Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 28, 2008


Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 10:14 am
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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.


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