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Transmobility, part I

This is a quickish post on a big and important topic, so I’d caution you against taking any of the following too terribly seriously. Blogging is generally how I best think things through, though, so I’d be grateful if you’d bear with me as I work out just what it is I mean to say.

In the Elements talk I’ve been giving for the past year or so, I make a series of concatenated assertions about the near-future evolution of urban mobility in the presence of networked informatics. What I see happening is that as the prominence in our lives of vehicles as objects is for most of us eclipsed by an understanding of them as networked services, as the necessity of vehicular ownership as a way to guarantee access yields to on-demand use, our whole conception of modal transportation will tend to soften into a more general field condition I think of as transmobility.

As I imagine it, transmobility would offer us a quality of lightness and effortlessness that’s manifestly missing from most contemporary urban journeys, without sacrificing opportunities for serendipity, unpressured exploration or the simple enjoyment of journey-as-destination. You’d be freer to focus on the things you actually wanted to spend your time, energy and attention on, in other words, while concerns about the constraints of particular modes of travel would tend to drop away.

When I think of how best to evoke these qualities in less abstract terms, two memories come to mind: a simple coincidence in timing I noticed here in Helsinki not two weeks ago, and a more richly braided interaction I watched unfold over a slightly longer interval during a trip to Barcelona last year.

The first was something that happened as I was saying goodbye to a friend after meeting up for an afterwork beer the other day. It was really just a nicely giftwrapped version of something I’m sure happens ten thousand times a day, in cities across the planet: we shook hands and went our separate ways at the precise moment a tram glided to a stop in front of the bar, and I had to laugh as he stepped onto it without missing a beat and was borne smoothly away.

A whole lot of factors in space and time needed to come into momentary alignment for this to happen, from the dwell time and low step-up height of the tram itself to the rudimentary physical denotation of the tram stop and the precise angle at which the bar’s doorway confronted the street. Admittedly, service and interaction designers will generally only be able to speak to some of these issues. But what if we could design mobility systems, and our interfaces to them, to afford more sequences like this, more of the time?

The second image I keep in mind speaks more to the opportunities presented by travel through a densely-textured urban fabric, and how we might imagine a transmobility that allowed us to grasp more of them.

This time, I was lucky enough to capture the moment in a snapshot: the woman on the bicycle casually rode up to the doorway, casually engaged a friend in conversation, casually kissed her on the cheek and casually pedaled away. The entire interaction, from start to end, may have taken two minutes, and the whole encounter was wrapped with an ineffable quality of grace, as if we’d stumbled across some Gibsonian team of stealth imagineers framing a high-gloss advertisement for the Mediterranean lifestyle.

Again, the quality I so admired was enabled by the subtle synchromesh of many specific and otherwise unrelated design decisions: decisions about the width of the street and its edge condition, about the placement of the doorway and the size of the bike wheels. But it also had a great deal to do with the inherent strengths of the individual bicycle as a mode of conveyance, strengths shared with skateboards, scooters and one’s own feet — among them that the rider has an relatively fine degree of control over micro-positioning and -routing, and that she alone decides when to punctuate a trip with stops and starts.

Watching what happened spontaneously when people were afforded this degree of flexibility made it clear to me that this, too, was a quality you’d want to capture in any prospective urban mobility system. And that to whatever extent we possibly could, we ought to be conceiving of such systems so they would afford their users just such moments of grace.

So on the one hand, we have just-in-time provisioning of mobility, via whatever mode happens to be closest at hand (or is otherwise most congenial, given the demands of the moment). On the other, a sense that any given journey can be unfolded fractally, unlocking an infinitude of potential experiences strung along its length like pearls. It’s not hard to see that these desires produce, at the very least, a strong tension between them, and that we’ll have to be particularly artful in providing for both simultaneously.

How might we balance all of these contradictory demands, in designing networked mobility systems that represent urban space and the challenge of getting through it in terms human beings can relate to? This question brings us to something we’ve discussed here before — the classically Weiserian notion of “beautiful seams” — and it’s a topic we’ll take up in Part II of our series on transmobility.

Frameworks for citizen responsiveness, enhanced: Toward a read/write urbanism

We’ve been talking a little bit about what we might gain if we begin to conceive of cities, for some limited purposes anyway, as software under active development. So far, we’ve largely positioned such tools as a backstop against the inevitable defaults, breakdowns and ruptures that municipal services are heir to: a way to ensure that when failures arise, they’ll get identified as quickly as possible, assessed as to severity, brought to the attention of the relevant agencies, and flagged for follow-up.

And as useful, and even inspiring, as this might be, to my mind it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s essentially the lamination together of some entirely conventional systems, provisions and practices — something that already exists in its component pieces, something, as Bruce points out here, that’s “not even impossible.”

But what if we did take a single step further out? What if we imagined that the citizen-responsiveness system we’ve designed lives in a dense mesh of active, communicating public objects? Then the framework we’ve already deployed becomes something very different. To use another metaphor from the world of information technology, it begins to look a whole lot like an operating system for cities.

Provided that, we can treat the things we encounter in urban environments as system resources, rather than a mute collection of disarticulated buildings, vehicles, sewers and sidewalks. One prospect that seems fairly straightforward is letting these resources report on their own status. Information about failures would propagate not merely to other objects on the network but reach you and me as well, in terms we can relate to, via the provisions we’ve made for issue-tracking.

And because our own human senses are still so much better at spotting emergent situations than their machinic counterparts, and will probably be for quite some time yet to come, there’s no reason to leave this all up to automation. The interface would have to be thoughtfully and carefully designed to account for the inevitable bored teenagers, drunks, and randomly questing fingers of four-year-olds, but what I have in mind is something like, “Tap here to report a problem with this bus shelter.”

In order for anything like this scheme to work, public objects would need to have a few core qualities, qualities I’ve often described as making them “addressable, queryable, and even potentially scriptable.” What does this mean?

Addressability. In order to bring urban environments fully into the networked fold, we would first need to endow each of the discrete things we’ve defined as public objects with its own unique identifier, or address. It’s an ideal application for IPv6, the next-generation Internet Protocol, which I described in Everyware as opening up truly abyssal reaches of address space. Despite the necessity of reserving nigh-endless blocks of potentially valid addresses for housekeeping, IPv6 still offers us a ludicrous freedom in this regard; we could quite literally assign every cobblestone, traffic light and street sign on the planet a few million addresses.

It’s true that this is overkill if all you need is a unique identifier. If all you’re looking to do is specify the east-facing traffic signal at the northeast corner of 34th Street and Lexington Avenue, you can do that right now, with barcodes or RFID tags or what-have-you. You only need to resort to IPv6 addressability if your intention is to turn such objects into active network nodes. But as I’ve argued in other contexts, the cost of doing this is so low that any potential future ROI whatsoever justifies the effort.

Queryability. Once you’ve got some method of reliably identifying things and distinguishing them from others, a sensitively-designed API allows us to pull information off of them in a meaningful, structured way, either making use of that information ourselves or passing it on to other systems and services.

We’ve so far confined our discussion to things in the public domain, but by defining open interoperability standards (and mandating the creation of a critical mass of compliant objects), the hope is that people will add resources they own and control to the network, too. This would offer incredibly finely-grained, near-realtime reads on the state of a city and the events unfolding there. Not merely, in other words, to report that this restaurant is open, but which seats at which tables are occupied, and for how long this has been the case; not merely where a private vehicle charging station is, but how long the current waits are.

