Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here
Jake Barton runs a design firm in New York called Local Projects. He says they call themselves 'media designers', as they work at the intersections between broadcast media, interactive media, architecture and physical space. It's as good a term as any for a field still emerging. Barton's background is in interior architecture, and the firm is fairly multidisciplinary. The firm's name comes from their belief that, just as Tip O'Neill used to say "all politics are local", they believe all design is local. That is, local to the specific project; there is no predetermined house style or methodology, they're platform agnostic, solution agnostic. (This is an interesting, valuable approach.)
Barton lists a few of their recent projects, such as for the Museum of Chinese and the Americas, a cellphone tour for the Statue of Liberty, and their recent hefty commission for the World Trade Center memorial museum in partnership with Thinc Design. He then goes on to outline their approach and interests – they explore innovative interfaces in physical space, hybridising between physical interfaces and online interfaces, and have been particularly engaged in collaborative storytelling projects.
He shows the Miners Story Project, which is based around a caravan in which a recording booth resides. The exterior looks like a dot matrix image of a copper miner, but as you get closer you realises each of the 'dots' is also a speaker. Thus the caravan itself is a giant speaker which plays oral histories captured within. Barton says that Making Museums Matter by Stephen Weil has been a particular influence, in terms providing inspiration for museums turning themselves inside out; or providing ways of ensuring that musuems are spaces for knowledge production, rather than just repositories preserved in aspic.
Of course, with internet-based media, this notion has been hoovered up into the term 'user-generated content', providing both a contemporary goldrush and much hand-wringing. Thanks to an earlier project, the now well-known StoryCorps, Local Projects is in the position of having helped create an almost iconic example of how to obtain user-generated content in physical space. StoryCorps was directly inspired by the influential Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects of the early 20th century. (Which is about as good a reference point as you can get.) It links with a weekly NPR show to capture oral histories. As interaction designers for the project, Local Projects worked with architects to design the listening stations that sit outside of booths, and dynamic signage. Based in Grand Central Station, the WTC and elsewhere throughout the US, they've been hugely successful, garnering over 10,000 stories. Barton plays us a few selections. (I'd actually heard these before, having spoken with Jake at IDEA 2006, but they're still hugely affecting everyday stories.)
This was an early example of user-generated content, from pretty much before the term existed within the museum/exhibit context. Additionally, the booth at the WTC is the only physical architecture on the site itself which interprets 9/11. Nobody had the green light to do an interpretative project before, but there's something about the shape of these projects, Barton suggests, that allows for a broadcasting of a message like this; to be capable of talking about 9/11 on the site.
Moving on, Barton takes us through his firm's collaboration with author James Sanders (who would talk at Postopolis! a day later): Timescapes, at Museum of the City of New York. This is a giant 3-screen projection that enables people to approach the city itself from different angles simultaneously. It's an ambitious attempt to create something which engages the numerous New York City buffs, and therefore has the granular detail that cartography really affords, as well as being approachable to the newcomer. Barton says they tried to reverse the typical paradigm in which history is communicated i.e. a neatly ordered sequence great people and great events. In Timescapes only 3 people are mentioned directly. Rather, the point of view is rendered in the map - attempting to convey the city as a series of systems, a group or cloud of actions, each affecting the next. For instance, the creation of subway lines visibly affects the subsequent creation of apartments and communities built along those lines, enabling the creation of the Bronx and Queens. This is a fascinating take on the evolution of the city, and deserved more exploration than we were able to give it, sadly.
Their new project is on the building of the city itself - and how the city is evolving in contemporary life. It's in relation to Bloomberg's 'Plan NYC 2030', and the idea that 1 million new people will move into NYC by 2030. (Barton pauses to reflect that the last talk on Lagos, where they're growing by a million a year, is "very humbling" in this context.) Working with the AIA's Center for Architecture in New York, it's called the Public Information Exchange, or PIE AIA. (Barton says they pronounce pieaia.org as 'paella'. Oh ho.)
It's a project to foster some kind of "proactive dialogue between all those involved in public architecture", as Barton puts it. There are a few sides to this. He says "when I talk to museum people, I usually talk about broadening the space for dialogue. When I talk to architects, I say this wants to be the MySpace for architects." Essentially, the site enables architects and planners to upload photographs, images of models, plans, schemes for new buildings in New York, and then draw commentary from all involved, including the public. Every image has comments, prompted by questions which can be set by the architects, and thus encourages a deeper level of engagement than merely 'thumbs up or thumbs down'. When I asked Barton about the quality of comments, he replied that so far things have gone well. That is perhaps in part to the excellent design of the interactive space.
(Personally, I believe that quality design encourages quality responses from users, just as design for public space or public housing encourages civic behaviour. I made this tenuous analogy between British post-war public housing and user-generated content a few years ago.)
Barton states that it's not designed to be a wiki-style system for co-creation. He doesn't believe in the "collaborative creation of architecture ... I think that's a fallacy", he says. But architects can use it as a tool to get research, to ask the questions that you want to know of the public, or other stakeholders. It enables architects and builders to promote aspects of the project like LEED certification, or go beyond that. It's designed for both the small playground just built in your neighbourhood, to public street furniture, to major private projects.
A huge yellow stripe gives emphasis to public commentary on the page, making clear a balance between the projects and their stakeholders. For Barton, this project should form a widely distributed, "open memory" around architecture.
(In my professional opinion, it's beautifully done. Each building has Google maps integration, further links, space for a variety of renderings, and at this early stage anyway, excellent engaged comments from users. It's contemporary without being clichéd. There are only a handful of projects uploaded at the moment, but it looks to be an excellent, scalable example of integrating architecture with the web. There are some nips and tucks required but nothing major. All it needs now is far more use than the project currently has; go to it NYC-based architects and planners.)
In a nice touch, the yellow stripe is also clear in the physical manifestation of PIE, at the Center for Architecture's Public Resource Center, located at 536 LaGuardia Place, between West 3rd Street and Bleecker Street. There are public access workstations, designed by Grimshaw who recently did street furniture for the city.
Barton asked the Postopolis! crowd whether people would use it. A few of the architects in the crowd put their hand up. Others would use it stakeholders or users, and it's clear that that's where the value is. Barton notes that collaborative projects like Architecture for Humanity are really architect-to-architect, as good as they are, whereas this is for users of architecture too. Architects may need some convincing, despite the 'Myspace for architecture' tag, as these issues of consultation, and a form of ongoing post-occupancy evaluation are deeper than the lack of a platform. But at least it now has a platform, in New York at least.
This project seems emblematic of Local Projects' approach – rooted, considered, elegantly open, and specific to the problem at hand – and Barton's talk gave us an imaginative yet pragmatic illustration of the potential in the overlap between physical and digital spaces.
Here's a video excerpt of Barton's presentation: