Perception


This modification of fence sheeting is clever because it (a) anticipates a problem, (b) recognizes human needs, and (c) responds with restraint. It’s so simple as to inspire awe: Of course people might crash into each other, of course they will want to be able to see around the corner to prevent that, and of course only one perspective matters.

peemoeller2

This hack reminds me of forced-perspective parking garage signage. The signage is perfectly readable only when you need to read it, and disappears as soon as you no longer need it. (Axel Peemöller was the artist for the project.) In other words, instead of looking at plan and perspective drawings of our buildings, I think we should consider them in human-scale four-dimensional terms. The space should change as we move through it. This isn’t a new idea—human circulation engineers talk about altering ceiling height or lighting to subtly inform wayfinding decisions—but the level of detail in these two specific cases is incredible. There is a fineness to them, a smoothness, that comes with correctly anticipating human wants or needs. And isn’t that what we want our spaces to do?

Or: Scenes from CPR Training.

Is it like looking in a mirror?

A hairless, rubbery mirror?

Training, simulation, constructive play. A world without consequences.

The willing suspension of disbelief. (Even mannequins wear socks.) 

How do we enter such worlds? How do we think about them?

How do we regard ourselves and our actions? As real, or just another simulation?

The absurd, quietly manifested in objects-not-in-use.

Notice the placement of the ATM. It’s positioned such that the user is turned sideways, perpendicular to the restaurant hosting the ATM. This orientation means that the user is positioned such that she (a) directs her gaze towards the entrance of the competing deli next door (b) cannot see people leaving the restaurant behind her, (c) cannot see people coming down the sidewalk behind her, and (d) sees the kitchen of the restaurant only in her peripheral vision.

Smarter placement (i.e., positioning that would increase user safety and restaurant brand awareness) would have set the ATM perpendicular to the restaurant, so that the user would look into the kitchen as she completed her transactions. She is also able to see both directions of sidewalk traffic in her peripheral vision and can easily turn her head each way. She is better able to survey her environment, and the target of her gaze is the restaurant hosting the ATM.

More broadly, the ATM asks the question: how do design choices constrain the potential of our actions? There’s an element of environmental psychology to this, how the positioning of interactive features of our the environment guide our decisions and create circumstances that determine what we might do next. The very crux of this is that these process happen below the level of conscious awareness so that the conscious placement of the ATM can end up guiding unconscious decisions.

How aware are we of manipulation in our environment, whether positive or negative? How responsive are we to such manipulation?

Photo: Edward Ratcliffe

During the winter of 2005, in December, the power in my hometown went out after a wind storm. There was nothing unusual about this—I come from a semi-rural community in Washington State, and the power goes out from time to time, especially during the winter. Driving around that evening, surveying the damage, I ended up at my high school. Between rehearsals and meetings, I had spent a lot of time at my high school after hours, and I was used to navigating a darkened campus. But on this night, the campus felt different: The lampposts were dark, and the digital wall clocks, which usually cast a warm red glow, were off. The high school felt empty, unfamiliar, threatening. The power outage, in robbing it of light, robbed it of life, or any potential for life.

The photo above is from 1957, an illustration to a recent New York Times article about how the rise of efficiency technology is dimming the city’s skyline. When we talk about the production of space, we rarely talk about light (or about electricity). Light creates space in ways that few other architectural elements are able to. We see light architecturally, as creating space for life, and synecdochically, as a representation of life (i.e., we read lit buildings as being ‘alive’, and dark building as being ‘dead’.) Henri Lefebvre talks about the difference between representations of space (planned, controlled, ordered space) and representational space (appropriated, lived space; space-in-use). Light is an essential element in both: It puts representations of space on display, and supports the use of representational space.

Despite this, we regard light almost as an infrastructural element, like air conditioning or sprinkler systems, so routine as to be boring. And when we do devote attention to lighting, it’s special attention, the same attitude green architecture used to produce. But light (or electricity) drives building design: Where is the light coming from, and for how long? The modeling program Google SketchUp includes a tool that lets you look at sun exposure at different times of the day or year, to design a building that takes advantage of the sun. There’s a class here, called Electric Modernism, that explores how the rise of cheap electricity changed architecture. Skylights and picture windows fell into disuse, in favor of windowless buildings lit by artificial light. (My dorm room, in a building built at the turn of the last century, faces east, towards the rising sun. Rarely do I wake up any later than 8 AM, regardless of when I set my alarm. I have long been fascinating by the idea of artificial circadian alarm clocks.)

