Let's start with the seam of our generation: life before the internet, and life after. Not long ago we dialed, and waited with anticipation for an answer of sonic distortion. But now we're always on, and nearly every spot is hot. At the DLD (Digital Life Design) Conference in Munich last week, tech gurus convened to smooth out the seams between digital innovations and our daily lives. This was the turf of that other breed of architects, the ones that build structures, environments and systems out of pure information. Data is one resource we're not depleting, and its collection, transfer and storage are full of spatial implications.
There were a number of panels that addressed designers' ability to embrace innovation and cope with these copious flows of information, including Future Cities , moderated by Kazys Varnelis and advised by Carson Chan of Program in Berlin, Design from Thought to Action, moderated by Paola Antonelli, Moma curator (with Design and the Elastic Mind in the works), and Digital Gets Physical, moderated by Kevin Slavin of area/code games .
In a conference so slick, you'll feel every seam, bump or rift.
The Seam between the local and the global.
"No two cities ask the same questions of themselves," points out Richard Saul Wurman, kick-starting the Future Cities panel. Wurman, an architect-architect who coined the name "information architect," decided to give this urban introspection some standards of comparison. 19.20.21 will standardize base maps for 19 supercities with 20 million people in the 21st century, enabling cities to size up their neighbor's stats and try on their trends.
Sometimes, in response to the global, we design in the local language. Literally. Wunderkind Bjorke Ingalls of BIG , the crowd-pleaser of the panel, introduced The People's Building (aka REN) , designed in the shape of the Chinese character for the word, "People." (Was Bjorke duped into the tattoo ?) At its start, REN was just an unrealized design for a hotel in Sweden, but when BIG learned of the accidental symbolism, they "hired a fung shui master, scaled the building up to Chinese proportions," and took to Shanghai with what could be the "icon of the People' Republic of China." This re-branding is itself an opportunistic re-alignment of meaning, exposing the power of seamlessness in the navigation of the global market.
The Seam between the digital and the physical.
In the Digital Gets Physical panel, Kevin Slavin asked, "What does the network look like?" as a way of getting at the hybrid modes of transmission and collection of information into our cities and our lives. Munich's own Allianz-Arena , by Herzog & de Meuron, with its skin that shifts to match the colors of the teams that rotate through, has network qualities. But so do plush toys with a code to unlock their digital unconscious , GPS-tagged pigeons that sniff out pollution , or SMS-responsive blinking lights on the sides of buildings . (Oh, and Kati London, if you're reading: have your plants call my plants. ) Full of emotional pulse, digital-physical transitions animate objects and enable a new kind of interaction with our environments. These discrete experiments will soon transition to sentient cities that rearrange themselves in response to informational input, as computing becomes ubiquitous and the real world becomes responsive.
The Seam between thought and action.
Beyond the translation of pure data into three-dimensional form, there's the desire to physically manifest the machinations of the creative mind, with as few intermediary steps as possible. In the Thought and Action panel, Greg Lynn marched us toward minimalism and progression, reducing steps in the processes of manufacturing and assemblage. In these economies of process, his little machines (rapid protyping, 3D fabrications) eliminate the need for construction sets. Lynn adopted an "ornamentation and aesthetic that's inherent to the software and manufacturing technologies," which connects him to designers in the automobile and aeronautics industry. "We're all really sharing a vocabulary." Take, for example, the Blobwall , a reinvention of the brick, molded by robots in plastic. Form is informed by technological processes, and aesthetics become the output of innovation.
Seamless Cities (or the Seam between R&D).
A partner at Zaha Hadid Architects , Patrik Schumacher utilized the Thames Gateway in London to test his brand of Parametric Urbanism , an "organized complexity," through soft grids that simulate nature's systemic patterns. At first glance, I got the organized part but struggled to see the complexity. (Where were all the glitches in the systems?) Without scale or context, these evocative drawings just seemed too pristine to accomodate the resistance and chaotic desires of London's urban grain. But then again, if they truly have managed to synthesize all that data -- from historic permutations of London building types to existing site conditions to community values to ecological systems -- and translate it into dynamic urban form, then maybe these studies have a more rigorous consideration of urban complexities and site specificity than we might achieve formula-free.
But one wonders if even in the elimination of seams we must still leave some trace, hook, or handle to grab onto: a reminder of what you're smoothing over and why. Data and algorithms are vehicles, not ends in themselves. With luck, in the future parametrics will be used to smooth over the navigation between data and application, allowing the realtime testing of design hypothesis informed by real world data rather than simply becoming yet another brand of digital smoke and mirrors.
The Seam between nostalgia and progress.
But why are seams so unsatisfying? Aren't edges ... well, edgy? Aren't intersections where we experience the unexpected?
"The High Line is a nostalgic project," explained Charles Renfro, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The 1.45 mile long elevated railway that runs through Manhattan, with its emergent prairie grasses and groves of trees sheltered from the wind by adjacent buildings, is so perfect when left to its own devices it seemed inevitable that any human intervention (beyond squatters and guerilla gardeners) would only serve to tame this incredible urban wilderness. Renfro described feeling when he traversed it that he "owned the city." In transforming it into a public park, DS+R (+ Field Operations ) sought a strategy of minimal impact, utilizing a modular building system called "Agri-tecture" that expands, contracts, can be undetermined, and "allows a new nature to grow through the cracks."
One remarkable result of this preservation project, which stays clear of any commercial program, is that this Green Seam that weaves through the urban canyons of Manhattan has triggered more than 50 developments alongside it, making a landscape project the catalyst for what Renfro says is "probably the biggest transformation of a neighborhood in New York City since the turn of the century," nostalgia enabling growth.
Despite all this progress, the after-party progressed quite slow. That is, until we reached the seam between new music and nostalgia. The DJ played that old fear-of-technology song ... and it was like, virtual insanity -- the dance floor filled and a crowd broke out. And as the drinks flowed and the crowd fused, I started to worry what would happen if things got a little too seamless . What if Richard Dawkins and Richard Wurman accidentally switched briefcases, inputting genetic codes into cities and demographic stats into lab rats? What if Patrik Shumacher swapped the algorithm for city-making with Marissa Mayer's secret algorithm for google-searching? And what if, in a drunken flirtation, Matt Cohler traded 60 million facebook profiles for the contacts on Naomi Campbell's little black blackberry?
I guess the thing about seams is ... well, I wouldn't say they age you, but they certainly date you. But DLD's energy was optimistic and maybe even empowering, because to straddle the seam is to know how far we've come and to know where we're going and what's left to be done.
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