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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.

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