Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 10, 2008


Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 12:20 am
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The conversation we had last week in class, namely the contemporary the mixture of physical and virtual spaces, the Universal Product Code and the readings for this week (in a plain continuity of these topics) made me think of the work of a specific architect – Rem Koolhaas – and some of his works and writings, such as his design of the EU flag and the Wired special issue that he guest edited.

EU barcode 15

The EU Barcode Flag was the result of a reflection by AMO/Koolhaas on Europe’s representation, its symbols, its visual language and media presence, it was specifically a response to what had been identified as “Europe’s iconographic deficit”. The barcode combines the flags of the EU member countries into one single colorful symbol, and to which more ountries can be added. It represented the essence of the European project, showing Europe as the “common effort of different nation states, with each state remaining its own cultural identity while sharing the advantages of acting together”. In 2004, when ten new countries joined the European Union, the first official update of the barcode occurred.

It is interesting to consider the EU barcode flag in the context of Sterling’s text, particularly when he writes about the identity coding regime derived from ubiquitous barcoding of objects, and how this relates to the notion of identity to be conveyed by this specific barcode.

Another aspect worth mentioning, which for me derives from our conversation last week about the power of code and the whole idea of re-coding products, is how the elements of this barcode are easily identifiable by anyone simply by a reading of its colors in stark contrast to the Universal Product Coding, where only optical readers can decode the message within the multiple adjacent vertical lines. Thus, you can easily read the flags of the European union countries from West to East, depicted from left to right on the barcode flag. Another relevant and distinct element between the UPC and the EU barcode flag is the easy adaptation of the EU barcode to new bars, reflecting the addition of new countries to the European organization, when compared to the rigidity of its object barcode counterpart, on which a whole system relies on the stability of its design.

EU barcode 25

The other readings for this week, discuss the new perception of spaces, both by their combination and creation, mostly generated by the current pervasiveness of technologies, which seems to be in line with the issue addressed by Koolhaas in a special issue of Wired magazine (June 2003). In the capacity of guest editor, Koolhas reflects on the shifts on existing spaces and on the emergence of new ones, and how the “words and ideas of architecture, once the official language of space, no longer seem capable of describing this proliferation of new conditions” (even though he recognizes, how the vocabulary of architecture is still employed in the understanding of new unfamiliar domains like “chat rooms, web sites and firewalls”, something we have also mentioned before in one of our classes). Therefore, writers, critics, researchers and artists were invited to contribute to an atlas of the new world, where 30 spaces were identified for the 21th century, such as Ad Space, Blog Space, Border Space, Crowd Space, Euro Space, Nano Space, Public Space, Tight Space or Waning Space (among others).

In this plethora of spaces, I found interesting (and worth mentioning) some ideas about crowd space, and how it relates to Michael Bull’s reading and to the discussion in urban computing with Greenfield and Shepard. I would argue that the preoccupation with crowd space derives directly from some of the issues raised (in the different texts) by Bull and Greenfield, on how the introduction of personal technologies is shaping the way we use physical spaces, and how that is affecting the way we relate to others in public space. This has been nicely worded by Greenfield in his observation that “personal information technology deployed in the urban context inevitably and invariably enriches the personal environment at the expense of the shared public and civic realms”.

In this short sample of Koolhaas work (beyond his architectural designs), we perceive how he sees and analyzes the changing of spaces, and what he believes the role of the architect could be under these new conditions, but mainly how he addresses some of the topics we have been discussing. He has greatly influenced architectural practice and theory, but to those who did not know his work, his revolutionary practice and ideas were easily revealed in the cover of Wired magazine where he is labeled as “architect, iconoclast”.


you can read the whole Wired magazine edition online here


February 28, 2008


Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 10:14 am
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spacefighter banner

Last week I concluded my presentation on Narrative and Databases with SpaceFighter, the latest software tool devised by MVRDV, expected to be released and publicly accessible online in the coming months. In this post, I would like to elaborate some more on this topic, namely by framing the theory, and attempt a better articulation with the topics that we have discussed over the past few weeks.

In its opening statement, Winy Maas, the director of MVRDV involved in this project, sustains the “inevitable and total surrender” towards a process oriented approach, which he hopes will lead to a city which can reformulate itself, a city that is conscious of its gained knowledge (a concept which had already been identified in previous publications from this office, namely KM3 – Excursions on Capacity).

