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.

My article in Cabinet and other adventures

Updated: here’s a copy of the piece. But if you possibly can, you really should buy a copy of Cabinet. They’re a non-profit journal dedicated to art, culture and science run by great people.

I couldn’t be more excited about this: this is my article, “Interfaces to the Subterranean,” in the latest issue of Cabinet! I’m delighted to have finally published an article about the Poste Pneumatique — and at that, in one of my very favorite publications. Please do pick up a copy: Cabinet is wonderful. It’s the Infrastructure issue.

Cabinet issue 41 with my article on pneumatic post!

A week ago tomorrow, I arrived in San Francisco, where I’m spending a month. I’m catsitting and writing the first of a few dissertation chapters about Nicholas Negroponte. Tonight, libations and introductions with the Overlap conference folks: tomorrow, we are off to Santa Cruz for the conference. I’m looking forward to conversations and connections and stories with the people there. It’ll be great to attend.

Otherwise, SF is its usual blur of friends new and old. I’m appreciating the conversations and connections, the small worldedness of it all, the wall of fog about to envelope the Mission, the cats that meow at me in the mornings, the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.

weeknote 21

It’s been very productive month in Princeton, even if I am channeling John Nash in my organizing of little slips of paper in pursuit of the big arguments for my dissertation. I’m interested in what Katherine Hayles refers to as “how information lost its body” and how it gets rematerialized, not in bodies (which is her focus) but in architectural objects and spaces. Ultimately, I’m looking to explain how these broader theories and explanations might be bounced against Christopher Alexander’s design processes, Nicholas Negroponte’s Media Room, the Architecture Machine Group’s Spatial Data Management System projects, and Cedric Price’s building-sized information systems.

Is this where I’m headed? (From A Beautiful Mind. John Nash still lives in Princeton, so it’s not that far a stretch.)

In the course of last week’s reading frenzy, I’ve blown through books by Katherine Hayles, John Johnston, Friedrich Kittler, Donna Haraway, Niklas Luhmann, and Lev Manovich (and more that I can’t remember right now), as well as a bunch of shorter articles. It was an intense amount of material to not just read but parse enough to quote. I then cut up the quotes, recategorized them and put them into new piles. The piles all reside in envelopes, with titles like “embodiment/disembodiment” and “media/medium” and “processing and code” and “modes and operations.” This project isn’t dealing with my archival material or the historical material I have on cybernetics, artificial intelligence and the history of computing in architecture — that’s separate — but it should give me some perspective on the project. Finally, I’m not feeling blocked but rather driven to write, if only to not lose the train of thought I’m following that the hundreds of scraps of paper encapsulate. Unless I go crazy in the process. That’s also possible.

Also up this month: writing a lexicon entry on the computer in architecture for Joan Ockman’s book on the 300 years of architectural pedagogy and writing a piece for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians  (JSAH) on Papers 2… and that’s in addition to the adventures on which I’m embarking, the subject of my next post.

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!

weeknote 20

janet vertesi & i presenting at the media+modernity seminar

Beatriz Colomina, me, Janet Vertesi at the Princeton School of Architecture.

It’s been a wonderful month in Princeton and it’s about to heat up into a whole bunch of travel. I write this from Newark Airport, where I’m in the President’s Club on a friend’s membership, feeling sad to leave autumn on the East Coast and excited for Los Angeles and Shanghai.

On Thursday, Janet Vertesi and I presented to the Media+Modernity lecture series at Princeton. Media+Modernity spans several departments, including architecture, art history, history, German, English and comparative literature. (The program also offers a graduate-level certificate.) The lectures typically pair two people, often within Princeton but sometimes from outside. In this case, Janet meant an inclusion of sociology and history of science in our number.

It was great — good energy and a lively audience. Janet presented “Seeing Like a Rover” about her Mars Rover mission research, the ways that the researchers embody aspects of the Rover and the use of images. I presented my ongoing research about Cedric Price’s Oxford Corner House (1965–66) as well as the Birmingham & Midlands Institute Headquarters (1967–70). The two projects incorporate similar themes — BMI/HQ is a continuation of sorts from OCH — but neither have been written about or discussed with much frequency.

