weeknote 14

(Fred points at one of the presentation boards for Japan Net. This is one of the nicest parts about being at the CCA: the discussions that happened when other people stopped by to see what I was looking at, or that happened over their material.)

My fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture ended last week. It was a stellar month. I realized every time I walked in the door, I wore a grin and my pace quickened as I headed down the hall to the Study Centre. I will very much miss the place and the people, both the scholars and the people at the CCA.

The overall goal of my trip was to look at the projects that Cedric Price did that had something to do with information flows and communication. In reality, that could mean all of his projects, but given the enormity of his archive, that wasn’t going to be the case. I mentioned previously that I looked at Generator (the subject of my master’s thesis) and Oxford Corner House (a proto cyber cafe info hive from 1966), but I also saw Magnet (a set of urban interventions to instigate different interactions throughout London, 1996), the Birmingham and Midland Headquarters (which reused parts of Oxford Corner House, 1968), Price’s own information storage system for his office (punchcards and a possible computer), Japan Net (series of info pods for Kawasaki, Japan), and McAppy (a construction site safety program, project management system and portable, prefabbed construction huts).

I did not set out with the goal of finding this, but I think Price was truly an information architect — that is, an architect whose main material and media was information. (I also believe he came across the early use of the term “information architecture” in 1968, in an article in Datamation.) Every project begins with this collection of data; the key activities have to do with the structuring of that data and information into categories — and then into physical communication and circulation in the form of a design for a building. He didn’t build many things and it leads me to believe that his practice had more to do with the sum total of all the data and information and drawings and texts and correspondence and charts.In any case, there’s a ton of material to work through that hasn’t really been analyzed or published about, with a few exceptions. I’d like for Price to be as well known to the technology/design community as Nicholas Negroponte and Christopher Alexander are.

In other news, I went to my 20 year high school reunion. It was as weird as I’d expected but also, great fun. Best of all, I reconnected with my high school best friend. It’s been a hard year for friendships and it felt wonderful to realize that Nicole is there and beautiful and doing well.

Tomorrow, I fly back to LA. I’m pondering doing a juice fast. I’m looking forward to going running and getting back to eating healthfully and sleeping well.

weeknote 13: greetings from montreal

Greetings from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal! I’m here on a Collections Research Grant to use the Cedric Price Archive. There are about 30 scholars in residence right now from the US, Canada, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and points beyond, some younger, some more advanced, some traditionally academic, others less traditional like Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. That doesn’t even include the curators, archivists, librarians and other people who work here — they’re lovely as well. When you walk through the Study Centre, you never know what’s going to be on the tables… Susanna, from Venice, found a drawing of Peter Eisenman’s House VIII, not published. Zubin, from Montreal, is trying to make sense of the narratives in John Hejduk’s Masque drawings. Geoff found Oilstrike, a game sponsored by BP from 1970 — the irony. Samantha Hardingham, the one person in the world who publishes extensively and intensively on Cedric Price, was here this week as a part of her long research project in which she is looking at every single project he did. In any case, it’s a wonderfully convivial experience and a total delight to be here.

While I’m here, I’m looking at several Cedric Price projects that deal with information and technology, most of which have not been published about to any great extent. These include some crazy projects: a 1966 proto cybercafe for Tottenham Court Road in the Oxford Corner House; a 1967 design charette called Atom for a new town around a nuclear reactor that would have a “town brain” and a “life conditioning” unit that would educate its citizens; the British and Midlands Headquarters that incorporated the information flows and planetariums from the Oxford Corner House project — and Cedric Price’s own plans for an information storage and retrieval system to be used in his own office. It extends the work I did on my master’s thesis, which examined Price’s Generator project– a 1976-79 plan for an intelligent set of cubes on a landscape that would get bored if not moved and recombined.

On Monday, I presented to the scholars here on the Oxford Corner House project, a talk titled “Storage of Information Becomes Activity” — a note scribbled on a drawing from a different project, but that seems to indicate so much of what Price is doing with his kit of parts buildings, the mobility and the information screens and the learning and the computers. I’m coming to the conclusion that Price really did see architecture as information architecture in a very literal sense: a structuring of information, an organizing of it into activities, and then an organizing of architectural objects and tools to accommodate the movement through these informational exchanges.