Mark my words: given only the proper tools, and especially a well-designed software development kit, people will build the most incredible ecology of bespoke services on data like this. If you’re impressed by the sudden blossoming of iPhone apps, wait until you see what people come up with when they can query stadium parking lots and weather stations and bike racks and reservoir levels and wait times at the TKTS stand. You get the idea. (Some of these tools already exist: take a look at Pachube, for example.)

– And finally scriptability, by which I mean the ability to push instructions back to connected resources. This is obviously a delicate matter: depending on the object in question, it’s not always going to be appropriate or desirable to offer open scriptability. You probably want to give emergency-services vehicles the ability to override traffic signals, in other words, but not the spotty kid in the riced-out WRX. It’s also undeniable that connecting pieces of critical infrastructure to an open network increases the system’s overall vulnerability — what hackers call its “attack surface” — many, many times. If every exit is an entrance somewhere else, every aperture through which the network speaks itself is also a way in.

We should all be very clear, right up front, that this is a nontrivial risk. I’ll make it explicit: any such scheme as the one sketched out here presents the specter of warfare by cybersabotage, stealthy infrastructure attrition or subversion, and the depredations of random Saturday-night griefers. It’s also true that connected systems are vulnerable to cascading failures in ways non-coupled systems cannot ever be. Yes, yes and yes. It’s my argument that over anything but the very shortest term, the advantages to be derived from so doing will outweigh the drawbacks and occasional catastrophes — even fatal ones. But as my architect friends say, this is above all something that must be “verified in field,” validated empirically and held up to the most rigorous standards.

What do we get in return for embracing this nontrivial risk? We get a supple, adaptive interface to the urban fabric itself, something that allows us not just to nail down problems, but to identify and exploit opportunities. Armed with that, I can see no upward limit on how creative, vibrant, imaginative and productive twenty-first century urban life can be, even under the horrendous constraints I believe we’re going to face, and are perhaps already beginning to get a taste of.

Stolidly useful, “sustainable,” justifiable on the most gimlet-eyed considerations of ROI, environmental benefit and TCO? Sure. But I think we should be buckling ourselves in, because first and foremost, read/write urbanism is going to be a blast.

Carfree by choice

When I was up in Umeä last year for the Spring IxD Summit, I happened to spot a book called Carfree Cities lying on a drafting table in the school’s vehicle design program, which shares space with the interaction design faculty. Well, you know me: I ordered it from Amazon on the spot, and found it waiting for me at home in Helsinki a few days later. (I should note my delight at the fact that it was a vehicle design program where I encountered the book, lying there like the proudly-flaunted samizdat of a despised minority party. I’d, myself, be so much happier if the planet’s design faculties decided en masse to teach Mobility Design instead.)

It’s a dead giveaway from the title, but what I appreciate about Carfree Cities is that its author, JH Crawford, is willing to think about the relationship between mobility and urban quality of life in a deeper way than is generally the case, and propose proportionally more radical solutions. Having decided for ourselves that we’ll never own one again, I’m clearly already sympathetic to the idea that the car simply isn’t as necessary to getting around cities as we’ve come to believe it is.

Crawford spends the first part of his book marshaling the usual (but by no means unpersuasive) evidence against the automobile: the pollution, the injury and fatality figures, the waste. I was pleased to see someone putting empirical flesh on my gut take that where cities, at least, are concerned, the seriously inimical artifact isn’t the gasoline engine at all, but the private car built around it. Or, to put it another way, that as a society you could replace the stinking V8s with hybrids, electrics and hydrogen fuel-cells to whatever degree you wanted, but would be likely to find that the problems attendant upon the car haven’t evaporated quite so readily as the clouds of monoxide.

Having identified vehicular traffic as the cause of urban ills beyond number, though, Crawford proceeds to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The title, again, rather says it all regarding the essential weakness of the solution he proposes, because I don’t in my heart believe that any city but the most self-consciously twee and tourist-oriented will ever manage to go completely carfree, and none at all above a certain size. And it’s a shame, because the second half of the book consists in large measure of self-evidently painstakingly worked-out schemas — you can see some of them here, here and here — that Crawford’s devised to provide cities with transit, logistics, supply and maintenance in the absence of cars and trucks.

They’re brilliant, and kind of demented: the kind of thing you might spy a shabby-looking guy sketching out on a stack of legal pads in an all-night donut place on San Pablo, and be genuinely unable to tell whether he’s the next Corb or simply Section 8. Either way, like most “solutions” that require the top-to-bottom reinvention of universal practice, they strike me as an awful lot of effort to go to for results that could probably be approximated in less burdensome ways — and, like the more heartbreakingly utopian passages in A Pattern Language, impossible to achieve in any event unless you were starting de novo.

If you want to cut down on the damage cars clearly cause, for my money the wiser approach — the one more likely to bear fruit for more people — has to be one of harm reduction, using Monderman and Gehl strategies to increase the total surface area available for pedestrians, bicyclists and other uses. But this is already orthodoxy, and properly so; if New York City’s Street Design Manual embraces your way of thinking, you can be sure you’ve left the realm of the radical.

Carfree Cities is a useful text, then, if for no other reason that by espousing an ultra position, it moves the Overton window that much further along the continuum. But as with any stance built around the suffix “-free,” its adherents run the risk of trying to build a coherent way of doing things on a framework of essentially negatory tactics, and this strikes me as a hard uphill slog and a harder sell. What affirmative vision can we mine from Crawford’s text?

We can start by examining just what he thinks is going to happen in a landscape freed of cars. Where I myself would tend not to be quite so determinist, Crawford has no compunction at all about drawing a causal chain tying together transport, topography and affect. Here’s his thesis, directly stated:

Because city form greatly influences the nature of social life in public spaces, the prevailing transport technology exerts a strong influence on the congeniality of every city.

Are we tracking, here? To Crawford, the mode of transportation that dominates in a given place shapes its physical development, which in turn becomes the terrain on which all potential human interactions turn. I’m willing to entertain the notion that here he’s not entirely wrong, though I continue to believe this privileges transportation just a little bit too much.

Los Angeles is probably the example par excellence: it would be foolish to deny that this place above all has been shaped by the internal combustion engine, and its maximum expression in the form of the individual private automobile. Nor would anyone in their right mind be particularly likely to argue that huge swathes of the LA basin — from the Valley down to Orange County and the ocean straight out to San Bernardino — aren’t in fact constrained in the possibilities for social engagement they’re able to offer because of the way the landscape has evolved to support automobility.

Or we could look at Tokyo, more than any other in my experience a city of trains, their elevated rights-of-way and grade crossings. (What captures that city better than the melancholy mechanical gonging of the train approach warning? I can hear it in my mind right now.) Tokyo has unquestionably coevolved with the train: the city’s first subway stations were laid down to mesh with the grand dowager department stores of Ginza, while the commercial development of districts like Shibuya blossoms from railheads established in the 1960s, like some hypertrophic mutant offshoot of the railway towns that went before them. Beyond that, and more to Crawford’s point, rail-driven modes of thinking and doing absolutely condition the city’s social contours, from planning an evening out so it deposits revelers neatly on the last train, right up to the way in which people choose to take their own lives.

So the claim here obviously isn’t completely wrong. But is Venice — the original Venice, that is, not the one lying to the south of Santa Monica — is it really shaped by its reliance on vaporetti? Is the social space of Venice framed in any meaningful way by this transportation choice? Wouldn’t it be more sensible by far to say that here the physical terrain has constrained the choice of transportation mode?

