Reprogramming the City: Article Series for Boston Society of Architects

The Boston Society for Architects recently asked me to write a series of articles for them outlining strategies for “The Resourceful City” by reprogramming existing urban infrastructure to serve new urban functions. The four-part series runs this month, and the first two installments are up now.

The overall arc of the four parts is about urban resourcefulness and exploring alternative potentials for the city through the reuse and reprogramming of its existing buildings, objects and spaces instead of tearing things down and starting over again. As urban citizens, we are dealing with two realities. We have come to terms with the fact that our resources are finite, whether material, financial, or spatial. We also live in agile times – our cultural, economic and political relationships are in a constant state of flux, and often the physicality of our structures and cities are not able to respond to these shifting dynamics. Reprogramming the City introduces agile and malleable responses to a usually rigid urban environment. The existing city is the infrastructure we have inherited; it is our shared hardware. Strategies to reprogram what we already have is the software.

The four parts of the series are below:

The Resourceful City, Part 1: Reprogramming Buildings

The Resourceful City, Part 2: Reprogramming Space

+ The Resourceful City, Part 3: Reprogramming Infrastructure

+ The Resourceful City, Part 4: Reprogramming Possibilities

I hope you enjoy the series.

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Hacking the Kinect to Prototype New Connections In Urban Spaces

In September I was invited to participate in “Builders at Play”, a quick-hit session in Amsterdam which functioned as something of a public space hackathon, finding ways in which connected technologies can transform public space.

My starting point was something I’ve long been obsessed with – desire paths. Desire paths are the footpaths created by the public when the formal paved routes of a space don’t represent the most efficient, or desired, route between points A and B for the public, and they chose their own paths, their desired paths, as shown above. I wanted to find a way to capture the desired movement of people in a public space and use this incidental movement as a tool to enable a sense of contribution, connection and ownership between individuals and the shared spaces of the city.

Working with designer Jon Stam (centre, above) and programmer and Studio MSP guru Mattijs Kneppers (far left), we identified a space in the NDSM area of Amsterdam and set out to create a system to transform it into a platform for aesthetic narratives created by the movement of the public.

The beauty of only having a couple days to create a prototype for a project is that you instantly shift to hacking and rapid prototyping mode. So we grabbed a Kinect, some cables, a few blocks of Styrofoam, booked some time on a CNC machine, and went at it to communicate our idea. The full narrative outlining the concept and the playback system we devised for the space during night time follows. For those who want the quick walk-through of the concept, our summary presentation can be found at the bottom of this post; for an even quicker bite, here’s a video of us demoing it:

Concept Overview
We hacked the Kinect to serve as a prototype of a public camera overlooking the space, layering it with the ability to pick up a single object or colour on a visitor when they enter the space, and then remember that object and track it as it, and the person, moves through the space. If visitors to the space want to remain anonymous, they simply enter the space and walk through. If someone wants to take ownership of their movement in the space, they touch in at one of the check points with an RFID tag on their key fob, and they are given a unique colour path, which which they can draw something in the space, and then download an image of what they’ve drawn with their movement if they wish.

As the visitor walks across the space, his path leaves a trail in the grid of LED lights are embedded in the surface of the space. The next visitor to enter the space will see the trail left by the previous visitor, and other recent ones as the ghost of their travels are held by the LED lights in the pavement, each previous path fading slowly with time. The space holds a living history of its use throughout the day, and becomes a canvas for those who have ID’d themselves when they entered the space.

Night Time Use
The space holds the memory of its use at night. When dusk falls, a playback of the daily travels through the space begins, each path glowing and traffic patters growing as the timeline of the space’s use from the previous day is played back over night, as this video shows:

Through this playback of the day’s movement in the space, a relationship builds between those who use the space during the day and those who use it at night. The brightness and density of the light paths in the space at night will depend upon the traffic patterns in the space during the day – the more traffic during the day, the brighter the space will be at night. Ultimately, the normally ephemeral qualities of safety and security in the space at night become factors created and influenced by its use during the day.

For those who use the space both during the day and at night, the relationship between the two realities will form. Perhaps a few co-workers will be gathered to create some crazy shapes in the space during the day for them to enjoy as they come home that night. Or paths will be formed in circles to see if pedestrians at night will follow.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, every night, the design of the space will be different, directly correlating to the use of the space during the day, its animations, patterns and luminosity being the creation of those using the space 12 hours earlier.

Platform for Play
People are not the only thing able to be tracked in the space. Someone can place a ball on the square to be ID’d, and it will be tracked as well as it moves throughout the space. Children can enter from different entrances and invent a game where their movement become games pieces on a large urban board.