A panel titled “Responsive Architecture” for the ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) accepted my paper on the Oxford Corner House to their annual convention in Montreal (!!!) from March 3–6. You already know how much I love Montreal. I’m delighted to return and at that, to present the research I conducted at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Last night, we hosted a Hannah Arendt nightcap hour at my place in Princeton. It made sense: a few people are in a seminar devoted to her work; most of the rest of us have read her, she was the first woman to be a full professor at Princeton (a decade before women undergraduates could attend the university). Daniela and I made glühwein, Daria made bread, Anna-Maria made popcorn. Not sure who the next political scientist or philosopher will be who we fête, but I’m certain it will involve fondue and raclette.

Now, I’m waiting for a plane back to LA, where I’ll meet with my writing advisees and attend their Work in Progress presentations at Art Center and spend some time at home with my boyfriend. Next Tuesday, I go to Shanghai to help organize the Soft Energy Infrastructure workshop with Princeton’s Center for Architecture, Urbanism & Infrastructure. It’s my second trip to Shanghai–I was there in 2007 for a project–and my fourth to China since 1997. There’s so much more to say about it but rest assured, you’ll hear about it before I board a flight next week for points further west. I’m then back to LA just five days later at the beginning of November for crits at Art Center. Work continues on dissertation chapters, job applications, an article I’ll submit to Cabinet and um, I guess a bunch of other things. I’m excited for the travel but will miss my friends and my framework in Princeton and the gorgeous fall leaves.

weeknote 19

What comes next? It’s been a big question for me lately. I’m in the fourth year of five funded years of my PhD and in my sixth year of graduate school. Do I want to stay in academia? Do I want to do corporate R&D? Consulting? Thinktank? Start a company? My background is different than that of the other people in my architecture program (and with very few exceptions, with architecture in general), so it’s unlikely I’d pursue a traditional architectural history position. But this week, I found out that an academic position is open that speaks directly to my multifaceted background. I’m going to apply. There’s no downside to it. At the very least, it’s a good opportunity for me to try to put myself on the academic market and to go through the focusing process. And if I land it, it would be tremendously exciting.

I’ve refocused my dissertation proposal to hone in on the architecture and information/artificial intelligence aspect, moving away from characterizing it as generative computing. It makes me see that I’ll be able to incorporate a lot of the writing I’ve already done  in various papers so far. I’m very lucky to have such a supportive committee. It makes me see this dissertation as a real thing that will not only come together, but that I will complete. A year ago, that seemed so far away. It even seemed far away when I was writing the original dissertation proposal. But now, it’s organizing itself. It’s coming together.

I’ve been reading media theory this week in order to try to situate the projects and practices I’m writing about. At bat: Jean Baudrillard, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Friedrich Kittler. I still kick myself for not taking the media theory class two years ago — it would have come in handy — though I loved the All-Marx-All-The-Time class I took in its place.

We’re getting things set for the Princeton Center for Architecture, Urbanism and Infrastructure (CAUI) workshop in Shanghai — my flights are booked and I’ll be there the last week of the month. We’ve also begun to put in place the content strategy (including the social media strategy). I’m enjoying the collaboration. We span more than 50 years and every level of higher education from Mario Gandelsonas, the director, through PhD, master’s in architecture, and undergraduate students. Two of the M.Archs  were in the writing group I ran two years ago: now we’re peers in this effort. I like how things flatten.

Finally, this week I’ll be speaking at the Media + Modernity lecture series at Princeton on Thursday (announced in my previous post). It’s exciting to have the opportunity to present my research to my colleagues across the school.

And then the travel picks up: New Haven, Boston, LA, Shanghai, all between now and October 27. The quiet in Princeton is a kind respite.

weeknote 18

I’ve been back in Princeton for just over a week and the heavy air of late hurricane season finally gave way to crisp autumn evenings. It’s my favorite season and it smells wonderful outside — a mix of Lake Carnegie and trees, a chorus of lazy crickets as the soundtrack.

