Collaborative Spaces: Five Strategies for Softening

Joshua Noble & Greg J. Smith

[Woods Bagot / Icebergs NYC]

"While some programming is still necessary (there is no working prototype for a toilet or brain surgery app), labels such as 'dining room', 'conference room', 'library' and 'shop' are becoming increasingly unwieldy. The next genus will dispense of programme to an even greater degree, so deprogramme your city now." – Keiichi Matsuda, Cities for Cyborgs1

The traditional model of creating space have been intimately tied to authority: one shapes the land one owns, the monarch shapes the castle, and the municipal government shapes the plaza. Inhabitants and passersby are subject to these master plans, confined to the activities and relations scripted to occur within them. Several apogees of this brand of urban planning have yielded proposals for some of the most iconic urban spaces: the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Haussmann Plan for Paris, the Radiant City of Le Corbusier. These precisely calculated, 'hard' spaces assumed that the lives of those who filled them would slot neatly into prescribed roles that were fixed for extended periods of time and only altered by the most profound social upheavals. Today, discourses of programme are considerably more fluid and acknowledge that space is largely defined through the patterns of its users. While construction methodologies and structural engineering evolve slowly, our perception of space—at all scales—has been revolutionized by the adoption of a host of new tools and protocols. Artist and researcher Mark Shepard describes the gradual emergence of networked urbanism as anticipating near-future cities capable of reflexive self-monitoring and behaviour adjustment – the endgame of computation "leaving the desktop and spilling out onto the sidewalks."2

Within this milieu, the possibility of a 'soft' space emerges from the multiplicity of meanings now afforded to occupants, allowing them to define and refine as they see fit, without irrevocably altering a structure or location. Space can be shared, transformed, saved and re-made. The temptation is to imagine the ways that futuristic structures will allow for transformable buildings, parks, or homes, but the more immediate possibilities are much simpler: networked structures, meshes of inexpensive sensors and devices, accessible tools to mark and tag locations. Just as memories and historical narratives accumulate at a location, computation, data and networks now enable the addition of layers of meaning and possibility to our understanding of place. The reality of our data-driven culture and the networks that define the bonds and bounds of that society is that all spaces are becoming softer. Every square metre is now a granular location that can be tagged, altered, or repurposed to a degree of specificity unimaginable a generation ago.

The meaning of a location or object is never static but rather contextual. As Christopher Alexander noted "a building or town is given its character…by those events which keep on happening there most often"3 and this can be extended to spaces as well. It is worth considering that "those events" in the context that Alexander considered, villages, churches, homes, remained largely the same for decades, if not lifetimes. We consider a different range of sorts of activities which change dramatically. What is the character of a space that encompasses such change? It is either characterless or it has been softened. We propose various frames of reference for considering the 'softening of space' that can take many forms: engendered by architectural design, grafted into a space as a technological intervention, or organically shaped by the need for a space to function beyond its original programme. It is difficult to avoid thinking of intended uses of a structure or environs but the duration of even the most thorough planning is remarkably brief compared length of time that users and the surrounding environment will engage a location. Why not cultivate design strategies that acknowledge this fact? The soft, reconfigurable and re-programmable space provides stakeholders with agency within the environments they occupy.

In this essay we focus on strategies of softening, of working with pre-existing spaces and conditions to inject a softness, to create possibilities of configuration and collaboration. To focus solely on a soft architecture that is not contingent on pre-existing situations ignores one of the core challenges of making spaces and places: refactoring architecture and urbanism. The future of soft spaces will largely be comprised of strategies to integrate softness with spaces that were previously defined but are in need of updating.

[Michelle Teran / Video documentation of Parasitic Video Network]

Conflicting narratives

Disagreements about environments always come down to the narrative that transforms indeterminate space into specified place and the power to manifest that narrative. In the United States one often sees small roadside memorials consisting of flowers and small wooden crosses that mark the sites of accidents, defining place from ephemera. Likewise, the accumulation of graffiti on walls reinscribes these surfaces with layers of meaning and new narratives. When one embeds a narrative into an otherwise occupied and defined space—highway or factory wall—they generate a signal that can be heard as either harmonious with or in discord to the previous definition. This process of defining and contesting becomes a dialectic enacted by the users of a space, those who define it as a location. As each culture creates its own methods of defining place and meaning they also create ways of contesting that meaning and in a networked age, connectivity and the informatics afforded by screen-space are means of defining and contesting. Just as an architect or developer plans for rain, heat or traffic if they wish to engage the society and culture that surrounds them, they must engage the ways that the society defines and contests space. To not do so, yields not only a dead-spot but a latent opportunity, a blank canvas that will inevitably be repurposed. At the other side of the spectrum, any structure other than a prison that attempts to enforce absolute control over how it might be used is destined to perform poorly. This is how the discussion between the dweller and space becomes an exchange—a possible discourse—shaped by inhabitation and experience. The ideal technologically enabled soft space is one that opens itself to the widest range of the modes of communication – allowing for a multiplicity of places to coexist within the same bounded region.

