How digital technology is turning cities into theatres

Hendrick Danckerts painting of the lost Palace of Whitehall, brought back to life by digital technology. Sort of. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Silicon Valley has transformed our experience of the built environment and the complex systems within it to an extent never before conceived by any planner or architect. Uber, AirBnB, Google, Trip Adviser, Twitter – all have drastically affected how we consume and experience cities.

Each of these companies addressed a single market problem via technological innovation, and succeeded by attracting a critical mass of users. Lines of code, intentionally or otherwise, have rapidly outmaneuvered the lines of architectural blueprints in programming our cities.

Imagine, then, the possibilities of cohesion between these two toolsets: of architects who are, theoretically, tasked with designing for a public good, using the tools that are actually redrawing our cities. I believe that designers, as programmers of spaces, objects and experiences, hold the potential to craft this emerging city cyborg, and more importantly determine its purpose.

In his 1994 thought piece The Generic City, Rem Koolhaas describes a city where “serenity... is achieved by the evacuation of the public realm”, largely as the result of “urban life[’s] cross over to cyberspace”.

To a great extent, urban life has crossed over to cyberspace. We can receive deliveries within hours, date through apps, know who is where, and no longer need to know the name of our neighbourhood streets thanks to Google maps. These are great functions.

But to avoid Koolhaas’s vision of a public realm devoid of social purpose, we must simultaneously design an environment that offers experiences greater than those offered through highly functional apps.

The Generic City was intended as a provocation. But a link between our reliance on apps focused on the individual, and our reliance on what the built environment and city has to offer, is undeniable. Designing for a digitally mediated city that aspires to invigorate and inspire the public realm, rather than bypass it – that uses the interplay between lines of code and the lines on architectural blueprints – requires the designer to consider both the physical and digital layers of the urban experience.


Back to the fun palace

An early example of the application of this type of thought was the “Fun Palace”, designed by British architect Cedric Price, theatre director Joan Littlewood and cybernetic scientist Gordon Pask. The project, conceived in 1961, aimed to create “unimagined sociality” through a large adaptive structure that blended learning, work, the arts and “fun”.

It was to be an automated set of public spaces, mediated by cybernetic algorithms, and actuated through a variety of spatial and interactive mechanisms. Gantry cranes would reconfigure spaces to meet the needs of a particular performance, while another space would be configured to support an educational workshop.

My practice, Chomko & Rosier, seeks to re­examine this interplay between architecture, technology and culture. Our studio is mid­way through producing “The Lost Palace” – a project for Historic Royal Palaces, which will allow visitors to explore the Palace of Whitehall, which was largely destroyed by fire in the late 17th Century. Taking place on the streets of contemporary Whitehall, this compression of several hundred years is mediated via a series of haptic, physical, audio and interactive mechanisms powered by digital technology.

Urban experience designers can draw upon these types of experiments, while also engaging with the immense critical narratives emerging around data and our use of technology. They can decide which problems to address within our cities, and pursue the far greater task of designing our digitally mediated urban experiences. They can craft mechanisms, spaces and systems that encourage, suggest and assist us, while providing rich urban experiences – whether local information, wayfinding, transport, events, history, socialising, or any combination.

Our studio was able to play with this idea through our public art project “Shadowing”. The project gave streetlights the quality of memory, allowing them to record the shadows of those who walk underneath to be played back for the next person. As an art piece Shadowing captures and then enhances the core quality of any city: the people who share it. As a piece of design, Shadowing offers a glimpse into the potential for technology to provide a layer of experience on our streets and infrastructure.

The tools available to designers through software are unprecedented. They can dramatically alter our perception of a space, a historical event or an entire city without laying a single brick. 

So as the Generic City surges forward, propelled by digital technologies, and we wander towards the theatre exit lights guided only by a backlit screen, let us attempt instead to turn the city into theatre.

Matthew Rosier is co-founder of Chomko & Rosier.

The Lost Palace is a collaboration between Chomko & Rosier and theatre company Uninvited Guests. It runs from 21 July to 4 September.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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