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.

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?

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.

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.


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.

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)

Misfits and architecture machines

A few days ago, I wrote about some basics of cybernetics, concluding with a snippet from Gordon Pask’s “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics. “Let us turn the design paradigm in upon itself,” he wrote, “let us apply it to the interaction between the designer and the system he designs, rather than the interaction between the system and the people who inhabit it.”[1]

This idea proved very attractive to two young architects: Christopher Alexander and Nicholas Negroponte. When architects started engaging with cybernetics, they saw new possibilities for how designers would work. Technology would surprise and challenge the designer, would break down design problems into smaller parts, would address issues of complexity.

Christopher Alexander applied cybernetics and AI (among other disciplines) to architecture in an attempt to address the growing complexity of design problems. He noted the difficulty of designing for intermeshing systems, even when the designed object itself (whether something as big as a village or as small as a teapot) seemed uncomplicated. “In spite of their superficial simplicity, even these problems have a background of needs and activities which is becoming too complex to grasp intuitively,” he wrote in Notes on the Synthesis of Form in 1964.[2] The design process he described in Notes required a computer to analyze complex sets of data to define “misfits”—design requirements—that the designer ameliorated by creating a form that solved the problem.

While Nicholas Negroponte is best known today as a technology guru and founder of the MIT Media Lab, I’m interested in his architectural background and the notion of “architecture machines”— evolving systems that worked in “symbiosis” with designer and resident that Negroponte thought would change the making of architecture. As director of the Architecture Machine Group at MIT, founded in 1968, he assembled a theory of how such systems would work in the 1970 book The Architecture Machine (dedicated “to the first machine that can appreciate the gesture” [3]) and the 1975 book Soft Architecture Machines, and a series of computer-aided design tools and programs throughout the 1970s.

An architecture machine, in Negroponte’s estimation, would turn the design process into a dialogue that would alter the traditional human-machine dynamic. He wrote, “The dialogue would be so intimate—even exclusive—that only mutual persuasion and compromise would bring about ideas, ideas unrealizable by either conversant alone. No doubt, in such a symbiosis it would not be solely the human designer who would decide when the machine is relevant.”[4] In order to achieve the design goals and close relationship with the user the machine would have to incorporate artificial intelligence, he wrote, “because any design procedure, set of rules, or truism is tenuous, if not subversive, when used out of context or regardless of context.”[5] Intelligence for Negroponte is thus not a passive quality but an active one, expressed through behavior, and improved over time.

However, building a successful architecture machine proved a much more difficult concept in practice because of the quality of interaction they achieved and their designer’s overall fascination with bells and whistles. The URBAN5 (1967) program was Negroponte’s first, major computer-aided design program that sought to use his ideas about conversation, dialogue and intelligence. In his own judgment, it failed because it could not adapt and its dialogue was too primitive. The shortcomings of URBAN5 led the Architecture Machine Group to develop “The Architecture Machine”—a time-sharing computer that in addition to typical peripherals, had a camera interface on wheels (GROPE), robot arm (SEEK), tablet-based sketching stations and “an assemblage of software.” Negroponte wrote, “The prognostications of hardware enumerated in wanton fantasy have been achieved and even superseded in the actual Architecture Machine of 1974. All too often we spend our time making better operating systems, fancier computer graphics, and more reliable hardware, yet begging the major issues of understanding either the making of architecture or the makings of intelligence.”[6] “The Architecture Machine” was perhaps a failure of its own success.

Today, computer-aided design systems proceed as we ask them to. They don’t jump in and do things for us, they don’t create new layouts, they don’t have conversations with us. Expert systems often fall short: they guess wrong, they get in the way. But have we thrown out baby with bathwater? In the surprises and the challenges of our systems, perhaps we would come up with things we never would have imagined.

[1] Gordon Pask, “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics,” Architectural Design 7, no. 6 (1969): 496.
[2] Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1964), 3.
[3] Nicholas Negroponte, The Architecture Machine (Cambridge, Mass.,: M.I.T. Press, 1970), 11-12.
[4] Ibid., 11-12.
[5] Ibid., 1.
[6] Negroponte, Soft Architecture Machines, (Cambridge, Mass.,: M.I.T. Press, 1975), 157-71.

This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs, a project commemorating the use of the term.