The materiality of soft space

While new experimental electro-active polymers such as ShapeShift can fold and flex in response to the modulation of current, a softening of space does not typically entail a softening of material – softness is most often a metaphor for mutability and openness to change. Inflatables notwithstanding, the materials of contemporary construction: glass, steel, concrete and plastic are not soft to the touch but the experience of spaces and of objects is multi-sensory. Space is a function of embodiment, we perceive space as a constellation of aural, visual and tactile sensations, and conceptualize it through physicality.

The enmeshment of spaces and technology allows space to be shaped and constructed in ways that are not necessarily physical. If we can argue that technology can be immaterial then the ways that space can be defined should extend beyond materiality as well. Communication channels can define space. Memory can define space. Virtual tags can define space. The entanglement of these varying options yields softness, as a way of designing a space and a way of experiencing the world.

A vocabulary of softening

In illustrating the shift from fixed conceptions of space towards the malleable and the soft, a number of qualities have been identified: soft spaces invite participation, can be networked and allow affordance or orientations of places to be rewritable. The following vocabulary is presented as a toolkit with which designers and citizens might think about, plan, occupy and reconfigure the structures, public space, and urban fabric around them.

(Re)programme - The first type of softening has been standard operating procedure within programme-centric architectural design for thirty years now. Using programme to drive form is a means by which designers can 'tune' a proposed space to yield optimal flexibility for its intended occupants. More adventurously, we can look to now classic models such as Bernard Tschumi's "crossprogramming" or "transprogramming"4 where, respectively, a programme is inserted into an alien spatial configuration (a hospital ward is converted into a nightclub) or seemingly incongrous programmes are combined to capitalize on dissonance (a hospital ward and nightclub co-exist and thrive while sharing the same facilities).

Network - In their 2008 article "The invisible city: Design in the age of intelligent maps", Kazys Varnelis and Leah Meisterlin schematize networked urbanism as a combination of "physical texture" and data-driven representations5. The deployment of distributed sensors in everyday objects and assemblies permits systems to provide feedback and provide users—or algorithms—the ability to 'tune' and optimize the performance of space. The same logic that allows a smart grid to improve energy efficiency can be scaled down and applied to a dwelling where natural and artificial lighting, temperature and HVAC are modulated based off usage patterns and real time data. The softness or hardness of that space is a function of the allowances the network provides for users, a flexibility in the types of services, and the meaningfulness of the connections.

Berlin Wall 3D (layar)

[Hoppala & Superimpose / Berlin Wall 3D]

Augment - The most immediate and perhaps prevalent mode of softening is augmentation, adding layers of data or imagery to a location. This creates a multiple meaning to any feature of a location, loading it with functionality and signification. A large interactive screen, for instance, performs the roles of a wall and concierge: delimiting a space, informing, observing, and providing a point for communication. One cannot walk through a screen but its characteristics as a boundary are variable. By creating indefinite boundaries, the very nature of structures become temporal, indefinite, and multiple; a classroom transforms into a lounge and then a projection room. Taken further, a data rich layer can lay atop an entire structure. Unlike the immersive environments proposed during the heyday of virtual reality in the 1990s, augmentation does not overwrite space but refocuses it. The screen is the ideal locus of an augmentation, the allowance for easy visualization and familiar data metaphors make the implementation and alteration instantaneous and simple. Augmentation is one of the oldest strategies for softening, and due to the ubiquity of the screen and data, and it is one of the most commonplace. As a softening strategy, it requires minimal infrastructure and structural alteration: a service, device and access point are all that are needed.

