Media & City

Public urban space and the “space” of communication networks are usually considered to be competing, even mutually exclusive frameworks for social interaction. In fact, the traditional functions of public urban space are being taken over by telecommunication networks, their input/output devices implanted in (private) interiors.

Public Space, Media Space

Elizabeth Sikiaridi, Frans Vogelaar, Gunnar Tausch
July 1997

@ de Architekt
den Haag


Architects and urbanists confronted with these developments tend to adopt an attitude of blind refusal: the prospects offered by electronic media are ignored or simply denied, because in their view, media space seems to dissolve the “urban public space”. On the other hand, the proponents of cyberspace project all sorts of simplistic expectations, anticipating the transfer of urban functions in the “soft” cities of tomorrow.

Soft City

“Soft” cities, thus claimed to be “democratic”, are becoming increasingly exclusory. Public space is imploding, not just in its in its urban component, but also in its media. The agenda is being set for the privatisation of the electronic mass media spaces. However, at this turning point, on the threshold of the era of world (market) domination by the software giants, there is still a chance to establish a more public dimension in the communication environments.

The gap between the immaterial, exclusive media spheres (Internet, television, etc.) and the dismembered urban sprawls is widening; the polarisation of global and local space is increasing. A strategy to reinforce the significance of public space has therefore to deal with at least two “public”, the global and the local public, by creating environments where local and global public space can fuse and interact.

Public Media Urban Interfaces

To bridge the gap and connect the global media spheres with local urban content and place, a hybrid architecture of communication spaces proposes a new, public, combined analog-digital infrastructure: “Public Media Urban Interfaces”, publicly accessible interfaces between the global media space and the local urban place.

This project proposes an alternative scenario for the interplay of mass media in order to reinforce the function of public urban space. It emphasises the role of the public in an increasingly privatised society and occupies the vacuum in between the local and the global. It develops a hybrid urban network-space, a fusion of media space and urban space. The products of this alliance of urban and media networks are bastards: ambivalent spaces that are at the same time analog and digital, virtual and material, local and global, tactile and abstract.

This represents an interdisciplinary field of design, exploring the dynamic interaction of urbanism and the space of mass media and communication networks; “Soft Urbanism”, dealing with the “soft” aspects of the city, not only intervenes in the realm of infrastructures, but also adopts their concept and paradigm. By supplying networks, “Soft Urbanism” creates new fields of possibilities and frameworks for self-organisational processes.

Hybrid Infrastructure

A demo project, exploiting London’s urban tensions and structure unfolds strategies and visualises aspects of this investigation. It speculates about processes of urban transformation and economic (empowering) strategies, confronting a working hypothesis with the idiosyncrasies of a specific urban situation. It creates a programmatic framework to develop architectural tools, tracing and coding these hybrid analog-digital spaces.

A local-based public interface, the Media Baby, is the instrument that seduces its public into exploiting the television medium, maximising its potential spontaneity by hijacking the publics imagination. The name Media Babies stands for the seeds of communication (environments) as well as for the public neighbourhood feeder houses (hybrid analog-digital environments) from which the Media Babies will be broadcast. One hundred and twenty-eight feeder houses distributed evenly over the sprawling London towns and interconnected by means of an ISDN network supply eight Bridge Clubs located on the Thames with a continuous stream of (non-)events. The Media Baby at your neighbourhood launderette consists of a Catching Gallery, two Intro Booths, a Debutantes’ Booth, a Connector Platform and a Microwave Transmitter. The Catching Gallery is the area where the public can view the narrow/broadcasting activities of eight other Media Babies and one Bridge Club. Interactive technology enables the public to intervene in those narrow/broadcasts but also creates the possibility to establish direct contacts, thus forming smaller networks within the larger framework of Public Media Urban Interfaces.

The Bridge Club bridges the gap between programs meant for local distribution and those that deserve a larger audience. It forms the core of a North-South line linking eight Media Babies on each side of the river, connecting the north with the south of London. The Bridge Clubs are sophisticated and enlarged versions of the Media Babies providing the space for public events on an urban scale. One of the additional facilities they have is the Selector Platform where the Selection Ritual takes place. Using the larger broadcast facilities available to the Bridge Club, the selected programs are experienced and transformed to suit a mass audience. The Bridge Club also serves the function of bridging programmatic events related to the site where the club is located. For example, the Hungerford Bridge Club on certain days (or nights) functions as a Debutantes’ Ball in relation to the nearby Waterloo Station (Continental connection).

The publicly distributed ‘Air Time for All’ Smart Card allows you to produce and narrow/broadcast and also gives you the opportunity to adopt a message (not your own) by giving it extra Air Time. At the Media Baby in the neighbourhood, you will find the necessary programming facilities to make your program and the means to monitor it as it goes on the air. You can also accelerate messages (not your own) by giving them extra broadcasting time with the help of the special Smart-Card. And as a message gains strength, its chances of reaching a much larger audience increase, reaching more Media Babies, a Bridge Club, the city or even the whole country, Europe and the rest of the world.

Replacing the right to vote, a right to narrow/broadcast is established. Once you have produced your programme, instant satisfaction is guaranteed. Check out the Connector Platform and see what reactions your program provokes in the network: get a five-dimensional overview of the life cycle, the pains and the joys of your message.