An example: The 787 Dreamliner has received accolades for its cabin lighting scheme that uses LEDs to trigger circadian rhythms and hopefully diminish jetlag (although airplane companies are notorious for introducing features that airlines never adopt). (No deep-link to the Dreamliner lighting, sorry; but check out the Eames chairs in the step-on-board-the-Dreamliner feature!) The 787 lighting is innovative, like circadian alarm clocks, for its desire to exert this very low-level control over the human body, determining when we get tired. Lighting is visual oxygen—necessary for life, possibly manipulated to change our states of mind.

Photo: Andrew Henderson for The New York Times

I want to return to the idea of synecdochical light. There’s more to the idea than that a dark building is a dead building. It’s that electricity is one of the measures we use to determine how alive a building is. Even when the lights are off, there’s usually something humming or buzzing, a radiator gurgling or a fan switching on. Small screens blink on. Refrigeration units click off. Exit signs glow. Electricity is the life-force of contemporary buildings.

So what does it mean that today’s New York, above, is a little dimmer? That we’re getting smarter, more efficient, able to do more with less? That we may consciously slow our buildings’ breathing, heart rate, pulse, without diminishing the lives or spaces they support? R. Buckminster Fuller said: “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.” And maybe Dim New York is Fuller in action—giving this some thought incarnate.

A skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary,” as explained in a recent a-word-a-day email forwarded by tmworld’s dad. (Although I think Wikipedia’s definition—”a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that were necessary in the original”—is a little clearer.)

Examples of skeuomorphs include the shutter sound made by cameraphones to indicate a photo has been taken, even they do not have shutters, or the copper cladding on zinc pennies. Interesting stuff, but esoteric and seemingly isolated to a handful of cases.

And so I was astonished to encounter the above cup. It looks like its normal paper-and-plastic disposable to-go cup brethren (pictured at the top of this post) but it is in fact constructed wholly from plastic and is designed to be reusuable. The cup is a production of Capital Cups, which it as being a “spill-proof, reusable, recyclable, insulated beverage cup.” You can see examples of cups they’ve done for other clients; I think the Dunkin’ Donuts cup is especially skeuomorphical. 

Several of my friends were handed these cups by employees outside our local Au Bon Pain, a fast-casual bakery chain on the east coast, similar to Panera or Cosi, as part of some promotion, apparently. ABP is now selling these “travel mugs” for $2.99 in their stores, but if you have one you can buy coffee there at the refill price. My friends who have them, like them: they’re pretty good travel mugs and make it easy to take coffee or tea to-go from the dining halls. They say they’re not any more likely to buy coffee at ABP than they were before—especially because the dining halls always have fresh coffee.

But the cleverness of the cup isn’t in whether the person you hand it to becomes a regular ABP customer: The cleverness is that the people around that person will see them using an ABP cup. It looks like a to-go cup, so those around you would naturally assume that you’d just been to ABP. The cup is physical viral marketing. (I’m reminded somehow of Bloomingdale’s Medium Brown Bag Tote Bag, which is a $35 replica of the brown paper bags they give away in-store.)

I could think of one other example of a skeuomorph in physical advertising: Replica food. This is primarily a Japanese phenomenon, meant to be a sort of physical menu showing how food and drink will look, although my family owns a Café Du Monde Christmas ornament that is a replica of one of their famous beignets. The purposes of these two types of replica food are different, obviously—both are advertisements, but one is meant to compel purchases, while the other is meant to induce nostalgia—but the format is the same. (Ikea and other furniture stores often display feature fake TVs and DVD players; while skeuomorphs, these props are designed to be place-holders for their real counterparts, not to advertise those counterparts.)

For skeuomorphs in food, the question of reality is clear-cut: The real food is food you can eat. But here the question is more difficult: Which cup is real? The travel mug, because of how it presents itself, is more postmodern (and therefore less real): how things appear has trumped what things are. The irony is that the travel mug is better at being a cup than the “real” cup. It is stronger, more portable, reusable, and holds liquid longer. How valid are these claims? Is one cup more real than the other?

Seam to the left of tray-table hinge for changing seat covers.

The interior of an airplane is built to be re-skinnable. It has to be: carriers change color schemes and planes change carriers. You don’t want your shiny ‘new’ 737 to come with someone else’s seating arrangement or cabin décor, do you?

How much of our interpretation of the built environment is predicated on how things look, not what things are? A fair amount, I’d say.

A rubber strip covers the tracks in the floor into which seats are fastened.

See also: Regional ‘feeder’ airlines (Delta Connection, Continental Express) that are neither owned nor operated by the airlines whose liveries they wear.

For wayfinding.

The artificial introduction of wear and tear on the built environment in order to humanize it. Subtlety, background, until you notice it.

Undulating waves of juice.

An assortment of rectangles, and circles.

Red amidst the blue.

 

Unintentional art, but still.

How much do we focus on the micro at the exclusion of the macro?

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