokyo feints. For example, the addresses on peoples' cards and letters refer to three-dimensional point in space. This is no doubt an extremely sensible system if you are a pigeon, but for the rest of us, it induces, once more, a sensation of displacement. The ritual of following directions (you have to write down verbatim things like 'head past the red door, turn left at the blue hut and look up for the 'I feel Coke' sign - we're the third window along from that). The fallibility of the system - odds are, someone will have painted the door - ensures that western visitors soon understand eastern thought processes, and in particular their tendency to arrive at a conclusion by a roundabout route.

Word Games

The English are particularly prone to delusion that they've got the hang of Tokyo, seeing in its graphic face an echo of their own image-saturated environment. At a club called Piccasso, for example, a boy from London's iD magazine has been imported to decorate the walls with graffiti drawn words of stunning banality: 'the more you consume the less you live'; 'London Town, check it out'; 'Check them out: Sacrosanct, Soho Brasserie'. Do us a favour. The 'artist' has approached Tokyo like a missionary speaking in pigin - words in Tokyo simply don't work like this. Someone explains: the Japanese use strange English formulations to express feelings, not to describe things - and trying to mimic it is guaranteed to offend.

Consuming passions

Which is not to deny that Tokyo displays all the symptoms you'd expect of a patient neurotically addicted to consumption. In discussions with business people you realise that they see 'lifestyle' purely in terms of the products you consume. Companies disguise this behind strange corporate slogans that they add, free of charge, to what is already an information-saturated landscape. Sharp adds 'New Life People' to its packaging; NEC: plasters 'Computers and Communications For Human Life' on its terminals; JVC, most runically of all, simply says 'Charming' on everything. In Tokyo, sociology is a shopping A man from the Hakuhodo Life and Living Institute, shows me a book called 'Keeping Up With The Satos', which tells you how many 'confident theoretical Japanese' give their grandmothers seaweed for Christmas (56%) - but tells you precious little about how they feel when doing so.

Shopping Software

The overlap between big business, culture and fashion - that is, shopping - takes fascinating forms in Tokyo. Who among us has not yawned as yet another returning Brit regales one with small black toys and cigarette lighters that look like frogs. More interesting, on the ground, are the 'antenna buildings' - shops, or galleries - often both - which are subsidised by big companies so that they can observe arcane consumer behaviours - such as buying a Comme Des Garcons chair - and decide if they should join in too. The Axis Building, for example, a four story, tile-clad edifice sitting on $100 million of land in Roppongi, is owned by Bridgestone, the gigantic tyre and car parts business. Inside Axis are a series of rarefied retail experiments - as well as the Kawakubo furniture, there are Nuno Textiles, a lighting workshop - and two galleries, in which a succession of design exhibitions are staged free of charge.

Axis is run by Mr Ishibashi, the urbane, American educated son of Bridgestone's president - who clearly regards the building as a private finishing school which will train his son to take his empire out of manufacturing and into the information age. And it will probably work: if Ishibashi junior can figure out why people buy Rei Kawakubo's chairs, he should manage to get Bridgestone out of rubber and into fashion.

Everywhere, unlikely people tell you they want to know how to get into the information era now. A town planner from one of Tokyo's localities - his equivalent rank in London would receive complaints about dustbins - tells me that 'we have ten years to complete the transformation of Tokyo from a hardware to a software city'.The architect, Takamatsu, says he sees Tokyo in the future as 'a cloud, an ephemeral city'.

Info-mania

The only cloud on Tokyo's rosy postmodern horizon the lowering threat of a terminal information glut. Hiroshi Sakashita, who runs Sharp's design centre, speaks of information illnesses by reference to 'the sword and the vase: western thought is linear; you establish a line of questioning, and then attack it straight on, like fighting with a sword. This enables you to ignore extraneous matter. In Japan, our minds are more like a vase, filling up with all the data available - themn we wait to see what grows out of it'.

Information floods Tokyo - visual, intellectual, sensual; this, plus its cartographic obscurity, explains why it is so hard to comprehend as a visual or conceptual unity. Our very vocabulary in the West is spatially biased - we have more words to describe measurements than we have to describe feelings. What we certainly lack is the emotional apparatus needed to understand the interaction of space, time and process that marks out Tokyo, and other post-modern cities like it, as a new phenomenon.

Pondering it all, the dazed departing visitor passes, on the way out at the airport, a graphic symbol of Tokyo's position at the centre of something we can't quite put our finger on, a vast map of the world, on which key cities are highlighted not just by names, but by digital readouts of their different local times. Beneath, a single arrow says: 'This Way'. ends

Posted by John Thackara at 05:07 PM | Comments (0)