Reshape - As a strategy for softening reshaping requires perhaps the most infrastructural change. A reshaping action can be as sophisticated as adding a kinetic facade to a building or as simple as using chalk to demarcate alternate usage instructions for the sidewalk (drawing a hopscotch grid). From mobile architectures, ecologically enmeshed architectures, flexible strategies of construction and formation, a reshaping can take a wide range of forms that do not rely directly on the possession or occupation of space, often an important qualification in the feasibility of a softening. Reshaping can soften by making the fixed more flexible or more temporal, opening spaces for participation and possibility, allowing for a space to be remade or unmade. Temporary structures imply an emergency of sorts, after natural disasters or wars but also express an uncertainty and immediate necessity both of which are reasonable assessments of the requirements of an living or working place and urban space. Reshaping generates results similar to augmentation while requiring a distinct approach; to augment means, in many senses, to make a space more generic, to allow more layers to coexist without signal interference while reshaping creates specificity and constrains possibilities.

Hack - Not all softening is complicit with authority: some of it occurs in defiance of design intent or even the law. The oft-quoted passage from William Gibson's 1981 short story Burning Chrome reminds us that "…the street finds its own uses for things" – stakeholders can intervene and appropriate technology, space and structures to meet their needs. From accessing a cafe's wireless signal from an adjacent public space to planting a bed of flowers in a gap at the edge of the sidewalk, the overlapping fields and assemblies of spaces and structures are rife with opportunity. Hacking has an additional component of immediate necessity or illicitness, implying a lack of authority but an abundance of need. It often fulfills a simple requirement unanticipated in the original formulation, sometimes taking advantage of refuse material or unacknowledged potential. It is also the most amorphous of strategies because it is the one that does not define a particular tactic, but rather an attitude towards the preexisting circumstances of a space.

Manifestations

Rather than list off technological advances, we will examine several projects that research the application of technology to "soften" living and working situations. To put it another way, the following work is what Tom Igoe would describe as "the recently possible", enterprises that utilize commercially available technology and techniques in innovative ways. While greenfield development with limitless budgets and controlled circumstances may effectively demonstrate emerging devices or techniques, we would like focus on strategies readily available to individuals and communities.

Eyewriter

[Graffiti Research Lab / Eyewriter]

Graffitti Research Lab (GRL) is a loose collective that works with augmentation, creating tools for other artists, hackers, and prospective taggers and spaces for tagging. The collective's regard for urban space as a screen derives from their affinity for graffitti, using public intervention—projection bombing—as a mode of simultaneously exploring the digital tag in physical and virtual space. In their more poetic projects, Eyewriter for instance, GRL extends the possibility of participation and intervention to the physically handicapped, legendary graffiti writer Tempt1. In their softening, the ability to tag is a strategy to remember and to be remembered by, to turn closed or inaccessible space into personal advertisement and gesture.

Canadian artist Michelle Teran's work explores the friction between urban environments and their digital footprints. Many of her projects appropriate the logic of commonplace media systems and leverage these technologies to transform generic urban space into ephemeral zones of voyeurism and performance. Initiated in 2008, Parasitic Video Network prototypes a kit for an immersive environment that can be temporarily installed within stock architectural typologies such as shopping malls or office buildings. A user of the project carries a device called the Parasitic Video Interceptor (aka The Spy) with access to the live feeds of 25 low-range wireless cameras that have been mounted within the environment. The participant is immersed in a reflexive media experience where their proximity to individual nodes within a surveillance mechanism determines the video output on their receiver, forcing them to become editors in their own cinematic interlude and defamiliarize the act of moving through space.

Since 2004, MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory has been exploring the potential for developing real time visualizations with data collected from mobile phones and sensors. Founded on the notion that distributed computing can be harnessed as 'smart-dust', the group develops sophisticated proof-of-concept urban informatics that reveal and clarify the intangible communicative and migratory flows that animate cities. Trash Track was produced for the 2009 exhibit Toward the Sentient City and set out to visualize the 'removal chain' of waste management in Seattle by attaching custom designed radio transmitting tags to refuse. This workflow transformed discarded consumer electronics, disposable coffee cups and bagged garbage into geolocated nodes that yielded vectors delineating the movement of waste through and out of the city. The resulting diagrams delivered a bottom-up representation of waste management with which to scrutinize speed and efficiency to compliments the traditional conception of waste management as an exercise in logistics.

Usman Haque

[Usman Haque / Natural Fuse, diagram]

Usman Haque has long worked with his own vocabulary of architectural softness: softspace, the material of the perceived and experienced architecture, in contrast with hardspace, the physical form of the structure. This sensitivity to the variety of experienced space is evident in Natural Fuse, a project exhibited first in London in 2009, where Haque linked one of the most fundamental requirements of a modern living or working space, electrical power, to the carbon offset of a plant. The more carbon offset that is provided by a plant, the more power is allowed through a fuse connected to an outlet. If that were the extent of the project it would be a simple allegory but it extends to link devices together in a network to create a pool of available offset power, generating a network of capacity, awareness and need. As Natural Fuse runs, it generates a map which shows tags for the devices which are being used "selfishly" or "selflessly". While this network does not affect the actual structure of the building, it links the softspace and the activity of the inhabitants to a larger network that is environmentally and behaviorally defined.

The appearance of GPS enabled smartphones with built-in camera, accelerometer and magnometer (compass) functionality has positioned mobile handsets as an ideal platform for augmented reality (AR) applications. 2009 saw the launch of Layar, the first AR browser, an interface that allows users to survey space through their handset to display real time information overlays based off the location and field of view of the device. One of the most explicitly architectural 'layars' released thus far is Berlin Wall 3D, which allows users to explore how the infamous concrete barrier divided east and west Berlin from 1961-1989. A joint effort of two German developers (Hoppala and Superimpose), this application overlays a 3D model of the wall and related checkpoints along the former border line, in situ alongside nearby landmarks such as the Brandenburg gate and Potsdamer Platz. Berlin Wall 3D softens by collapsing history, erasing the distinction between past and present while allowing users access to an imposing shadow from of a bygone era.

Theo Watson - Audio Space

[Theo Watson / Audio Space]

Augmentation of space is fundamentally the addition of another data layer or dimension, visual information or any other data point overlaid atop the current space. While this is often seen as mapped projections as in the mobile handset related project discussed above or the work of Pablo Valbuena, space and form are not solely registered in terms of visual phenomena but also by sound. Echoes, whispers, volumes all contribute to the definition and character of a space and the sensation of being in that space that a user takes away. In Theo Watson's 2005 installation Audio Space, a headset and microphone are used to mark a user's position and allow them to leave and receive messages at any given point in the room, combining private utterances with public space. This tagging of location and 'mark making' creates another mode of presence and communication, one of the most fundamental allowances. In a poetic sense, to 'leave' the voice behind creates a corporeal memory of a particular moment in space and time. Augmentation of space need not be a projection or visual overlay, it can be a more subtle addition.

The economic meltdown had global repercussions on commercial real estate markets throughout the world. Noting the numerous construction projects across Manhattan that had ground to halt, in 2010 the New York based architecture firm Woods Bagot proposed an ingenious solution for making use of the vacant, 'stalled' construction sites that were scattered across the island. Icebergs NYC is system for reshaping the (non)use of these sites as a venue for temporary, inflatable structures that generate revenue while the financing for the project originally slotted for the location floats in limbo. These structures are 100% recyclable – composed of simple steel frames wrapped in EFTE pillows, and they employ modular HVAC elements that do not require permanent infrastructure. EFTE is a flexible enough material that it can be inflated to give an Iceberg a dynamic, faceted roof that doubles as a dramatic projection surface. When the constructed project planned for the site is re-initiated, the Iceberg can be quickly dissembled, packed into a single shipping container and transported to a new site.

Conclusion

Softening as a strategy enables users to participate, creating a dynamic sense of place and a flexible approach to space that allows varied activity by users and encourages participation and reshaping. To design such a space requires not only an understanding of an activity but an understanding of the tools related to those activities: spaces must integrate with action. The usage and meaning of any given space are contingent on how it serves the needs, tools and capabilities of its users. Following Doreen Massey "for the future to be open, space must be open too"6 – we posit that for place to be truly functional, it must be open as well.

References:

1. Keiichi Matsuda. "Cities for Cyborgs," Quiet Babylon, September 23, 2010, http://quietbabylon.com/2010/cities-for-cyborgs-10-rules
2. Mark Shepard, "Toward the Sentient City," in Toward the Sentient City (exhibition catalogue) (New York City: The Architectural League of New York, 2009), 10.
3. Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)
4. Bernard Tschumi, "Abstract Mediation and Strategy," in Architecture and Disjunction (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), 205.
5. Kazys Varnelis and Leah Meisterlin, "The invisible city: Design in the age of intelligent maps," Adobe Think Tank, July 15, 2008, accessed December 5, 2010. http://www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank/tt_varnelis.html
6. Doreen Massey, For Space, (London: SAGE, 2005)

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