Architecture and design, says my friend Jeffrey Huang (photo), are becoming the interface between physical and virtual lives. And that's his field of study: how can constructs (buildings, cities and landscapes) incorporate digital communication systems? What are the effects of digitization on the typologies of cities today?
Last week, professor Huang -- who among other things was instrumental in creating the Swiss House in Boston, now called Swissnex -- gave his inaugural lesson at EPFL, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, one of the two Swiss institutes of technology, where he runs the Media and Design Lab (he was previously at the Harvard School of Design). Here my running notes.
Has a strong belief that the proliferation of broadband connectivity and communication devices will very deeply transform some of the basic activities of urban daily life. This will have effects on architecture. There is a shift towards virtualization of daily life. We google instead of going to a library; we learn in virtual classrooms; we fall in love in chat rooms rather than at the bar. There is a key driver: the transaction costs are much lower when things are done over the Internet. This shift from physical to virtual is probably best epitomized by amazon.com (in the US, 5 times more books are now sold on Amazon than on physical stores)
And new typologies of architecture are emerging: mega fulfillment centers, server farms and data centers, mega-warehouses, tech hotels, virtual stores (ex: Yahoo Store NY: physical portal to Yahoo's information world)
Along with the usual physical criteria (access, public transportation, etc) maps of fiber routes in Manhattan are starting to influence the choice of potential locations for new real estate. This will affect the morphology of future cities.
In Asia, the story is different, there is the luxury not to deal with existing infrastructure, but creating entire new cities, called "ubiquitous cities" or "u-cities" because they're fully wired -- 15 in South Korea, 12 in China, 3 in Japan. Example: New Songdo City, southwest of Seoul (picture below the city currently under construction).
Construction started 2004, scheduled to open 2015, for 300'000 people. It will be the most wired city in the world, fiber optics to every home, data-sharing, automatic building and utility management, full videoconferencing, wireless access from anywhere, smart-card keys, public bicycles with GPS, and public recycling bins with RFID that will give you credit every time you toss in a bottle.
Of course, the question is: will this be the next Brasilia? What about the risk of surveillance and privacy intrusion in a totally-wired city? Many of these cities are conceived as large-scale experiments, so are citizens also seen as experimental subjects? Are they giving their consent for that?
What is the agenda for Jeffrey's and his team's research at EPFL? He will look at ways to conciliate the physical and virtual environments. So far you can imagine that people live separate lives, they have a citizen identity and a netizen identity. To what extent can architecture act as a mediator to bring these lives together? Function as an interface between physical and virtual?
The integration of computing into built environments is helped of course by the constant drop in the cost of computing (Moore's Law). There is a gap between the advancement of technology and the human capacity to absorb it. The interest in research in this area is no longer about making tech more efficient, increase the capacity of computing: the challenge is to look at this convergence from the human angle.
Here a few things that are currently on the drawing table at the EPFL's Media and Design Lab:
- Home 2.0 -- Fusing physical and digital environments to simplify domestic life. A topic that in a way is over-researched, since many companies have made prototypes of smart homes, typically driven by the desire to showcase some of their gadgets, which led to tech fatigue. Yet those examples do provide learnings. Includes a fascinating topic: traditionally the home is private (vs the public city) but virtualization is bringing business meetings or shopping into the home, so how do you negotiate the new boundaries? The Lab is working on home dashboards, intrafamily bonding, digital furnace (how to cope with media overload) and proactive healthcare.
- Phototropism in architecture -- Looking at bio-inspired design. Objective is to leverage natural strategies of the plants and integrate them into a design and architecture approach. Create building skins with integrated photovoltaics, for example, that can then be optimized for energy harvesting.
- Mapping the digital world in mobile devices -- Cell phoens don't only do phone calls: they do many things. How can we use what we know from architecture -- navigation, proportions, etc -- to create maps of the virtual worlds that are developing inside cell phones and wireless networks? This could inform the design of simpler interfaces to the digital world. (Done in collaboration with Nokia.)
- Visual markers -- Extending the point-and-click metaphor to the physical world (have digital information on physical sites), using computer-readable codes like semacodes.
The virtualization of everyday life is inevitable. We have already witnessed the emergence of u-cities in Asia. Need to develop the right convergence of virtual and physical, for which we need a design approach that starts with the human rather than the tech. Larger desire to counteract the sense of disenchantment with tech. Today technology has reached a certain maturity, and taking this further will necessitate not only pushing for more performing and efficient tech, but also for an infusion of culture, of design thinking into future hardware and software.