Wall to Wall: The Digital Landscape

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria.

For better or worse, digital technologies — smartphones, LEDs, social networking — are changing our cityscapes.

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“Foursquare is all about helping you find new ways to explore the city. Earn points and unlock badges for discovering new places, doing new things, and meeting new people.”

This message greets you when you download a smartphone application from one of the popular online social-networking sites. To increase its functionality, the app links you automatically with your Facebook friends and Twitter feeds. The message encourages you to join a virtual club of urban dwellers and promises exciting new possibilities. By monitoring your activities through your phone’s GPS, the app alerts you when friends are nearby, showing their location. It also helps you to map daily routines, comment on venues, and learn from anonymous contributors. On occasion, it gives you a personal insight into private arrangements within the public realm: Navneet Alang, a Toronto-based blogger for This Magazine, writes about his favorite tip from Foursquare, which suggests asking a waiter at a certain restaurant for “the secret pink menu.” “You could call it a new approach to urban discovery, one that takes the online mantra of ‘by the people, for the people’ and mixes it with happenstance,” he adds.

Digital technology increasingly, and more and more seamlessly, bridges the physical landscape with virtual environments to form visually rich and emotionally engaging narratives. Mobile devices serve as portals to enter and navigate multimodal landscapes. Geographic data, pictures, and brief commentaries merge into a single data-based landscape. The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone. Similarly, the distinction between the built and the conceptual is blurred with the integration of LED and projection technologies into architectural façades, effectively transforming previously static façades into dynamic media objects. Landscape becomes a continuous interface between these urban media façades and the ever-expanding use of digital devices with interactive content. Interactions and experiences that in the past were predominantly confined to art-gallery installations or online chat rooms become Main Street events with broader participation and authorship. While perceived by some as invasive and overreaching, media participatory landscapes could also help us to reclaim the public realm and democratize its content.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe.

Green Cloud (Nuage Vert), Helsinki, by HeHe. Image based on original photo by Antti Ahonen.

Media façades

Media-infused urban spaces such as New York’s Times Square, or to a greater degree the Ginza and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo, expand their content into mobile communication devices and often merge with the online experience. This is not limited to their visual identities or content delivery methods; these urban spaces often redefine a message and authorship within a public domain. By doing so, they create opportunities for, though not necessary guarantees of, greater public participation. Building on the increasing role of mobile devices in people’s everyday lives, many initiatives have attempted to capture this new audience and functionality. A recent ad campaign by Microsoft allowed random users to contribute a short phrase about their use of personal computers to “I’m a PC” advertisements. Each respondent’s photograph and phrase were later displayed on one of the media façades in Times Square, giving the participant 15 seconds of global visibility. This moment of personal visibility was further documented by a webcam, fed into an online gallery, and sent to the contributor in a personalized e-mail. The entire process effectively established a communication loop from mobile device to media façade and back to mobile device. Although this was a commercial campaign, it established an operability that could be easily adapted to social activism and other purposes.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands.

D-Tower interactive public artwork project, Doetinchem, Netherlands, by artist Q. S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX) with Pitupong Chaowakul, Chris Seung-woo Yoo, and Norbert Palz. Photo courtesy NOX.

Architectural responses

Most commercially driven media façades are simple projection or display screens superimposed on an exterior wall without considering architectural design. They often are seen as design eyesores that desperately cry for public attention. Recently, however, more buildings have incorporated media components into their façades in ways that do not compromise design. In the Graz Art Museum, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier introduced “communicative display skin” that features a large, low-resolution media façade. Their design relies on abstract patterns with pixelated text or graphics, treating the media component as yet another building skin and augmenting it with a textural reading. This approach allows media content to enhance a structure’s appearance and to communicate a message or convey a building’s functional content without compromising its design integrity. In other projects, media screens and projection lighting elements change the three-dimensional perception of an immobile object, as seen in works by digital-media firm NuFormer. Temporal façade alterations can inform, entertain, or simply showcase a work of architecture in new ways, continuing a tradition of public artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Furthermore, media façades create an opportunity to redefine the relationship between a building and the public realm. In contrast with the Modernist dictum of a façade as an expression of the inner functional or structural logic of a building, these projects connect it back to historic practices, which considered a façade as an enclosure of a public space.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels.

Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project, Brussels, by Magic Monkey. Photo ©

Social activism>/p>

Just as graffiti, posters, and handbills have historically appropriated the façades of private structures for public speech, so have media-enhanced landscapes already begun to extend beyond commercial use or aesthetic considerations into the sphere of social discourse and activism. The implications are profound: nothing less than the transfer of the public domain back from corporate ownership to public authorship. Equally profound is the opportunity for individual expression similar to that found in online environments. An example of this form of public discourse is a Dutch project, the D-Tower by artist Q.S. Serafijn and architect Lars Spuybroek (NOX), which maps the emotions of the inhabitants of the city of Doetinchem and expresses them through an interactive art installation. This installation relies on the input of voluntary collaborators; because the data are not analyzed or sampled statistically, the work is purely a subjective form of expression. The “Green Cloud” art installation by HeHe (Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen) confronts contemporary environmental issues, displaying energy usage by Helsinki residents. Exhausts from a power plant are used as a screen for media projections, directly correlating the visual presence of the “green cloud” image with the amount of energy produced. This adaptive installation continues to remind residents of the role they play in energy conservancy. The Green Cloud successfully integrates the ephemeral qualities of landscape with the effective use of digital media. Both installations illustrate social, emotional, or environmental data using an interface that puts residents into the position of active content creators, thus shifting their role from consumption to authorship.

