February 06, 2009

Postopolis LA

It's back. I'm hugely pleased to be able to announce another Postopolis, this time in Los Angeles, running from Tuesday, March 31, to Saturday, April 4, 2009. Two years after the first, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in NYC and co-ordinated by BLDGBLOG, Subtopia, Inhabitat and City of Sound - here's a snapshot of that - we now have a different line-up of organisers/curators, covering a little bit more of the globe and an equally diverse set of interests:

We'll be taking the same broad brushstrokes approach to architecture and urbanism as last time and selecting a diverse set of SoCal-flavoured attractions for you. More details to follow, including the line-up of speakers and the precise details of the location. Polynodal LA makes picking the location a different challenge to NYC, but we're nearly there. Either way, it'll be free to the public, as easy to get to as LA makes it, and running from 1700 to 2300 each day.

And I hereby publicly promise to attempt to capture the proceedings as I did last time (though those who were there in New York will have noted I ran out of steam on the last day or so - eternal apologies to those with unfinished write-ups). Can't wait - the last time I visited LA it prompted more than a few thoughts. And if it's good enough for Reyner Banham, it's good enough for me.

Postopolis! LA is sponsored by the Storefront for Art and Architecture and ForYourArt, to whom we are very grateful, and it will be part of Los Angeles Art Weekend. Postopolis LA logo by Joe Alterio.

January 11, 2009

Joost Greenhouse, Melbourne




The Greenhouse, by Joost and others, is an opportunistic temporary insertion into a gap in Federation Square, Melbourne.

It’s built entirely from recycled and recyclable materials. The exterior is dis-assembled shipping containers and packing crates, filled with straw bale and covered with plants. When I was there, the walls were embedded with strawberry plants and potatoes were planted on top (and used in the potato salad served below), amongst other things.




Continue reading "Joost Greenhouse, Melbourne" »

In denial, on the beach, the road, the drowned world

For a lover of cities and an inveterate optimist, a curiously persistent thread over the years here has the destruction of cities. From an older entry on visions of deserted cities in films to later entries on drowned worlds in Brisbane, 'Apocalypse Sydney', and eliding the firestorms of Dresden and Tokyo with the bushfires/wildfires encircling Australian and Californian cities.

Continuing in this slightly morbid vein, and reading The Road recently not long after Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, I wondered if we could line up these books, along with JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, thus:

Apocalyptic books diagrammatically

Each book depicts the aftermath planet suffering some kind of apocalyptic event in different ways, all post-nuclear interestingly (as far as we can tell with McCarthy’s), though all in different ways.

On The Beach On the Beach (1957) describes a Melbourne as the last city on Earth, as a post-war cloud of radioactive fallout slowly enshrouds the globe. It’s a fascinating book, entirely redolent of its time, but in its depiction of denial entirely apposite now too. Climate change can stand in for this post-nuclear world, but appears more susceptible to denial due to its creeping diffuse nature.

In Shute’s novel, several of the characters struggle to deal with the impending death of human civilisation, from the American naval officer steadfastly believing his wife and child to be alive, even though he knows they cannot be, to the wife of the Australian naval office who plants vegetables she’ll never see come to fruition. (In the depiction of a car culture faced with dwindling oil reserves, we also see the kinds of autogeddon we can assume to be with us at some point this century.)

Clive Hamilton, in a brilliant essay in The Monthly on climate change denial, completes the Rumsfeldian square with his suggestion that climate change denial is about “unknown knowns, the facts we know but push from our consciousness.” On The Beach is more about this form of denial than reconciliation perhaps. It’s closer to ‘interpretative denial’ than ‘literal denial’ or ‘implicatory denial’, in Stanley Cohen’s model from his States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering.