Coming back gave me an opportunity to meet up with Christine Boyer (my advisor) and Ed Eigen (my first reader) about the research I did at the Cedric Price Archive and in Nicholas Negroponte’s personal archive. They’re not surprised to hear that I’ve discovered my original dissertation proposal contains about 5 dissertations, and they’re happy to hear the direction I’m going. Christine told me to retheorize, so I’ve been reading Paul Edwards’ The Closed World as a model of writing about imbricated information-technology-society hybrids. I will start writing an introduction of sorts this coming week, using it as a fulcrum to get into the architects I’m writing about. Having Janet Vertesi in town is quintuply amazing in this regard. She’s in Princeton’s Society of Fellows for a three-year fellowship and is just the right person for me to talk to about the history of technology aspects of my project. She’s also become a very close friend and on top of that, she and her boyfriend Craig live blocks away — a great mix of work and pleasure.

I also started digging into Richard Saul Wurman’s work in the 1970s. My last blog post mentioned some of what I’m curious about: the 1972 The Invisible City theme at the Aspen Design Conference and the 1976 AIA Convention, “The Architecture of Information.” It would be great to interview him as I did Nicholas Negroponte a few months ago and even better if he has archival material: the AIA has been of little help and I’ll need a trip to Chicago to get the rest of the material on the Invisible City conference.

Other things this week:

A lovely trip to New York with numerous meetings with friends. Richard Nash and I finally met face-to-face for breakneck-speed breakfast after numerous near misses. Alex Deschamps-Sonsino was in town with her good friend Karola and we wiled away a lazy afternoon in Brooklyn. Jennifer Brook and I saw the most excellent Sarah Sze show at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, made a trip to Printed Matter and connected with Christian Svanes Kolding for a quick bit at the Standard. Alex Wright and I met up for the first time in a few years to catch up about the history of technology, babies, marriages, and relationships and meditation.

Mark Wigley came to the Radical Architecture Education seminar — the PhD colloquium — to talk about Buckminster Fuller, John McHale and the design department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. It was great. Bucky was loved and hated: the students all had to be reprogrammed after his stays on campus. He has a history with Princeton, with 9 visits in the 50s and 60s (and one in 1929). They built tensegrity domes here on campus near the architecture lab. McHale is an interesting figure to me, especially with his work in futures studies.

Coming up this week: I’m extending my stay in Princeton and am looking forward to getting a lot of writing done. Jorge Pardo, who just won a MacArthur “genius grant” is speaking at the architecture school. On Saturday, Axel Kilian is organizing a robotics seminar and I’ll be a critic. There are birthday parties and good dinners and a lot of things to do.

weeknote 17

It’s hard to top a week like the one I described in weeknote 16. The last week was about starting the school year at Art Center, on one hand, and tying up loose ends in LA to start the school year in Princeton. The highlight of the week: hearing Tom McCarthy read from his novel C, then having brunch with him and a few friends the next day. READ. C. It’s stellar.

At Art Center, there’s a great crew of thesis students in the graduate Media Design Program. I heard the first of what they’re working on. My very favorite part of being a professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea was being a thesis advisor: nothing like watching someone’s own project grow and develop and being there as a guide. I’m also really enjoying being a part of so multifaceted a faculty. It feels familiar and new at the same time. Funny (in a very nice way) to see themes repeating in my work and in theirs as they explore their thesis directions — it’s a great place to be.

So then, I packed up a couple boxes of books (they made it, though the box is torn), went to yoga and to my writers co-op, then flew back to Princeton last Thursday. I discovered I’d done a thorough job of setting things up for my return. Can’t say I’ve ever been all that neat a person but everything was tidy in the student apartment I’d moved into in June. When you split time in two places, finding things again is the best you can hope for, but things felt smooth and familiar. I reconnected friends from school, several of whom I’ve studied with for five years, caught up about our summer research and discussed the bigger questions of what comes next — we’re in year four or five of our PhDs, we’ve known each other since our master’s program — what’s the next step? Two friends will enter the academic job market. I’m trying to determine which way I’ll go. Writing the dissertation means that there’s an end in sight, unlike the interminable coursework I did (two years of a master’s, two years of a PhD: nearly 20 courses in four years).

