Networked urbanism: From constant to variable

There’s a slide in my current presentation deck asserting that one of the transitions cities can expect to undergo in the turn toward a fully robust networked urbanism is that from “constant” to “variable.” I’m often asked just what I mean by this, and I’d like to use the following example – first suggested to me by Kevin Slavin – as a jumping-off point for the discussion.

Nestled at the intersection of two autobahnen some five miles north-northeast of central Munich lies an enormous torus whose surface is quilted with thousands of silvery facets set in a diamond grid – 2,874 of them, to be precise. The street on which the torus sits is named for Werner Heisenberg, the legendary 20th Century physicist who first articulated the principle of formal uncertainty often associated with his name, and as we shall see, this turns out to be curiously apropos.

This is the Allianz Arena, a football stadium designed by the highly-regarded Swiss architectural firm of Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron, and the facets might be taken as something of a minor motif in the firm’s output. Superficially, at least, Allianz appears to employ a vocabulary of form similar to that the partnership had previously used to great effect on their exquisite, jewel-like building for Prada in the Aoyama district of Tokyo. But where the latter is a structure designed for low traffic and a single, very specific type of user, the Allianz is a building meant from the very beginning for the masses.

At least two masses, actually, and those starkly different from one another. For as it happens, Munich is home to not one but two football clubs: TSV 1860 München, whose at-home uniform is blue, and FC Bayern München, who wear red. Nor are these the only teams who might plausibly claim Allianz as home ground: the German national team also occasionally plays matches there, and their color is white.

Responding to the diverging requirements of 1860 and FCB, as they alternate possession on a near-daily basis during the Bundesliga season, is a nontrivial exercise for any structure the size of a stadium. And as anyone even slightly acquainted with a football supporter can imagine, this is if anything even truer as regards the two teams’ respective followers.

Most arenas facing a similar situation might acknowledge the alternation of teams and audiences by some superficially convincing means – perhaps by swapping out the banners and flags hung about the peristyle. But the remarkable thing about Allianz is that the building itself has been given a way to address this change in conditions.

The structure’s exoskeleton is wrapped with a lightweight foil of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE. And where ordinarily, one of ETFE’s notable properties is its very high degree of transparency, in this case each panel has been stippled with a fritting of miniscule dots. The result is a milky semi-opacity that, when backlit by tunable LEDs, causes each panel to emit a highly-saturated glow of whatever color desired. Now intensely red, now a truly uncanny blue: one structure, but two very different buildings.

For anyone in the crowd, the effect – on mood, on sense of presence, on awareness of the surrounding space, on perception of belonging to some larger community – is nothing less than total. Change some settings, and you change the kind of person who will feel at home in the building, the range of things they will feel comfortable expressing and doing there, and more generally the possibilities for collective action.

A thought experiment: take things one simple step further. Open those settings up; plug them into the global data network in such a way as to close a feedback loop between the building and all the people currently using it. And by so doing, couple the building’s radiant color to spectators’ average heart rate, level of activity or emotional state. Connect those parameters to outside control, and you can think of that entire building, its affect and meaning, as an asset of the network.

At a crucial moment, the opposing team scores a telling goal. Suddenly you’ve got the ability to modulate and dampen the crowd’s disappointment or, if you so choose, heighten and exacerbate it. Write a few lines of code mapping different patterns of illumination to various contingencies that may arise, and the building becomes a subtler tool, one you can use to settle and reassure, to tweak and goad, even to urge a swift and orderly flow to the exits.

What’s going on here?

This is new-media theorist Lev Manovich, describing a very different building – Lars Spuybroek’s Water Pavilion – in a 2002 essay: “Its continuously changing surfaces illustrate the key effect of a computer revolution: substitution of every constant by a variable.” In this case, Manovich is specifically referring to the effect of computational design on the contours of a single building, but it’s a profoundly insightful comment, and it points directly at the question of interest. Driven by networked computation, architecture – that slowest-moving and stateliest of arts – is learning to dance.

What’s at stake is nothing less than the basic phenomenology of buildings, and of the cities composed of buildings: how they exist in the world, how we encounter them, what possibilities they afford us. We’re used to buildings being one color or another, confronting us with this shape or another, holding one consistent form and aspect for as long as we care to engage them, and all of these verities are now coming into question.