The distinction between the actual and virtual, or the permanent and temporal, fades when seen through the screen of a smartphone.

In contrast to these anonymous contributions to public discourse, the recent Interactive Power Station “Shooting Star” project by Magic Monkey drew upon the urge to claim authorship of individual expression. “Create your own Shooting Star and share your wish with your loved ones and the millions of commuters!” encourages a Web advertisement for the project, which was installed during the December 2009 holiday season in Brussels. The Shooting Star project allowed contributing individuals to customize their holiday messages, using the Electrabel Power Plant cooling tower as a canvas for the animated LED installation. The response from the public was high, with the project attracting over 5,000 contributions within a 20-day period. The Interactive Power Station project built upon concepts previously developed in two others: Toyo Ito’s “Tower of Winds” in Yokohama, which used light as a masking device for an industrial site, and the “I’m a PC” campaign in Times Square discussed earlier, which incorporated open online public participation.

The need

As digital media, and especially media façades, assume a more prominent role in contemporary architecture, there is a growing need for research and for creative models that demonstrate enriching and meaningful integration of this technology into the urban environment. A number of questions emerge for architects and designers. How can the integration of new technologies with architecture and landscape create spaces that evoke new experiences, touch us emotionally, and help us feel at home? How can media-rich architecture and landscapes provide new answers for the needs of a mobile and globally connected society? These are the issues we need to address in the next decade, or life — in the form of commercial enterprise — will answer them for us. The question is not whether we like or dislike the extension of media content into architecture and landscape; the digital media landscape, in the form of advertisement and corporate identity, is already here. Instead, the challenge is to direct its development toward the aesthetic benefit of our urban environments and the cultural and political benefit of our society.

Top image: Graz Art Museum media façade, Graz, Austria, by Realities:United in collaboration with Spacelab Cook Fournier and ÖBA Architektur Consult. Photo by Peter Pakesch/Landesmuseum Johanneum/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0..

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

Galveston, Texas

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We all know the tale of the three pigs and their homebuilding projects. Maybe you sang the camp song about the wise man who built his house upon the rock while the foolish man chose a nice sandy beach site. As children, we thus learned the basics about how and where to build. But, as with many lessons taught in childhood, we figured we knew a better way. Architects and engineers are perhaps most susceptible to this pattern — they are, after all, taught how to design their way around any problem.

And so, through a combination of incremental individual decisions and a shared focus on short-term gain, we have sometimes built in places that really make no sense, in ways that defy the greater forces of nature. We drive by them, perhaps we visit them on vacation, and we take advantage of their contributions to today’s economy. We don’t see the big picture.

But Alex MacLean does. From his plane, thousands of feet up, the details recede. Patterns emerge. Folly is revealed. “Mitigation packages” become unimportant. An internationally celebrated photographer, MacLean takes advantage of this rare vantage point, his aesthetic sensibility, and his deep knowledge of environmental issues to promote a better understanding of the American landscape and wise land-use.

The following images are drawn from MacLean’s new book, Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point. Even more than his previous books, this collection of photographs has an urgency, focusing on topics such as water use, sea-level rise, waste, automobiles, and electric generation to demonstrate the vulnerability of our built environment and the fragility of the natural environment.

What’s wrong with these pictures? Nothing. They tell you everything you need to know.

Boston Harbor

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

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Other Voices

Photo of Christopher Swain by Leighton O’Connor.

Photo of Christopher Swain by Leighton O’Connor.

In 2004, I swam the entire length of the Charles River. After snaking through 81 miles of discarded appliances, algae blooms, and bedroom towns, I rode the ebb tide into one of the most storied pieces of water on the East Coast: Boston Harbor.

I stroked under the Charlestown Bridge and toward Puopolo Playground in the North End. A light rain peppered the surface of the water. As I sloshed along, a cocktail of urban runoff slid from the streets into the waves around me. I tasted plastic, mud, gasoline, dog poop, and detergent. As a bonus, thousands of gallons of stormwater laced with untreated sewage belched out of Wet Weather Sewerage Discharge Outfall #203 and into the harbor, compliments of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

I thrashed through a stew of pathogens to the finish. Millions of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, as well as assorted viruses and protozoans, vied to get into my mouth, eyes, and nose, take up residence, reproduce, and make me sick.

I climbed out of the water, gargled with hydrogen peroxide, and thought, I’ll never swim in Boston Harbor again.

Of course, I was wrong.

Five short years later, I carved a big, wet turn around Deer Island and headed for the Boston skyline in one of the early segments of a 1,500-mile swim down the East Coast to Washington, DC. As I turned to breathe, I caught glimpses of the sludge digesters at the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant — a vine of fat white melons fed by the collective toilet flushes of 43 Greater Boston communities.

My mind said Boston Harbor was cleaner than it had been during my last visit. But as I threaded my way between bouquets of seaweed and trash, I knew in my heart there was still plenty of work to be done. Since my Charles River swim, I had upped the ante. In addition to photographing trash and combined sewer outfalls, I had spent my weekends arranging beach cleanups and hosting ethical electronics recycling events designed to keep toxic chemicals and heavy metals out of coastal waterways.

While I swam — on any given day I spend three to five hours in the water — my escort-boat crew tested the surface water temperature and pH of the ocean every 15 minutes to measure and map climate-change effects. At night, I stayed up too late embedding that water sampling data into publicly searchable online maps, in order to give the 50,000 students following my swim a glimpse of what was happening to their ocean planet.

