Interface


Talk about learning to see four-dimensionally: The New York Times has an article about the Manhattana Project, an effort by an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society to depict Manhattan Island as it looked over 400 years ago. Eric W. Sanderson, the ecologist, has written a book, “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City,” in which he describes “the old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife and mysterious people.”

A curious grad student, having bought Sanderson’s book, discovers electronic versions of the 18th-century British military maps Sanderson used, and overlays them on Google Maps. His friend writes an iPhone application, dubbed NYCPast, that uses the phone’s camera and GPS to place you on the map and simulate a view 400 years earlier, the same as Sanderson’s mash-up image, above, but at street level and in real time. The project evolves into an open-source Wikipedia of historic New York. Someone adds Sanborn maps to the overlay, another programmer uses Microsoft Photosynth to link photographic archives of New York City to the iPhone view. You can literally step through past photos, and the iPhone becomes a full-fledged virtual reality viewer, taking you back and forth through time.

Tourists rent iPhones with their Segways for tours of Lower Manhattan. The new complaint among city residents is tourists standing on the subway, iPhones in front of their faces, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the fossils they “see” outside. The trend is parodied in New Yorker cartoons and by New York Magazine

And somewhere, a woman in the back room of a small-town historical society downloads this program, and starts adding photos of her town.

[Henry Hudson’s View of New York via NYTimes]

Can a man be an architect if he has never birthed a building?

The building above was brought into the world by Filip Dujardin, a Belgian photographer who plays in architecture. Dujardin does not construct: He remixes existing buildings, using his camera to steal bits and pieces of the structures around him, then reforming those images into calcified urban growths, orchestrated hodge-podges of styles, ideas, owners, stories, histories. The BLDGBLOG post where I first discovered him showcases some of Dujardin’s more fantastic images. His buildings are tantalizing because they are such believable fiction, such concentrated presentations of the haphazard ways we interact architecturally with our world.

And so it was Filip Dujardin who entered my mind as I toured the buildings of C. Cowles & Company late last semester. (I also thought of Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, which has been sitting on my nightstand, waiting for a free spot in my reading queue.) C. Cowles was founded in New Haven over 160 years ago as a manufacturer of lanterns for horse-drawn carriages. It now manufactures, through five divisions, products as diverse as boiler liquid-level controls and high-volume metal-stamped automotive components, in a factory mutated by time and the requirements of production.

Time is the music to which our buildings waltz. Dujardin is an artist because he can see four-dimensionally, can look backwards and peer forwards, collapsing one hundred and sixty years of human influence into a single photograph. We must all become artists, must imagine our buildings past and future, if we are to have any hope of understanding our relationship with the constructed environment around us. We must all become architects who birth imaginary buildings.

Alex Wong/Getty Images via NYTimes

The US Capitol awaits the inauguration. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images via NYTimes

I was having lunch with a friend of mine the other day and he was telling me about a class he’s taking: THST352, Site-Specific Theatre and Performance. This is already looking like one of those classes that I wish I had found a week ago, when I could still register for courses, because I’ve read only the syllabus and the ideas of the course have already started to stick in my proverbial craw. 

Yesterday’s inaugural events were their own kind of theatre, and I’m surprised that none of the built environment blogs I follow have talked about the architectural implications of a presidential inauguration. The most striking, and most literal, example of this is how the face of the US Capitol building was itself remodeled, adding bleachers, bunting, bullet-proof glass. More deeply, and less visibly, the gargantuan task of preparing for the inauguration and the crowds it summoned affected the city’s infrastructure, its very nerves and veins: Metro trains ran more frequently and on altered routes, cellular towers mounted on light trucks augmented the city’s existing telephone network, and the city’s vehicular network was remodeled as streets were closed to traffic, or closed completely. The city removed every single traffic light along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, re-installing, re-wiring, and re-synchronizing them overnight, in time for this morning’s rush hour. 

The capital is almost a once-every-four-years Vacationland, when high-strutting Senate staffers are turned into muttering locals and the DC Metro signs only point towards parade routes. Normal means of circulation are changed or cut off entirely. How do we respond to a once-familiar labyrinth that is now constantly shifting? What are the effects of such a day on the city’s inhabitants? A whole population become strangers in their own home. Kevin Lynch spends the next two months in the capital, interviewing residents about how they navigated the city that day; he publishes his findings in a book, controversially titled “The Trauma of Inauguration.” The MacArthur Foundation awards Lynch a grant to study location-based trauma in everyday America; he studies railroad crossings, drawbridges, and game-day traffic. 

