The increasing presence of soft infrastructures embedded with the urban fabric is altering our experience of the city. Simultaneously, the manipulation and processing of the underlying data generated by networked and sentient systems offers new possibilities for architecture. Yet, there seems to be a gap in the practice of designing buildings and spaces in concert with their informational membrane; a practices that understands what makes good cities tick and knows the roles informatics can (and cannot) play; a practice between architecture of construct, architecture of information and industrial/experience/interaction design. The gap seems so wide that large software and hardware corporations are the sole actors that attempt projecting their visions and deploy their case studies of smarter/sentient/responsive cities. This year’s Toward the Sentient City organized by the Architectural League of New York has been an attempt of to fill the void and look at the possible future trajectory for architecture at the time of urban informatics. In his constructive criticism of the show, Dan Hill highlighted how far architecture has to go to stay relevant in the development of ’sentient cities’:
Architecture and urban design should be in this debate, no doubt, but its entire practice, sensibility and economic model may need redressing (as with many other fields, of course.) Given their previous predilections, the lack of technical and conceptual understanding – never mind an apparently congenital inability to design a decent website – the profession has a long way to go before it can demand a seat at the table. An admittedly fading tradition of thinking of itself as the ‘master builder’ needs to be entirely excoriated once and for all.
In a recent keynote address entitled “How can architects relate to digital media?” Mobile City’s Michiel de Lange and Martijn de Waal urged a parterre of young architects to “relate to digital media in a new way, beyond merely using them as instruments, to represent their spatial logic in design, or to design for virtual worlds“. They layout a couple of new directions in the evolution of architecture as a practice:
First, we already witness that the profession is flexibly adapting itself to new circumstances. Architecture is moving in the direction of what has been called ‘service design’. This means that a client hires a ‘designer’ not to just build him a beautiful building, but to shape a particular process or ‘customer (or ‘citizen’) experience’ from start to end. The question is how can these two structures – physical situations and media practices – be combined to design for urban experiences in meaningful ways? Surely this question cannot be solved by architects alone.
Second, architects harness spatial expertise that can steer future directions of new media. Digital media developments are increasingly being integrated with geographical space, physical context, and the material world (labelled geo-spatial web, locative media, the internet of things, and so on). We think it is important that architects play a role in the debate about the values that are implied in such media designs.
Architects can contribute crucial insights particularly on the non-digital modes of design for human experience (see Responsive Environments), the kind of insights based on historical context that other practices fail to grasp. For instance, Adam Greenfield recently discussed the ahistoricity of interaction design:
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).
Why do I blog this: Currently helping setting up an event that look at the new roles of architecture and urbanism in the networked cities landscape. I am particularly fascinated by the gap formed by the lack of technical and conceptual understanding of many architects and the little presence of historical context and acquaintance non-digital modes of design in the designers/engineers practices. A serious need for more T-shaped people?