I ask because, while this is surely an edge case among conurbations, it is specifically Venice that Crawford has chosen to use as a template for his project:

We should build more carfree cities. Venice, the largest existing example, is loved by almost everyone and is an oasis of peace despite being one of the densest urban areas on earth.

So there are the affirmative criteria: our aim ought to be the design of cities that are “loved by almost everyone,” that are capable of remaining “oases of peace.” Never mind for a second that Venice’s enjoyment of these qualities is thoroughly overdetermined by its history; Crawford is going to tell you that it’s primarily down to the locally dominant mode of transportation.

The book is not unrelievedly Eurocentric: Carfree does at least glance for inspiration at other places where the car is a de facto impossibility, like the medinas of Morocco. Throughout, though, Crawford clearly situates the grandeur in a recognizably European mode of urban structuration. We recognize the cobblestoned laneways and four-storey blocks not from demassifying Detroit, nor the boomtowns of the Pearl River Delta, but from practice in Scandinavia and the Low Countries, with maybe just a touch of nostalgia for the Mediterranean paseo.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with the easygoing, café-centric, light-rail-and courtyard urbanism Crawford wants to bring into being. Anybody nurtured on Rudofsky and Alexander and Gehl will find it immediately and intimately familiar (if achingly far from realization in most of the world); I wouldn’t mind living in a place like the ones he’s imagined my ownself, for at least part of the time. But the specific layouts he’s plotted wind up bringing him perilously close to certain long-discredited Corbusianisms; with their vertically-segregated traffic and islands of housing amidst sprawling expanses of green, they remind me of nothing so much as a latterday, clean-tech gloss on GM’s original Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Finally, though, my biggest beef with the carfree conurbation Crawford proposes is that for all its radicalism, it’s in its essence a profoundly conservative vision — typical of its ilk in that it ignores fifty years’ worth of technosocial development. Much of the harm done by the car, I believe, has already been addressed by various conceptions of the shared street, and much of the rest will be undone when the selfsame physical object is reconceived of as a network resource, fused with taxis, shared bikes and public transit in integrated mobility services and coherent journeys.

If good design begins with constraint, and I believe it does, then the realist act of accepting the presence of cars in our cities is probably the right kind of boundary condition you need to produce truly insightful solutions. Do I believe in doing everything possible to discourage, disincentivize, undermine and displace the century-long hegemony of the private car? I think you can already tell that I do, for all the reasons JH Crawford enumerates and my own besides. But while there’s a lot of energy, passion and clever thinking to be found in Carfree Cities, I’m afraid I find its spinal thesis ultimately untenable for most of our places. I’m glad it exists, but mostly as an outer marker of a certain style of thought, to which we can occasionally turn for tactical insight and the infectious inspiration of the profoundly convinced.

Steven Holl’s curious Thrilla in Manila

One of the many significant benefits of what’s turned out to be my fairly frequent work-related trips to London is that the corporate-approved hotel just happens to be right around the corner from the Architectural Association in Bedford Square. Beyond my having left a ton of cash in their bookstore’s coffers, the primary consequence of this is that I’ve caught just about every show they’ve had in their gallery space these eighteen months.

Last December, the show on offer was a heady little retrospective aptly called “First Works,” featuring projects turned in by the likes of Thom Mayne, Cedric Price, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers when they were all younger than we are now, and still feeling their way in the world.

“First Works” is valuable, though uneven, as architectural history; as more than a few commentators have pointed out, it would be more correct to describe it as a review of those architects and currents championed by the AA itself. It gets richer if you’ve followed the practices in question to any particularly close degree, and though here we get a trifle inside-baseball, still more so if you’re interested in the evolution of these people as people…personalities, selves, what have you. (Even the Zaha depicted here has not yet acquired the full aura of command, though it’s clear from the snapshots provided that she’s already beginning to rock her signature imperiousness.)

Surprisingly enough, given that I’ve never carried any particular brief for him (despite being genuinely captivated by the interior spaces of his Kiasma), the “First Works” project that hit me hardest was an early effort of Steven Holl‘s. It’s an unbuilt 1975-’76 proposal for housing in the barangay (administrative district) Holl renders Daga Dagatan (elsewhere Dagat Dagatan), then as apparently now a squatter community in the hinterlands of Manila.

The way it’s depicted in contemporary drawings, Holl’s elegant intervention is essentially a dual, elevated concrete rail, establishing an arterial corridor through the barangay. Each rail is subdivided by its supporting pylons into neat bays, and the bays correspond to individual parcels of land. The existing squatter community was supposed to grow into, onto and around these points of articulation, almost like vines winding their way up a trellis, until the entire available volume filled up with housing, commerce, activity…life. As imagined, anyway (and there, of course, is the rub), it’s surpassingly lovely, both aesthetically and for what it implies about people’s capability to take care of themselves.

As Frieze‘s Douglas Murphy so correctly notes here, Daga Dagatan “remains relevant but bears almost no resemblance to [Holl’s] recent work.” The phenomenological inquiries to which Steven Holl has devoted the decades of his mature practice are, I suppose, interesting enough, but the ideas at the core of this early work certainly could have used some kind of empirical validation (or, for that matter, demolition).

Compare Daga Dagatan’s central conceit to Chilean practice Elemental’s more elaborate Quinta Monroy project: wouldn’t it have been useful, at the outset, for Elemental to have some idea how little in the way of construction they could (impose/get away with)? The question here, as it has been perennially for me: what is the very least amount of structure one can assert into a situation and still produce circumstances under which creativity can flourish, and spontaneous order emerge?

The Daga Dagatan project dates from a time when such site-and-service plans still had respectably cutting-edge lefty or even anarchist credentials in urban-planning circles: before, in other words, the central idea was discredited by the long, sad experience of the 1980s and ’90s, in which both residents and housing activists generally turned on such schemes. (I have no wish, here, to debate Hernando de Soto‘s notions of empowerment through fell-swoop juridical legitimation, or the continuing relevance thereto of site-and-service planning.) If nothing else, it’s certainly a document of its times.

But for all that, and especially considering the only documentation I can dig up on the project amounts to a very few drawings — three or four in Anchoring; the more recent Urbanisms: Working With Doubt yields similar bupkis, especially shocking considering the curious thematic affinities between the Philippine scheme and some of his latest work — it’s still also full of things we might conceivably learn from. Here in a world that much more crowded and desperate for safe, decent housing than the one that confronted Steven Holl and the squatters of Dagat Dagatan in 1975, we ought to be mining projects like this for every last gram of actionable insight. And that, in turn, is not such a bad thing to take away from half a December hour at the AA.

Dimensions of design/Against ahistoricity

From Responsive Environments: A Manual for Designers (Bentley, Alcock et al., 1985):

How does design affect choice?
The design of a place affects the choices people can make, at many levels:
– it affects where people can go and where they cannot: the quality we shall call permeability.
– it affects the range of uses available to people: the quality we shall call variety.
– it affects how easily people can understand what opportunities it offers: the quality we shall call legibility.
– it affects the degree to which people can use a given place for different purposes: the quality we shall call robustness.
– it affects whether the detailed appearance of the place makes people aware of the choices available: the quality we shall call visual appropriateness.
– it affects people’s choice of sensory experiences: the quality we shall call richness.
– it affects the extent to which people can put their own stamp on a place: we shall call this personalization.