This first form of denial is arguably where we are now with climate change. Although such change may take a different form, what echoes of 20th century behaviour will we see? WG Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction depicts a form of mass consensual denial after the complete obliteration of Hamburg during the Second World War:

“Instead, and with remarkable speed, social life, that other natural phenomenon, revived. People’s ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to the test better than in Germany at that time. The population decided - out of sheer panic at first - to carry on as if nothing had happened.” (p.41, On The Natural History of Destruction, WG Sebald)

The Drowned World JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) concerns a form of attempted psychological adaptation, perhaps also as denial. Ballard’s vision depicts living organisms, including humans, regressing to a prehistoric consciousness, a form of long dormant lizard brain awaking and grappling for control of consciousness and subconscious, in parallel with the rampantly fertile flora of the Triassic era. This is hardly denial, consciously or subconsciously. Rather, a surely doomed attempt by the human mind to reboot itself into another mode more appropriate to the conditions, like DOS suddenly re-emerging from within Windows.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007) is shattering, and one of the finest novels I’ve read. Certainly one of the most emotionally affecting. The protagonists in The Road are further advanced along this destructive linear progression. Indeed, further on down the road. They're far removed from any possible form of denial. Their ash-cloaked dead world is one of grim realisation and numb despair.

Happy new year.

Alternative ending: this closing image from Sunshine, noted in the aforementioned 'Apocalypse Sydney'.

On the Beach, Nevil Shute
The Drowned World, JG Ballard
The Road, Cormac McCarthy

January 04, 2009

Work and The City, Frank Duffy (2008)


Short books are often better books - The Eyes of the Skin; Undesigning the Bath; In Praise of Shadows; Peter Zumthor’s books; the Writer and the City and Pamphlet Architecture series, and so on. While this entrant into a new series called Edge Futures isn’t quite in that class, it is a good, useful and engaging read, detailing the symbiotic relationship between the modern city and the contemporary office environment. In particular, Work and the City convincingly details how this has led to a grossly inefficient under-utilisation of resources with damaging effects on individuals, corporations, and almost all aspects of urban ecosystem.

Duffy is a co-founder of the firm DEGW, and thus well-placed to discuss the ‘health’ of the modern office environment. DEGW are one of the few to make that their business, and have been influential in bringing to bear a more sophisticated understanding of the importance of calibrating the working environment. They do this through focusing on space-planning, organisational consultancy, post-occupancy and myriad other techniques.

As an architect, he is also well-placed to hit home with one of his first critiques - that architects are seduced by building new buildings, rather than addressing the existing built fabric. When much of what is to be built is already built, and much of it is inefficient, surely we should focus more on that existing fabric, rather than constructing new edifices?

Yet before working through solutions, the book offers a whistle-stop tour of a story well-told elsewhere but always worth considering - how we got into this fix, via the Taylorism-inspired production of the modern office, culminating in the hegemonic 1960s American environments (so lovingly conjured up in the US TV show Mad Men, incidentally). Duffy draws on sociologist Richard Sennett's phrase of “brittle cities” to illustate the infrastructure this leaves cities with: over-centralised and over-engineered to mono-functionality, and thus under-used and inflexible.

Mad Men

In the mood for love

Particularly as much of this existing space is so little used. DEGW’s data indicates that total occupancy of all office workplaces - desks, combined with meeting rooms and other social and semi-social places - peaks at 60%, and that’s for the Monday-Friday 8-hour working day. So the total occupancy 24/7 would be less by a considerable amount. In a world waking up to the significance of waste, this is rather pertinent.


We hear frequent claims from major cities that they’re running out of office space. Yet when existing office space is actually being used half the time during a third of the day, something is not quite right. (Note: I was reading an early review copy, and a few errors remained in the text, including the data on these occupancy levels being expressed differently at different points, with little detail on its exact provenance. It’s such a key finding that it warrants emblazoning in large letters, and so requires a little precision and backup through references and data.)


Duffy also draws on Stewart Brand’s equally well-known layers model, in order to indicate how these buildings - and cities - often aren’t designed to ‘learn’ from the shearing effects of skin, structure and space plan moving at different paces. In this respect, he finds London’s Soho to be a more resilient urban form than its Docklands, and London, New York and Paris to offer numerous examples of dense, physical complexity that almost organically offers a sophisticated flexible urbanism.


