Especially in zones where the usual rules don’t apply—like Disneyland Paris. (The entrance to the men’s room, it turned out, was around the corner, and indicated by the silhouette of a man in period dress.) This sign could easily be an Imagineer’s joke.

The contexts and cues we rely on; how seriously do we take our environments? Past experiences, culled and combined with expectations, combined to form a land where predictions, like dreams, come true.

The subtlety with which we adjust our expectations, and then adjust our behaviors accordingly. Where and when it is socially acceptable to run, or sit, or talk to strangers, or behave outside of normally accepted standards of behavior. The ways in which these spaces change over time, as a reflection or reaction to changes in society. Loiter with a cigarette or a cell phone, but rarely by yourself; the activity is the excuse.

(This is a similar danger to that of construction sites—the usual rules don’t apply. But in these cases, the rules are usually more important things, like the existence of a floor or the presence of doors into an elevator shaft. The safety built into our environments and the ways in which it may be circumvented.)


HSBC has a tendency to advertise in or around transit systems—usually airports, but I’ve also seen their ads in the NYC subway. This is advertising as performative demonstration: You say you’re a global bank, but now prove it. And they do, by targeting their advertising to reach self-consciously global consumers, who are, of course, found in transit. In one of their more clever advertising moves, HSBC painted their red line on the outside of airport Jetways. Their ads always show it moving through the world, and the Jetway is a close/appropriate metaphor if you’re trying to breathe physical life into an ephemeral brand.

This is all in the same vein of yesterday’s post: How pools of global capital swirl and concentrate where the return is likely to be greatest, unevenly distributing themselves. These pools are creating an archipelago of global metropoli as they both follow and reinforce a network of global capital. What are the implications for the future (international?) city?


Spotted at CDG baggage claim: An example of actually knowing thy audience. How the flow of people can create transnational islands; how global capital follows economic realities instead of cultural ideals. (Interestingly, this ad may be targeted at Britons, not Americans. Wouldn’t Britons take the Chunnel?)

Note the small, light green text in the lower-right corner of this ad. France is famously devoted to the preservation of its language; the Académie française has attempted to slow or halt the anglicisation of French (with mixed success; I attended a dinner where native French speakers all chattered eagerly about le weekend). France’s Toubon Law, adopted in 1994, mandates the use of French in almost all official or commercial communication, and requires that advertisements in English provide a French translation (as protection for the consumer, of course). Most ads provide the translation as unobtrusively as possible, typically in a footnote, whether the ad is targeted towards French speakers or not. 

Ads in English that are targeted towards the French seem to use English to align themselves with international or transnational ideas (i.e., this product transcends nation) or to make themselves seem advanced or cool. (This is not to say that these two functions are mutually exclusive—one often includes the other.) Many international firms market in English; Phillips—while a Dutch company—runs ads in the Paris Metro promoting its MP3 players, displaying both its slogan and the tagline in English. Local companies, French or Parisian, tend to market in French.

How do we code empire into language? How does our verbal architecture become a battleground where we may express our ideals and discontents? The problems and opportunities of marketing to a bilingual audience. The value of the novel, the impact of the alien.


Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, early morning.

A trip to another country or region has the power to dig into assumptions and provoke questions about how we choose to structure our lives. Why do our buildings look this way instead of that? How can the alien swap places with the banal, and so quickly? What elements go into forming the complicated, bubbling stew that is our daily existence? The differences are found in the minutiae (power outlets, laundry procedures, elevators) and the substance (city planning, legal codes, methods of communication) of our lives.

This Material World was in Paris visiting friends this last week, a trip that included ample time for on-the-ground research. Paris is a city rich in history and culture, and its information architecture is just as interesting to examine as the architecture of its monuments and museums. Over the next two weeks or so, I’ll be compiling my photos and notes into full-fledged posts, on everything from the Paris Metro to constrained-choice systems. After exhausting the Paris material, the blog (and custom header) will return to its usual more inclusive (American) lens.

A modified version of this post will be retained as an indexed page on this blog, and will include a list of links to Paris-specific posts.

Auto-stickers; auto-mythmaking. Establishing a local identity, forcing the built environment to see us.