Worth reiterating now, for a number of reasons:

Firstly, much like Dieter Rams’s ten principles, as a list of design desiderata I wouldn’t change a word. (Well, OK, maybe I’d fold “visual appropriateness” into “legibility,” but you get my point.) A designer who managed to internalize the values latent in these propositions wouldn’t likely go too far wrong.

Secondly, it won’t have escaped you that the contemporary experience of each and every single one of these dimensions is conditioned by the presence of a networked informatics, and that an urban systems designer intent on establishing best practices for this novel situation could profitably unpack just how this might work out in actuality. These 144 words strike me as nothing other than a map of the territory a professional practice might successfully traverse for the next decade or so.

Thirdly, and here I begin to warm to the real subject of this evening’s post: though the details will of course differ, almost all of these ideas are equally useful in thinking about the design of interactions, interfaces and user experiences.

The ahistoricity of interaction design – the notion, implicitly held or otherwise, that rich interactivity is an entirely new topic in design for human experience, perhaps with the Doug Engelbart demo as Year Zero – has always driven me nuts. When even an old-school HCI stalwart like Don Norman fails to deliver useful insight, perhaps it’s time to start looking further afield for inspiration.

Let’s face it: brighter and more sensitive people than us have been thinking about issues like public versus private realms, or which elements of a system are hard to reconfigure and which more open to user specification, for many hundreds of years. Medieval Islamic urbanism, for example, had some notions about how to demarcate transitional spaces between public and fully private that might still usefully inform the design of digital applications and services. By contrast, the level of sophistication with which those of us engaged in such design generally handle these issues is risible (and here I’m pointing a finger at just about the entire UX “community” and the technology industry that supports it).

A bookshelf that runs no deeper than John Maeda, in other words, isn’t going to get you very far, or help you in the true crunch, and nothing makes me sadder than coming across someone engaged in the design of user experiences whose blogroll or Twitter follow list extends no further than the usual UX names. My own guilty secret is that I don’t follow those names, pay any attention to the various sites and journals people like me are supposed to read, or attend the community’s events, and (to some reasonably approximate value of “never”) never really have. I suppose it’s always possible that I’d be a more accomplished practitioner if I did and had, but my feeling is that there are better and deeper sources of insight available if you dig a little in the history of adjacent design disciplines.

You can learn to do a decent card sort (excuse me: “content affinity analysis”) in ten minutes, and work competently with Arduino in a good solid month of effort, but if you’re genuinely concerned with improving the quality of interactive experience, I believe you owe it both to yourself and to the people downstream from you who’ll be using the things you make to gain a richer acquaintance with the thought of other, older design traditions. (You can find some of my own favorite picks from the fields of architecture and urbanism here.)

Trust me, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for some notional superior acuity. In point of fact, my interest in this broader design literature has nothing at all to do with acuity, but rather with my lifelong effort to manage a notoriously short attention span and find something to read that doesn’t make my eyes glaze over. But something feels wrong to me – impoverished, even hermetic – in the contemporary discourse of interaction and user-experience design, even in recently-developed interaction design curricula like that set up by my good friends at SVA. There’s so much for an interaction designer to glean from the history of late-twentieth-century architecture alone, even (or especially) in the failed, overweening and faintly or not-so-faintly embarrassing parts, and it feels like this legacy is being bypassed in favor of strictly tactical and local concerns.

Of course, you could take just as much away from a concerted immersion in the history of film, or civil engineering, or music; it just so happens that architecture is the thing that grabs me and will not let go. The broader point I’m trying to argue is that, as an interaction designer, your thinking about touchscreens, object models, APIs or task flows will be perceptibly improved by even a slight acquaintance with other, non-digital modes of design for human experience.

It’s not like time began with the Unix epoch, either. In fact, it’s precisely the idea that throughout recorded history, other people charged with the task of design have faced schematically similar problems, and articulated beautiful, valuable, lasting and resonant ways to address them (for there are no true solutions) that I find most energizing. I can tell you that whenever I do get to spend some time with a book like Responsive Environments, I come away enthused, humbled, enriched and inspired, where I think you’d be hard-pressed to say the same of the extant UX literature. And as for the struggles we face in daily working life, it just might be that a challenge seemingly cut from the fabric of this moment alone can yield to an insight hauled up from decades, even centuries, away.

The City Is Here For You To Use: (very) provisional bibliography

A week or so back, a bright guy I met at PICNIC named Lincoln Schatz asked me if I mightn’t list for him a few things I’d been reading lately. I got about halfway through before I realized that I was really compiling a manifest of books I’d been consulting as I put together the pieces of my own.

So this is for you, Lincoln – but I bet it’d also be particularly valuable for readers who are coming at issues of networked urbanism from the information-technological side, and would like a better grounding in sociological, psychological, political and architectural thinking on these topics. (There’s also a pretty heavy overlap here with the curriculum Kevin Slavin and I built our ITP “Urban Computing” class around.)

Not all of these were equally useful, mind you. Some of the titles on the following list are perennial favorites of mine, or works I otherwise regard as essential; some are badly dated, and one or two are outright wank. But they’ve all contributed in some wise to my understanding of networked place and the possibilities it presents for the people who inhabit it.

Two caveats: first, this is very far from a comprehensive list, and secondly, you should know that I’ve provided the titles with Amazon referral links, so I make a few pennies if you should happen to click through and buy anything (for which I thank you). At any rate, I hope you find it useful.

UPDATE 19 October 20.49 EEDT
Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. Please do bear in mind that, as I noted, this is not a comprehensive list of interesting urbanist books, but an attempt to account specifically for those works that have been influential on my own thinking. With a very few exceptions, I’m no longer looking for new insights, but for ways to consolidate and express those deriving from my encounter with the works listed.

That said, I’ll continue to update the page as I either remember titles that ought to have been included in the first place, or in fact do assimilate new points of view.

– Alexander, Christopher, et al.: A Pattern Language
– Ascher, Kate: The Works: Anatomy of a City
– Augé, Marc: Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity
– Aymonino, Aldo and Valerio Paolo Mosco: Contemporary Public Space/Un-Volumetric Architecture
– BAVO, eds.: Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City
– Bachelard, Gaston: The Poetics of Space
– Baines, Phil and Catherine Dixon: Signs: Lettering in the Environment
– Banham, Reyner: The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment
– Benjamin, Walter: Selections from The Arcades Project
– Benkler, Yochai: The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
– Borden, Iain: Skateboarding, Space and the City
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– Design Trust For Public Space: Taxi 07: Roads Forward
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Behavior in Public Places
Interaction Ritual
– Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin: Splintering Urbanism
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Aramis, or: The Love of Technology
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My back pages: Memento Mori

I originally published this take on Tokyo’s then-spankin’-new Roppongi Hills building 21 July 2003, on my old site. The overwhelming mood here is sorrow – for the city, for my inability to find a comfortable place there – and it is perhaps worth dusting off now that I’m about to get on a plane for Narita as a very different person, in a very different time, headed to a very different place. I’ll be interested to see how self, city and piece have held up.

Judging from the mail I get, by the way, this is one of the most fondly-remembered and -missed of v-2 articles, so it gives me great pleasure to restore it to visibility here. Folks who weren’t around in the v-2 days might enjoy seeing it for the first time.

