Big news and updates

As of January 2013, I will be joining the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication faculty as an assistant professor, where my focus will be on digital media. I could not be more delighted. In 1994, 18 years ago this month, I did my first web project in that program; now I will count the professor who led that project as my colleague.

When I explain to people where I’m going next, they ask, how do you go from architecture to journalism and communication? The fact is, my work has always been about the materiality of communication and information. My dissertation is about how architecture materialized information in the 60s and 70s in the work of Nicholas Negroponte, Cedric Price and Christopher Alexander, but my research on pneumatic tubes and postal services deals with the same thing.

So now I’m back in Umeå, Sweden as a visiting researcher and guest of the HUMLab—the same people I visited last year. The Ume River flows by outside the Arts Campus, the days grow longer, the air grows more blustery each day. I’m finishing my dissertation, arguing with my arguments and developing some courses for the new school year.


Report from Umeå

Above: a beautiful and violent sunrise at 8:15 am (the picture was taken from my bed!). No snow yet, which is rare, but the light is really something—that is, until the sun sets at 2:30 in the afternoon.

For the last three weeks, I’ve been a visiting researcher at the HUMLab digital humanities lab at Umeå University in Sweden. The community here is wonderful: a great group of postdocs, researchers and happy geeks of different stripes, all exploring technology and digital strategies in their work. How does an anthropologist model a site and its spatial relations? How do we create ideas of futures in literature, text and image? How does religious practice play out in the digital world? It’s been a fascinating set of discussions and scholars to meet and I’ve liked how it’s stretching my brain. I’ve given three lectures since I arrived: in the QUMU lecture series on qualitative methods, in a cognitive psychology class, and my first weekend, as a part of the Umeå Institute of Design Fall Summit (which I wrote about earlier). It’s been great to connect with students at the design school, too: I’ve spent a lot of time with Adam Henriksson, Lorenzo Davoli and look forward to our future exchanges. I feel sad to be leaving so soon.

Um, and I turned 40. 40, it turns out, is awesome. They don’t tell you this when you’re 30 and I think it’s because if we all knew that it was awesome, we’d adjust our ages upward.

My final week here will be even busier, as we host the Critically Making the Internet of Things conference. I’m giving a short talk on pneumatic tubes, moderating a virtual and live discussion with Anthony Townsend, Haiyan Zhang and Liz Goodman participating from afar, and hosting a workshop called Future Things with HUMLab postdoc Mike Frangos. I’m really looking forward to seeing friends like Bruce Sterling, Jasmina Tesonovic, Anne Galloway (double yay: I miss Anne a lot) and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and seeing their reaction to Umeå in the winter.  In addition, I’m doing lots of writing writing writing, wrapping up two chapters of the dissertation and finessing another, preparing for job talks in the US, and putting together ideas for classes I’d like to teach.

Hard to imagine that in one week, I’ll return to the States, soak in LA’s sunlight as we hit end-of-term reviews at Art Center for our Graduate Media Design students, a visit to San Francisco, and visits to Madison and then Minneapolis for the family. In 2012? I think I’m staying put.

My last note of my 30s

Left, age 29. Right, age 39.

Today, I am 39. Tomorrow, I will be 40. 

A decade ago, I was miserable. I had just met people who would become dear friends (Louisa, Tom) in Chicago and who I still adore, but didn’t know them well yet. I’d been laid off twice in a year. My boyfriend and I had an acrimonious breakup. I’d just bought a condo and it was beautiful but I couldn’t unpack. By July 2002, I gave up and moved back to San Francisco. I thought I’d return to the dotcom and web world of my 20s and my old friends.

But that’s where everything began to change. Three days after arriving in SF, Judy Wert and Nathan Shedroff started recruiting me for a professorship at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy, and right after I turned 31, I found out I got the job.

In my 30s, I…

spent most of my 30s in and around design and architecture schools. I was a professor at Ivrea, a master’s student at Yale and a PhD student at Princeton. Ten years ago, I never would have imagined that I would have gone back to school, let alone at an Ivy League institution. I probably wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be a design professor. I really probably wouldn’t have imagined I’d become an architectural historian or an historian of cybernetics and artificial intelligence.

started teaching. I love teaching and even more than that, I love advising students on their projects.

lived in Chicago, Italy, San Francisco, New Haven, Princeton and Los Angeles. I have lived for a month or more in Copenhagen, Bangalore, Berlin, Montreal and now, Umeå, Sweden.

loved a lot.

met wonderful people, stayed in touch with old friends, found my way back to people who mattered dearly, and yet still miss people I’ve lost so much.

ended up in places I never would have guessed.