The archive is a treasure trove and it’s a delight to look at more projects than just Generator, for which I was here in 2006. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, like the image above of the Inter-Action Centre, one of the few things that Price built (built 1977, demolished 2001) — or the letter that not only requested information on hovercrafts, but a demonstration. Some of it is amazingly futuristic, like the information flows and technologies suggested for the Oxford Corner House. I’ll publish bits of it here as I crunch through the material.

Finally, Montreal is one of my favorite cities. I’ve been here three times, twice in 2006 in late fall (brr!) and once for Design Engaged in 2008. This time, I’ve had a chance to relax into it– though I’ve been too socially busy to relax. It’s beautiful in summer, one reason why I decided to do the fellowship in July, not October. Where I’m staying on the other side of Mount Royal, there are huge maple trees and rolling hills. It all draws to a close in just under a week, when I go to Minneapolis for my 20 year high school reunion. (Shaking head.) That’s going to be its own archive.

weeknotes 07 to 09

I got behind on my weeknotes as I’ve been dealing with some personal business and caring for someone after a surgery, both during the hospital stay and beyond. (Everything went well.) As a result, my productivity isn’t quite as speedy as it’s been of late. I’m not sure it’s going to be all that great this week, given that I’m heading to South by Southwest tomorrow for my 13th time. I’ve been on the advisory board for SXSW Interactive for 12 years. It’s the only thing I do every single year (I don’t even celebrate the holidays with my family with this much regularity). I’ll write more about SXSW separately and instead recap my anomalous couple of weeks–weeks that have less to do with generative systems and more to do with running, yoga, and hospital art collections.

First, Cedars-Sinai Hospital. I certainly didn’t expect to be blown away by the art in a hospital, but there was a stunning collection of small-numbered prints and sculptures created in LA or by LA artists in the 1960s-80s. Claes Oldenburg prints from September 1968. Ed Ruscha sketches in the 1980s. One of my favorites in the ward on the 8th floor: a poster from the 1965 Art and Science exhibition at the Albany Institute of History and Art. The nurse was kind enough to show me how the pneumatic tube system functioned, something that made me nearly giddy, given my fascination with the subject.

I wrote an article on Cedric Price’s Generator for the next issue of Crit (the theme for which is “Architects without Architecture“). It got me thinking about Price–the subject of my master’s thesis — will fit into my dissertation on generative systems. Bryan Boyer asked me, in response to my list of qualities of generative systems, what didn’t qualify. The key is that they’re generated from some set of algorithms. Simple question, one I need to sort out.

Finally, running. Since I arrived in LA, I’ve been running several times a week. Although I’ve been running for a little over a year steadily, this is the greatest mileage I’ve accumulated. I ran the most disorganized 5K ever on Saturday and managed to come in 4th among women runners and 11th overall.Yesterday, I ran 6 miles, the furthest I’ve ever run. In fact, I don’t get winded and yesterday’s long run didn’t even make me sore. Maybe that’s because yoga causes me so much more pain: I went to three yoga classes in the course of a week. You’d think that Venice is made of yoga studios and marijuana dispensaries, with incidental restaurants, shops and Intelligentsia coffee. Anyway, maybe I’ve become one-of-those-people, but there are worse things. I’ve never been in such strong physical shape.

weeknote 06

Enough with the snow. I’m in Los Angeles, or more precisely, Venice (and I missed the third snowstorm in 10 days in New Jersey). I will be shifting my time to be here more than not in the next several months, an audition for whether I might fully move here later this year. I’ve been running on the beach boardwalk in the mornings, something I ordinarily do later in the day. In the afternoons, I write. I’m pondering adding yoga to the mix since I have enough energy for it during the day. The sunlight here is beautiful and my freckles are out for springtime.

