Public Media Urban Interfaces

Media Babies on CHANEL NO.5 derives its strength from fragmentation in order to develop a truly public “narrow/broadcasting/catching media network.

A local-based public interface the “Media Baby” is instrument that seduces its public to use and abuse the media, maximizing its possible spontaneity by hijacking the public’s imagination.

Publication Public Media Urban Interfaces @ Lab für Kunst und Apparate, Jahrbuch, ISBN 3-88375-324-6, Academy for Media Arts, Cologne, Germany, 1 October 1998


Public urban space and the space of information networks are usually considered to be competing, even mutually exclusive frameworks of social interaction. In fact, the traditional functions of public urban space are being taken over by telecommunication networks with their input/output devices embedded in private interiors: distribution and discussion of news, display and selling of goods, provision of space for play and celebration were formerly the tasks of public space; today they are increasingly being performed by radio, TV, telephone or Internet.

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.

The project “Public Media Urban Interfaces” proposes an alternative scenario for the interplay of mass media in order to reinforce the function of public urban space. This project develops a hybrid urban network-space, a fusion of media space and urban space. The product of this alliance of urban and media networks, a public urban local feeder unit, is a bastard: an ambivalent space that is at the same time analog and digital, virtual and material, local and global, tactile and abstract.

A speculative project situated in London, demonstrates aspects and strategies of this investigation. A new interdisciplinary field of design, exploring the dynamic interaction of urbanism and the space of mass media and communication networks is introduced. “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.


The emerging mass media spaces are increasingly being privatised and becoming more and more exclusory. The media networks are segregative spaces: Internet and digital television exclude those unable to pay for the necessary hard- and software infrastructure and the monthly connection fees, not to mention the access-control mechanisms or the required technical skills. A social gap between these non-tactile exclusory media spheres and the imploding urban sprawls is widening.

The segregation processes in media environments are nothing but the enhancement of tendencies manifesting themselves in the “real” space with the creation of the urban ghettos and their counterparts, the (suburban) protected social reservoirs for the upper classes. These access-controlled residential areas can be found today all over the world, in Third World and in western democracies as well as in the east neo-capitalist countries. They range from heavily protected impenetrable fortresses to retirement towns for well-off pensioners or projects like Walt Disney’s Celebration – an entire residential town (not a theme park).

Parallel to this dismemberment of urban structures into disconnected segregated parts, the public space is imploding into privately controlled and commercially exploited interiors such as shopping malls and atriums. And all these developments have their counterparts in cyberspace: here you need a passport to enter protected residential areas or clubs, there you need a password to access communication.

This loss of function of the urban public space due to privatisation is exacerbated by the withdrawal of activities from (semi) public spheres to private interiors: with the help of modern technology, work can be done in the comfort of your private living room (teleworking) and retailing does not depend on your visit and chat with your local grocer (teleshopping). With the rationalisation of these activities, social interaction is being reduced to its functional components.

The increase in speed of world-wide information networks and transport systems (digital networks, air transport) creates a distinction between spaces that are local and those that are global (to various degrees). Traditionally, the distinction between a global and a local public space is considered to be identical to the distinction between media space (which would be global) and “real” space (which would be local). But this concept has been revealed to be too simplistic: in fact, we are experiencing today not only a privatisation but also an atomisation of electronic media on a local scale, with for example the multiplication of local TV-channels or radio stations. On the other hand, global and local spatial hierachies intermingle in urban agglomerations. Some urban fragments (banking and trade-fair districts, airport surroundings, etc.) gain qualities of “global” performance and can be seen as part of a “global urban condition”. Thus certain parts of different cities, although spread out around the globe, are closer to each other than to their neighbouring slums (not only because of their similarity, but even in terms of the time necessary to get there).

An attempt to reinforce the significance of public space therefore has to deal with at least two “public”, the global and the local public, by creating spheres where local and global public space can fuse and interchange.


Bridging the gap and connecting the global media spheres (Internet, digital television) 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.

Exploiting the potential of media and fusing the media concepts of the telephone

(with its one-to-one communication) and the television (one-to-all broadcasting) makes it possible to create a many-to-many broad- and narrow-casting and -catching system. The local broadcasts can be reinforced to temporarily invade the global media space to a greater or lesser extent, creating a locally-based dynamic media network from the bottom up.

As politics increasingly moves into the space of mass media, a right of direct access (a right to broadcast) could be one of the foreseeable future scenarios, maybe even replacing the right to vote with the right to broadcast.

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 information technology giants, there is still a chance to oppose the forces of monopolisation and establish a more public dimension in the communication environments.

This link between global media space and local place having its interfaces in the public urban space would counteract the development of privatisation in urban as well as in media space. These Public Media Urban Interfaces would make it possible for everyone to broadcast and access and influence the global media environment from the urban local neighbourhood and would plug the body into the “virtual” media worlds.

A demo project on Public Media Urban Interfaces, 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 (notation) tools, tracing and coding these hybrid analog-digital spaces. It explores the possibilities of digital technology to generate urban (speculative) process-spaces: dynamic, rhizomatic spaces, externalised brains with fluctuating synapses so “arranged or disposed as to permit the greatest power for unforeseen relations”.




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 endless 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 accelerated 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 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/Eurotica 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.


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 of 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 the urban sprawl and modifying it: 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 possibilities 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.

Present urbanism is caught up in the dilemma of either trying to realise the dream of the omnipotence of planning or accepting being powerless 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 the consequences of both positions today, Soft Urbanism is critical, demanding an alternative strategy: not being able to regain the optimistic view based on infinite growth and the dogmatism based on the confidence in control of the modern movement,

Soft Urbanism will not make the missionary promises of salvation of the early avantgardes. But it will nonetheless rethink the strategies of interventions 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 defining first 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 what emerges from the interaction of these elements is aleatory. According to biological models, these fields of interaction of plural forces could serve as a reservoir for the selection processes needed for the urban transformations.

A method for extrapolating existing reality (Science Friction) 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.

Project Public Media Urban Interfaces by Elizabeth Sikiaridi and Frans Vogelaar
Collaborators Visuals: Achim Bode, Dagmar Paullitsch
Collaborator Text: Gunnar Tausch
Support by Dirk Lüsenbrink and Jörg Jacobs of Art+Com GmbH Berlin.

Under the pavement (piercing the beaches) run fiberglass cables.

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