Our findings, while not surprising, were not reassuring. For instance, sea surface temperatures were at or near historic highs. Good news for timid swimmers, but bad news if a hurricane arrived and gained energy from the warmer water.

When we tested the pH of Boston Harbor, we recorded values that were consistently below 8 — evidence of the ocean’s absorption of man-made carbon dioxide. Before the Industrial Revolution, when man-made CO2 was first released into our atmosphere in great quantities, the pH of the ocean was 8.179. Since then, the pH of the ocean has fallen to 8. (If it falls much further, the marine web of life as we know it will collapse.)

While this scientific news may be fascinating, it is not exactly inspiring. So the question remains: why am I out there, slogging through the darkening seas, dodging plastic trash and fuel slicks?

Part of the reason, of course, is that I hope to strike a spark in the minds of the 50,000 schoolchildren I will meet during my journey. And another part is that I hope our 5,000 water samples will help contribute to the body of knowledge needed to find a solution to the climate crisis.

But the real reason is a selfish one: I have two young daughters. Someday, they are going to look into my eyes and say, “Dad, you knew the ocean was a mess. What did you do about it?”

The High Tide of Opportunity

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

Proposal for Boston Harbor Barrier, 1988, Antonio Di Mambro + Associates
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Working with water is a lot better than working against it.

In the space of four centuries, Boston has increased its land area by 39 times, from 1.2 square miles in 1630 to 48 square miles today. The entire area of the city is now 90 square miles, of which 54 percent is land and 46 percent water. Over the past century, the sea level has risen a little over 10 inches. By a conservative estimate, it will have risen a further 30 inches by 2100.

Why Does This Matter?

Boston, no less than Amsterdam, is a water city. In topography and climatology, as in history and culture, the past is prologue. If, as forecast, there is a significant rise in the level of the ocean, the expansionist narrative of the city’s development will be reversed so that by the year 2100, absent immediate and radical action, Bostonians will be revisiting the shoreline of the 1880s.

Boston, much like other coastal cities, has become increasingly aware of the challenges that sea-level rise poses for both existing and future development and the choices to be made — technical, economic, and social. In 2009, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission held an international design competition for ideas responding to sea-level rise in San Francisco Bay and beyond. This year, the Museum of Modern Art and PS1 have joined forces to address the challenge of sea-level rise as it would affect New York City: project proposals by architects, artists, engineers, and others are the subject of a workshop and exhibition, Rising Currents. As stimulating as such events may be for ambitious designers, without political leadership, they are simply tinkering at the edge. To understand the gravity of the situation, imagine a replication of the inundation caused by Hurricane Katrina visited upon every coastal community in the United States. The tragedy of New Orleans in 2005 laid bare not only the vulnerability of the city’s physical infrastructure and its critical part in the economy of the nation, but also the social inequities sustained within that fragile crucible.

Facing the Facts

Published jointly by Allianz, a global financial services provider, and the World Wildlife Fund, Major Tipping Points in the Earth’s Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector provides the most recent evaluation of the effects of climate change and the likely effects on the insurance industry. Combined sea-level rise is one of four critical areas addressed in the report, with a focus on exposed assets in port megacities and specifically those on the northeast coast of the United States.

Proposal for Boston Harbor Barrier, 1988. Antonio Di Mambro + Associates.

Proposal for Boston Harbor Barrier, 1988. Antonio Di Mambro + Associates.

The financial stakes for Boston are not trivial. Assuming low and high projections of a 20-to-26-inch rise in sea level by 2050 (by the time today’s infant is in mid-career), the report projects an “exposed risk” to property damage and consequential loss ranging from $409 billion to more than $460 billion (think of 20 Big Digs or half the cost of the Iraq war).

In trying to imagine how such a flood might look and feel in Boston, there is some instruction in looking back to the flooding of Paris in 1910. Weeks of heavy rain and swollen watercourses upstream caused the Seine to overflow its banks and submerge the city, including the Île de la Cité and Notre Dame. This had happened 250 years earlier, in 1658, but the difference in modern Paris was that the flood water found new conduits in the sewers laid by Haussman and in the recently constructed Metro lines. So in addition to filling the cellars, the floods permeated the underground infrastructure of the city, water gushing in at every orifice, issuing forth into major railway stations such as the Gare D’Orsay and bringing the city to a halt.

Transpose this scenario to Boston. A relatively modest 12-inch rise in sea level is projected to happen, at the latest, by 2046 and, at worst, by 2016, a mere six years from now. Combined with a stiff northeaster of some days’ duration, the waves of the Atlantic are likely to top the threshold of subway stations such as Aquarium and South Station and to rush down the access ramps of the Central Artery and the Tip O’Neill tunnel to Logan Airport. In most readers’ lifetimes, and within the space of a few hours, high tides, aided and abetted by a full moon and high winds, could drown the modern city of Boston in the bathtub of the Atlantic. The floods of February 1978 (the “Great Blizzard”) and October 1991 (the “Perfect Storm”) not only presage the magnitude of what can be expected, but as “extreme events” they are also predicted to occur with increasing frequency.

What Are the Choices?

There are two choices before us as a city and as a country: to do nothing (or too little, too late); or to do what has to be done, and fast. Contrary to the conclusions of the Tipping Points report, damage to property would in some sense be the least of our problems, the greater being social abandonment, as we have seen in New Orleans.