I promise you, this is the last thing I shall ever write for this site concerning Mori Building’s Roppongi Hills project.

Those of you who have been reading v-2 over the last year are, perhaps, overly acquainted with my sentiments regarding this massive act of hubris, this “urban renewal” project that rivals any dream Robert Moses ever had. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I reflect on its meaning a little bit further: it’s the lens through which I’ve come to see contemporary Japan. It serves the same role for me that the concrete industry did for Alex Kerr in his indispensable Dogs and Demons – not that I compare my writing to that work, in either authority or depth of research.

Roppongi Hills is, for me, an eidolon of my two years in a place I once imagined the capital of the future, and grew to loathe as I found it increasingly stifling and timid, unwilling (or unable?) to break out of an essentially feudal paradigm. The future I came to live in came to seem the thinnest veneer of chrome plating flaking rapidly from a medieval armature, something all bamboo and timeless village verities; this place, to put it mildly, is not a laboratory for the working-out of new ways of being human, in any but the most superficial and unchallenging ways.

To which it is a perfectly valid thing to say, well, so what? Who asked you to project your neophile fantasies onto Japan? My only answer to this is that Japan itself invited me to do so, in those depictions of its self that reached me across the Pacific: Masami Teraoka and H ART CHAOS, Yamamoto and Miyake, Akira and Tetsuo, the Iron Man, Ando and Ito and never least the Metabolists, with their plans to fill Tokyo Bay with towers. My imaginings were amplified and fed back to me by a hundred architectural monographs, a thousand Sony ads, ten thousand pictures of orange-haired, cellphone-wielding Harajuku schoolgirls in towering platform boots.

It was in part to assess the truth of those imaginings that I came here to live. Seven hundred and seventy-nine days and nights later, I can render the following, final report.

It will be easy to accuse me, in much of the following, as suffering from ethnocentricity. It’s true that some of my discomfort in Japan has stemmed from a personal inability to adjust – even after two years – to ways of doing things that are simply different from the systems I grew up with and was trained to accept. I have taken pains to note where this is so.

Six six sixties

Last night I stood in the shadow of Louise Bourgeois’s rather malevolent sculpture of an egg-bearing spider in the courtyard of Six Six Plaza, at the core of the Roppongi Hills development. “Six Six” is the English rendering of the longstanding, appealingly slangy Japanese name for Roppongi’s sixth block, or chome; naming the plaza this is an indirect way of admitting that an entire pre-extant neighborhood has been bought up and excised from the city, its thoroughfares and rights of way subsumed within the circulation scheme of a private development.

It was a lovely evening, the kind that’s all too rare in Tokyo summertime: soft air, just humid enough to evoke the seaside rather than the jungle, with a fat yellow moon rising behind the orange thrust of Tokyo Tower. The constant flicker of an immense video screen on which played animations specially executed for the development and reminders of the sale currently unfolding in the attached retail zone washed the plaza in shifting electric shadows, filled the air with noise.

Happy Tokyoites, never anything less than well-turned-out, flowed through the plaza, bound perhaps from the subway station to the Sky View attraction, not in mad throngs, but in sufficient numbers to impress at seven-thirty on a Wednesday night. Occasionally, one or two or three would lose their bearings, pause in obvious confusion – looking for all the world like ants, momentarily confounded by the erasure of their pheromone trail – before friendly guides hustled over to help them. Still, annoyance seemed far away, and from time to time one could hear exclamations of sugoii!! (roughly, “great!” or “super!” or simply “wow!”) rising from those stepping into the plaza for the first time.

It was this vocal approbation I found so depressing, so likely to be understood by the builder, the architectural press, and interested members of the public as confirmation of success, when the entire Roppongi Hills experience is exemplary of the worst in contemporary architecture and urban planning. It’s a throwback to early 1960s notions of city and space, wreathed perhaps in the rhetoric of digital cities and global dataflow, but even then only to the detriment of its potential.

The big nowhere

Why “the worst”? What, after all, is so very bad about this place? Surely it can’t be appreciably worse than its equivalents elsewhere?

There are two ways to answer that question. The first is to say that, yes, Roppongi Hills is rife with choices and features that are simply bad practice, seeded with dozens of moments of confoundment and disappointment that would rate poorly anywhere. The second is to consider this place in the light of everything Japan is historically so very accomplished at, culturally: subtlety, balance, proportion, elegance, fit and finish. It’s in this second register that the project’s failure of imagination and execution is exposed as far more dramatic.

Let’s concentrate, for the time being, on those aspects of Roppongi Hills that would get poor marks no matter where they were encountered.

For starters, the complex is simply pretentious. Conceived, presumably, as the apotheosis of early-twenty-first branding and marketing practice for real-estate development (as well as enduring monument to its builder), this is a mixed-use “environment” that has not merely its own logo, but its own identity system. It has not one but several slogans – one modestly insisting that “Tokyo lifestyles will be forever altered by Roppongi Hills.” It boasts a “unique and ambitious cultural complex.”

Not content with pedestrian ambitions (like simply being good), Roppongi Hills has to be “unique,” a “dynamic lifestyle destination” conceived as “a highly responsive space for intellectual relaxation” (!) and “true cultural hub” that comes fully equipped with a “concept and meaning.” A real-estate developer asserting these things would be laughed out of town in Houston, in Moscow, in Bangkok – although, sadly, one might get away with it in New York.

Well. From the sound of things, Mori wants Roppongi Hills to be judged on some pretty high standards – say, those of the 1939 GM Futurama, Barcelona’s Ramblas, the Tate Modern and Mall of America all rolled into one – but it’s difficult to take such a desire seriously when the place can’t even get the basics right.

And so things that might seem quibbles in other contexts, things it might seem petty to point out, become fair game. Like the fact that even the elevators have superfluous lighting effects, luminescent panels underfoot flaring and fading with the floors, and that even so they get it wrong, dimming with ascent instead of the poetic inverse. That nobody’s apparently considered the downstream maintenance burden imposed by such effects, nor how they’re likely to play not a week after opening but once they’ve been experienced five hundred mornings in a row.

Or the fact that the plaza’s main space of circulation, ostensibly designed to evoke a “mountain ravine” (why?), not merely confounds perfectly reasonable attempts to orient oneself but looks cheap besides. Or, now that you mention “cheap,” the fact that most visible surfaces are clad in a tacky yellow veneer that looks like precast stone. This would-be world-beater comes to seem like the malign product of a collaboration between Victor Gruen and Garden State Brickface and Stucco.

OK, these are inward-facing missteps. You can avoid them easily enough. Some of the other very bad things about Roppongi Hills aren’t so easy to dodge.

Roppongi Hills, like many of Mori’s other “Hills” projects scattered throughout greater Minato Ward – Ark Hills, Atago Green Hills, Shiroyama Hills, and so forth – is lifted up and out of the urban fabric on a podium, true to Corbusian form. The responsible civic authorities have allowed the natural flow of vehicles and pedestrians through the neighborhood to be channeled through this privatized space, such that one cannot walk in a straight line from, say, the southwest corner of Nishi-Azabu intersection to Roppongi’s subway station without passing onto Mori property.