My dissertation is focusing ever more on generative systems. I’m working on the dissertation proposal and this week, I’m writing about what constitutes a generative system. Rather than turning out formal prose, I’m just writing between 1000-2000 words, written quickly. It feels lighter this way and it captures my insights better.
I’ve been doing a close reading of Nicholas Negroponte’s The Architecture Machine (1970), J.C.R. Licklider’s “Man-Machine Symbiosis” (1960) and Warren McCulloch’s (ready? this is long) “Toward some circuitry of ethical robots or an observational science of the genesis of social evaluation in the mind-like behavior of artifacts” (1956). In this case, I’m using some of the methods I followed when I worked on a paper about Adolf Behne’s work in the 1920s and the notion of the apparatus… I suppose that this isn’t too different, since Negroponte is all about generative apparatuses.
So what is a generative system? Here’s a broad list of attributes I’ve gathered so far.
  • Intelligence
  • Contextual (context-sensitive, context-appropriate)
  • Adaptive and adaptable
  • Bridges dissimilarities
  • Evolutionary
  • Symbiotic
  • Unfolds over time
  • Has disposition and agency
  • Appetitive  (it absorbs from the environment around it — a word that comes from the McCulloch piece)
  • Capable of learning
  • Social
  • Communicates in (somewhat) natural language
  • Self-organizing
I need to group these and boil them down: these come from the work of a few figures in architecture and information theory, cybernetics and AI. The funny thing is, as much as I will apply these attributes to architecture, they apply to a certain attitude of systems in general. (I suspect that we should build systems today to strive for more of these attributes.) I’ll take the initial framework and bounce it against the work of the people in my case studies: Christopher Alexander, Cedric Price and Nicholas Negroponte. It’s nice that I’ll get to take on the most exciting aspects of my master’s thesis research on Cedric Price.
Next week, I’m aiming to start pouring content into the actual proposal with the plan to finish it at the beginning of March. There are other things that may compete with that, in reality, but I’m trying to keep enough structure and momentum going so that it carries me forward.

weeknote 05

It’s the second snowstorm in a week and right now, it’s the strange moment where I can feel the pressure change and sense the rest of the front that’s about to hit. They’ve closed Princeton today–in fact, they’ve closed most of the East Coast, from the sound of it, which also means that Enrique’s dissertation proposal won’t happen till next week and the Richard Sennet-Eyal Weizman-Teddy Cruz lecture will be rescheduled for tomorrow. During Saturday’s snowstorm, I baked bread, made coq au vin for hours in the slow cooker, started sewing a dress, and dyed my hair. Today will be geared more toward work and toward my own dissertation proposal.