Consider the do-nothing or “proceed cautiously” approach. Absent government intervention, decisions will be left to individuals and corporations. Some may choose to ignore the warnings, some may take adaptive measures, and others may choose to move inland out of trouble. And some, the poor, will have no choice at all except to bear witness to a generation of disinvestment followed by a catastrophic failure of the infrastructure. In other words, to do nothing is to make an undemocratic and unjust choice. Every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost is not a strategy — it would be an abdication of leadership and social justice.

This leaves us with having to do something and, if the facts are faced, doing it fast.

What Are Others Doing?

While other cities and metropolitan areas have already taken action, it is worth noting that they have also taken time to accomplish their goals. The most common form of protection is the flood barrier. The floating barriers of Venice will protect the lagoon from storm surges of up to 10 feet. With completion scheduled for 2012, the project has been 25 years in the making. London’s Thames Barrier was a mere 10-year project, completed in 1984 — but in response to the devastating floods of 1953. The Delta Works in the Netherlands is a series of 250 miles of dams, dikes, locks, and barriers started in 1950, accelerated after the same North Sea flooding of 1953, and completed in 1997.

If Bostonians want to preserve their quality of life for the next generation, they had better act now.

The Dutch Delta Commission Report of 2008 is a deeply impressive document outlining the next phase of that country’s defenses through the year 2100. The commission spells out and embraces principles of humanism and sustainability as fundamental values driving its recommendations, committing an average of $2 billion per year through the end of this century.

What Can Boston Do?

Proposal for Boston Harbor Barrier, 1988. Antonio Di Mambro + Associates.

Proposal for Boston Harbor Barrier, 1988. Antonio Di Mambro + Associates.

Climate scientists and actuaries have spelled out the probabilities and the consequences of sea-level rise for metropolitan Boston. Other port cities faced with similar challenges have shown us a range of strategies that are transferable to this city. We have learned from these examples that it takes a generation, say 35 years, to see a major civil project through from inception to completion. Within that span, by 2045, the water level of Boston Harbor will have risen somewhere between 12 and 36 inches. If, like the Dutch, Bostonians want to preserve and enhance the quality of life that they have enjoyed to bequeath to the next generation, then they had better act now.

Meeting this challenge requires forceful and visionary leadership at all levels of government to articulate a strategy that looks decades into the future. It is also clear that Boston cannot face this alone but must find common cause, nationally, with other coastal cities and towns.

We propose three parts to an effective strategy to “work together with water,” as the Dutch have put it:

Articulate the Vision. The crisis of sea-level rise obliges us to reexamine the value of the city as the crucible of our economy, our culture, and our community. While Boston may be a world center for medical research, the city is also a leader in social inequality. A vision for preemptive reconstruction is an oppor-tunity to right that wrong. In the words of Governor Winthrop, “the only way to avoid this shipwreck and provide for our posterity…we must be knit together in this work as one man.”

Establish the Scale. Antonio Di Mambro’s 1988 scheme for a protective harbor barrier running from Quincy to Winthrop is as important for establishing the scale and complexity of the response as it is for its physical vision. This multi-layered proposal combines a tidal-surge barrier, reconfigured harbor facility, transit line, highway, reclaimed land, and industrial, commercial, and residential redevelopment. It is an infrastructure that both protects the present and promotes the future.

Act Now. With a clear vision and a long-term goal, there are myriad actions that can be undertaken immediately: protect highway and subway entrances; raise the Harborwalk and create seawalls; establish an elevated datum for buildings; relocate electrical and mechanical equipment out of basements and above the flood levels; and develop storm-surge reservoirs with windmill pumping stations in the lowlands of the South Boston seaport.

The threat of sea-level rise is not immediate but it is urgent. The idea is not to respond to disaster but to preempt it. The challenge is not to succumb to fears (of inundation, decline, or increased taxes) but to see opportunities (of employment, urban revitalization, and social equity). Viewed with vision and discipline, sea-level rise presents the opportunity of a generation to refloat the city, its economy, and its people.

Raw Material

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

The New York design firm LOT-EK caught Boston’s attention with its design for the temporary Puma City on Fan Pier, using shipping containers. When you mine the industrial landscape, the possibilities are endless.

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Jeff Stein: When people are immersed in a new culture, they seem to react in one of two ways. Sometimes they bring their former lives, customs, and attitudes with them and try to impose them upon the new environment. But sometimes they revel in the new, taking advantage of their previous experience to see things in a fresh way, to see the opportunities. You and your partner Giuseppe Lignano fall into the second group. You came to the US from Italy, where you both studied architecture at the University of Naples in the 1980s. How would you describe your academic experience before coming here?

Ada Tolla: We were immersed in postmodernism, but it was an informed postmodernism. The postmodern movement in Italy was very different than in other parts of the world, especially in America, in the sense that it was never playful. It was really serious about the past. Being raised in Naples, we were heavily surrounded by history. In the end, we left the past and traveled to the present — we came to America. We discovered that there actually was a present, and one could do something in the present.

Studying in a place like Italy, you really learn about the history of architecture and come to appreciate the layering of history. You become very respectful. Coming to the US was like opening a door into another time. It’s not that we didn’t know it — this was before the Web, but of course there was television. But our understanding of America was very filtered — it was never a direct experience. So looking at a completely different reality was very empowering. And the experience of looking at it with fresh eyes was very important.