This is all well-understood - or at least well-discussed in enlightened professional circles - yet Duffy does go on to offer a new take on how these brittle developments still get built. Duffy suggests that the ‘Anglo-American supply chain’ for new buildings in most developed economies, centred on property developers, is not likely to produce less brittle results any time soon. Given the dislocation between developer, owner and occupier, the eventual buildings barely stand a chance. By way of an interesting counterpoint Duffy offers up an alternative - what he calls the “Social Democratic office”, emerging in the post-war environment of Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

SAS headquarters, Stockholm

Finance and development for the Social Democratic Office emerges from the business owners (and occupiers) themselves, as with Niels Torp’s SAS headquarters in Stockholm, for example. This simple reorganisation of the supply chain would surely produce better working environments, and Duffy is right to point out that it is essentially “cultural choice” that has ignored that opportunity elsewhere, in favour of other, arguably purely financial, opportunities. That it is cultural choice doesn’t mean it’s easy to fix, of course. Just that it is fixable.

Either way, the industrial revolution has careered into the knowledge revolution unchecked, at least on the surface, and Duffy is optimistic about the benefits of distributed, more social, more informal working styles - as long as people don’t overly adhere to the tyranny of permanently-connected BlackBerrys when trying to flatten the tyranny of distance and time, for instance. He describes the curious verisimilitude of teleconferencing on the high-end Cisco and Hewlett-Packard systems, and finds them immensely beguiling.

Cisco Telepresence

However, he is also right to indicate that these, and other advanced ICT not covered in much detail here, won’t replace the essential functions of urban life, and makes a strong argument for the rich physical serendipity of the city remaining essentially sovereign and highly valuable. These systems augment urban life, and could usefully reduce unnecessary travel and its associated emissions whilst retaining global connectivity. But the desire for the city certainly shows no sign of dissipating - quite the opposite.

While I agree with Duffy’s primary assertion, we may yet have to work harder to devise new working environments which truly respond to the promise of pervasive global interconnectivity. Indeed, we should embark on new place-making strategies which creatively resist this tendency of ICT - and economic globalisation for that matter - to smooth out the essential differences between places. And while Work and The City doesn’t really explore the potential in this new overlay on the city, Duffy does enough to suggest its importance. To truly articulate this new area would be a much larger book.

Equally, another larger book would provide more detail on how to solve 'new building syndrome' by retrofitting existing urban fabric, or offer up a few specific strategies for dealing with office occupancy levels, over and above paying for space by the hour, as per a hotel or co-working space. (Recent work by James Calder at Woods Bagot - including their publication WorkLife - is worth reviewing in this respect.) Yet this short book does more than enough to outline the issues, explain how we got here, and suggest the key trends that might move us forward.

Where the book does seriously fall down is in implicitly conflating 'work' with 'office work', something that’s all too easily done. Last month I spoke at an (Inside) magazine public lecture on the ‘Changing contemporary workplace’ - part of their Idea Week, leading up to their interior design excellence awards. I was speaking alongside Woods Bagot's Calder, Suzanne Perillo of Schiavello, Rosemary Kirkby, Peter Geyer of Geyer Architects and Tone Wheeler of Environa Studio. I’d talked through some of these issues of advanced ICT, architecture and the office work environment, while others had discussed other aspects of the changing office environment.

In closing the session, however, architect Tone Wheeler was right to pick us all up for making the same mistake as Duffy. He suggested that even in a knowledge-based city like Melbourne, for example, the office environment must cover around 15-20% of the locations for employment at best. In focusing on offices, we ignore necessary innovation in retail and service environments - which would cover the majority of employment, and a vast diversity of spaces - as well as all scales of manufacturing and craft.

However, the areas that Duffy’s book does focus on are still hugely important. Given the pioneering work of his firm, he is uniquely placed to address the changing nature of much urban work, and this simple, inexpensive book provides an excellent overview of both the evolution of cities and their possible futures.