First, I passed my general exam! It was a two-hour, closed-door critique of my work by Beatriz Colomina (head of the PhD program), Christine Boyer (my advisor), Ed EigenSpyros Papapetros and Brigid Doherty. It was very positive. I found it fascinating to see how the commitee drew links and connections through the body of work I had presented. It was apparent to them that I had a method and a clear set of interests (though the method is not as clear to me as it is to them–I inhabit it). They actually said that they enjoyed the papers — that’s the word they used. The committee thought my work needed to be theorized better and that media theory seemed to be useful (I have a meeting with the fabulous Tom Levin tomorrow to discuss). They thought my research paper — the one that will undergirds my dissertation — was the weakest, but I knew that: I had gone through 11 drafts of it and it was out of control. But that indicates to me that I have found the right topic for a doctoral dissertation. Overall, I got useful feedback that I can apply to both the larger scale of my work and the smaller scale.
The whole process of the general exam, from selecting papers to revising and expanding, to editing and presenting, really boosted my confidence — something I did not expect. It made me realize that I have a genuine body of work rich with research questions. It gave me a chance to see the common threads passing through the work: the things that tease me intellectually and won’t let me go. I now have all of these ideas of things I look forward to working on in a career, not just a dissertation.
I’m also ready to get back to writing, not just for my own work but out in the world. Maybe it’s time to start writing a column somewhere? We’ll see.
I’m grappling with two different directions on my dissertation proposal. On one hand, I can write about the introduction of the computer to architecture. There are three themes: methodology, representation, and generation. But really, it’s the generative systems that I think are really interesting. I have an idea about how architectural computing becomes computing architecture, how it on one hand ends up as ubiquitous computing, and on the other, as spatial metaphors for computing. There are reasons to do both: one is a straightforward dissertation; the other really ties together my big questions but might be harder to convince an architectural committee. I’m helped by the fact that much of these things happened within MIT’s architecture school, where the Architecture Machine Group existed and the Media Lab still resides (even if they don’t cross over at all with the history/theory/criticism part of the school). Talking with my advisor, Christine Boyer, will help: she listens well, she was at MIT in the period that I’m researching, and she’s done a good job of steering me the right way.
I keep coming back to haptic and physical engagement with space. Nicholas Negroponte & Richard Bolt’s 1977 Spatial Data Management System is really interesting in that it gave rise to the desktop metaphor, but what really intrigues me is the importance of “motor-memory reinforcement” — the notion that by physically putting something somewhere, or by going somewhere, it reinforces memory. They give the example of Simonides, the Greek poet famous for his ability to memorize long oratory. Negroponte explained in 1986, “His secret was to tie each successive part of a to-be-remembered poem or speech to a specific locale within the mental floor plan of either an actual or imagined temple. For each successive subsection of the talk to be given, the orator would mentally walk from place to place within the temple, rehearsing the appropriate material before some specific piece of statuary.” (Stewart Brand, The Media Lab, 1987, 138). This points out what eBook readers get wrong: the physical, haptic engagement of reading. It also points out a key question of what “future of reading” projects miss out on: the physics of authorship.
There’s so much possibility in that idea! It’s not about creating a metaphor, or a bookshelf on a device — that’s done and usually, done poorly (the iPad is no exception). It’s also not a gestural mode of interaction with a device — but what would happen if we created things that help us learn by our own movements? I’m going to work more on that in the coming days and share my thoughts about it.
I’m going to light some candles, invoke some hygge, and watch the snow fall… and write. I’ll let you know where this puts me next week.

weeknote 04

I’m finding that as I sit down to do my weeknotes, it’s as much about what’s coming up as it is about what I’ve just done. That’s probably to be expected, even though last week was exciting and relaxing and enjoying Mexico City.

The key thing is that my oral exam for my generals is tomorrow (or rather, in about 13 hours): it is a two-hour, closed-door critique of my work by Beatriz Colomina (head of the PhD program), Christine Boyer (my advisor), Ed Eigen, Spyros Papapetros and Brigid Doherty. All are professors I’ve taken courses with and all are major heavyweights in their disciplines. There are very few times in your life that you get this kind of feedback — my master’s thesis defense is really the only other time — and the next time will be my dissertation defense in a couple of years. It’s terrifying. I’m working through not being defensive and remembering the critique is a good thing. Oh yeah: it is something that one passes or fails. It’s never a foregone conclusion.
Okay, so back to weeknotes. Last Saturday, I flew to Mexico City, where Jesus de Francisco was directing a commercial. I got to be an accessory to the whole enterprise (read: tourist and onlooker). Despite spending 15 years in design and creative fields, film and television are new to me. There were so many layers of things: Motion Theory (the production company), the agency, the client, the local production company in Mexico, the talent from Mexico and the UK. I watched an estate in Mexico City become a midwestern backyard and a rooftop in the Centro Histórico transform into a Brooklyn loft rooftop. I lost track of how many people were on the set — 50, perhaps? So much fast activity and thinking on one’s feet. The day that I got back, Motion Theory won a Grammy for the Black Eyed Peas video, “Boom Boom Pow” — back-to-back with the Grammy they won last year for Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video.
Mexico City was a treat — messy and strange and neverending and exciting. I met Brett Schultz, thanks to Lia’s kind introduction, and visited Yautepec, the gallery he runs with his girlfriend Daniela. Currently, a show called “Shoot” is up, showing he work of Thomas Jeppe, Jason Nocito, Ola Rindal and Paul Schiek’s work. It’s a part of an international exhibition with different photographers showing at different galleries around the world. Brett showed me the wonderful bookstore Conejo Blanco that we happened upon on the way to the mezcaleria (mmm). I had mezcal that had been cured with chicken breast. Go figure.
The architecture blew me away, particularly the concrete architecture of Pedro Ramírez Vásquez — the architect of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. He designed the Museo Nacional de Antropología in 1963 and the amazing Basilica of Guadalupe in 1974-6, which we visited by accident and I’m so glad I didn’t miss. It turns out that Enrique is related to the architect. In fact, the city in general blew me away, and I spent a fair amount of time just looking at things: looking out the windows of the hotel at the volcanos, the buildings, the presidential helicopters, the trees, the smog, the light, the low slung residential buildings in La Condesa, the concrete architecture all over the city, the 1956 Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper. There’s nothing quite like it. I hear rumors that the next Postopolis will be held in Mexico DF– I’d love to go back.
In the next several days, after I recover from my oral exam, I’ll post pictures on Flickr from the trip. I’m also beginning to work on my dissertation proposal — it will incorporate the feedback I get tomorrow. My hope is to present it on March 10, in advance of South by Southwest and spring break at Princeton, which means that I have a very intense and busy month ahead of me.
Please think good thoughts for me between 2 and 4 p.m. EST. Wish me luck!

