Finally, an urban informatics project I worked on that I can talk about here, even if it’s currently still ‘paper architecture’ (pixel architecture?). The nature of urban development is such that I can’t yet say much about recent design work on projects (including Masdar (with LAVA), Helsinki (with Sauerbruch Hutton/Experientia), and just yesterday Seoul (with Studio Libeskind) etc., as well as various others I can’t yet mention, and building/infrastructure-level projects in Brisbane and Sydney.)
This one though - the CLOUD - is being announced today, on the BBC, by the MIT press office, via its website, on Facebook, here at City of Sound, and elsewhere. We thought we’d try to share most of the details of the project. I think it speaks to a few new ideas of what a monument could be, what a contemporary design process can be, what a structure can be, what we can do with data, and so on.
(It’s also been on show in Sydney over the last month, as part of an AAA exhibition called ‘Remodelling Architecture’ at Customs House, curated by Gerard Reinmuth (Terroir) and Marcus Trimble (Super Colossal). This exhibition is, in theory, a presentation of recent work by ‘young emerging architects’ on the Sydney scene, so being included there is faintly amusing as I’m neither ‘young’ nor an ‘architect’, though I suppose all of us (except Barack Obama?) are eternally in the process of ‘emerging’. Those of you in Sydney can see it, and great work by other locals such as Anthony Burke, Adrian Lahoud, Joanne Jakovich, David Burns et al, including a couple of projects we also contributed to to varying degrees: Masdar, again, with Chris Bosse’s LAVA, and some ideas for a UTS Broadway competition entry with Super Colossal.)
The CLOUD project is, in a nutshell:
“The CLOUD proposes an entirely new form of observation deck,connecting visitors to both the whole of London and the whole of the world, immersing them in the euphoric gusts of weather and digital data. Each individual footstep on the ascent to the CLOUD participates in a vast collective energy-harvesting effort. Everyone from around the world can contribute to the Cloud - whether by visiting or by sponsoring an LED, helping to keep the Olympic lamp aflame.” [From the CLOUD website]
Before I go further, I should say this was a massively multidisciplinary team effort, running across 15 different teams/contributors in almost as many cities (a note on the design process to follow, based on the visualisation you can see on p.3 of the exhibition boards linked to below). The architecture is largely by Carlo Ratti, Walter Nicolino, Atmos, SENSEable City Lab et al, with the amazing visualisations by London-based GMJ and graphic design by Studio FM Milano. The artist Tomas Saraceno was heavily involved in the conceptual work. Structural engineering was Schaich Bergermann und Partner (of Munich Olympic stadium fame, amongst others) with numerous other engineering services by my colleagues here at Arup in Sydney and in London. Google were on board, as were landscape architects Agence Ter. The advisors included Umberto Eco, William J. Mitchell, Chris Bangle and others. The full team is detailed here, and I thought Carlo Ratti put it nicely when he said in an email, “Our team is a bit like a cloud - nothing to do with the traditional idea of promethean architects and artists. As such, it’s important to me that the project comes out as a collaborative effort.”
Carlo, who readers may recall from an earlier interview here, pulled everything together and deserves huge credit as benevolent ringleader, creative inspiration and driving force, nonetheless.
Within that team effort, the project lent me an opportunity to explore many of the concepts I’ve been developing on the aforementioned (and not-mentioned) projects, ranging from the ideas of the ‘civic scale smart meter’ creating feedback loops for human activity, with data drawn from wide arrays of sensors (in the widest sense of the word), to realising this on at a ‘land-art’ scale and so exploring civic relationships with urban systems rather than individual relationships, via data visualisation amongst other things. Many, though not all, of the concepts core to my urban informatics work at Arup got an outing here, as I was primarily involved in the conceptual design of the overall thing, working closely with Carlo Ratti and Alex Haw in particular. Some of the discrete system ideas included augmented reality overlaid onto the city, but from a viewing platform that enables entire urban systems to be articulated. This structure could also be as digital as it was physical, and later discussions centred around an ongoing iterative design process for urban fabric.