I would argue that this software has at its very core the notion of the necessity to readjust the way we see urban planning and the city, to a new model which reflects the changes in our contemporary society as well as in the complex urban synergies which planners and architects have only now started have a more detailed grasp on. This assertion seems to correspond with the fundamental idea in the Schivelbusch piece (which we read a few weeks back), where he argued that the change of technology, in his case transportation systems, from coach to railroad, should be accompanied by an adaptation of our “traditional perception apparatus” to this new condition. Thus, SpaceFighter, aims at understanding “the size and complexity of the urban reality”, by trying to develop new methods beyond the exhausted models of scenario creation (which have dominated urban analysis for quite some time now), more precisely original projective methods. In practical terms, it would mean a shift from the common and exclusive tools of mapping and diagramming to the innovative and inclusive tools of gaming. This is argued to be more suited, since contrasting to the limited variation in scenarios; the interactive model can generate outcomes previously unimaginable, as it absorbs new knowledge by agents playing the game, but also by the constant update of the several databanks to which is connected.

In this regard, SpaceFighter expects to gain new insights into the complexity of urban systems by the combination of different datasets, stimulating the planning aspects of all (possible) databanks, “encouraging them to move from static to progressive data”, and therefore producing more data (quantitatively as a result of new technologies), but also better data (since it becomes available and accessible to a larger audience). I would argue this specific process of data-crossing to be more productive and less scary than the one described by professor Hayles when explaining the future ubiquity of RFID chips and possible uses in personal data-mining. I also believe that we have somehow addressed issues relevant to this point in our discussion of Google Earth (after Tim’s presentation) as a tool which can be used by a small group professionally, but also by a larger audience as an entertainment device, but also in the comments of professor Hayles regarding the close reading of Fuller, where he writes about how the systems of work and fun have become intermeshed and are no longer restricted to their original use.

I would like to point out to something that seem to be implicit, and undisputed, in the whole SpaceFighter project, namely that in current society, the pervasiveness of digital technology implies that everything (or at least complex urban systems) are in some way or another captured in databases, which is why I thought this endeavor to be relevant in the context of last week’s discussion of databases and narratives.

Finally, and since the theoretical implications of Spacefighter are not exhausted in the (limited) approach I used in this post, and so that you could have a broader idea of what this project is based upon, other recurrent concepts in the theory of SpaceFighter, and which I have not addressed but believe to be worth noting would be:

Entropy, or how regions are comparable to surviving systems where energy losses, accumulations and uses are observable

Evolution, in the Darwinian sense, as a parallel is drawn from regional survival and the development of species, namely the (inherent) perfecting ratios-based calculations which have been incorporated into living entities by evolution

Complexity, specifically that contemporary life is based in complexity, which can be approached by a simplification and understanding of elements which compose it on different levels

Game Theory, or how games can be used to gain insight in complex systems. In SpaceFighter concepts such as player, strategy, payoff, complexity and predictability are applied to architecture and urban planning

Multiple Scenarios, which allows planners and decision makers to realize that there is no one absolute truth, but several different possibilities or scenarios


PS: If you are interested in SpaceFighter, you can download a more comprehensive presentation I prepared about SpaceFighter (based on the publication) in PDF slides

SpaceFighter Presentation Long

February 19, 2008

architecture’s datascapes

Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 7:04 am
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It seems that in this week’s reading regarding database and narrative, there are two main schools of thought. Namely those who believe that these are inherently distinct and opposed (such as Manovich) and those who believe that both complement each other, and in their unity new opportunities emerge (such as Paul).

I think that it could be interesting to discuss this particular topic in the sphere of architecture, since architecture has always been envisioned on the intersection and overlap between programmatic information (databases) and ideas (narratives). Recently this discussion has taken a visible built form, physically exposing the “back end” of data container and its structure in the aesthetic exercise of the cultural implications perceived in the “front end” (Christiane Paul, 97). A clear example of this contemporary practice is the Seattle Public Library (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, 2004), where the flexibility of the continuous spiral ramp contained in a four story slab (where the stacks are located) is prepared to adjust to the changes in inventory, at almost the same pace as the digital database.

flexibility diagramflexibility diagram

In my presentation on this topic I have selected to present the work of another Dutch architecture office, MVRDV (where I used to work before moving to Los Angeles). The work of this Rotterdam based architectural practice, is recognized as being paradigmatic of the current data driven design. Despite being an architecture office, the engagement with databases and narratives has been explored in several different mediums such as architectural projects, video installations or even experimental software platforms, as I will explain during the presentation. In this presentation I will show some projects, which I believe address this week’s discussion from different perspectives.