Puma City

Jeff Stein: What you’ve been able to do is discover some things that are invisible to those of us who haven’t had the really visceral historic experience that you have had. You make them visible.

Ada Tolla: The artist Ellen Wexler put it in slightly different terms. She said that because we are blind to the content of what these things represent, we are able to see them in a more abstract way.

Jeff Stein: My office, on the sixth floor of the Boston Architectural College, looks out over mostly four-story 19th-century brick buildings in Boston’s Back Bay. From that perspective, the main feature of these historic buildings is all the machines that are attached to them to make them useful and livable — elevator penthouses, air-conditioning units, cooling towers, fire escapes. We try to overlook that stuff — by pretending it’s not there, it isn’t there. You bring it back into our consciousness.

Ada Tolla: Designers tend to think those machines and devices disrupt and destroy what they think of as architecture: the main volume. Instead, from the beginning, we felt a positive energy in the way in which this country just does things: In order to provide the comfort, the safety, the efficiency, the things that we need as human beings living in this kind of environment, you just go ahead and do it. You add air conditioning. You put a fire escape in front of building façades. You run an elevated highway through a city right in front of buildings. You make these really powerful gestures and interact in a very interesting way with what we, more conventionally, consider as architecture. Giuseppe and I immediately sensed those gestures as something very positive, not negative, and something that had a lot of potential, exactly because it is uncontrolled and not “designed.”

As we were trying to understand our interest in that phenomenon, we talked about the idea of artificial nature, the idea that there is an aspect of architecture that is a layer within our built environment that develops on its own, that is not controlled by anybody, that just grows. It’s similar to the way nature behaves. Stuff pops up and appears — tanks, air conditioning, billboards — and all these other layers that belong to our civilization just grow and infest and interact with architecture as we traditionally think of it. In reality, they are a huge part of our visual culture and our urban culture.

Jeff Stein: I want to ask about the name of your firm, LOT-EK [pronounced “low tech”]. In the William Gibson short story, “Johnny Mnemonic,” Johnny visits the Lo Teks, an urban tribe living in the ruins of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. Here’s a quotation from the book: As Johnny is “…led up into refuge in their future primitive aerie of repurposed industrial detritus, the copious graffiti on the weathered domes below actually fades until only a single name appears: LO TEK in dripping black capitals. ‘Who’s Lotek?’ he asks. ‘Not us, boss,’ they say.”

This is interesting to me for two reasons. One is for the science fiction reference in the name of your firm, a post-apocalyptic science fiction at that. The other is because your work does in fact take an attitude toward technology: it re-purposes some actual high-technology objects — welded metal boxes, the basis of world trade — by just stacking them up. Doing so makes us confront our attitudes about what, a generation ago, we imagined to be high-tech stuff in architectural culture.

Ada Tolla: The surprising thing is that we hadn’t even read Gibson. The name emerged at the end of the ’80s, when the word “high-tech” had become ever-present in our discourse and culture. But our focus wasn’t ever just on the low-tech; it was really on both Low and Tech and the way those two things interacted. Our interest is in the man-made and in the byproducts of our civilization and our own present. It’s a way to engage with what we are right now as a culture in a positive critical way, not just in terms of the negative environmental consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

Most of the raw materials that we end up using are already highly processed when they come to us; even natural materials — wood, for instance — comes to us as four-by-eights, two-by-fours. By the time you get it, it’s already a man-made product. Ada Tolla

Jeff Stein: Your firm is well known for your reuse of industrial products. It’s not the same as recycling. You’re not moralistic; instead, you take a celebratory attitude. Recycling has to do with converting waste into reusable materials or returning a material to a previous stage in a cyclic process, but that’s not exactly what happens when you reuse things.

Ada Tolla: For us, the most important aspect of reuse is the creative one. In that sense, we both belong and don’t belong in the category of what is called sustainable practice. Recycling is not our first mission.

Jeff Stein: It’s just an unintended consequence?

Ada Tolla: Exactly. From the very beginning, our main interest, as young architects practicing within an extremely urban environment, was the question, What are our raw materials? Most of the raw materials that we end up using are already highly processed when they come to us; even natural materials — wood, for instance — comes to us as four-by-eights, two-by-fours. By the time you get it, it’s already a man-made product.

So the question became, Can we draw these raw materials out of what is already around us? Our first two larger-scale projects used trucks; we’re in the meat-packing district in New York, so we’re surrounded by these trucks that deliver meat and that’s what we see out our windows. In a way, it overlaps with some of the logic of sustainable practice, where everything is about “local.” New Jersey’s been a great source for us. Thank God that we’ve got industrial New Jersey, otherwise we would be out of business!

We immediately became interested in the chemical reaction that is generated when you bring together a program — which is a great thing about architecture, because you have this given purpose that you have to deal with and that offers a good amount of resistance — and an object. There’s a clash, and then you have to see what gives and what doesn’t. It’s an amazing process because what happens is less about form-making, less about starting from a blank sheet and drawing a beautiful picture, and more about establishing a dialogue and seeing how unexpected solutions emerge.

Jeff Stein: One aspect of your work that distinguishes you from some sustainable practices is that you immediately see the architectural potential of these objects.

Ada Tolla: That simple, even banal, object on the street has interesting architectural potential the moment it contains a space, or as soon as it can be seen as modular or stackable or transformable. When we import these objects into other environments, they bring all their previous connotations, but they also become something else within the project. And these objects are ubiquitous in man-made America. Along with being this culture of people who pollute the planet, we are also an incredible culture of makers. We are very productive and there’s a lot of ingenuity in that production.

