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 judge in Liverpool has recognised that the concept of ‘home’ exists even for the homeless

The most ironic stock image of homelessness in Britain available today. Image: Getty.

Stephen Gibney, a Liverpool man, was recently sentenced to eight weeks imprisonment for urinating on homeless man Richard Stanley, while he slept rough in Liverpool City Centre. District Judge Wendy Lloyd handed down the sentence not just for degrading Stanley as a person, but also for attacking his home. Justice Lloyd condemned the offence, calling it:

A deliberate act of degradation of a homeless person… it was his home, his little pitch where he was trying to establish himself as a human being… apparently, to you and your companion this was just a joke.

By recognising that a homeless person can have something akin to a home, the judge acknowledges that home is an abstract, nebulous and subjective idea – that the meaning of home can differ between people and contexts. People who are homeless in the legal sense often feel as if they have a home, whether that be a city, a particular neighbourhood, a family or a friendship group. Some even understand their home in connection to the land, or as a content state of mind.

By making these comments, Justice Lloyd affords Stanley the dignity of having a recognisable defensible space, marked out by his possessions, which to all intents and purposes is his home – and should be respected as such.

A changing city

Since the early 1980s, Liverpool has been undergoing economic, physical, social, political, reputational and cultural regeneration. These processes have picked up pace since 2003, when Liverpool was announced as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. This accolade proved to be the catalyst for a range of initiatives to clean up the city, ready for its big year.

Like many other cities across the globe – New York, during its 1990s drive to shake off its title of “murder capital of the world”; Sydney, in the run up to the 2000 Olympics and Glasgow in its preparations for its own European Capital of Culture year in 1990 – Liverpool’s authorities turned their attention to the city centre.

In Liverpool, rough sleepers, street drinkers and any other groups identified as “uncivilised” impediments to regeneration were singled out and subjected to a range of punitive measures, including the criminalisation of street drinking and begging, designed to clear them from view. It was all part of the bid to present the city as prosperous and cultured, and to free it of its previous reputation for poverty, crime and post-industrial decline.


Scorned, not supported

Views of rough sleepers as anathema to prosperity and progress stem from the false belief that they must, by definition, perform all bodily functions – from urination and defecation to sleep and sex – in public spaces rather than a private home. Because of this, rough sleepers are seen as uncivilised – and consequently unwelcome – by authorities determined to attract business and tourism.

This has led, in some quarters, to the vilification of “visible” homeless people – particularly where their homelessness is seen as a “lifestyle choice” – on the basis that they wilfully stand in the way of social, economic and cultural progress. They are a social element to be scorned, rather than supported: a view which may have led Gibney – a man with a home in the conventional sense – to perform the kind of bodily function on Stanley, which is more often unfairly attributed to rough sleepers.

Once it is recognised that the idea of “home” applies beyond a formal abode of bricks and mortar, many more violations come to light: from the clearance of informal settlements, to the enforced displacement of whole populations.

For example, consider the forced removal of the population of Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, to nearby Mauritius because the US military needed a refuelling base. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has even been given a name – domicide. The “-cide” suffix connotes murder: the deliberate, calculated and wilful killing of a home.

The ConversationBy thinking of the destruction of “home” as an act of killing, we recognise the its true value – home means so much more than simply a place or a building. And, although the meaning of home varies from person to person, those who lose their home – for whatever reason – almost universally experience shock, grief and bereavement. Justice Lloyd’s comments on handing down Gibney’s sentence reflect two vital but overlooked truths: that home has meaning beyond bricks and mortar and that being homeless does not necessarily mean having no home at all.

Clare Kinsella, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Edge Hill University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.