Exemplary of their interest in what they have coined “Datascapes”, is their video installation (exhibited at the Stroom Center for the Visual Arts in The Hague, the Netherlands, between 1998 and 1999), which later became a publication, where the contemporary city is analyzed as pure information. “A city that knows no given topography, no prescribed ideology, no representation, no context. Only huge, pure data: Metacity/Datatown”. This project lays on the edge between data visualization and urban planning, and attempts to provoke new architecture and urbanism thought, through the manipulation of data in a spatial manner.

data town

Explorations of data and derived radical practices are also visible in their proposed buildings. An interesting example is the 2001 innovative design pig city. Analyzing the economical activity of pig farming in the Netherlands, it become evident that old spatial formulas had become obsolete, and new solutions were necessary. By using data to inform the design, MVRDV proposed a drastic new spatial organization for pig farming.

These are just a couple of (emblematic) projects which show MVRDV’s continuous interest in data and narratives, but several others could be mentioned, such as Farmax, 3D City or Spacefighter. For MVRDV, information, numbers and data are not just the raw material of their designs, but also the source for critical and radical rethinking of architecture and society, creating an alternative “cultural algorithm” reality->data->datascape.


February 5, 2008

programmers as architects

Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 6:28 am
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Last week’s discussion regarding code was extremely interesting overall, however, I would just like to slightly expand the conversation on the some of the points discussed.

To do so, I started thinking on the analogy between some of the points in the texts we read and of the conversation in class and architectural practice and theory. As I do this, trying to grasp new situations by recurring to more familiar terms and framework, I realize how this innate process relates to last week’s conversation regarding the usage of familiar spatial experiences in the understanding of new connections in the digital medium (and other complex abstract concepts), but also to the other conversation (also expanded in the blog) regarding the new generation different potential to better understand the capabilities of the digital medium, as it will have another way of thinking than the linear, sequential and goal oriented way of thinking (derived from written text). In this regard, I found the words of Jameson to be relevant when he mentions (comparing post-modernist and high modernism thought) that “our perceptual habits were formed in that older space” (high modernism) which explains the incapacity of our minds to map the “great global multinational and decentered communication network in which we find ourselves”.

But back to the architectural analogies. The beginning of the Mackenzie piece, where the role of programmers is addressed, a direct parallel can be drawn with architectural practice on several points, which I would like to point out.

The migration of software developers seems to find a natural parallel in the work of globetrotter architects (and students), which take on design competitions and commissions across the world. One notorious example was the competition for Yokohama ‘s Cruise Terminal, which was won by Foreign Office Architects, at the time a small office based in London and lead by a Spaniard (Alejandro Zaera-Polo) and his Iranian Wife (Farshid Moussavi), which was then prompted to move the office (temporarily) to Japan.

Another overlapping point would be the commodification experienced by both software and architecture. In this regard I would like to draw attention to the current state of architectural consumption (a topic which interests me personally) in which cities and countries try to increase their visibility through the collection of architectural pieces. Recently the most blatant example would be Dubai, but several others could be mentioned.

A couple more parallels between these practices appear to me in Mackenzie’s text, specifically the parallel between styles (personal programming styles and architectural styles) and how inevitably, regardless of their (programming styles) disparity, they still have to conform to global standards, conventions and protocols, the same way any architectural design has to conform to building codes which assure a certain level of performance.

This leads me to the topic of code poetry and the lively conversation that followed regarding the importance of the code actually being able to perform and communicate with the computer as well as the programmer. I will not expand too much on this topic, since I am still trying to collect my thoughts on this issue, but it seems to be a conversation which doubles somehow the discussion surrounding architecture’s autonomy (defended vehemently by several influential architectural critics and theoreticians), as it is argues that the creation of the discipline of architecture only happened when architecture abstracted from its own materiality and constraints and moved to the drawing boards, much like code poetry tries to claim for code much more than just its initial primary function of communication between man and machine.  I will try to develop this idea in a future post.

See you all tomorrow,


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