Puma City

Jeff Stein: You and Giuseppe are certainly part of the culture of makers. Your output since forming a firm almost 20 years ago is amazing, not just in terms of buildings that we can visit, but also in the number of temporary installations in galleries, public places, museums — places where the public can have a whole-body experience of your work.

Ada Tolla: When we started, we were very focused on becoming a “real” architecture practice, although we started in a very unusual way, by making things. Parenthetically, I must tell you that in architecture school, we never built one physical model, ever.

Jeff Stein: So you must have been longing to do this sort of thing.

Ada Tolla: Yes. Giuseppe always said that, from childhood on, he was somebody who would undo things to understand how they were put together. I, on the other hand, was brought up as a girl; I don’t think I ever even held a screwdriver. But the idea of actually trying to make things allowed us to engage with what we were doing. The first projects have a lot of detail because they were made with our own hands. Then there came a moment when we realized that we didn’t have the expertise anymore, and that, in order to learn, we had to start working with other people.

This unconventional start was more typical of an artist trajectory than an architect trajectory. We never worked for an architecture office here in the States. We already had the idea of LOT-EK. We knew what we wanted to do. So we made our money at night doing other things, and in the daytime we were here in our office experimenting with the idea of making things. We started to get some interesting commissions — a lot of work came from the art world in the beginning; it was much more responsive to us than the architecture world. The architecture world didn’t really know our place. We weren’t really an architecture office, you know? We were saying that we were, but we weren’t. But we loved the fact that the span of our projects was very broad and of a very different scale, and the temporality allowed us to play with things that we were interested in, that couldn’t necessarily be played with within the confines of conventional building design.

Jeff Stein: There’s a sense that your work isn’t pretty, but that there is a beauty to it.

Ada Tolla: It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of beauty, because that’s something that has come up a lot.

Jeff Stein: I’m sure, because you use found objects that we not only tend to overlook in the landscape, but also actually try to overlook, because as they’re used in their first life, they aren’t understood to be beautiful. But when you pluck them out of their context, all of a sudden we can see some of that beauty.

Ada Tolla: We truly love the objects that we work with. We love how fantastic they are, how well they were conceived. We are not just reusing the object, but also reusing all the human intelligence that went into developing them.

Jeff Stein: The artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky once said to me, “You’re an architect, maybe you can tell me — all children learn to make buildings with building blocks. So, what happened? Why is it that we don’t do this as adults? Why don’t we build buildings with building blocks?” In one sense, you actually do build buildings with building blocks — how else to describe your work with shipping containers? Architecture is about transformation, and that’s what you do: you transform found objects.

That simple, even banal, object on the street has interesting architectural potential the moment it contains a space, or as soon as it can be seen as modular or stackable or transformable. Ada Tolla

Ada Tolla: Seeing a container depot for the first time was a mystical experience. And it was completely accidental. It was in the early ’90s, when we used to say, OK, let’s drive around New Jersey to see what we can use. It was a Sunday, so no one was working, and we stumbled across this shipping container depot. Beautiful winter day, blue sky. We still have the photos, not digital at that time. I remember at one point I actually said, “I haven’t been so excited about being in a built environment in a long time.”

When we talk about shipping containers now, we show those pictures to communicate the experience. Because there in the depot, you can see the avenue, the piazza, the little street, the façade — all the components of the urban built environment as we think of it. And we felt that potential immediately. This is not just a block, it’s something that can take on a different scale.

Jeff Stein: There’s also the potential in their sheer quantity. There are several million containers sitting around in ports all over the world. Does anyone come to you with commissions for shipping container reuse?

Ada Tolla: Yes. We started with this excitement about the box and what it can do. We first applied the concept to a competition for the Gorée Memorial Museum in Dakar, where we used hundreds of containers. That was the first shipping container project, and it demonstrated the potential of these boxes at a large architectural scale, beyond the beauty of the object itself. From that moment on, we embraced a huge learning curve, understanding the container, how it works, how it’s made, how it operates, how you can transform it. We experimented with it, and we’re still experimenting with it. We recently did two designs for five-story residential buildings for a project with a master plan by MVRDV; we are rotating the stack of containers and cutting it on a slant and creating a completely different kind of configuration from what we’ve done in the past. People see now that we have an expertise with shipping containers, and they do come to us, as Puma did.

Jeff Stein: Thousands of us in Boston experienced Puma City when the Volvo Ocean Race was here last summer. It was fabulous: the overall form of Puma City exactly mirrored the new Institute of Contemporary Art on another pier just across the water.

Ada Tolla: It looked like a little kid right next to its mama.

Puma City

Jeff Stein: Exactly. And several million dollars cheaper, too. But what was most fascinating was to see how you were able to make real spaces, both indoor and outdoor, by shifting the stacking of the containers a little bit and of course cutting between them. You use boxes, but the space that you create isn’t just about the box. It’s more complex. And more memorable and more fun. I wonder if the sense of movement that these things embody — the fact they’ve been places — affects your work in some way.

Ada Tolla: We do think about the idea of mobility — on two levels. There is the idea of mobile architecture, portable architecture. But even more intriguing is the idea of global culture: How can a project address our global culture in a positive way? So here are these boxes that people had been complaining about because they are accumulating because of the imbalance of trade. They are part of our global network. But with some creative effort, you see them in a completely different way.