weeknote 02 and 03

Greetings from Mexico City! I’m on vacation, a tagalong for a commercial that Motion Theory is shooting. I keep having dreams about editing and rewriting, but I have nothing to do until February 3, when I have my oral defense. I think this is what they call vacation.
First: the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium was outstanding. This was my fourth and it was by far my favorite–maybe because it was in New York and not Redmond, WA, maybe because it focused on cities, maybe because I got to see some of my favorite people. I gave a 20 minute talk on the introduction of computing to urbanism and urban planning (see below)… the whole thing was great. I’d have more to say about it, but I came back to Princeton and put myself on total lockdown in Princeton for 8 straight days, pulling together the last of the revisions for my papers. I left my apartment maybe once a day, if that. The final day, I wrote and edited for 28 of 30 hours (1 1/2 of those I spent asleep, sort of). Writing nonstop like that is nearly impossible — it requires so much concentration, especially for academic writing. But somehow I got it done. It’s not perfect, but it will do, I hope. I’m mightily thankful for the help that I received in feedback and editing and layout: if not for that, it never would have come together.
What’s really hard about the way our generals work is needing to keep six separate topics in mind, moving from one to the next. No sooner was I finished with something on France in the 1880s than I had to move onto Pakistan in 2007, and back again to the 1960s in the US.
Here’s what I handed in.
  • Artificial intelligence and architecture: the introduction of the computer to the field of architecture (with Christopher Alexander and his interest in AI and cybernetics as a case study), 1960-75. I wrote a tidy version of this paper in May 2009. Then, I blew the whole thing up into a much bigger framework about how the computer affected architectural practice. I’ve written scores of pages that didn’t get included: the draft at one point was 50 pages long (what I handed in was 36 pages). After 11 different drafts, I whittled it down to a couple of key ideas. I convinced myself that it was okay–I would be writing a dissertation on the topic and I could reuse what I wrote and then deleted.
  • Paris & communication networks: The Hôtel des Postes in Paris, 1884 and the Parisian pneumatic tube network, 1866-1900 (something many people know I’m interested in, thanks to last year’s eTech Ignite talk). These two papers are parts of the same topic: urban-level communication in France in the late 19th century. When I first wrote the paper about Julien Guadet’s central post office in Paris in 2008, my central argument was that it functioned like a big computer atop a tangible network. That argument proved thin, so when I rewrote the paper, I instead focused on what made it a modern building and what made Guadet a modern architect — namely, the way that it served as a physical mechanism to organize and control bureaucratic processes. The pneumatic post paper, too, looked at how technology had shifted the relationship of space and time to the human body, goods, and the communication of information. I had originally thought I’d do a dissertation on 19th century communication networks but was talked out of it by the entire PhD committee. (I was blue about that, but now it’s fine: they were right.) The majority of my research for these projects involved French language engineering publications.
  • Levittown, PA and its mass-produced landscape (1950s). Levittown, the famous, mass produced suburb, also mass-produced its gardens. Most bizarrely, Levitt patriarch Abraham Levitt wrote a column on gardening for the Levittown newspaper. Why? The way to maintain the value of the investment the Levitts had made in the suburb was not through the house but through the value of the landscape. The homeowners (most of whom had been apartment-dwellers and were completely unfamiliar with houses and gardening) needed to be taught to tend their gardens.
  • Apparatuses in architecture: a close reading of two 1920s works by Adolf Behne, a German architecture and art critic. For this paper, I analyzed the way that Behne used the word “apparatus” (Gerät) and the notion of defensiveness — as objects develop their own disposition. In many ways, I think Behne presaged the holistic approach to design that software finds so popular (and architecture, well, doesn’t). My research was all in German; the most painful part was reading poorly photocopied Frakturschrift (old-fashioned German writing).
  • Contingent communication: how communication jumps from network modes, using Pakistan’s 2007 state of emergency as a case study. I looked at cable television, satellite uplinks, and FM radio. (People who are holding crisis camps for Haiti might want to consider non-Internet media as a way of establishing communication networks — especially radio.) The idea for this paper came from a question Usman Haque asked me during my eTech presentation on India and mobile phone sharing, although what I wrote had nothing to do with it.
I’m looking forward to being able to talk next week about location scouting and casting and shooting a commercial: not my work, but someone else’s. This week’s location scouting not only introduced me to rooftops, kitchens and backyards, but also canine sociology between well-socialized and not socialized. My favorite: a golden retriever named Archie who chased oranges and carried a toy steering wheel in his mouth.