Strategically I was also interested in foregrounding the idea of ‘re-industrial cities’, in which contemporary manufacturing returns to cities, partly through visualising patterns of production in cities - and in curating data we are choosing what stories to tells - but also ensuring that the manufacturing of the structure itself is done as locally as possible. (I’m proud we sourced, albeit at high level for the pitch, British manufacturers for the project.) Oh, and all that stuff about drizzle, Turner, Constable etc. was largely my doing I think. Apologies, Mother Country.
Overall, it was, of course, a chance to explore an interactive, responsive architecture at a scale beyond a building, somewhat in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller’s Geoscope, Archigram’s Living City, Yona Friedman’s Ville Spatiale, and many other projects I’ve found inspirational over the years. Credit where it is due.
To communicate the project, Studio FM Milano have built a website for the project, which contains a large amount of the presentation material produced for the pitch. You’ll find images of course, but the texts also contain some useful background information.
I thought I’d share the (A1) boards I designed for the exhibition (6.4mb), as they do a decent job of conveying the project from my angle. (You can download that, but I’ve also extracted the text I wrote for the boards and included it at the end of this entry. Again the amazing background images here are the renders produced by GMJ based on the designs produced by the architectural side of the team.)
And in the spirit of openness, here is the very first, hastily-produced 2-page briefing note I produced for the project, once Carlo had asked us to contribute a set of keywords and prompts to kick the project off. This was at 'blank canvas' stage, when we had a very open brief indeed. As ever, those notes are a reflection of my thought processes at the time, and I already wouldn’t write now what I wrote then. But for the record, here they are.
Unbeknownst to me, Carlo + team, Alex Haw (Atmos) and others had been thinking similar thoughts as those contained above - and had in fact moved it forwards by a huge degree, importantly, developing something buildable - and the concept came together remarkably quickly and coherently.
I usually produce work in a different way - by sketching and designing spaces, basic structures or products, detailed interface and interaction designs; or writing 'design fiction' to convey how urban experiences might change - but here I was working in a far more conceptual mode. Doing concept design, strategic design - I'm not quite sure what to call it. When working at the urban scale, or doing urban strategy, I sometimes produce these kind of outputs, those kind of diagrammatic scribbles and pulled references, but it was interesting to play this role on a building project - albeit for a particular kind of building. I guess it's a structure working at an urban scale.
A lot of the text at the the CLOUD website is an amalgamation of all our thoughts, but I must say Alex Haw in particular proved extremely adept at weaving meaning and poetry from the numerous concepts at play here. It was a great pleasure to work with him on both this and the digital design/interaction models, as it was with Carlo and the rest of the team.
Text on the CLOUD from Remodelling Architecture exhibition boards follows. Written for a public architecture exhibit in Sydney, so please bear that in mind:
This is the story of a design process more than a built outcome. Iit might articulate a new idea of what a monument can be, as well as exploring several emerging aspects of urban informatics and outlining how design can be increasingly distributed across time and space.
Carlo Ratti assembled a team, including myself, to create a form of monument for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The project team never assembled in its entirety at any point in the 2-month process. Indeed, I never met anyone regarding the project, working on all aspects via email and Skype (though I knew Carlo previously, and several of my colleagues at Arup of course). The project team grew rapidly, ultimately scattered across 15 different cities.
Design should be a humble trade. Hence the focus on the team, the ideas, and the story. They are, in this case, all the design consists of.
Given the site was East London, my thoughts quickly turned to rain, of course. In particular, the landscape and history as explored in JMW Turner’s paintings. Dealing with the sublime (and monumental) yet through the ethereal, ephemeral and environmental, these paintings suggest light, pale and wan with sudden shards of gold, swollen clouds, billowing steam and fierce winds, engineering and technology, harnessing energy, event, spectacle. They are deeply rooted in the English landscape. (Also, the English obsession with weather.)
The landscape here is also unique: flat, wet, crushed under vast clouded skies. The Thames Estuary in particular is astonishingly beautiful, in a Northern European sense. The environmental characteristics are rich too: cloud, storms, spray, mist, smoke, fog. Again, Turner’s paintings spring to mind. Working with clouds seemed like a promising lead.
The site’s history is rich and evocative. It emerged as a key component of London in its pomp, as the ‘workshop of the world’, when the city was the last European iteration of Jacques Attali’s nine ‘core’ post-Enlightenment mercantile cities. He describes London from 1788-1890 as powered by steam, the British Empire massively expanded by energy, speed, industry and innovation, connecting the city to the world.