Soft Urbanism

In architecture’s role of defining and materialising the spaces for social interaction, designing the relationship between the physical and digital public domain is becoming more and more of a challenge: investigating the relation and interconnection between the “soft” city with its finite material counterpart, the living environment, speculating about interfaces between the “virtual” and the material (urban) world and designing hybrid (analog-digital) communicational spaces.

Soft Urbanism deals with information/communication processes in public space, the soft aspects overlying and modifying the urban sprawl: the invisible networks acting as attractors, transforming the traditional urban structure, interweaving, ripping open and cutting through the urban tissue, demanding interfaces.

Soft Urbanism not only intervenes in the realm of infrastructures, but also adopts their concept and follows their paradigm. It brings an inherently flexible approach by expanding the field of social interaction and opening new paths of urban development. Soft Urbanism conceives the city as an organic entity, as “proteinic chains of networks”. Soft Urbanism is therefore not about shaping, inscribing or determining places, but about creating frameworks which allow and enhance a variety of unpredictable developments.

Urbanism today is caught up in the dilemma of either trying to realise the dream of the omnipotence of planning or accepting powerlessness in the face of the forces of the property market: on the one hand, the modernist belief in scientific methods of determination and control of the urban phenomena violating entire cities, on the other hand, the neoliberal positions giving in to the interests of privatisation and declaring the dynamics of the market to be the only legitimate determinants of urban developments. Facing up to the consequences of both positions today, Soft Urbanism develops an alternative strategy of intervention to reintroduce programmatic speculations about the public domain in urbanism.

The interventions will not be about control and determination, but about expanding infrastructures, frameworks for processes of self-organisation. “Soft” strategies will be “bottom-up” strategies: rather than first defining the global result of the interaction and then determining the necessary relation between the elements in order to produce that interaction (which would be a “top-down” approach), simple rules for a set of independent elements will be developed and that which emerges from the interaction of these elements is aleatory. According to biological models, these fields of interaction of plural forces will serve as a reservoir for the selection processes needed for urban transformations.

A method for extrapolating existing reality to unfold its possibilities and force creative accelerations will release spores and create paths as yet unknown. (Speed, acceleration, but not control of direction.) The spores (Babies) will infect different environments by adapting, mutating and transforming them.

Under the pavement (piercing the beaches) run fiber-optical cables.

Harm Tilman, Chief Editor
july 1997

@ de Architect
den Haag

Virtual Space Enriches Architecture

At an unexpectedly high pace, virtual spaces are now emerging, where a growing share of the world’s population is gaining access from office or their homes. With the introduction of ever-smaller, advanced portable electronic devices, it’s soon possible to communicate in cyberspace from every street corner. This is an increasingly attractive substitute for the more traditional communication tools. Unfortunately, it is often assumed that these virtual spaces, due to their accessibility and their excess of connectivity, will replace the physical urban spaces, with the ultimate result being the ‘disappearance of the city’. The virtual space is at the same time public forum, library, shopping mall and fair. Via the electronic highway, these can be visited without being bound to a traditional space. However, it is unlikely that the city will solve completely and return dust. Nor is it very likely that our bodies will disappear or that we will be indifferent to our immediate living environment. The need for well-designed and equipped spaces remains, albeit that they are redefined and adapted to the new social cohesion. The question is especially what is happening in the virtualization process now exactly with city and architecture. The interaction between virtual and physical space creates new challenging design tasks at varying levels of scale. At least as much virtual world and space generate and create other design strategies.

New Design Assignments

When the homes are increasingly used for work, education and entertainment, they will need to be adapted. The electronically coupled activities that are concentrated in the home will require additional space. In addition, the places required for these activities require new secrets and differentiations. The subdivision of public and private space is achieved not only by means of visual and acoustic shielding, but also by connecting input and output channels. Due to the development of the virtual city, the idea of ​​neighborhoods will have to be re-thought. Electronic-controlled homework will largely replace the commute into suburban locations. The suburbs – former former villages – will also populate during the day, which will increase demand for facilities. New neighborhoods can arise around this. Finally, the logic of the place will look different. Because the physical accessibility of jobs and facilities is no longer decisive, the attraction of a place will gain weight again. Why would you live in a monotonous suburb if you can also work with modem and ISDN connection in an attractive rural environment? Or why, if you’re no longer bound to work in a particular place, do you not live in a culturally interesting city?

Virtual Thinking

The pervasive debate about the meaning of the appearance of architecture is given a strong boost through the use of the electronic media. These are the main reasons for the emergence of all kinds of flowing forms that are free from traditional geometric frameworks. It witnesses the growing currents of information that must be incorporated into the design as well as the emergence of divergent series.

By virtue of the virtualization of architectural space, according to William Mitchell, architects and urban builders will have to learn a new game that he calls ‘a game of unknowns based on new rules’. John Rajchman has further elaborated on this issue of the virtual house. According to him, the virtual house is the house that, through its map, space, construction and intelligence, generates the newest connections, creating the greatest potential for unforeseen relationships. ”

This virtual house does not seem to be what we already know or can see. Because an image never gives a good indication of the final result, it is something that has to be experimented with to see it. According to Rajchman, the virtual house is not an empty house, but a house whose interior design allows the largest number of connections. With this, the virtual house is more than a wired artifact or an image-a house “that most catches us by surprise in our very manners of thinking and being”.