The inauguration is almost an event out of time: trapped in its own local form but produced for a national audience. On a platform 500 meters in front of President Obama, and just above his height, perched pool photographers and videographers, capturing the goings-on that they might be beamed across the nation and around the world. The platform was a concession to the millions who weren’t there, the invisible, necessary, elevation of the media as the people’s eyes and ears. (The above photo was taken from that platform.) Behind the platform, stretching back to the Lincoln Memorial, were layers of fencing, Jumbotrons, police barricades. The capital was never designed to handle this crush; we have coped through exaptation.

Washington, DC, did not exist yesterday. The nation’s capital was remodeled, replaced by a theme park, transformed into a city wholly devoted to the pageantry of a single moment. I’ve written before about temporary landscapes, but the superimposition of the temporary inauguration landscape on top of a city that already exists is something else entirely. The speed, breadth, and depth of what we did to this city—of how deeply we changed it, of how quickly we changed it back—is remarkable.

Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.

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The economic landscape of Vacationland, captured in its businesses and industries, reveals both how its users make economic decisions and what economic decisions are possible. No surprise here: Vacationland businesses tilt heavily towards offering what you need for a vacation, both primary vacation gear (swim suits, goggles, pool toys, sunscreen, etc.) and secondary vacation gear (disposable cameras, souvenirs, etc.). The scaling-up of the tourism industry thus leaves an economic footprint. The seasonal nature of Vacationland also leaves its mark on the economic landscape: During the off-season, many businesses close down completely. Others are open only on weekends. The strength of a given business’s ties to the tourist economy is revealed by what times of day or year the business is closed

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Staple businesses, like grocery stores, banks, or pharmacies, are open year-round. This type of business may alter its hours, or change what merchandise it carries for the high and low seasons. The merchandise change-over is likely to be a more extreme restocking than the usual summer-winter sunscreen-versus-eggnog restocking that takes place elsewhere, because the businesses of Vacationland must cater to both Locals and Tourists, to different demographics in different seasons. Locals live in Vacationland year-round, and their material needs are no different than the average American citizen. Tourists visit Vacationland for short stretches. Depending on their hometown or socioeconomic standing, they may bring with them more cosmopolitan tastes (better wine, organic meat, whatever) but, more importantly, tourists bring the idea that they are on vacation. This idea itself introduces economic variations.

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Food becomes an element of self-identity, of the auto-mythmaking of a place, in the way that Vermont maple syrup is produced in vast industrial vats, but advertised as dripping slowly out of maple trees into quaint wooden buckets. Vacation food and real food are two different things, so different, in fact, that locals may never eat what tourists do. (I saw this in New Orleans, which doesn’t fit the definition of a Vacationland—not seasonal, too many people live there—but which has the same sort of deeply-rooted insider/outsider ideas that underpin Vacationland. The tourists ate gumbo or Zatarain’s red beans and rice. The locals ate Roly Poly wraps and went to Starbucks.) Vacation-foods may be further informed by place instead of availability—we expect to eat seafood at the seashore, but why is the New Jersey seafood stand shown above selling lobster from Maine? The idea of the place can overwhelm its reality; tourist expectations guide and form a tourist world, a world balanced between reality and the myth of vacation. Tourists are in this world, but not of it; locals are of this world, but not in it.

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Certain foods become more acceptable in Vacationland; vacation becomes a social excuse for indulgence. And not just when it comes to eating: Luxury purchases themselves become a type of souvenir, a way to internalize the vacation experience. Purchase a part of the place, and carry it with you—hence the jewelry stores, art galleries, and antique shops that proliferate in certain segments of Vacationland. Tourists are paying a premium for these luxury goods, paying for the privilege of purchasing it while they are on vacation. Vacation is something you buy over and over again

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Real estate in Vacationland is huge. The tourist industry is built on medium-to-long term vacation rentals, and real estate agencies typically handle the cleaning and maintenance of rental units for absentee owners (which is to say, most owners in Vacationland). Brokers show properties to potential renters, filtered by number of bedrooms, beach proximity, and price range, much as they would to potential buyers. Vacationeers may rent the same property year after year and know that two-week period of Vacationland and only that two-week period. But they know it and know it intimately. Vacationland builds unintentional spatial products that are materially ephemeral but codified in dates and travel times, rental agreements and damage-deposit checks.