My own practice is largely concerned with urban informatics — drawing patterns from the urban experience and projecting them back into that experience, in order to reveal how the city is performing. This is often related to urban sustainability, in the widest sense, attempting to make the invisible visible in meaningful ways.
I saw an opportunity to develop my ongoing interest in the idea of the ‘civic-scale smart meter’ — a structure that acts as a real-time feedback loop on the performance of urban activity within a civic framework. I’ve explored this idea in several recent projects, yet this gave an opportunity to work with a richness of data, given Google as partners, which is generally unavailable in the urban landscape. Likewise, the Olympics Games would cast a long ‘digital shadow’.
I thought of a three-level structure initially. A responsive middle layer moves and is lit in response to patterns of data, a glowing net-like structure held aloft on diaphanous threads, as if data-streams, gently floating and swaying in the wind. LED ‘twine’ forms guy-lines and connects the data to earth and to energy-gathering kites above. Possibly inflatable, from earth it looks like cloud-like (and so nods to the idea of cloud computing, as well as the landscape.)
Unbeknownst to me, Carlo, Alex and team had been working on similar thoughts, imagining a supported balloon structure also with kites. The team quickly aligned these thoughts to suggest an elevated cloud-like structure, extrapolated from Tomas Saraceno’s artworks, its form embedded with data as well as people.
Data is to be drawn from the Olympic Games in real-time, telling particular stories — of industry, energy, innovation and connectivity — as well as of the basic facets of the Games themselves. This data could be visualised as ambiguous spectacle, using the effects most redolent with the landscape and locale (cloud, smoke, steam, fog, mist, water, wind, mechanical engineering, data). The Cloud physically twists and ripples in response to data patterns captured from environmental sensors placed around the grounds, data scraped from web activity, drawn from mobile carriers in real-time, interpreting audio to discern the different languages being spoken, acting as a giant scoreboard floating above the events, detects the viewing and listening figures around the games in real-time, explores the behaviour of localised weather systems, projects the global internet traffic to and from the Lea Valley, forms a gigantic smart meter for Stratford and surrounds at civic scale, and so on and so on.
In this way, it takes aggregate individual patterns and reveals them at civic scale, thus binding the city’s activity together via a gentle ambient drizzle of data.
There are two sides to the interaction, both predicated on the physical experience of the Cloud augmented with data.
The first mode foregrounds the structure. The Cloud’s experience is physical, visceral — about altitude, atmosphere, exposure to the climate. People are in and on the translucent bubbles of the Cloud. Yet its skin is threaded with an addressable 3D matrix of LED lighting, forming a glowing membrane capable of displaying broadcast video or abstract visualisation. It ripples in response to data and presence of people, such that the Cloud feels alive to the touch. This integration of the display layer with structure means the physical cloud itself can be free of everything except structure. Secondly, while people climb the Cloud and stand amidst the glowing data, augmented reality interfaces create a further interaction layer, overlaying visualisations and media onto the Cloud’s view of London. This layer can project real-time energy data over the city, reveal the medal table hovering over the stadium, depict the Lea Valley as it was a century ago, and so on.
I was also interested in the rich industrial history of this site, and the need to build a productive post-Olympics legacy. So we explored how The Cloud could be a showpiece of contemporary manufacturing, a process that produces reams of data rather than plumes of smoke. Yet we could visualise these new smokestacks, exposing the seams of production in order to subtly bend the trajectory of London’s economy towards a more diverse base. The narrative thus outlines a possible future of production in a Britain that has been systematically denuded of manufacturing industries. In curating data to display, we are describing possible trajectories, affecting the stories that a place tells about itself.
Finally, a structure so entwined with software, its architecture dissolving in behaviour, means that its design is an ongoing process, and so distributed further over time, closer to industrial design or service design than traditional architecture. And as with almost all such projects, there is no sole author here, and I was certainly only one small part of this complex design (the conceptual side was driven by CarloRattiAssociati, Atmos, Tomas Saraceno and myself.) The full team is listed above, overlaid with a visualisation of project emails to/from my in-box, plotted over time and space, leading up to submission of the first stage design proposal.