Work and the city, Frank Duffy, Edge Futures/Black Dog Publishing (2008) [Amazon UK and US]

January 02, 2009


Australia bowler, Bill O'Reilly, demonstrates his famous grip, ca. 1932, by Sam Hood. Glass photonegative

A seasonal offering. Purely by chance, I’d discovered this series of broadcast transcripts from Australia to England via Paris, dating from Christmas 1932 and describing a game of cricket. Not just any game, mind. They consist of the ‘cables’ from the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), covering the action in test matches in the infamous ‘bodyline’ series between England and Australia [more on bodyline at the State Library of New South Wales or at Wikipedia]

“Due to restrictions on commercial radio in the United Kingdom in the 1930s, radio stations were established on the continent to beam programs directly to the United Kingdom. The main station was situated in Paris. One of its advertisers was the Gillette Safety Razor Co. which sponsored reporting of the controversial 1932-33 cricket series played between Australia and England in Australia. These were the days before live radio and television broadcasts of international sporting events. Each day a reporter cabled very brief descriptions of play to Paris where they were transformed into full scripts which were then broadcast to the United Kingdom.”

The communications technology of the time attenuated the bandwidth available to the reporters to an almost unimaginable degree by today’s standards.


The reports are dispatched without punctuation and merely consists of two- or three-word phrases breathlessly running on after each other. But note how the action still comes through loud and clear nonetheless.

Fine warm 50000 before toss wicket good larwood voce fastest making ball fly adopted leg theory attack virulent batsmen ultra cautious"

"bradman crudest stroke first ball bowes wild pull missed crowd bitterly disappointed england decided advantage 3/67 poor result perfect wicket fingleton 50 141 minutes grand defence riskless wearing down attack fielding admirable nothing given away”

“larwood resumed scoring slow hard toiling weather warming hundreds fainted in dense throng contest always interesting bowlers making batsmen earn every run none capable forcing scoring continually on defensive bowlers”

"one side unplaying cricket ruining game"

"oldfield struck head ball larwood staggered fell crowd hooting field crowded round after five minutes oldfield supported by woodfull walked off holding towel to head play resumed crowd still hooting"

You need a little knowledge of cricket to parse all of it - or to detect the layers of Imperial intrigue that underpin the bodyline story - but it’s fascinating to see how the technology affected communication to this extent. Although the radio broadcasts in England were subsequently altered to remove references to the bodyline controversy - the  cables mention "leg theory" rather than the "bodyline" that was reported in Australia - these raw transcripts of the cables are a supreme exercise in concision and compression. Here the content was compressed to fit the signal, and then expanded upon by broadcasters at the other end of the world. It's dependent on creative interpretation by humans, with the compressed signal only visible to the system, not the ultimate receivers.


It might also give us pause to consider how available bandwidth, politics, and business models always affects communication, and how much information might be lost in today's polynodal yet low-resolution transmissions via email and IM, Twitter and status updates, audio and video streaming and so on.

Either way, I love reading these cables. The language is crafted so perfectly, despite the constraints. They’re caught between poetry and machinery.

Some more excerpts below [all cables here]

Continue reading "Cables" »

January 01, 2009

Habitus magazine


Habitus is a new quarterly Australian architecture magazine of some promise. The Australian architecture and interiors magazine market is pretty well stocked, led by the likes of Monument, Architecture Australia, Architectural Review Australia, (Inside), Artichoke, C+A (the extraordinarily elegant publication of Cement Concrete and Aggregates Australia - yes, really), and several others. There are some failings in this set - they’re perhaps overly fixated on image (though this tends to come with the medium); perhaps overly focused on domestic architecture - a particular local strength (and failing) - and Architecture Australia occasionally suffers from being the ‘house mag’ of the AIA and so can be a little “uncritical” (in the words of a local architect friend). There’s nothing particularly avant-garde here either, for which we’d turn to a few of the good university offshoots, such as Mongrel/Subaud. All told, though, there is often good value in all of these publications and it’s a pretty strong showing.

However, Habitus launches unperturbed into this feisty local market with a smart new take on what local actually is. The editorial stance that particularly interests me is its focus on the architecture of Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia, seeing this region as a broad continuum of spaces, places, terrain, climate and culture. In the words of editor Paul McGillick:

Habitus is about cultural engagement - about architects and designers from Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia enriching one another in an on-going dialogue. The differences and commonalities all add up to a matrix of ideas which can lead to better outcomes for the environment we live in.”