Tomorrow, I will be 40. I…

don’t own a home, I’m not married, I don’t have children, I don’t have a dog. Thinking that all of those things will change in the next few years.

have friends as young as 20 and as old as their 70s. I love navigating the things we have in common across our ages. I’m friends with people I loved more than I can possibly explain. I’m friends with generous people and new people and people I do projects with and people who visit and people who invite me to wonderful places and people I admire. Lots of people I admire.

will finish a dissertation and then I’ll become a professor, if things go the way I hope they will.

still love music and am better clued in thanks to my hipper friends.

don’t plan to go skydiving because I prefer the view from the plane and scuba diving to the thought of hurtling through the air.

don’t have a bucket list and don’t know that I want one. Life’s good enough, the way it’s unfolding.


I’ll report back from 40 but in the meantime: thank you, 30s, for being so weird and surprising. Nothing went the way I would have expected when I was 29, but it’s so much better than what I could have imagined. I’m thankful, I’m amused, I’m happy.

Upcoming adventures

from the summer, of course...

I’m sitting at the airport again, about to embark on a five or six stop trip over the next month. Oh my!

Speaking-wise, my first stop is the ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) annual conference in Montreal, one of my favorite cities in the world. I’m giving another paper on Cedric Price and the Oxford Corner House, archival research that I did at the Canadian Centre for Architecture where I spent the month of July.

In just one week, South by Southwest Interactive for my 14th time! Benjamin Bratton and I are doing a panel called “Urban Technology on the Dark Side:” 10 examples of urban technology on the scary, nefarious and strange side.

Also: two separate trips to San Francisco, one for a Cisco Urban Innovation Group event (between Montreal and SXSW), the other for the presentation of the Institute for the Future project I’ve worked on the last six months, and then LA for the major pass-or-fail crit for my thesis students in Art Center’s Graduate Media Design Program.

So: dizzyingly busy, a nice counterpoint to the quiet February I had in Princeton. I’m psyched.


Oh the places you’ll see

Lots of travel. Lots of projects. Lots of papers and writing. Lots of arguing with the structure of my dissertation. Lots of airplanes. Lots of mud and melting snow in Princeton, where I sit at my desk right now. It’s the quiet before the storm — I’ll post about what’s coming up in my next post!

Since I last posted, here are some places I’ve been.

Shanghai, China, October 2010

The Bund

Me in a cab under the blue-lit megastructure urban highways

Umeå, Sweden, December 2010 (brr!)

I was a guest at the HUMLab and spoke at the Media Places conference.

Munich (and also Düsseldorf, not pictured), Germany, December 2010

Glühwein with the lovely Magdalen Powers.

Venice, CA, off and on, October 2010–February 2011

Lifeguard houses on Christmas Day

There’s also been Minneapolis (twice to see family), New York (Microsoft Social Computing Symposium), Sacramento, San Francisco and Burbank (Institute for the Future).

I have a tendency to think I’m not getting enough done — probably because the dissertation writing is the hardest part– but I’ve been up to a bunch of things:

  • I was invited to bat for the home team: I gave a paper called “To the first machine that can appreciate the gesture: Nicholas Negroponte and the Architecture Machine” at the Teaching Architecture Practicing Pedagogy conference at Princeton last weekend. Outstanding conference and great community of scholars and ideas on architecture practice and pedagogy. I also lectured on Negroponte as a guest speaker in a proseminar at Princeton in December.
  • Working on a project I love at the Institute for the Future with two people I greatly admire, Anthony Townsend and Jake Dunagan. Lots of travel around California for fascinating conversations, workshops and interviews.
  • Interviewing Nicholas Negroponte for publication in an upcoming book on the 150 year anniversary in the MIT School of Architecture. Was paid an embarrassingly high compliment from the man himself.
  • Finishing a little project on communication systems for a future exhibition.
  • Wrote a short piece in Rumor (Princeton School of Architecture publication) about the Shanghai workshop we conducted, Soft Energy Infrastructure
  • Turned my fascination with and research on pneumatic tubes as an article for Cabinet
  • Continue to advise master’s five students in the exciting Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center in Pasadena. It’s great to be a fly on the wall of their creative processes.