Does Vashon Island even have an airport?

(Answer: Yes, although the FAA identifier is 2S1, and not VSH, which doesn’t quite have the same punch to it. Smaller airports serving general aviation (i.e. non-commercial flights and small planes) tend to have number-letter-number FAA codes, because there aren’t enough location-based letter codes to go around. How do we code empire into our basic systems and protocol?)

(Also: Pilots planning flights to 2S1 should be aware that there are OCNL LARGE WILD ANIMALS ON ARPT. Oh, rural Washington.)

Last night, I went out with friends to my first hockey game, at Ingalls Rink no less, an Eero Saarinen creation more popularly known as the Yale Whale. (We won, 3-0, against Brown.) Hockey is an incredible sport—it reminds me a little of arena football (Go VooDoo! And yet—we hardly knew ye) except with fewer players and less control over—well, over anything, basically. “Between the skates and the padding, it’s really entertaining when they fight,” said the girl I was sitting next to. “Because it looks like a bunch of penguins fighting.”

I have had a long-standing fascination with stadia; they’re compelling for the same reason that R. Buckminster Fuller was obsessed with human use of space. Quoth Bucky: “Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought.” Stadia stand at this weird juncture between information architecture and Lefebvrian representations of space, waiting, waiting, always waiting. The empty benches after the game, shown above, illustrate this—a stadium is a set of rules given physical form and awaiting use. Stadia are almost just shells, built to support very specific and short-lived spatial products

And what would hockey be without a Zamboni ice-resurfacer? There’s a lot bound up in the idea of hockey ice-resurfacing: a physical refresh to a 15-minute world gone stale. We talk so often about the paths and traces we leave behind that it’s jarring, almost, to be confronted with a machine whose explicit purpose is to erase them. Fresh ice rests on the idea that there can be no history here, that every period is a new period. Jarring, but also liberating.

One of the strangest parts of the game was the aural environment. The laptop on the left is running a program called “Organ”; its job, unsurprisingly, was to synthesize organ music. Skeuomorph as sound effect? At one point, the audio team played the usual stadium stomp-stomp-clap, but the stands of the Whale are poured concrete, and the stomps and claps of the crowd resembled the audio clip in the same way real laughter resembles a laugh track. Authenticity, imitation, disconnect.

(The laptop directly in front of this guy controlled the signboard hanging over the rink. Seeing the man behind the curtain is a way of noticing seams, right?)

We talk in one of my classes, Globalization Space, about the rise of shared protocols—exchange of information and physical goods is so much easier when everyone agrees on common conventions. I saw shared protocols in the noises the crowd made when reacting, the disappointed “oh!”s and the elated applause. This deals less with how the crowd reacted, and more with what it did; less that the crowd knew collectively when to react, and more that it reacted uniformly and consistently. To what extent are crowd reactions a cultural product? How are they reinforced?

The Whale was also sporting a fine example of some DOT pictograms (Telephone, Bathroom, and No Smoking, in case you couldn’t guess; interestingly, the arrows are not drawn from the DOT pictograms). One of my professors is cousins with Jane Davis Doggett, a prolific airport wayfinding designer. We met with her last week and she did not have kind words for pictograms. Pictograms are labels, essentially, and while they may be legible, consistent labels, they are labels nonetheless. Her point was that wayfinding systems should go beyond labels, that wayfinding should be part of the very bones of the architecture, that the building should tell you where to go. To use pictograms is to admit the failings of your architecture. (For what it’s worth, she was talking about airports and not stadia.)

A parting shot: Why do the “exit” signs hug the curve of the Whale’s roof? Is this a literal interpretation of bureaucratic code, or a playful post-renovation choice?

Click through photo for larger.

The “Sounds of Summer Concert Series” at the University Village shopping center is advertised as “Free Music”. But is it really free? It’s part of the atmosphere; it’s a draw and you’re expected to reciprocate by spending money. So although admission is provided de jure without charge, de facto the cost is hidden. The music is like the trees or the pedestrian atmosphere: A lot of work and money have gone into these things, but not without a greater end goal of maximizing consumer dollars spent per square foot of retail space leased. Providing music, heightening the atmosphere, are just further strategies towards this goal.