This is not only a great idea but a strong guiding mission, recognising that Australian and New Zealand cities are essentially Asian now, and also the potential for local architects and designers in this wider ‘common market’. It also means the pages are replete with gorgeous tropical houses from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, all warm concrete and burnished wood slowly being engulfed in verdant foliage, surrounded by green-tinged pools and dense eruptions of palms and Tembesu trees. The sheer fecundity of these environments often combine to make the Aus/NZ houses look as if they’re situated in positively spartan terrain, no mean feat. The projects range from enormous mansions to the smallest interventions in the environment, and are balanced with contributions from across the region (though there’s little from Australia north of Sydney in this particular issue, unfortunately.)

Continue reading "Habitus magazine" »

The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)

A black swan, earlier

This is a book that I almost didn’t read. Like The Long Tail or Here Comes Everybody, for instance. Both books I own but don’t feel the need to read, feeling that I've already having experienced much of what lies inside. This betrays my own arrogance I suppose, and I’ve no doubt I’ve missed a few profound insights this way. But given the choice I prefer to read about things I don’t know, books that don’t promise to back up my existing ideas. Then there are those like Gladwell’s Blink or The Tipping Point, books whose title more or less says it all. A quick rifle through the pages of these books in an airport bookshop - in that peculiar pre-flight mode of having no time and time on your hands - is enough to get the gist, and speculate as to their point.

The Black Swan almost fell into this category, but a recommendation by Paul Schütze and a few others meant that I did pick it up - at Melbourne Airport, ironically - and consumed it voraciously.

Continue reading "The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)" »

Writing, about Sydney

Pyrmont Power Station from Darling Harbour c.1935 by Rah Fizelle

As Australia settles in to its blissfully warm summer holidays, and as I emerge from a particularly crunchy period of work largely responsible for the intermittent posting here recently, I thought I’d bring you up to date with a few bits of writing I’ve done for other places this last year.

I’ve already posted The Adaptive City essay I wrote for the Urban Play exhibition catalogue a few months ago, which provoked thoughtful responses from many, for which much thanks.

I should also point out a short piece in the book that accompanies the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Actions exhibition, edited by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi. The book is available soon, and the exhibition is on now - the website is well worth a look. While I can’t make the trip to Montreal, I’ll report back on the book when I receive a copy.

Even earlier this year I wrote an article for Architectural Review Australia, addressing the late-2007 report on Sydney’s central business district (CBD) produced by near-ubiquitous Danish urban design firm Jan Gehl Architects. Gehl is a one-man force for good in terms of reawakening cities to the promise of walkable - and bike-able - urbanism. Yet I suggest there are flaws in their approach when it came to addressing what I consider to be the real problems of contemporary Sydney. While I agree with much of what Gehl’s team suggested, it seemed to miss several of the wider issues, as well as the newer area of urban design I’m pursuing, around urban informatics. However, please note also that it was written for the end-piece of AR, a traditionally opinionated section of the magazine, and this context shows a little in the eventual piece too. I’m actually more of a fan of Gehl’s work as an advocate for cycling and walkable urbanism than it sounds, though I find that his firm’s wider urban design and planning strategies are often less interesting (see also Jonathan Glancey and David Barrie.)

I’m posting a slightly extended mix of the article below - partly for the record but also to spur a few related entries on urban strategies.

While it’s a specific piece, focused on Sydney in late 2007, it also betrays some of my thoughts on contemporary cities at the time. I have to say, eight months on, I wouldn’t write the same piece in the same way, which I hope indicates some development in my thinking, as well as almost a year wrestling with Sydney in the ‘day job’. The problems in this wonderful city are complex. Indeed, it’s all too easy to develop a love-hate relationship with Sydney - although casual indifference is the dangerous mode most citizens are in, as the city’s obvious natural charms lull people - including politicians - into accepting poor quality of thinking and execution in too many aspects of everyday life.