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Another set of businesses unique to Vacationland is the off-season industry, an entire group of services and products meant to help you turn things on and off. These are the guys who will shrink-wrap your boat, drain your pool, flush your pipes. In early June, they’ll paint your trim; in late September, they’ll install your storm windows. The real estate industry is a big client: If absentee owners don’t want to vacuum their rugs between renters, you can bet they’d also rather have someone else handle opening and closing their home for the season. Quoth the New York Times, on the high/low season divide in the Hamptons:

The summer infestation is greeted with ambivalence (great for the bottom line, bad for the blood pressure) endured with fortitude and a fixed smile, and forgotten with haste. “It’s a little bit of a clash of cultures,” observed Mary Croghan, an owner of East Hampton Business Services. “In the summer I have 18 people double-parked, some with their motors running, and standing in front of me punching their BlackBerrys. A lot of their urgency, let’s face it, is artificial. These people haven’t drawn a breath to the bottom of their diaphragm in a decade.” Some of those businesses have to adjust their offerings (more lobster salad), their supplies (more refrigerators), their staff (more bodies) and their hours (start earlier, end later) to prepare for the summer population. All of them have to adjust their attitudes and coping strategies.

The article from which this excerpt is taken is the best study of local attitudes towards seasonal residents I have ever found. It perfectly captures the high/low, tourist/local divide. Another Times article (from 1995!) makes many of the same points, and notes that the 50-day summer influx of seasonal residents “generates between 60 and 70 percent of the year’s economic activity.

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Vacationland is not an idle or frivolous place, and the leisure it packages is sold at a price. This is an economy that leaves homes and businesses empty for most of the year. This is an economy that remodels its host, and the goods and services it offers, twice every year. This is an economy as serious as any other: Lopsided and funny-looking though it may be, this is what makes money. The strength of these economic forces varies up and down Vacationland, with affluence and climate, and a summer in the Hamptons will be different from one at the Jersey Shore which will be different still from one in the Florida panhandle. But regardless of where you happen to be vacationing, you are still on vacation.

These economic forces are easy to see in the high season, but they come into starker relief during the low season, when the streets and parking lots are empty, the traffic lights blink yellow, and almost every store and house is dark. 

Up next: The governmental buildings of Vacationland.

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Flyers left under windshield-wipers for the car’s owner. This practice assumes a relatively tight correlation between user and object (that is, leaving a flyer on a car is the same as handing it to someone) and a relatively small temporal lag (that a flyer left on a car will be received the same day or so).  Our automobiles as proxy for our selves—a metal body standing in not for our flesh-and-blood incarnations, but for us. The car becomes our body, the windshield wiper no different than a hand. 

In this way, the car is like a part of our data shadow. A data shadow is the mass of information that follows us around—bank records, social security information, voter records, tax returns, phone numbers, email addresses. It is the shorthand for a system too large to process people and which must instead process information. We are not authenticated—at the airport, at the bank, during a credit-card transaction—our data shadow is. The data shadow acts as proxy, and the system assumes a tight (or tight-enough) correlation between us and our data shadow that each may stand in for the other. The system reveals itself in its breakdowns: Minors are able to buy alcohol not because they are 21, but because they can manipulate their data shadow through borrowed or forged ID to say they are 21. The data, not the person, is authenticated. (And even our proxies have data shadows—the car has its VIN, license plate number, automated toll boxes. Or are our proxies’ data shadows a part of our own?)

The more central and integral things become in our day-to-day lives the easier they are able to act as our proxies: murder suspects are exonerated by their MetroCards or their cellphones. How long before these proxy assumptions are hacked, and a bank robber, say, is caught on security camera in Manhattan at the same time his cell phone and MetroCard place him in the Bronx? When do proxies cease to be trustworthy?

Or more directly, what qualities keep proxies trustworthy? Security researchers have proposed all manner of proxy tests, from the “security questions” we have to jump through to get at our bank accounts to the PINs that have been with us since the checking card reared its plastic head. But these rely on the user providing a second set of information—a second key—to authenticate the first, which reduces abuse but does nothing to solve the root problem that information is itself a proxy. One of the more interesting proxy tests does not ask for information but instead asks decision-based questions: Would you do this or that? People can forget information, the system reasons, but they are unlikely to fundamentally change how they make decisions. 