Even walking along Roppongi-dori, the arterial passing through the district, requires a diversion up an escalator, across a footbridge, and down a stairway on the opposite side – all private. The pedestrian so doing is, of course, subjected all the while to commercial messages promoting Roppongi Hills, the other Mori developments, and the shops and firms associated with them. (The same is true of the exit at the distal end of the Hibiya subway line’s Roppongi station, which empties directly into the Hills complex, and whose standard and quite legible directional signage has been excised in favor of placards matching the complex’s graphic treatment.) Tough luck, too, if you use a wheelchair: passage previously afforded with simple curb-cuts now requires a lengthy circumnavigation involving two separate elevators.

This big nowhere has a way of sucking you in, whether you want to play or not.

Superflat fields forever

The ads. I should describe the complex’s advertising campaign, which centers around the aforementioned animated characters devised by Takashi Murakami. Murakami’s brightly-colored “superflat” world imagines Roppongi Hills as a delightful technohallucinogenic cornucopia, spewing energy and novelty into a Lucy-in-the-sky meadowscape where improbable creatures prance and gambol in irrepressible, childlike glee.

Such “chara”-driven advertising is simply ubiquitous in Japanese commercial culture, to the point that no firm, or even the Metropolitan Police for that matter, is entirely complete without its adorable anthropomorphic mascot. It is a recognizably Japanese mode of presentation – dense, nonsensical, happy, toothache-sweet, and distracting – and Murakami is an ace at it. Say what you will about his work, but it is distinctively local, to the degree that his collaboration with Louis Vuitton, in much the same mode as the Roppongi Hills ads, was recently alluded to in a mass advertisement as a reason to be proud of being Japanese.

Ironically, this singular vision contrasts strongly with the plaza itself, which is one of those places that feels like it could be anywhere: a virtual twin (pun very much intended) to Buena Vista Gardens in San Francisco. It’s pleasant enough in its way – manicured, landscaped, controlled – but shows no clue that it is of Roppongi, or Tokyo, or Japan, or much of anywhere at all. It is truly a part of the same international retail/travel/hospitality hyperspace that any fully-credentialed participant in the global overclass never need leave.

Mori advertises its Hills to this class, in Newsweek and elsewhere, as “unique ‘City in a City’ multifunctional environment[s], central-city locations that have it all: offices, stores, restaurants, and entertainment options.” The subtext is crystal clear, not even a subtext really: with English-speaking concierges “ready to direct you to the nearest convenience store…even at 3AM,” the Hills are safe spaces for the itinerant footsoldiers of glo/mo capital to sink local roots.

And it’s this, more than anything else, that leaves me scratching my head at Mori’s acclaim among Japan’s own, generally conservative tastemakers: no agency in the land seems more eager to sell the whole place out, to pave over its unique ways-of-doing-and-being for the convenience of the AXAs and the Morgan Stanleys and their foreign legion of blue-oxford-shirted, chino’d operatives. It’s a different kind of superflatness than Takashi Murakami’s, for sure.

No expense has been spared to achieve this laminar blandness, but the effect is paradoxical. If Roppongi Hills routes easily around the sort of gold-and-marble atrocities common during Japan’s 1980s “bubble economy,” it still strikes one as the act of nouveaux riches desperate to buy taste: everything is top-shelf and name-brand, including the public art and sidewalk benches.

This sounds churlish, I know – damned if they do, damned if they don’t – but the sheer avidity with which Mori Building pursues the approval of the taste elite should be a signal that all is not right. Roppongi Hills, finally, is like some parvenu billionaire walking you through the halls of his Palm Beach compound, reminding you that each painting must be “quality” because it cost so very much. Having nothing to say, it cannot speak for itself, and must speak instead in the commingled voices of its (notably, Western) surrogates and acquisitions: Louis Vuitton and Grand Hyatt, Jasper Morrison, Jonathan Barnbrook and Virgin Cinemas.

Is the development, then, uniquely, even perversely, Japanese? Or is it merely another pacified, pacifying site for global consumption, as distinct from the others of its kind as a Starbucks Manila is from a Starbucks London souvenir mug? It doesn’t seem to want to decide, and it’s in this sense of being caught between two irreconcilable visions of the world that the place most evokes its host culture for me.

Signals and noises

Here is where I see the greatest, saddest parallel between this building project and my daily experience of contemporary Japan: in the clamor of these voices, and all the superlatives they evoke, Roppongi Hills is absolutely desperate to fill every space, to shut out doubt with affirmations not even of its specialness, but of its simple existence. Like an idiot beacon shrieking “I’m here! I’m here!” into the humid night, Roppongi Hills inserts itself into every possible vista, spoors the entire neighborhood with its sonic effluvium.

It puts me in mind of something bizarre Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said not too long ago, on the occasion of Japan’s third Nobel Prize for chemistry in as many years: that “Japan isn’t dead yet.” At the time, it seemed a little curious to me that an official of any government – a Prime Minister, no less – would feel it necessary to publicly proclaim their nation still among the living.

But there’s a way in which Koizumi’s comment makes perfect sense. The Japan I came to see and to live in from half a world away, a culture of design known worldwide as the ne plus ultra in refinement, whose arts and crafts were famed for their asymptotic approach to the essential, does indeed seem moribund.

The values of a culture dedicated to the moment when nothing further could be left out, at least in those elite art and craft activities with which it has chosen to define itself – architecture, calligraphy and painting, poetry and pottery, and lest this read as a paean to antiquity, consumer electronics – are repudiated, even inverted in a place like Six Six Plaza.

Japan, if the things it currently chooses as its avatars can be taken as any evidence, is a place that no longer seems to care much for the subtle and harmonious balance of proportion and form. Instead, as fifteen minutes on the street of any of its urban cores will more than attest, it seems hellbent on filling every available moment and corner with visual, sonic, and semantic noise.

It’s not just in the things that are offered to people for commercial consumption, it’s in the choices of the people themselves: notice how many people flip out their keitai the instant they step from a subway station, as if they can’t bear too many more moments outside the communion of ones and zeroes.

Consider the interfaces of Japanese consumer electronics, ever more clouded with the pointless technological extraneity that I think of as das blinkenlights. Take a look, especially, at just about any Japanese corporate Web site, each page crammed with winking graphics, cutesy mascots, and content-free exhortations from the CEO. It’s hard to believe that this is the land from which hail so many of our notions of the charged void and the meaningful silence.

But here we seize up against some problems.

I know I flirt, troublingly, with the blunder by which Baudrillard accused would-be critics of such spectacles of “fix[ing] a real from which all meaning and charm, all depth and energy of representation have vanished in a hallucinatory resemblance,” when that reality was itself a fiction to begin with. I do think, however, that a meaningful distinction can be made between the daily life of the neighborhood that existed in Roppongi 6-chome previously, and that of the thrice-reified thing which supplanted it.

More seriously, I’m always wary of attempts to celebrate the ineffable aspect in Japanese culture; such attempts border dangerously on a sentimental Orientalism that not merely denies how very much that culture owes to its parents in China and Korea but whitewashes the pain and suffering inflicted in the acquisition.

I’m still more suspicious when people, even and maybe especially those with the best intentions, arrive from abroad with a received notion of what a culture “should” be. After all, I don’t take kindly to foreigners insisting that the core of Americanness is cowboys and Indians (let alone Bloods and Crips); nor is there any reason why anyone but the Japanese should have a say in what comes to constitute their culture. It’s not for me to say that the work of Shigeru Ban is a “truer” or “deeper” reflection of the culture’s values than the machinery that produces an Ayumi Hamasaki, even if I pray that this is so.

