Information: A New Building Material for Architecture

In today's society, information is ubiquitous. Our cell phones, GPS navigation systems, Bluetooth devices, and computers send and receive overflowing amounts of data in the form of emails, driving directions, YouTube videos, and text messages. Digital content is relentless, and it consumes and dominates the lives of many on a daily basis. But while seeming to exist everywhere, information ironically exists nowhere. It is not only immaterial, but elusive as well; appearing frequently, yet briefly. Accessed by means of an internet browser window, a digital inbox, or a display screen, we tend to use data to satisfy only immediate needs and desires, dismissing it upon gratification to an abstruse and ambiguous origin amidst the chaotic universe of the internet. While obviously abundant and convenient, digital content is also insuppressible and incomprehensible; it is something we have come to depend on and cannot keep track of. If immaterial information could be better manifested and organized, we could manage and learn much more about ourselves and the environments we live in.

Design and the Elastic Mind, a current exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art, has publicized this need to understand and order the increasingly complex and digital world. The exhibition scrutinizes "changes in technology, science, and social mores, changes that will demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior" and showcases "objects and systems" designed in response to these cultural shifts. Among many areas of focus, the exhibit investigates data visualization, which is the transformation of raw information, through collection, analysis, and composition, into more significant and useful forms. Projects displayed at the exhibition, such as Flight Patterns (pictured above), Cabspotting, and Architecture and Justice, each gather various sets of data: flight activity in the United States, taxi locations in San Francisco, and neighborhoods of criminals in New York, respectively. These sets of data, which are typically displayed as complex and labored textual charts, are then organized and mapped into graphic compositions that are legible for the common person to comprehend, analyze, and deduce, demonstrating that data visualization allows for significant insight on information that is regularly overlooked.

But while such projects manifest statistics into graphic designs, what intrigues me is that they suggest possibilities for data to be embodied into architecture and urbanism. If the organization of information into compositions expands its use and aids in society's overall awareness and cognition, could the integration of digital content into the spatial environments that we live in further facilitate and amplify these effects?

In an essay in the most recent issue of Vague Terrain, an online digital arts quarterly, X������rene Eskandar explores integration of the immaterial into architecture and urban environments by discussing the rise of VJ, or video jockey, culture (derived from the musical term DJ, or disc jockey, a VJ selects, plays, and mixes videos rather than music). Eskandar, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles who is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts thesis, explains that VJ culture strongly influences architecture through events such as Video RIOT! in San Francisco (depicted below), in which live and pre-recorded video is projected onto existing architecture to transform space and influence activity. Eskandar also cites a personal experience, where the availability of free wireless internet access encouraged leisure and loitering in an otherwise transitory public space. This illustrates Eskandar's belief that architecture and urban space is enlivened by and gains significance from the implementation of technology. Eskandar claims that architecture of these spaces is not the physical, built infrastructure, but rather the immaterial technologies: video and the internet. In essence, such hybrid spaces "blur the boundaries between real and virtual space."

While I find this proposal extremely innovative and intriguing, and I agree that immaterial technologies are capable of animating, transforming, and creating space, I would like to expand on this thesis. When considering the design of new architecture and environments, technology, media, and information should not simply be superimposed, implemented, or displayed, but instead integrated with architecture and design so that it essentially becomes a building material. While video is additively projected onto existing architecture, as in the case of Video RIOT!, information and data could be more embodied into the design of new architecture in order to more dynamically engage people, spaces, and activity. Extending the field of data visualization, but maintaining the same didactic intention, this idea proposes the synthesis of information into the design of new spatial environments by use of new technologies. In the same way that architectural projects in Second Life are networked with the internet so that changes made by designers and builders are constantly being updated in real time, by incorporating information technologies and their tremendous capabilities into designs, I believe that architecture and environments in the real world could also update in real time to reflect information and its fluctuating, evolving nature. If pervasive sets of data, such as stock exchange results, spatial traffic and density, or current weather conditions, among countless other statistics, were integrated with physical spaces, architecture could create a greater and more fluid stimulus, knowledge, and awareness in society.

1 comment:

MKL said...

I think the greatest strength in your post highlights its problems. Let me explain. This is, by far, one of the most interesting posts I have read because it not only reconfigures elusive and formless information into structure and order, but it makes a strong and supported argument. From the reading you argue that we live in an information age and that rather than disposing of this information, once consumed: "technology, media, and information should not simply be superimposed, implemented, or displayed, but instead integrated with architecture and design so that it essentially becomes a building material." While I understand this, at least partially, I feel that the argument lacks an explanation as to how one may turn information into a building material without merely decorating a space. By adding texture and presence to a space, I see how information can build up and reconfigure one's consciousness of that structure. I find the art exhibit you discuss, Design and the Elastic Mind, fascinating and wonder if these works are beyond visual (you mention the majority of these pieces are artifacts of data visualization). You state that these are: "projects in which designers grasp and convert these changes 'into objects and systems that people understand and use.'" I, unfortunately, do not understand the full capacity that pure information could serve in architecture as steel, wood and concrete do. Perhaps you were not arguing this specifically, and if so, I was confused by your argument that it should be used as a building material. Overall, however, I really liked your post and believe it achieves what great writing should often strive for: making the reader think and question the role of information with relation to space and time.

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