Travel Time Maps

I recently ran into an interesting weblog, Computing for Emergent Architecture, “an experimental weblog by the staff, students and alumni of the MSc Virtual Environments / Adaptive Architecture & Computation at the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, University College London.” It seems like while the US is still stuck in the “new forms, new materials” model of architectural design, the British are leaping ahead toward using programming to build adaptive, and emergent architecture. One recent post discusses a tube map planner they’ve programmed in which the temporal distance between stations is represented spatially. The result is a kind of real time homonculus map of the city. The “Travel Time Tube Map” itself can be found here.

At City of Sound, you can view a map of the Europe in which real distances seem shorter thanks to high speed trains. The map is from Barcelona: The Urban Evolution of a Compact City, by Joan Busquets, published by the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
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Cuteness: Nature or Nurture?

Little by little, button nose by button nose, furry paw by furry paw, scientists are getting to the root of what it means to be cute, says the New York Times. Studies show that we are genetically predisposed for paedomorphism, that is “extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need.”

If scientists see our love for pandas or desire to lash stuffed animals to the front of garbage trucks as predetermined, Daniel Harris, in his Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic depicts cuteness as a vastly successful capitalist ploy to reframe life into the infantile and nonthreatening. To make toys for children, we amputate the paws of bears, extract their teeth, and sew their mouths shut. Children become docile cherubs and sex becomes innocent. In its dark vision of a society reduced to furry worship, Harris’s book is brilliant. The Times article above tempers it, allowing us to better grasp this complex phenomenon. See also the wikipedia entry for “cute” before you descend into cute overload.

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Phantom Streets and Map Traps

I ran across a post at The Map Room today which brought up the mysterious means by which cartographers protect their work. In order to ensure that their work isn’t copied wholesale, they set up map traps””?fake streets are common””?that will be dead giveaways if an unwary carto-plagiarist pilfers them. See this group of emails in the alt.folklore urban newsgroup. Cartographers aren’t the only ones to create fake entries. Encyclopedias also have traps in wait, as do dictionaries. Read here. As a child growing up in rural far western Massachusetts I was always struck by some streets that were listed on maps but that I could never find even a trace of. Well, now I know why.

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Cuckoo IP

Another example of Network Culture showed up today. We Make Money Not Art carries a piece by Tobie Kerridge called CuckooIP that demonstrates what our ubicomp world of networked objects might be like. CuckooIP is connected to the telephone system. You call the clock, leave a message and select a time for it to be delivered. At the appropriate moment, the CuckooIP springs to action and recites your message. Together with Nikki Stott, Kerridge is also responsible for biojewelry.

See Tobie’s web site for more great networked projects, such as a bottle full of brine shrimp that are in suspension until the network informs the object that inmate 990 has been executed in Texas. When that happens, the shrimp are coaxed out of suspension and life comes out of death.


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Making Visible the Invisible at the Seattle Public Library

George Le Grady sent a link to his excellent project, Making Visible the Invisible at the Seattle Public Library, in which aggregated data about circulation in the library is revealed in real-time to patrons. It’s definitely worth taking a look. If the dominant mode of art in postmodernism is critical appropriation, I’m increasingly thinking that Network Culture is dominated by the aggregator. Remix isn’t the right term for this, that’s a leftover from postmodernism. What’s so new about remix compared to, say, hip-hop? Data aggregation, on the other hand, was largely unseen in the postmodern era but is flourishing today in culture.

See more at his fascinating web site.

visualization of data

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Will This Finally Kill That? Architecture Confronts the Urban Screen

In his article Circuit City, published in the most recent ArtForum magazine, Tom Vanderbilt draws on comments by Lev Manovich and William Mitchell to conclude that the endlessly-reconfigurable urban screen will supplant the role of architecture in the city in the near future.

bq. As new-media theorist Lev Manovich predicted in 2002, “In the longer term every object may become a screen connected to the Net, with the whole of built space becoming a set of display surfaces.” …

bq. What happens to a building when its very bricks are pixels and it becomes a screen? Can it be appreciated as a building itself, or does the image it is broadcasting simply swallow it whole? Do we judge the building by the content of its display or the mechanism that houses it? The medium or the message? Mitchell has a theory: “You can argue, of course, that architecture has always been about animated surface””?classical effects of shade and shadow as sun and clouds move (what are moldings for, after all), Barcelona pavilion effects of reflection and transparency created by glass, metal, and machine-polished surface, and subtle combinations of the two, as at LA’s new Disney Concert Hall.” Buildings, through their geometry, compute these effects. Now, however, Mitchell writes, “we can separate the software of architectural dynamics from the hardware, execute this software at high speed on inexpensive digital devices, and reprogram effects whenever we like.”

Vanderbilt’s point is a provocative one.

Over the last forty years the architectural vanguardists have felt alternatively threatened by and enraptured with the communicative capacities of media and responded, with post-modernism, through a turn to semiotic representation and more recently, under post-criticism, to affect. Desperate to communicate messages in the first case, eager to deliver moods in the second, both of these “post” movements are obsessed with the threat posed to architecture by the spectacular powers of contemporary media and try to attain the same status for the discipline by absorbing media into itself.

But this explosion of screens in the urban realm undoes both models. Mitchell points out that Disney Concert Hall’s fantastically expensive form can do little compared to an urban screen. On a more personal level, I can’t imagine any contemporary architect, no matter how in love with their work, trading their right to use a computer for a house of their own design. In the case of the architecture of affect so beloved today by advocates of post-criticism, the building’s existence on the screen becomes more important than its realization. In architecture schools that proclaim themselves as cutting-edge, the most popular design tool today is Maya, animation software designed not for making buildings but for making videos. Young instructors gleefully announce they won’t talk to students unless they do their work in Maya.

It’s easy to react against this position, as the success of the vanguard is always based on the counter-reaction it induces. But what if we accept a less moralistic stance? What if Maya is the future of architecture? By implication, what if Vanderbilt is right and the screen becomes more important than the building? Does architecture become a training platform for video game design? Some of enthusiasts of Maya have proposed nothing less.

“This will kill that,” Victor Hugo said of the printed book and the building. But as interactive artifacts housing human activities, buildings retained a certain edge that prevented Hugo’s prediction from being thoroughly realized. Now the screen, be it on a laptop or on a neutral shell, proposes to do that just as well. In the case of the urban screen, architectural high design seems to have met a threat that outdoes everything it has claimed for itself over the last forty years.

Has architectural design during this entire time been nothing but a diversion from the matter at hand, the refinement of Robert Venturi’s decorated shed? Is Venturi’s laugh the last laugh?

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