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.

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.