Following on from our recent 'post-occupancy evaulation' of the State Library of Queensland's wi-fi (see previous post) in my role at Arup, I thought I'd share a couple of outputs. (Thanks to Tory Jones of the State Library of Queensland for permission).
One of the ideas I've been exploring relates to how urban industry - in the widest sense of the word - in the knowledge economy is often invisible, at least immediately and in situ. Whereas urban industry would once have produced thick plumes of smoke or deafening sheets of sound, today's information-rich environments - like the State Library of Queensland, or a contemporary office - are places of still, quiet production, with few sensory side-effects. We see people everywhere, faces lit by their open laptops, yet no evidence of their production. They could be using Facebook, Photoshop, Excel or Processing.
I've been developing a few ideas for exploring this industrial activity, which I hope to share here later, but the post-occupancy work on the Library's wi-fi involved creating a few representations of the service; a service which is all but invisible. Outside of monitoring the server logs, the wi-fi can only be perceived through the presence of users themselves, or of course via devices that detect wi-fi.
So as well as photo-essays, videos and in-depth interviews with users, and relating to this idea of making the invisible, visible, I mapped the strength of the wi-fi signal across levels 1 and 2 of the Library, the primary areas that the Library’s wi-fi is used. By taking readings across the floor of both levels, using standard wi-fi-enabled consumer equipment in order to mimic the conditions for the average user (in this case a MacBook laptop and a Nokia e65 mobile phone), I was able to construct a snapshot of the wi-fi signal strength across the Library.
I then articulated this set of readings as a basic 3D model in SketchUp, with peaks representing good wi-fi signal strength (4 bars, for example) and troughs representing poor wi-fi signal strength (no bars/no connection, or intermittently 1 bar). Each ‘bar’ defined a level in the 3D model (1 bar = 1 metre, roughly). This gives a sense of the wi-fi as a shape, with a physical form. Although literally misleading, it helps to understand wi-fi as a discrete phenomenon, via a form of translation.
While this model is not intended to be totally accurate - wi-fi signals may change in different atmospheric conditions, and perceived signal strength will vary depending on the equipment used - it does convey a sense of the overall ‘shape’ of the wi-fi, as if we could perceive it in physical form. Sensing the wi-fi like this is almost akin to dowsing - detecting the presence of unseen forces - and mimics the sensation of users attempting to discern where the wi-fi signal is strong.
The model was initially overlaid onto a floorplan of level 1, and subsequently scaled up to sit over a snapshot of the site from Google Earth. When comparing with the built form, we can explain the strong signal over the north-western egress of the Knowledge Walk. Through our observations at the Library, we saw that users have figured out that this is a good spot - one of the 3 wireless access points currently on that floor is located in the nearby meeting rooms, not that users would know this. The presence of the ‘bench’ extruded from the wall provides useful affordances for users too, almost suggesting it’s a good spot to sit and access the wi-fi (although again, we suspect that is accidental coincidence of design). Similarly, the floor-to-ceiling windows from meeting rooms and open corridor leading outside means there is minimal concrete to block the signal. So this 3D model helps suggest a correlation between use of the space, the shape of the space, and the strong wi-fi signal.
Following the central spine of the wi-fi model through towards the south-eastern edge, we can see how the wi-fi ‘leaks out’ of this end of the building, through the open end of the Knowledge Walk outside onto the concourse in-between the Library and the building destined to be The Edge. Elsewhere, thick concrete mitigates against wi-fi spreading far, unfortunately including the café and the fabulous deck areas on the river, where the signal falls off sharply (currently).
I allocated the SketchUp model a skin of netting, in a nod towards the Cedric Price-designed aviary at London Zoo. This seemed to me a similar structure, and suggests that 'wi-fi cloud' might actually feel like a containing volume - a net of wi-fi, as if seen from a user’s or bird’s point-of-view.
Formally, the result is hardly elegant, and bears little relation to the AIA award-winning structure by Donovan Hill/Peddle Thorp. (Incidentally, it’s been a great pleasure to work with Timothy Hill on this and other projects recently). The sharp angles and abrupt faces are accidents of the crude construction in SketchUp and the simplicity in my measurements. I should probably take it into 3D Studio Max or something, to render it with more graceful curves, or a material that would more properly represent the qualities of radio waves - perhaps something like Diller+Scofidio's Blur Building.
There's a full set of screengrabs here, here's a fly-through animation, and here's the original SketchUp model. I don't want to overplay the significance of this approach - it was simply one of several methods for expressing the presence of wi-fi in the Library, and partly just sketching out loud ...
Constructing another tangent on the wi-fi, I was struck by how users adopted the Infozone space - where the wi-fi is primarily located - and the furniture provided for them. The low desks, small tables, various chairs, benches etc. afford numerous variations for wi-fi users, and sure enough people drape themselves all over them.
Discussions with Timothy Hill indicated how the design of furniture across the Infozone was intended to, in his words, “break up the traditional anthropomorphic relationship between the user and their laptop”, based on observations of how intimately people actually relate themselves to their laptops. Hill had noted how people rest the laptop on their knees, lie down with it, use it in bed, curl up around it on the sofa, and so on. So the fixtures and fittings in the Infozone were intended to suggest this intimacy - in common with the ‘domestic’ touches in the design of the Library in general - and provide a wide variety of options as to how to use a laptop in the space.
As well as the hundreds of photos I took in the space, I decided to do a few sketches of the more interesting positions, which I suggested might work something like a aircraft identification manual or compendium yoga positions perhaps. With the latter in mind, I was tempted to name a few, such as "The perch", "The front crawl", "The huddle", "The sandwich", "Battleships", “Reverse Battleships", “The Horse", "Side saddle", "Lotus", "The NASA control room", "The occasional-table hug" and so on.
Below, a few of the quick sketches I did, illustrating some of these positions: