Brave new world

XVII.4 July + August 2010
Page: 67
Digital Citation

Adaptive reuse


Authors:
Fred Scharmen

From at least the advent of the homepage, the words used to describe online places have been explicitly architectural and urban. If online organizational structures and real-world architecture have anything in common, this set of similarities has nothing to do with the qualities of form, space, and material that are usually appreciated in buildings. To speak in terms of information architecture, or cyberspace, is inadequate to describe the ways in which all of these structures, built or unbuilt, are produced and sustained by the social and economic systems that surround them. Yale School of Architecture’s Keller Easterling calls such space “organization space,” and says, “architecture, as used here, might describe the parameters and protocols for organizing space” [1]. A way of talking about buildings and cities in terms of protocols, relationships, and parameters—all borrowed by architectural theory from computer science—can be returned to a conversation about online systems in order to rejuvenate our methods of understanding and designing places.

“No ideas but in things.” [2] — William Carlos Williams, poet

The ease of networked cultural production on the Internet and elsewhere provides endless artifacts, seemingly for nothing, like food growing from fertile soil. As the real average cost of media production crashes, the value of things in isolation falls toward zero. These cultural surpluses are valuable only in relation to each other, when collected in aggregate and sorted by people. The fruits of amateur production are harvested and then presented by amateur curators as logs, streams, favorites, and lists.

There are other, even accidental, modes of production. Things are inadvertently created online by anyone who uses the Internet in almost any way: visitor IP addresses, email caches, chat transcripts, and view counts. The basic act of being on the Web leaves traces everywhere. These traces, when collected, sorted, and filtered, become a valuable asset, supporting the more obvious cultural curation with saleable marketing data. Paradoxically, media is free, but media is also currency—a source of social and financial capital.

Both types of collection—the arrangement of cultural things into categories or narratives, and the aggregation of data into buying patterns—take the same condition for granted: There is a personality behind the artifacts that is expressing itself and is worth understanding, either as a collector of links and favorites, or a generator of saleable marketing data.

Henri Lefebvre writes: “Social space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced and encompasses their inter-relationships” [3]. Places, online and off, don’t exist apart from the people who generate and sustain them in this way. People don’t use these places; they make them, along with, and out of, the things they make, and share, and leave behind. Instead of naming these people “users,” writer Kio Stark has proposed the word “constituents,” in recognition of the active, creative role they play [4].

“Containers are made for things, not for people.” [5] — Shigeru Ban, architect

There is a type of place that exists in order to sort, store, present, and capitalize on these collections of artifacts. Blogs, aggregators, and social networking and sharing sites are all members of this category, along with built places like museums, galleries, concert halls, clubs, and theaters. For all their internal organizational methods—their loops and centers and support systems—this kind of place is, at its most basic, a big room. These rooms, and the things within them, are there to facilitate some kind of social interaction. Artist and designer Eric Leshinsky calls these places “cultural containers” [6].

The people in these places are visible by way of the things they watch, make, and use—in commentary, fashion, fads, and affinity. If there is a stage in a venue, it is a stage that anyone, with enough virtuosity and time, can access; and if there is an audience, it is composed of people who are also, subtly or not, performing. We go to the museum in order to have a conversation. The things are there only to enable the constituents to engage each other through presentation, curation, and mediation. Facebook has recently redesigned its interface so that the primary element is a blank text field, with a button that says “share.”

A container can be partly neutral and partly specific; it can shape its content without defining it. The 140-character limit on Twitter is a constraint that encourages new behavior from the people who use it. The @name and #hashtag conventions were both developed as an attempt to add more organizational information to messages; they are significant because, in the strict boundaries of the Twitter text field, they act as structural elements invading and using space usually reserved for content—like columns and partitions in a room. These are both now adopted and supported by the service itself: The structure of the place is being changed by the things inside it.

The white box of a gallery and the black box of a theater accommodate different kinds of innovation, subversion, and misuse. There is a blurry line between an intervention that expands the possibilities within a container and an attack on the institution itself. Myspace allows CSS to be inserted into any text field, enabling broad profile customization. This feature also lets members accidentally slow down the loading of the page with large objects. Moreover, it allows them to intentionally obscure advertising or incorporate bad code that crashes the browser.

The continuum between reuse, misuse, and abuse has a long history in the art world. In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark, working as an artist but trained as an architect, transported pieces cut from vacant houses in Brooklyn to galleries in Manhattan and Berlin. These were supplemented by photographs of the original sites, and sometimes with new cuts in the gallery walls. “Window Blow Out,” a piece for the Idea as Model show at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Resources in lower Manhattan, involved mounting photographs of broken windows from the South Bronx. Late at night, after the opening, Matta-Clark returned with an air rifle and shot out the windows of the gallery itself. The resilience and adaptability of cultural containers can neutralize and even assimilate such attacks on the institution. Doris Salcedo’s Tate Modern installation, “Shibboleth” (2007), made a 550-foot crack in the concrete gallery floor of the Turbine Hall. Filled in, it remains a permanent scar across the museum.

London’s Tate Modern was once an oil-fired power plant; the Turbine Hall held the station’s generators. It is common to convert unused industrial structures from basic production and storage to more complex cultural use. MySpace began as a data-storage service; existing as a way for people to archive and access files remotely. Banner ads generated revenue, and users could receive additional space in exchange for filling out marketing surveys. In architectural terms, MySpace was a warehouse with billboards. Like warehouses converted to artist’s studios, storage sites undergo adaptive reuse. Contemporary remote server systems like Google Docs acknowledge the collaborative aspects of online storage: Myriad digital things become social.

“The street finds its own uses for things.” [7] — William Gibson, author

Every container has both an inside and an outside. If containers are places, then the street is the leftover space between them. It is only in these gaps that a collection of buildings becomes a city, and it is in these same gaps that a collection of many social places can be seen all at once—linked, moved between, and compared. If a diagram can be made of online cultural containers and the spaces between that simultaneously link and separate them, it might look something like Giambattista Nolli’s plan of Rome, engraved in 1748.

The Nolli plan draws all of the pilgrimage churches in Baroque Rome. These structures, public places filled by the richest families with paintings and sculptures to commemorate their social status and wealth, are shown embedded in the twisted and complex network of medieval streets. This gnarled cracked-mud pattern had been clarified and opened up by Pope Sixtus V in the 16th century to allow the religious pilgrims, so important to the city’s economy, to more easily circulate from church to church.

In individual places, capital is generated by people interacting in terms of things and by people leaving behind other things that can be collected and organized. At the scale of the container, individual cultural artifacts are less important than the organization of them into aggregate collections, where they can be sorted and compared. At the scale of the street, it is these places themselves that are compared with each other, laid out flat, like a map or an interface, so that they can be seen all at once and moved through.

Each individual cultivated presentation is, like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, always composed of incomplete, imperfect, even broken things—the empty shells and husks of presence. Through the constant comparison of multiple sets in multiple contexts, accident, intention, and artifice cancel each other out, and something like a higher order pattern becomes apparent. This is, as Michel Foucault says, “our epoch [as] one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites” [8].

If a kind of richer presence and interaction can be approached by way of this comparison between multiple venues, then the attempts to capitalize on this self-expression are also trying to scale up to this next level. Things are cheap, but understanding is expensive, and few things are more valuable than an understanding of the ways in which people and groups produce culture. The street is too unpredictable, and containers need to process patterns into commodities, so the tendency is to take all outbound links and enframe them, to collect any and all flows or patterns from the APIs of other sites and re-present them, and to limit, whenever possible, the outward flow of valuable information to anywhere outside the container.

As designers and architects, we have an implicit responsibility to the public realm, the outsides of the places in which we exercise greater, but still limited, control. Every design brief contains the implicit context that surrounds the project, and every project interrelates with other projects through this context. To neglect or damage that connection to the outside is to close down the difference and friction that generates cultural change. This is the tendency, for instance, for cities to turn a street into a mall. Any place that tries to internally re-create the experience of the street, to substitute an inside for an outside, will fail because it is exactly this between-ness of the street that makes it necessary for interaction, as a space where places are compared. The street is interstitial, and urbanism, whether online or off, is about organizing the interstices.

There is an aesthetic here, but it’s less a visual aesthetic than an enacted, functional one, an aesthetic of use and organization. The container is understood through its activation: To know it, it must be occupied. The street is understood through navigation: To know it, it must be traversed. This is the space that Manuel Castells refers to as “the space of flows”—“the technological and organizational possibility of practicing simultaneity without contiguity. It also refers to the possibility of asynchronous interaction in chosen time, at a distance” [9]. When the discussion moves from form to relationships, distinctions between different architectures—whether built, information, or experience architectures—give way, and common modes emerge from these different disciplines.

References

1. Easterling, K. Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

2. Williams, W.C. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1958.

3. Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

4. Stark, K., Personal Communication, Baltimore, 2008.

5. Ross, M. F. “A Conversation with Shigeru Ban.” arcCA 8.1 (2008).

6. Leshinsky, E., “Cultural Containers,” Lecture, Baltimore, 2008.

7. Gibson, W. Burning Chrome. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

8. Foucault, M. “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias.” Diacritics 16 (1986): 22–27.

9. Castells, M. Communication Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Author

Fred Scharmen is an artist, designer, and researcher interested in the overlap between formal composition and organizational strategy. Scharmen’s work in architecture, drawing, photography, and installation art aspires to themes of collaboration, authorship, and interconnectivity. In 2009 he, along with two collaborators, was selected to create site-specific work for the 2010 Evergreen Sculpture Biennial. Scharmen is a co-founder of D:center Baltimore, a design advocacy group dedicated to changing the ways in which people inhabit the city. He has a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. He has taught at Yale and at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Scharmen has worked with Greg Lynn FORM in Los Angeles and Singapore, and Keller Easterling Architects in New York City and Inner Mongolia. He currently designs buildings with Ziger/Snead in Baltimore, Maryland.

Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1806491.1806508

Figures

UF1“Taglioni’s Jewel Casket” (1940). Joseph Cornell, a pioneering artist of boxed assemblages, honored 19th century ballerina Marie Taglioni with a velvet-lined wood box housing small glass cubes positioned above blue glass, removed to expose a collection of sand, crystal, and rhinestones resting on a mirrored surface.

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