Jeff Stein: And yet they keep their identity. You seem to know when to stop, how to keep your architecture from getting too fussy, so we can still recognize the found object. Where do you take this next?

Ada Tolla: I don’t know. We’ve done a lot of projects with containers; we’re very proud of that and will continue to work with them. But we are also continuing the exploration with other objects. Airplanes are something we’ve been fascinated with forever; like containers, there are growing numbers of decommissioned aircraft. We have done some recent projects that have allowed us to learn how an airplane is made, what you can do with it, and how you can transform it. You have to know which ones make sense to reuse and which ones don’t, because of transportation or cost.

Jeff Stein: I would think that there is another level of difficulty in working with airplanes — unlike containers, these things are shaped for a particular airflow. There’s a directionality to them.

Ada Tolla: But we always think that the limitations are also the potential, right?

Jeff Stein: Yes, that’s right. There’s no creativity without tight parameters.

Ada Tolla: The limitations of the airplane take you in a completely different direction — one that has great spatial and volumetric qualities, but is not formally driven. You don’t start by thinking you want to do this space as a curve. You end up with a different spatial experience because you merged these two fuselages or these five fuselages. And that is ultimately what intrigues us: the idea that all of a sudden we find ourselves interacting with different kinds of places and spaces that are surprising and strange, but exciting. The limitations are what push you and then, suddenly, you are inventing a new kind of space.

Puma City photos by Jeff Stein.


Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 19, 2009


Cities, regions, even entire nations, are pursuing the Creative Economy. What can we learn from Singapore, Glasgow, and Ogulin?

Successful economies have always been creative. Why is this 21st-century Creative Economy any different? Global exchanges and the clashing and blending of cultures have been documented and analyzed for at least 10,000 years. Technological innovations affecting all of society resulting from aesthetic curiosity (or “art for art’s sake”) can be traced back at least as long. Likewise, cultural tourism — people traveling to learn and explore, as well as to trade and exchange ideas — isn’t new either. Nor was Richard Florida, the economist who popularized the idea of the “creative class,” the first to notice that economic prosperity and concentrations of creative people go together.

So what makes this era so special?

In a word, speed. We communicate across the globe at the speed of light. We, and our goods, move across thousands of miles overnight. Global cultures blend daily in the workplace, on the streets, and at the farmers market. Artists and inventors blog, create, and reinterpret in virtual and physical space 24/7. Innovation — the fuel for entrepreneurs — and the drive to find and experience the new have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Now, they are in our faces, at our fingertips, and changing before our eyes like never before.

“New ideas must use old buildings,” wrote Jane Jacobs. However, the Creative Economy requires more than old buildings, artists, bohemian neighborhoods, and tourists. Cities, urban regions, and small towns looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight. They need to examine their: clarity and authenticity of place (“brand identity”); civic and corporate cultures and institutions; ability to adapt to constant change; capacity to welcome and integrate new and different people and ideas; and ability to cross boundaries and find synergies between industries and disciplines.

Contrary to many notions and fears around globalization, success is not found in homogenization. Cities and regions that are able to distinguish their brand and build on unique skills, products, services, natural resources, and other assets are more likely to succeed. Creative branding or identity development is increasingly critical for places as much as it has become for products. More than a PR campaign, good branding requires finding widely shared authenticity rooted in the history, people, and evolving story of place.

The Croatian community of Ogulin with its castles, magical landscapes, and local literary figures reasserted its brand based in history and authenticity. Renowned for the fairy tales that were written there, the community has become a cultural tourism destination and has reignited its intellectual and creative energies, thus reinvigorating its self-esteem and its fortunes. In contrast, Hamilton, New Zealand, ignoring its indigenous heritage and agricultural roots, is trying to re-brand itself with the slogan “From Cowtown to Wowtown.” A likely flash in the pan.

Healthy civic and corporate cultures make an enormous difference. Chicago is a city that works — even if its political capital is tightly held. A diverse economy and inclusive civic institutions have kept it growing and stable. Similarly, visionary and effective leadership is credited with reviving the UK’s Newcastle Gateshead area, inspiring citizens, attracting investment, and assembling successful Creative Economy elements. On the flip side, rife with corruption and the inability of their leaders to fully motivate and engage people, are the cities of New Orleans; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Camden, New Jersey — which only look good next to Cartagena, Baghdad, or Nairobi.

Over the past couple of decades, the Scottish city of Glasgow has transformed itself with new industries and trade partners for at least the fourth time in its history. Meanwhile, Detroit and Flint, Michigan struggle massively to adapt to changing conditions. These US cities were literally built around an industry cluster, markets, technologies, and labor strategies whose relevance has waned.

While still a young metropolitan region, Silicon Valley and its urban center, San José, demonstrate enormous capacity to integrate new ideas and people through a cluster of industries that have morphed a couple of times in as many decades. The business and social construct of the “wiki” emerged there not only as a functional tool to incorporate the best ideas quickly from across the globe, but also as a way of re-thinking how business is organized. Welcoming people and cultures from around the world, San José also exhibits one of the highest rates of minority business ownership among major American cities and has perhaps the most diverse mix of small and medium-sized nonprofit arts and culture organizations. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, Creative Economy proponents lament the resistance to newcomers among the native-born and see evidence that xenophobic attitudes have clogged the city’s economic development pipeline.