Sydney certainly can live up to the well-known image of the global city bejewelled with beaches, ocean pools and a glittering harbour, as seen in these beguiling little tilt-shift-like movies by Keith Loutit:

It benefits from a thrusting, ambitious CBD (albeit overly-focused on the 'B') and the many wonderful inner suburbs surrounding, most built around diverse ethnic mixes, the ghosts of former industries in Redfern, Waterloo, Pyrmont or Paddington or the finely grained streets of Potts Point and Rushcutters Bay, often threaded with compact rows of reusable terraces with numerous pockets of startling greenery, and much more besides. These inner suburbs are perhaps a little overly-residential, rather than more usefully mixed up, but each have their own character and promise. The basic 'natural' qualities of life - climate, terrain, food, and good-humoured, bright people (in the main) - are all enviably rich along Australia's immense coastline, and Sydney benefits from all of them.

But Sydney is also the following, often overwhelming all this:

These extremes set up an interesting counterpoint, more so than most. Sydney has perhaps the most effortlessly beautiful urban mis-en-scéne imaginable, but its built fabric is often truly, breathtakingly awful. Most of Sydney, of course, is somewhere in-between. At a basic, almost topographical level, the tension that results from this may contribute to the city often being fractured and knotted in a peculiar stasis.

Yet creative tension is at the heart of all cities - cities are not things which tend towards equilibrium - so this is really no excuse for consistently stuffing up infrastructure projects, over-gearing towards shopping malls, or the internecine squabbling that often characterises city-state relationships. Analysis of that means swimming in deeper undercurrents again, as even a cursory glance at the first sections of Norman Abjorensen’s excellent article at Inside Story will make clear, indicating the ideological backdrop to liberal city hall politics in Sydney (though even this is muddied by the varying contenders for a ‘city hall-like’ function amongst the three tiers of government overlaid onto New South Wales.)

The Gehl report - which is available for download via the City of Sydney - was a precursor to the major strategy for the city unveiled only a few months later, Sustainable Sydney 2030. Note that all this concerns the local authority, the City of Sydney, rather than the actual city of Sydney itself, which is composed of 40-odd other local authorities and sprawls over one of the largest metropolitan regions in the world. Therein lies a problem, as I indicate below. Despite this focus, and while it’s not a bad strategy as far as it goes, the other danger of such initiatives is that they don’t deliver genuine change in the city and can be too easily sidetracked - cf. Melbourne, a successful site of Gehl Architects’ work years ago, but whose Melbourne 2030 strategy (no relation) appears to be increasingly ignored, with particularly egregious decisions occurring all too regularly now.

Further, these strategies rarely get at more productive strategies for the city, instead focusing on the thin (though important in its own way) veneer of urban design and planning. I hint at this in the following piece - what is Sydney for? - but a much sharper critique of Sustainable Sydney 2030 was made a few months later in Monument magazine, by Ingo Kumic and Gerard Reinmuth. Excuse the lengthy quote but it's worth it, as they outline alternative, productive approaches to urban strategy:

"The result is a document concerned with designing the city - its image - rather than empowering it to exist. So, while it is rich on images of happy people on bicycles, it falls short of anything we may call a productive strategy. The city is redesigned rather than empowered to produce and re-produce itself. The task of empowering the city requires a serious analysis of the many varied yet interdependent economies that comprise 'Glocal' Sydney. This is a different project to the one the City of Sydney has championed, as it is fundamentally based on understanding the impediments to building capacity in the city to exist in a highly competitive world and therefore the capacity of its people to make their place. Having established the limitations and strengths of myriad economies, we can begin to innovate the systems of production, distribution and consumption that define them. We can temper them with new and emerging social and environmental agendas and we can introduce new ideas concerning governance and inclusion, such as corporate social responsibility. This project will then ensure that the economies that define Sydney are grounded in our unique proposition and thereby exploit the increasing importance of cultural capital ... The current emphasis of strategic plans on designing cities, rather than empowering them, stems from the fact that the design economy revolves entirely around the capitalisation of the experience of a designed object ... Mature cities - such as Barcelona, with its Metropolitan Strategic Plan of Barcelona and London via the the London Plan - demonstrate that the consumptive experience of the city is a consequence and not a driver of a city's capacity to make its own place ... The Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision simply delivers design images of creative capacity rather than the productive strategies that may enable creative capacity to emerge ... This city, like any city, is its society - not its bricks and mortar. If we fail to build capacity for the city to make and re-make itself, we fail to underscore the fundamental reason for its existence." ['(Re)Making Sydney: Image, form and crisis of vision', Ingo Kumic & Gerard Reinmuth, Monument magazine #87, October/November 2008]

