Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Wireless London: The Semantic City

The second Wireless London event was on last night at the AA. Entitled 'The Semantic City', the speakers were John Bell of the AA and Jo Walsh , a 'free software hacker, author and gonzo cartographer'.
Lots of material to think about from these two with some interesting linkages between the talks.
I liked Jo Walsh's talk a great deal, particularly as she has thought through a number of ideas about the parallels between the software design process and architecture. I was struck by this a number of years ago (when I had more involvement in software-making)-- programmers tend to use architectural metaphors to describe software features-- usually to illustrate the infeasibility of some proposed change (e.g. now you're asking me to build in five extra windows and a balcony as opposed to the windowless shack you specified originally). She offers some ideas to return to architecture: defining isolatable subsystems- black boxes that publish an interface or contract defining what can be done at their edges.

I think this is an interesting idea for planning-- current planning is generally centralised with comprehensive plans being issued every few years. These are generally out of date as soon as they're published so interim plans and addendums are published. If individual units of space (sites, buildings, parks, squares) could be treated as independent so long as they upheld the conditions imposed by their neighbours, it could lead to more interesting as well as more heterogeneous city spaces. In a way this is what happened with Georgian streets for example-- heights of buildings, line of windows, size of plots were specified, but what was built within the site envelope was up to the developer. Could also make for a more streamlined, less bureaucratic planning system too. It would be interesting to model this, e.g. a city street- using certain inputs and outputs (e.g. heights, widths, number of people using the building, typology). Literally architecture by numbers!

There were many other thoughts about mapping and cartography from both talks which I will have to digest before I can discuss with any coherence.

John Bell addressed himself to the question of how technologies can be architectural. He read the first part of his talk, and discussed projects in the second part. I confess I always find it hard to follow lectures that are read aloud (as opposed to spoken from notes) as they are often written as papers rather than as speeches. When reading to oneself one can re-read difficult passages and ideas whereas when listening you need the speaker to repeat and headline key ideas to counter lapses in concentration. Perhaps I am insufficiently immersed in academia and haven't picked up this skill! Anyway, I digress. He defined architecture as 'mediated inhabitation' and discussed how architecture needs boundaries. However technologies form different types of boundaries and make different kinds of spaces, e.g. a wireless network works across building and development edges to make a new space of production and consumption. Form is thus no longer the issue --in London in particular there is a 'formalistic cacophony' but buildings are contstantly being updated and adapted for new uses. There is a role for embedded technologies -- more flexible building management systems, animated facades and so on.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to see this as I wanted to go but couldn't make it.

Your take on planning prescriptions is generally called a 'design code' and there are lots of examples of this, the best of which I think is West 8's Borneo Sporenburg in Amsterdam, mainly because it prescribes the configuration rather than the expression of the building

More commonly in UK and USA it tends to be used to enforce a particular stylistic expression, particularly when used by 'New Urbanists' as at Plater-Zyberk/Krier's Seaside, Florida best known as the 'venue' for The Truman Show.

Design codes have also been used extensively in Manhattan, with prescriptions for massing and stepbacks etc. Steven Holl's 1975 pamphlet 'The Alphabetical City' is a wonderful elaboration of the potential richness of variation within such constraints. He analyses New York building types according to the shape of their plan, i.e. L, A, E, H, I, and even X.

Conor Moloney

8:18 p.m.  
Blogger Léan said...

Thanks Conor! It would be interesting to see this extended though to use functions, as well as design. So you might undertake to abide by certain rules (say to do with noise, emissions, illegal activities etc.) but then what was done within the building would be free to change subject to the rules. I have no idea if this would be workable.

7:36 p.m.  

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