Creating synergy across disciplines and sectors can be seen in some of the most productive small and large places. Legendary college president and Tennessee Valley Authority architect Arthur Morgan wrote about his small Ohio college town of Yellow Springs in 1953. In addition to one of the most concentrated and active small arts communities in the US, this village of 3,500 spawned businesses producing innovations in aluminum casting, seed hybridization, industrial design, and high-precision thermostats as well as water-monitoring devices, industrial surface-plates, high-stress rubber bearings, and the first-known EMT training program. The remarkable list goes on. Morgan concluded these industries sprouted from a quality of life that included interdisciplinary education in which both art and science were central, inclusive racial and labor relations, and a highly engaged civic community. Morgan was perhaps the Industrial Age’s Richard Florida. By contrast, and on a wildly different scale, Charlotte’s massive banking industry leaves that city in a precarious position in what is essentially a one-industry town.

Cities and regions looking for sustainable creative economies in a global marketplace must also look at their social and community fabric — things that do not change overnight.

A report published in February 2009 by the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts predicted that the creative sector in that country will grow at an average annual rate of 4 percent during the next five years — more than twice the rate of the economy as a whole. It will employ more people than the financial sector by 2013, or as much as 7 percent of the workforce. (Similar data have not been studied for the US.)

Too many US communities hoping to tap this growing sector have fallen for easy solutions. City after city has rushed into a simplified version of Richard Florida’s three Ts, trying to attract Talent and Technology and showing little understanding of Tolerance. But clusters of “creative class” workers and the industries they populate are not enough.

This temptation to oversimplify, and thus misunderstand, the Creative Economy is common. In many US cities, institutional arts interests have dressed up the Creative Economy as a way to garner more money for the arts. A healthy creative community is a necessary ingredient for a healthy economy — as are healthy civic and corporate cultures. However, big symphonies, operas, ballets, and museums full of Renaissance paintings do not necessarily encourage creative behaviors among residents who come from all parts of the world, nor do they excite most young high-tech workers.

Similarly, cultural tourism alone is unlikely to transform an economy — apart from Orlando, Florida, a place dependent on a couple of California-based corporations. While their theme parks are unlikely to go anywhere in the foreseeable future, if and when they do, the region will need more than Ghostbusters.

Looking for quick fixes, some cities have tried to re-package creative industries, promoting “creative clusters.” Others have fashioned or built bohemian enclaves or arts districts to attract young hipsters. Clusters may fuel a raging engine for the short term, but cities that have focused on one product have not fared well over time. Their precipitous declines have been as dramatic as their rising fortunes. Clusters can be significant parts of an economic mix if they operate in a creative and permeable environment and interact vigorously with other industries and sectors.

Still other cities have put all three together — a robust arts community, a “cool city” image, and a cluster of creativity-based businesses. In some places, this has made a difference. A community with healthy self-esteem, where people get along and work together to accomplish civic ends — a community that can pull off this three-part strategy — already has in place most of the needed ingredients and is on the right path.

But an even more sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms that drive creative economies requires an even broader, more holistic view. Two countries, with very different histories and cultures, have recently embarked on initiatives that merit attention. Seeing the need to maintain a balance between strategies and assets, both Sweden and Singapore have articulated plans for nurturing their creative industries. In a nation not well-known for tolerance, Singapore’s National Arts Council prescribes the “5-C” plan to heighten the creativity of this already prosperous nation. Culture, Competency, Connectivity, Capital, and Conditions provide the framework it hopes will ensure a perpetual place atop the economic food chain. A program laid out by Sweden’s Knowledge Foundation has many parallels: Education and training, Research, Industry, Business collaboration, and Arts/Culture. This “ERIBA Model” is based on a circular approach of stimulating creativity and the arts, providing the forums, cross-sector research, and collaborative systems that allow business and industry to gain from innovations and innovative behaviors. Both Singapore and Sweden are thinking in terms of larger systems that embrace all their assets.

This is the challenge that faces Massachusetts today as it considers its Creative Economy. While Boston has reinvented its economy several times by drawing upon its key assets of geographic location and intellectual capital, it has also lost out on opportunities because of its tightly held culture, as AnnaLee Saxenian demonstrated in her 1994 book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. Boston’s 19th-century business models, rigid proprietary practices, and paternalistic corporate culture, she argued, did not provide fertile ground for invention, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial enterprises. Meanwhile, a very different and open environment took off in Silicon Valley.

But the Boston region, indeed the entire state, is today a very different place from what it was in 1994. The economic growth of the last 15 years has coincided with the expansion of entire industries — biotechnology, videogames, new media — that did not exist a few decades ago, that have brought with them fresh faces and fresh business practices. The corporations that once ruled Boston are largely gone — sold or relocated. Demographics have changed, with a larger immigrant population. Greater Boston is not Silicon Valley, but it is not what it once was, either. It is much better poised to do the necessary work — to examine and promote its identity, functional capacity, adaptability, inclusiveness, and synergies — and to invent the necessary means. After all, what’s a Creative Economy without creativity?

Photo caption: Glasgow is internationally recognized for the success of its strategic focus on the arts and culture to revive a declining post-industrial economy. Since its designation as European City of Culture in 1990, the city’s promotion of arts programs and investments in cultural institutions have built upon its historical and educational assets to transform the Glasgow “brand.” Designated the UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999 and the UNESCO City of Music in 2008, Glasgow today enjoys a healthy, diverse economy. The city’s marketing office reports that Glasgow has been called the UK’s “hippest and most happening city” by Travel & Leisure magazine and “one of the top three business centers in Europe” by Fortune. Photo by Robert Pool.