… and still trying to go running and do yoga here and there, to read self-help books and get decent sleep and cook good food. No wonder the blog ends up in last place!

You really wish you could attend these conferences

You so wish you could attend these two conferences.

But you won’t be invited.

You’re more than 34 years too late.

There’s “The Invisible City,” the theme of the 1972 International Design Conference Aspen. It promised to

“address the implications of making the invisible city visible: of changing misuse into use and apathy into engagement. The conference will explore the programs, philosophies and materials that use the resource of our man-made environment for learning. The conference will address the architectural, planning, design, economic and political implications of these educational alternatives.”

Then, there’s the 1976 AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Philadelphia. The conference brochure states, “We live in the invisible city. A place where public information is not public: a place that is not maintained because it is not creatively used.”

Both were chaired by Richard Saul Wurman, at that time an architect in Philadelphia who had grown increasingly interested in the mechanism and system of information and the process not only of designing information… but what now gets called “architecting” it.

More on the 1976 “Architecture of Information:”

“Wouldn’t a city — any city — be more useful and more fun if everybody knew what to do in it, and with it? As architects, we know it takes more than good-looking buildings to make a city habitable and usable. It takes information: information about what spaces do as well as how they look; information that helps people articulate their needs and respond to change.

“The resources of a city are its people, places and processes. It is our collective attitudes toward these resources that either encourage the destruction of the city through apathy and abandonment or reaffirm the necessity of the city to civilized progress and life itself by participation and use. Use as the place for learning; participation as the involvement of everybody in the role of teacher. People telling about what and why they’re doing what they’re doing where they’re doing it–the show and tell is the city itself.

Wouldn’t these be great conference sessions today?

Frank Gehry and Doreen Nelson offered “The School Room: Analogue of the City.” There’s a session called “Space Doctors: Understanding How People Use Public Spaces” led by Don Clifford Miles. Even understanding gets its own architecture: “The Architecture of Understanding” by Marley & Ronald Thomas.

Data visualization? Try this: “Visualization of complex ideas” led by Jonas Salk (yes, *that* Jonas Salk)! “How to spec an ‘interface,’ detail an ‘input’ and supervise a ‘programming process'” — in 1976. The father of computer graphics, William Fetter, offered a session on “Computer graphics and the urban perception,” while Ivan Chermayeff offered “Communication in architectural environments” and Michael and Susan Southworth explored “Communicating the city.”

It is, of course, the conference where Wurman popularized the term “architecture of information” in the keynote speech he gave.

Makes me want to reconvene or revisit some of these sessions. What if we asked people today to take these themes and give talks? Who would our Salk be? Could we invite some of these people to speak?

Google Zeitgeist: A Series of Tubes

Last week, I attended Google Zeitgeist and gave the “Series of Tubes” Ignite talk about the history of pneumatic tubes. The event was mindbogglingly stellar. You’ve probably seen some version of this by now, but here’s the latest. (On the Zeitgeist Minds site, they list Desmond Tutu’s talk from a previous year as a related video. Not sure how that works, but whoa.) Many thanks to Brady Forrest and Tim O’Reilly for extending the invitation.


Speaking Thursday, 9/16 (tomorrow) on architecture & information

My good friends at Adaptive Path are hosting a talk I’m giving tomorrow night on my research — on the history of architectures of information. Do come! I’m very excited to be sharing what I’ve been finding. Most of it hasn’t been published or presented anywhere since the mid 60s.

Here’s the gist of my talk.

Today, we’re used to the idea of informational interfaces melding with our buildings. But the idea of architecture made of information has a surprising history.

Starting in the 1960s, British architect Cedric Price created information architecture — or rather, architecture made of information. He designed number of buildings that would be used to navigate information, that could learn from their users and respond to what they did. These included the Fun Palace, cybernetic buildings (1964); a proto cybercafe (1966) and sensor-enabled kits of parts that could get bored and rearrange themselves (1976).

These prescient projects show an architecture of information in the truest sense of the term — information codified and categorized, computers specified for information management, novel interfaces for receiving content — a full decade before Richard Saul Wurman coined the term “information architecture” in 1976.

RSVP on Upcoming.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
6:00pm – 8:30pm
At Adaptive Path, 363 Brannan St in San Francisco
(Between 2nd & 3rd)