(Actually, while I agree with much of their article, I'd quibble with the idea that design only concerns image - good design also includes the re-framing of questions like what is Sydney for, and image is only one aspect of its output. But that's a designer talking. I'd also quibble with the idea that London doesn't partake in the kind of 'design economy' practises their critique focuses on. Much of this ideology stems from London directly, for good or ill. Finally, there is a more subtle interplay between urban infrastructure (including urban form and the quality of urban design) and the productive practises that emerge there. It's not quite one leading the other, as they make out, but rather more symbiotic. However, their article reinforced my perennial interest in the soft infrastructure of a city - people, networks, culture, society, civic relationships - and its interplay with the hard stuff, expanding on a few points I'd tried to make below.)

Either way, such strategies do provide a forum for debate about what flavour of urbanism is appropriate for the city, and that is of immense value. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the world’s most urbanised nations needs to kick-start debate about its major cities, but that remains the case. So in that spirit, I offer this piece up as constructive criticism, an attempt to take a good report and make it better.

(And apologies for wheeling out the Saarinen quote yet again, but as usual I can’t resist it.)

Continue reading "Writing, about Sydney" »

November 20, 2008

The street as platform, under construction

Well, more or less. Not quite the full platform imagined in that post - or this - but a small step in that direction.

I'm currently teaching a two-week class at University of Technology Sydney, on the Master of Digital Architecture degree. As per the 'street as platform' idea, we're creating a multiperspectival portrait of the street, seen through the lens of data. Some of this data is derived from various sensors we're placing around the immediate urban environment, some of it is scraped from websites or other sources. The patterns arising from the collision of these datasets are being explored through visualisations produced in the Processing language

We've got the 12 or so students blogging about their progress throughout the course, which extends from learning Processing from scratch (plus working in a web services-enabled design environment) to exploring the possibilities and vagaries of real-time data, scraping historical data off the web, and thinking through what it means to visualise patterns in urban data, from conceptual, aesthetic and pragmatic viewpoints. We're heading towards a small exhibition based around an installation in which the visualisations are projected - so ultimately exploring the ideas of projecting urban behavioural data back into the street, as per this system diagram.

The Masters course is run by Anthony Burke, and my teaching colleagues also include Mitchell Whitelaw (University of Canberra/The Teeming Void) and Jason McDermott. We must also thank Dr. David Lowe of the Centre for Real-Time Information Networks at UTS, and those helping from afar include Usman Haque. Plus, we have a forum tomorrow including local luminaries Marcus Trimble and Andrew Vande Moere. Particular kudos also to the students, who are working incredibly hard.

Keep an eye on the students' blog for progress updates, and I'll post more links, context, images, notes &c. to follow, but for now, a quick word from the street itself:

Master of Digital Architecture class 11/08: 'Street as platform': students' blog

November 09, 2008

Wi-fi structures and people shapes


Following on from our recent 'post-occupancy evaulation' of the State Library of Queensland's wi-fi (see previous post) in my role at Arup, I thought I'd share a couple of outputs. (Thanks to Tory Jones of the State Library of Queensland for permission).

One of the ideas I've been exploring relates to how urban industry - in the widest sense of the word - in the knowledge economy is often invisible, at least immediately and in situ. Whereas urban industry would once have produced thick plumes of smoke or deafening sheets of sound, today's information-rich environments - like the State Library of Queensland, or a contemporary office - are places of still, quiet production, with few sensory side-effects. We see people everywhere, faces lit by their open laptops, yet no evidence of their production. They could be using Facebook, Photoshop, Excel or Processing.