As more and more proxy services converge in a single device—email and telephony on my iPhone, or library, dining, print/copy, and door-access services on my school ID—the value of that device increases. Will we soon realize über-devices—devices that integrate every proxy service, every data shadow link we need? This tightens the data shadow and strengthens its link to the shadow’s owner, but does nothing to solve the critical failing of a data shadow: regardless of how tightly it fits its owner, it is still separate from its owner. The flip of an über-device is a world of ultimate disposability, where we have no proxies and our data becomes a part of us. Might biometrics be the answer?

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More Louvre pictograms. The above three are all DOT standard, and direct patrons to an escalator or an elevator, depending on their ambulant condition. But where there is a slight elevation change and only handicapped patrons need to use an elevator, the Louvre improvises:

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This pictogram draws on elements of the elevator pictogram—the arrows, the platform—but is not a part of the DOT set.

Accents, dialects, informalities: The way in which our visual systems speak.

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A constrained-choice system is one in which the very structure of the system eliminates certain options. The aims of the system are physically manifest in such a way that the desires of the user, when physically manifest, are simply incompatible. The Paris Metro, for example, provides places to sit, but structures these seats such that they can only act as seats—they are physically unable to act as places to lie down, thereby curbing public sleeping. Note that (a) the aims of the system are not to prevent litter, leading to the newspaper on the second chair, and (b) the system assumes a relatively tight correlation between sleeping and lying down, between the action and the position. That is, people can use these chairs to sleep while sitting up.

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It’s easy to notice the underlying presence of a constrained-choice system in Metro seating because the change from benches to chairs is a relatively recent one, brought about by renovations. The new seating system eliminates an existing loophole or exaptation—something the system was never “designed” to be used for. The seating design in certain Metro stations, like the one above, just misses the point: a constrained-choice system only successfully eliminates choices if it is properly applied. Seating design is an especially powerful example of constrained-choice because it modifies an ongoing action, in a way that keys or security checkpoints don’t. A remarkable example of a constrained-choice system is the Airbus A320, which ignores pilot instructions that would cause the airframe to exceed its design parameters. 

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Orwellian Newspeak is an example of a linguistic constrained-choice system:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘ politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. (George Orwell, 1984, appendix.)

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The really fascinating thing about this is that, to a certain extent, all systems are constrained-choice systems. The difference lies in whether or not the system deliberately seeks to constrain a user’s choices, and in how well or poorly it does so. In most cases, a system either needs to meet the needs of so many different people, is not sufficiently funded, or is so crudely designed that there is plenty of wiggle room and all manner of exaptations are possible. (Dumpster diving is an exaptation; pouring bleach on thrown-out food is an attempt to maintain the integrity of the system.) 

The process of design, of choosing this form over that one, necessarily excludes certain possible choices. The interesting stuff comes when certain choices are deliberately built out of a system, because those design decisions reveal both the mindset of the designer, the aims of the system, and possible weak points. Every system, even constrained-choice systems, can be exploited. It’s just a matter of how or where, and finding a system’s weak points is easier when you can see what the system ‘wants’ its users to do.

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The lines and forms we don’t see, the subtle coming-together-ness that happens just at the edge of our vision, just at the fringes of conscious reality.

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At the Walt Disney Studios Park portion of Disneyland Resort Paris, something’s not quite right. Note the curiously flat column on the left, the shadow over the “1” at the top of the building, and the blockiness of part of the sky. This is not, in fact, a façade—this is a custom-printed cover, hung over scaffolding and set 3-4 feet forward of the actual front of the building. (You can see the scaffolding most clearly at the top of the frame, just to the right of the “1”.) The cover exactly duplicates the façade of the building it’s hiding. This is pure Disney: Renovate, but don’t let anyone know about it. The cover not only masks renovation work, it also protects the public from dust or dropped tools.

The seams of our reality, the messages we convince our buildings to send or mask. The messages we are meant to receive, the details we are meant to notice: In an artificially constructed reality, the commonplace or unremarkable messages become all the more important, because they, too, are fraught with meaning, even if they purport not to be.

Last Disneyland Paris post. Back to the city of lights!

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