weeknote 01

Been curious about this Weeknotes habit that various people are doing on their sites. Given that it’s the start of a year, I figure it’s time to write about what I’ve been up to. I wrote this blog post on Saturday afternoon on a plane between San Francisco and Newark, after a very, very early morning flight from LAX to San Francisco. I had spent nearly three weeks in Los Angeles for Christmas and New Year — a wonderful and quiet visit.
This week’s stupid waste of time was a catastrophic hard drive failure. My computer was running Electric Sheep (my friend Spot’s generative screen saver) on Sunday night. The computer froze and when I tried to wake it, it flashed a question mark and a file folder: the drive wouldn’t mount. Just a few days earlier, I had purchased a portable hard drive in order to move music and photos off of it but stupidly, I didn’t back up my documents and my desktop. It all could have been much worse: I have backups at home in Princeton.
I’m going to need the backups because I’m finishing my submission for my generals packet. PhD programs all have qualifying or general examinations at the end of the second or beginning of the third year. The architecture PhD program at Princeton follows a different format than most: we submit six papers we’ve written from our first two years of coursework, all of which we have expanded, rewritten and edited, culminating in an oral defense before a committee of four or five professors. It’s a formidable task. The rewriting, while interesting, is a never-ending slog–way too much of my own voice in my head–on subjects I’ve hashed over for years. The defense is, of course, scary, but when it goes well, it’s one of the rare times that you get the critique and close feedback of five brilliant people on 200 pages of your work. It also tends to deal heavily with the proposed dissertation topic.
My papers deal with a wide variety of topics. My packet will include papers on:
  • Artificial intelligence and architecture: the introduction of the computer to the field of architecture, 1960-75 (also my proposed dissertation topic)
  • The Hôtel des Postes in Paris, 1884
  • The Poste Pneumatique: the Parisian pneumatic tube network, 1866-1900
  • Levittown, PA and its mass-produced landscape (1950s)
  • Apparatuses in architecture: a close reading of two 1920s works by Adolf Behne, a German architecture and art critic
  • Contingent communication: how communication jumps from network modes, using Pakistan’s 2007 coup as a case study.
On the flight, I’ve been working on the talk I’m giving at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium on Tuesday. I’ll be talking about how computers got introduced to cities — it’s part of my broader research. I’m grappling with my desire to share everything I know and the limitations of a 20 minute talk. I’ll have a lot of cutting and rehearsing to do. It’ll all be easier to put together when I get my hard drive back.