Given all that, it’s easy to dismiss any of what I feel to be true about the more disturbing resonances of this one bad development project. From what platform, after all, can one assert with any credibility that Japan used to be expert at finding the one element in a situation that bore psychological meaning, at manipulating the tension between what is made explicit and what is left unsaid? From what stance is it permissible to note that it now seems content wallowing in the banal and the mediocre, if that mediocrity promotes itself loudly enough?

I find myself longing for Japan to rediscover what it used to do so well: manipulating with a great degree of care what we would now think of as the ratio between signal and noise, in pursuit of such exemplars of aesthetic reductionism as the haiku, the original Sony Walkman, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s superb night oceanscapes. I feel this, and know all the while that such a feeling is untenable: unwanted, supernumerary, irrelevant to conditions on the ground.

The lock-out effect

We know from self-organizing systems theory that there’s something called a lock-in effect, something that happens when one of a variety of alternatives – keyboard layouts, videotape formats, operating systems – passes a certain point of criticality and begins to enjoy a position of such pre-eminence that other options must find marginal niches, or fall by the wayside entirely.

We know, from our studies of human psychology, that success breeds its own curious, self-justifying aura – that the later works of Andy Warhol, for example, must have been Great Art, because Andy Warhol was known to be a Great Artist.

We know that it is ever difficult to speak truth to power, always and anywhere, but most especially in small communities where one’s life chances can be profoundly affected by how well one is seen to comply with the dominant ethos.

And we know, from what we were taught in sociology class, that Japan is a “group-oriented” culture, one where consensus is valued above all and open dissent is an unacceptable affront to wa, to harmony.

When you mix all these influences together, you get a circumstance that looks a lot like the one that produced Roppongi Hills.

You get a place where everyone recognized as an authority on such matters as, say, art or architecture, already knows everyone else in a similar position, relies critically on the continued favor of their peers for access to clients, contacts, bully pulpits, magazine covers. Once folks like this have thrown their reputation behind a judgment of quality – especially those grand eminences in the lambent autumn of a celebrated career – well, public disagreement can be injurious to one’s own prospects. Easier just to nod an assent: oh, sure, it’s great.

This, of course, also has the effect of locking out voices calling any of this into question – those embarrassing, unwelcome, discordant interjections reminding one and all that, hey, this really isn’t “sugoii,” that it’s actually pretty shabby. And simply totting up the numbers and calling things as they are is a task that falls to outsiders, whose viewpoints are valuable precisely because they’re deniable: can be incorporated, even acted on, without ever having to be acknowledged.

So let me make use of that privilege. Let me say that this development, so far from being a signpost to the way things will be done in the urban future – at least, in any future I’d want myself or my loved ones to be a part of – is merely an upjutting, backward-looking memorial to a cultural aspect that prefers noise to meaning, a world-class act of badness.

“This is just one building project,” I can hear some of you saying. “Isn’t there some good Japanese architecture you could be writing about? Ignore it, get over yourself, move on.” Yeah, well, it’s a whole lot less easy to ignore if the same dynamic plays out at the scale of a national culture and economy.

The same bad faith, the same denial, the selfsame closed loop of blank-check affirmation that produce “mere” bad architecture in Minato ward are responsible for a great many of this troubled nation’s other problems. Pointing this out, as a foreigner, brands one a “Japan hater,” or subjects the critic to a lecture on the horrors of their own nation, as if the misdeeds of others were ever an excuse for one’s own malfeasance.

Complicating any discussion of these matters, too, is the vocal faction among Western Nippophiles – many of whom have never set foot in Japan for even so long as a layover at Narita on their way to someplace else – who regard any criticism of Japanese culture as an assault on their personal choices. (The relationship between such apologists and the representation of Japan in the wider world, and particularly the sexual economy underlying that representation, is indeed a fruitful topic, and one richly deserving of explication, but unfortunately that will have to remain grist for a future article.)

By far, most of the criticism I’ve received regarding my commentary on Japan has come not from Japanese – who could assuredly not care less – but from such gaijin, who seem disproportionately grateful for the things they’ve received from their Japans, and just as unable to accept that not everyone can or would share in these benisons.

Windows on (a) world

I don’t know what to think about any of this, honestly, any of these often-contradictory lines of evidence I’ve laid before you today. I’ve often enough fulminated, waiting in one line or another during my years in Japan, at the rote and inefficient obeisance to time-honored rituals that puts this place at marked odds with (my) “contemporary” notions of brisk, clean efficiency – and here I am damning someone for producing something designed to be efficient enough for the world market. The irony barely requires acknowledgment.

Here’s what I want.

I want, as a critic who hopes to inspire more thoughtful and humanistic architecture, to tie all of these threads into one convincing argument, one summa that will encapsulate all of the things which depress me about this awful building and the culture for which, for me, it has become emblematic; for once it’s not particularly satisfying to stand with Nietzsche and decry the will to systemization. I’d like Roppongi Hills, or my version of it, to stand as an object lesson of how not to do it, one simple heuristic to guide the choices of developers and architects, mayors and residents and citizens alike.

I’d like, as a citizen of a world that includes Japan, for that culture to recover even a little bit of the attention to detail and meaning that once helped distinguish it among all humanity’s other voices: above all to design, once again, artifacts that do more with less. In our common life of constant, clamorous information overload, we need these instincts now more than ever – these solutions latent in the cultural genepool, as it were, just as valuable as the anticarcinogenic alkaloids supposedly naturally produced by rare species of Amazon flora, and every bit as endangered.

I’d like for my Japanese friends and associates to live in a world that doesn’t fetishize Japaneseness, aestheticize it even in its ugly sides, simultaneously infantilizing and absolving it. The tendency is – I know! – to giggle over sumo-wrestler trading cards and hentai games, minuscule motorcycles and capsule hotels and say, oh, how delightful, how odd and funny and other. Which lets both “them” and “us” off the hook, and I’m not having it.

I’d like, finally, for more people to get on a plane and experience Tokyo, experience Japan, not for a week or two but for long enough to deal with landlords and coworkers, neighbors and doctors and ward-office bureaucrats: in short, for long enough to get through the screen of received image and taste the daily reality. Both Japan and the rest of the world would be better off for it.

My fear, if none of these things happen, is that Japan will continue to enjoy a sort of perverse, condescending exemption from all the rules that apply elsewhere, and that this exemption will underwrite still further and more serious departures. (I worry particularly about fields especially beloved in Japan, like nanotechnology and humanoid robotics, where systems designed to local taste may be allowed to become pervasive elsewhere, without any notion on the part of either designer or adopter that they encode and reproduce a peculiarly Japanese take on reality.)

As for Roppongi Hills itself, it’s easy to forget – when one lives in a Tokyo in which it thrusts not merely from the skyline, but glossily, insistently from the covers of half the magazines on the stand and ads on the subway – that nobody much cares about it or Mori Building or anything about them in the wider world beyond. It’s just another bad development, of a sort that the world is already full of. It’s not precisely like it’s in any danger of receiving the sort of massive international acclaim that might require the injection of authoritative contrarian viewpoints, right?

Which is well and good for most of the people reading about the place, and not nearly so for those who must live or work in its shadow.

Toward urban systems design

For the last year or so, I’ve been giving a presentation called “Elements of a networked urbanism,” a version of which you can listen to here, as kindly recorded by the folks at dConstruct. (Do note that it’s a 60-minute sound file.)