I hardly need to point out that cities are infinitely more than collections of buildings. By the same token, though, the exterior surfaces of buildings, and the negative spaces and voids they define, constitute primary conditions for urban experience. And when these envelopes and hollows – thanks to their investment with computational sensing and response – become subject to change over time scales far shorter than those to which we’ve become accustomed, it’s clear to me that we’re talking about a new and very different set of prospects and potentials for the city.

11 responses to “Networked urbanism: From constant to variable”

  1. Christopher Fahey says :

    If you think of the city’s non-physical experience potentials — e.g., in different ways, virtual and augmented realities — this variability becomes even more obvious and of course more easily implemented.

    Also: Drawbridges.

  2. Adam says :

    Excellent stuff here. I’ve been pondering the fluid nature of the modern networked city for some time but had never framed it specifically as a general shift from constant to variable.

    Also, it’s been nice to see Speedbird articles popping up with such frequency lately. Cheers.

  3. AG says :

    I’ve been arguing for some time that the moment is ripe for a resurgence of personal blogging. I figured I’d take my own advice.

  4. AG says :

    Heh. You know Tom Armitage’s “Making Bridges Talk“?

  5. svengali says :

    “as they alternate possession on a near-daily basis during the Bundesliga season”

    Well, not quite: Bundesliga home matches are usually only on weekends, so the clubs alternate more on a weekly basis. Not including the occasional mid-week Champions League match for Bayern (who are the much bigger club and sole shareholders of the stadium’s operating company).

  6. AG says :

    Fair comment, thanks.

  7. uh says :

    i’ve been meaning to reply to this for a while. while i agree broadly with the sentiment, there are a couple of qualifications i would make.

    the move from “constant” to “variable” is certainly an interesting development. but if it were simply a matter of changing colours, then the only thing that has changed is the temporal scale. that is, rather than taking many hours, days and months to “repaint” a building, it can now be done at the flick of a switch.

    what’s more interesting to me is that, to riff on the example you described, the stadium colour *could* be linked to audience emotional state; or it *could* be linked to activity on the field; or it *could* be linked to temperature, the price of oil, the movements of a dancer in tokyo or muons deteced on the moon.

    for me it’s not the variability of the colour that’s interesting (in fact it barely interests me at all), it’s the possible variability of this transfer function: and it’s just such variability that highlights, for me, the crucial distinction between “reactive” and “interactive”.

    as far as i’m aware, however, the stadium is still in a “reactive” condition because the transfer function is mostly fixed; this doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be opened up in order to approach a more “interactive” state, where transfer functions could themselves be malleable, or created on-the-fly and this is where it really gets intriguing to me: how is the transfer function determined/designed/evolved? and once ‘colour-of-etfe’ is unhitched from the output, what else might take its place?

    this is why the mention of heisenberg is apposite, and worth expanding on a little. it’s often thought that his principles imply that uncertainty leads to variability. i would suggest, however, that the important implication of his principles is that there is no ‘absolute’ or even ‘static’ outcome; that the process of observation is very much a constructive process; and that linear causality just isn’t what it might appear to be, it’s something we build ourselves in order to create meaning. (for more on this, i highly recommend “The Nature of Explanation”, 1943, by Kenneth Craik – a short book that explores causality, analogy and paradox all in the context of (a) the physiology of the brain and (b) the new (at that time) physics of quantum mechanics; if anything, just read the very first paragraph of the preface…).

    i don’t think the ramifications of this kind of approach have been adequately explored at the urban scale. partly, i admit, because a literal analogue would be awfully inappropriate; but mostly because we’re still somewhat stuck (at least in the high-tech world of so-called ‘interactive architecture’) in a linear-causal-positivism that, well, grates.

    hey, look at that: i do believe that this is the first time i’ve ever left a comment on a blog!

  8. AG says :

    …and it was precisely what I needed you to write, too!

    I was so glad when you made this point the other week, and so happy you’ve now spelled it out in detail here. Because, while I share your dyspepsia with the linear causality model implied by most so-called “interactive” systems, I hadn’t managed to capture or express that in my comments about Allianz.

    I do think that, when everything is opened up and allowed to vary indeterminately, inputs as well as outputs, we pretty rapidly approach a point where it gets difficult for people to come to any kind of coherent mapping between perceived cause and response. And it’s not that that isn’t an interesting state to me, but that in my view it tends to weaken the potential of such visibly dynamic conditions to act as a channel of communication (from one group to another, from a group to itself).

    I suspect I’m always going to be more interested in utilitarian applications, in this regard. I don’t know just why, but I do acknowledge it as a latent bias.

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