My research on Cedric Price and Nicholas Negroponte this summer is going to help to boil down the dissertation. I’m surprised that I’ll be dealing in some way with Richard Saul Wurman and information architecture, as he defined it in 1976 (it never was my intention). Today, I met with Christine and Ed (advisor & 1st reader) and they’re excited about the direction I’m going to take it. Now to theorize information and architecture. Re-reading this week: Geof Bowker and Michel Foucault.

All of this in preparation for an unhinged October. October is going to be crazy. I’m flying at least 25,000 miles: Princeton, LA, Boston (IBM Research), New Haven, LA, Shanghai (Princeton Center for Architecture, Urbanism & Infrastructure), LA. I’ll probably be in San Francisco in there, too for Institute for the Future. I’m working on being as grounded as I can.

weeknote 16

What. A. Week.

I’ve packed five weeks into the last five days. My head is reeling and I’m exhausted, but what an amazing week.

This week has involved LA, San Francisco and Scottsdale, the pneumatic tubes Ignite talk, a 30 person meeting with an organization I’m working with through Institute for the Future, and the opportunity to give a talk about Cedric Price. I’ve submitted a paper to a conference and turned out an article draft for Design Observer’s Places Journal.

Some highlights:

I got lost in some bushes trying to find the grand dinner at Google Zeitgeist at a resort in Scottsdale and accosted someone for directions. When he responded, I had a moment of oh-my-God-I-know-that-voice: it turned out to be Tom Brokaw. I had lunch with the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, discussed conduits and pneumatic tubes with Larry Page, went swimming at 3 a.m., and gave the pneumatic tubes talk to the greatest concentration of fame and leadership that I’ll probably ever meet.

Talking to 30 or 40 people at Adaptive Path about my research was awesome– I’m so grateful to Kate Rutter and Laura Kirkwood-Datta for organizing it and to everyone for turning up! I’ve wanted to share the research I’m doing about Cedric Price with information architects and interaction designers because it seems so similar. I talked about one of the projects I researched this summer: the Oxford Corner House Feasibility Study (1966), an urban information hub for central London built into a massive former restaurant. Price used information as his central material for the building — a very contemporary idea (consider Mike Kuniavsky’s recent talk at Device Design Day, “Information is a Material.”) I never set out to work on a history of information architecture — a term that Richard Saul Wurman coined in 1976 at the AIA Conference –but Price’s work really is an architecture of information. In any case, there will be articles and papers to publish soon. We videotaped the talk and will make it available as well.

We did a great kickoff meeting with Anthony Townsend, Jake Dunagan and Jim Dator for a project at Institute for the Future. I’ve long admired Anthony’s work (I sent him fanmail on his dissertation) and have wanted to work with IFTF for some time. It’s a promising project and great team. Jim founded the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies — and also wrote for one of the issues of Archigram back when. He’s a central figure in the field of futures studies. (Futures Studies even ties into Price’s work: he considered himself a futurist and was listed in the Futures Directory in 1975.)

Tonight, I’ll see most of the people I’m close to in San Francisco. Tomorrow, I hurtle back to LA, starting my position as a writing advisor at Art Center in the graduate Media Design Program. Then finally, finally back to Princeton on Thursday to start off the school year, to focus and formalize the research into a dissertation chapter and get my apartment set up. I’m only midway through September and already, October is brimming over. I’ll return to the West Coast in October for IFTF and Art Center, attend a symposium on place at IBM’s Center for Social Software in Boston, and put on a seminar in Shanghai with Princeton’s Center for Architecture, Urbanism and Infrastructure.

And sleep. Maybe somewhere in there I’ll get some sleep.