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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.