I’ve generally characterized this talk as “a diagnosis and a manifesto”: both an attempt to puzzle out some of the shifts in the ways people make and use cities that occur when those cities are provisioned with ubiquitous informatics, and a set of assertions about how informatic systems should be designed to support high-quality urban life. (And yes, the original post was called “The elements of,” but as it’s obviously not a comprehensive list, that wording felt a little misleading in retrospect. Not to mention arrogant.) By and large, it’s been successful in conveying the affordances and constraints presented by a relatively novel information technology to audiences largely conversant with the granular details of that technology in a different context.

But the talk I’m planning to give at the Pompidou on 27th November and at Supernova in San Francisco a few days later is a little different. It’s called “Public objects: Connected things and civic responsibilities in the networked city,” and while it takes as text and jumping off point the same set of observations and concerns, it winds up in a different place.

Maybe you’ll see what I mean if I share the abstract I submitted for the Pompidou event:

The networked objects which are increasingly populating our lives and our cities already generate torrential, unceasing volumes of data about our whereabouts, activities, and even our intentions. How can we ensure that this data is used for the equal benefit of all? What provisions regarding such objects should citizens demand of their municipal governments? How might the juridical order respond most productively to the presence of these new urban actors?

We’re clearly into a different territory here. This is not a talk intended, primarily, for technologists, but for people who understand themselves to be citizens, constituents and co-creators of an urban polity. And it’s an attempt to use the appearance of networked informatics in our cities to argue a much larger point: that our times and circumstances call for a conscious art and craft of urban systems design.

Consider the laundry list of actors involved in framing the urban environment invoked by Rob Holmes’s recent post on big-picture thinking: “…engineers (experts in infrastructure), planners (experts in navigating the regulatory terrain of city-shaping), developers (experts in financing), and ecologists (experts in the science of relationship).” Depending on how you interpret “ecologists,” there’s precious little room in that spectrum for the kind of holism that’s capable of standing back, looking at the conjoined impact of infrastructural, economic, regulatory, political, social, financial and aesthetic choices on a given urban terrain, and making informed suggestions as to the interventions required to improve outcomes for all.

Where a need for it is seen to arise, the responsibility to think holistically about the urban milieu is generally located within architecture, never least by architects themselves. But where Holmes argues that architecture has ceded the “big picture” to the contingent whims of other disciplines, I’d submit that this is because the field is in genuine risk of missing the picture entirely. I like to think that I’m reasonably familiar with what’s going on in the domain, as an enthusiast amateur, and if I can judge by what gets published, even the more advanced practices of the current architectural generation seemingly remain smitten by scale-free, procedural strategies for the generation of form. Their exercises are often lovely, occasionally awe-inspiring, but they seem to issue from some mathic universe governed by the teraflop exertions of a deep ruleset that excludes the possibility either of human agency or of the frailty which inevitably attends it.

So I don’t think architecture is at present organized or oriented in such a way as to provide the necessary insights, nor are individual architects much motivated to do so (with the usual and much-admired exceptions). By contrast, I’d argue that we’re now in a position to articulate something of what a truly integrative faculty might look like, what a curriculum in urban systems design might contain:

Any such thing would have to be deeply grounded in a literacy in complex adaptive systems. I’m thinking, of course, of the kind of thing that the worthies of Stamen work so hard to evoke and do so well, but also the work that Paul Torrens does. The result would be something that integrated an understanding of economic geography and incentive landscapes at all of the relevant (time and spatial) scales.

That word “incentive” offers a big fat clue as to another vital component: any useful practice of urban systems design would have to offer an account of human motivation under typical city-scale conditions of concentration and density – and not merely one that reduces to biological drives. One would further hope this account would be built on the best, most nuanced and sensitive qualitative research available.

It would have to be able to model the role of all the interdependent actors involved in producing urbanity: from institutional and technological to climatological, animal and microbial. (The networked informatic systems I’m most personally concerned with would of course be numbered among these actors.)

It would exhibit deep respect for the phenomenological, which is to say, for material and semiotic and linguistic particularity.

And – at least in my version – it would emphasize the importance of human choices and decisions. Of especial interest is how choices made in any layer cascade through all the systems connected to it, or fail to, so we’d wind up (for example) able to depict how a specification made by a standards body, at the urging of one manufacturer, makes a networking standard more or less likely to be broadly adopted, and how that same standard once adopted winds up allowing (or compelling, or forbidding) certain kinds of behavior.

The aim of all of this would be to improve outcomes for everyone who lives in a city. Starting from a hard-headed assessment of the negotiations required and the parties and imperatives that need somehow to be satisfied, the goal would be to design interventions (and non-interventions) that enhance the quality of life in a particular urban terrain in whatever ways resonate with the motivations discovered there, and whatever “quality” is seen to mean. Ultimately, even “sustainability” as that goal is currently understood would merely be a subset of this endeavor.

Especially given the by-now-clichéd recognition that we’ve decisively become an urban species, the time for such a movement, frankly, isn’t now: we needed it desperately yesterday, last week, last century. From where I am both delighted and seriously privileged to stand, though – able to travel the world, astride many conversations and disciplinary communities but beholden to none – I can tell you that alongside the genuine and acute need for this work there stands a cohort of brilliant, insightful, compassionate people hungry to take it up. Many of them, it’s true, already know each other, or at least of one another, and are working the puzzle together from whichever angle is most congenial to their skills and desires…but still more of the people with the relevant interests and ambitions do not.

If you’re working in any of the areas implicitly bound up in all this, or about to, and think you’d like to address this set of challenges, I’d like to spend my time helping you to meet the others so embarked and find useful outlets for your energy and effort. For myself, I’m going to devote the balance of my career to the question of urban systems design, in ways formal and informal, purposive and casual, hard-knuckled and ludic – and I’d very much like it if you joined me, in whatever way you felt most comfortable.

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.

Zeitgeist week ’09

If you’re at all interested in questions of networked urbanism, digital fabrication or interactive architecture – and let’s be honest: you’re here, so I know you are – there’s a pair of must-see events, bookending the Atlantic, that open/happen next week:

– If you’re lucky enough to be in New York, you have a solid two months to take in Toward the Sentient City, the Architectural League show curated by Mark Shepard and constituting a culmination of the two-year Situated Technologies process.

Sentient City is just jammed with the provocative work of good friends David Benjamin and Soo-In Yang, Usman Haque, Carlo Ratti, Anthony Townsend and Laura Forlano, and I cannot imagine that you’d come away from seeing it with anything less than a head full of new ideas about urban space and how to use it. At the League space, 457 Madison Avenue, through 7th November 2009.

– Equally ludicrous in the degree of its thrill-power, but concentrated into a single day, the Digital Architecture London conference features Tony Dunne, the ubiquitous Usman, yon BERGman Matt Webb, and more squamous, imbricated, invaginated, Voronoi-ular and otherwise procedural dynamics of structuration than you can shake a stick at. 21st September at The Building Centre, Store Street, London WC1E 7BT.

Go to one, go to both, come away inspired.

Update: D’oh! Not to mention, this year’s Conflux is that week. As usual, too much going on to namecheck properly, but for sure see Urban Omnibus‘s Cassim Shepard, Mark’s Sentient City Survival Kit, Eve Mosher’s Insert _______ Here, the Waterpod, and Transportation AlternativesPOP.Park: Reclaim Your Street. Also, tons of distributed ZOMG-grade awesome at Conflux City. Looks like Conflux is bigger and better’n ever.