What does our public space lose when it’s really private space? There’s a sanitization to it—contrast U Village with nearby public space The Ave (and note the difference in websites: The Ave’s best representation is an entry on a creative-commons-licensed, openly editable, user-created encyclopedia. U Village, while also possessing the requisite Wikipedia entry, puts its best foot forward with the website linked above)—and a hesitancy. We play by different rules when we’re in private space, even outdoor, walkable, could-be-a-village-center private space, because we know it’s not ours.

A related entry is forthcoming.

Upstairs, the floors are made of wood (get it?? Because downstairs you’re on the imagined ground level, so upstairs is deliberately constructed to read as though it is deliberately constructed. Even though both are, in fact, deliberate constructions, only one is meant to appear as such.)

The implications of real wear on an environment meant to be already worn.

On-building advertisements are meant for people who have never seen them before, meant for strangers to this particular built environment. The name portion of the sign—”Cheesecake Cafe”—exists for wayfinding and may be used for that purpose by both locals and non-locals, but the description underneath—”Home of the Wedgie”—is an advertisement. Locals already know the Cheesecake Cafe as the home of the Wedgie; that part of the sign isn’t meant for them. So why should it be displayed?

(A quick search reveals that Google has no idea what a cheesecake wedgie might be, but a cheesecake wedgee is apparently “another fresh idea from the Wisconsin Cheesecake Company,” which I think is only further proof that everyone who lives in the state of Wisconsin is stark raving mad. Separately: Wikipedia, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.)

Could the signage of the future built environment modify itself based on how many times you have been exposed to it? That’s one way to solve the problem of strangers: Once you know how to “use” a space—how to navigate it, where to park your bike, that this café doesn’t take credit cards—signs you don’t use can disappear. Conversely, while you are still learning how to use a space, signs meant for wayfinding are exaggerated: Room numbers, directional signs, bathroom locations. And during emergencies? Signs indicating emergency exits, A.E.D.s, fire extinguishers, become huge, a system hidden and lying in wait until you need it, like aisle path lighting on commercial airplanes.

(This is already the case, to a certain extent: Systems and signs not used by the public or on a day-to-day basis are designed to fade into the visual background, to go unnoticed. But with electronic or holographic signage, we could go even further. Whole rooms, hallways, floors of buildings could be camouflaged, because, after all, you don’t need to use them. In this world, what happens to urban exploration? They will also have to be hackers.)

OR: Signage targeted to your age, income, and other demographics; this sign could re-skin itself based on what it expects will appeal to you. College-educated, six-figures? The sign emphasizes authenticity. Blue collar? Value. Old? Nostalgia. For every user, a different experience. But in a world where everything can be modified, should it be modified? Will there be a way to turn off our customized experience, to see the world how it really is?

Photo snapped by this material world’s dad. Thanks, Dad!

A quick dip into the online world to note two projects that aim to make visible the trails we leave behind.

The BBC is using data from GPS tags and ISPs to show how the movement of objects and data might look when tracked from space. Meanwhile, the movement of individual people, or at least their footsteps, is being tracked by their floors. How quickly special effects become reality: Visual paths left in this 2003 REM music video (at 2:09 in, and again at 2:20, 2:54, 3:01–basically the second half) can now be easily and cheaply made visible.

How will the built environment adapt to technology that can track the movement of crowds? Tracking is only half the battle: More important is figuring out how to influence the behavior of crowds, how to move them through stations or sidewalks or courtyards more efficiently. The rise of a new geometry: the design of the built environment will, quite literally, be crowdsourced. Buildings and paths will be arranged in direct response to measurable human needs.

Or, even more importantly, the possibility of altering the experience of individual end-users. Delete the crowd; move from macro to micro. The people are persons: How is each person moving through space? Can the person move with the crowd, at the speed of the crowd? Are the visual cues in the built environment—signage, color, lighting, smells, sounds, ground plane differentiation—sufficient to permit on-the-fly wayfinding?

We return to a question raised earlier: How do we structure the built environment for those who don’t already know how to use it?

[Britain From Above via GizmodoGizmodo]

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