I've been developing a few ideas for exploring this industrial activity, which I hope to share here later, but the post-occupancy work on the Library's wi-fi involved creating a few representations of the service; a service which is all but invisible. Outside of monitoring the server logs, the wi-fi can only be perceived through the presence of users themselves, or of course via devices that detect wi-fi.


So as well as photo-essays, videos and in-depth interviews with users, and relating to this idea of making the invisible, visible, I mapped the strength of the wi-fi signal across levels 1 and 2 of the Library, the primary areas that the Library’s wi-fi is used. By taking readings across the floor of both levels, using standard wi-fi-enabled consumer equipment in order to mimic the conditions for the average user (in this case a MacBook laptop and a Nokia e65 mobile phone), I was able to construct a snapshot of the wi-fi signal strength across the Library.



I then articulated this set of readings as a basic 3D model in SketchUp, with peaks representing good wi-fi signal strength (4 bars, for example) and troughs representing poor wi-fi signal strength (no bars/no connection, or intermittently 1 bar). Each ‘bar’ defined a level in the 3D model (1 bar = 1 metre, roughly). This gives a sense of the wi-fi as a shape, with a physical form. Although literally misleading, it helps to understand wi-fi as a discrete phenomenon, via a form of translation.



While this model is not intended to be totally accurate - wi-fi signals may change in different atmospheric conditions, and perceived signal strength will vary depending on the equipment used - it does convey a sense of the overall ‘shape’ of the wi-fi, as if we could perceive it in physical form. Sensing the wi-fi like this is almost akin to dowsing - detecting the presence of unseen forces - and mimics the sensation of users attempting to discern where the wi-fi signal is strong.




The model was initially overlaid onto a floorplan of level 1, and subsequently scaled up to sit over a snapshot of the site from Google Earth. When comparing with the built form, we can explain the strong signal over the north-western egress of the Knowledge Walk. Through our observations at the Library, we saw that users have figured out that this is a good spot - one of the 3 wireless access points currently on that floor is located in the nearby meeting rooms, not that users would know this. The presence of the ‘bench’ extruded from the wall provides useful affordances for users too, almost suggesting it’s a good spot to sit and access the wi-fi (although again, we suspect that is accidental coincidence of design). Similarly, the floor-to-ceiling windows from meeting rooms and open corridor leading outside means there is minimal concrete to block the signal. So this 3D model helps suggest a correlation between use of the space, the shape of the space, and the strong wi-fi signal.



Following the central spine of the wi-fi model through towards the south-eastern edge, we can see how the wi-fi ‘leaks out’ of this end of the building, through the open end of the Knowledge Walk outside onto the concourse in-between the Library and the building destined to be The Edge. Elsewhere, thick concrete mitigates against wi-fi spreading far, unfortunately including the café and the fabulous deck areas on the river, where the signal falls off sharply (currently).



I allocated the SketchUp model a skin of netting, in a nod towards the Cedric Price-designed aviary at London Zoo. This seemed to me a similar structure, and suggests that 'wi-fi cloud' might actually feel like a containing volume - a net of wi-fi, as if seen from a user’s or bird’s point-of-view.




Formally, the result is hardly elegant, and bears little relation to the AIA award-winning structure by Donovan Hill/Peddle Thorp. (Incidentally, it’s been a great pleasure to work with Timothy Hill on this and other projects recently). The sharp angles and abrupt faces are accidents of the crude construction in SketchUp and the simplicity in my measurements. I should probably take it into 3D Studio Max or something, to render it with more graceful curves, or a material that would more properly represent the qualities of radio waves - perhaps something like Diller+Scofidio's Blur Building.

There's a full set of screengrabs here, here's a fly-through animation, and here's the original SketchUp model. I don't want to overplay the significance of this approach - it was simply one of several methods for expressing the presence of wi-fi in the Library, and partly just sketching out loud ...

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