The space no longer becomes a passive area for its population, but an active participant in their daily lives, enabling creativity, connection, safety and narrative to be built during its daily use.

Platform for Data
In addition to the personal and narrative relationships enabled by use of the space, the space will generate data for use by the city. Data created by the space will be visual use patterns; data of the visual flow and use of the space.

So – there’s the outcome of an enjoyable couple of days in Amsterdam. Well, every day in Amsterdam is quite enjoyable, but these, especially so.

For the technical minded who’ve stuck with it this long, here is Mattijs’s Max/MSP map of what the Kinect was doing behind the scenes (click to enlarge):

Mattijs would like to add that his Max/MSP set-up was supplemented with CV jit.

Roadsworth Book Released

The pleasure of being asked by Roadsworth to write the introduction to the first book chronicling his work was only outdone by seeing the Roadsworth book itself when it arrived in the mail recently.

I’ve followed Roadsworth’s work with great interest and appreciation over the years. His sense of play and imagination in his reworking of the most functional elements of the urban ephemera – its pavement markings and signage – have drawn the sustained interest of street art lovers (and authorities) and made him one of a handful of artists who have moved the goal posts of street art and have changed public perceptions of the form.

Famously, when Roadsworth was arrested in Montreal in 2004 and brought up on 53 different charges for his work, the local authorities went big with the story. Radio shows hosted public call-ins to ask the public what the city should do with Roadsworth now that they caught him. The public response caught many by surprise. As one caller said, “What should the city do with Roadsworth? Leave him alone.” The divide between authoritative and public perceptions of street art was on full display.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Roadsworth on several occasions, and getting to know him personally over time. So when he asked me to write the introduction to what is thus far the definitive book of his work, it was an honor and a privilege. As I write in the introduction:

Roadsworth’s work plays with more than the visual language of the city; it plays with our relationship with the city. It returns us to the moment in our youth when the streets and sidewalks could hold moments of our play and humanity, before we learned that they were the domain of structure and order. His work asks questions in a streetscape of absolute instructions, and invites double-takes and smiles in areas where you’re supposed to be quiet and fall in line.

Roadsworth (left) and I during a magazine photo shoot

You can get a copy of Roadsworth from Amazon. Resisting the temptation to write an entire second overview of his work here, I’ll close as I close my introduction:

When first discovering his early work, I once joked that looking at images of his reworked street markings made me wonder if there was a supplement to my driver’s instruction manual that I had missed when I was learning the language of the street. As his work has expanded over the years to encompass so much more of the urban ephemera and our relationship with it, that missing manual would now include a vastly expanded range of images, objects and relationships that we need to learn in the city. This book could be that manual.

My thanks to Roadsworth for the invitation to contribute to the book, and to all who read and enjoy it.

Talking About Urban Futures and the Internet of Things at PICNIC, Amsterdam

On Wednesday, 14 September, I will be giving a talk and taking part in a panel discussion on the topics of Trust and the Internet of Things as part of PICNIC 2011 in Amsterdam.

The PICNIC Festival is an annual three-day event that blurs the lines between creativity, science, technology and business to explore new solutions in the spirit of co-creation. This year’s theme is Urban Futures, with a focus on sustainability, infrastructure, society, design and media. PICNIC Festival 2011 takes place from 14 to 16 September at NDSM Wharf in Amsterdam.

The event on Wednesday is the second of a discussion series on the relationship between trust and design following the premiere session earlier this year in Milan. It also coincides with the publication of the second issue of Trust Design, done in collaboration with Volume Magazine. The current issue, Trust Design and the Internet of Things, edited by me, explores how trust can be designed in our future cities as the Internet of Things makes our urban realities increasingly data aware.

The issue features an introduction by myself, with contributions from Kevin Kelly, Bruce Sterling, Joost Grootens, Julian Bleecker, Adam Greenfield, and others. You can read more about the current issue here.

Escort Cards and Old Media: Rethinking Perception and Design in the City

The classic newspaper vending boxes have always played role in the city larger than their designated one. At their peak, when each box was filled with that day’s issue, even the most hurried urban citizen running for the bus could get an analogue news feed of current events by scanning the headlines as they ran past. They were infomatic barometers of an area – you could tell a lot about the average population of an area by the number of financial newspaper boxes vs. daily tabloid boxes on a given street corner. For the enterprising street merchant, they were a quick entrepreneurial resource – for the investment of a few quarters, you could grab that day’s entire stack of papers and go around the corner to increase your investment ten-fold. Even before Craigslist the business model of the daily newspaper had its weaknesses.

When I was in Chicago a couple weeks ago to speak at the Future of the City Conference, I was waiting to cross the street when I found myself next to one of the last innovations these form of vending will see – the unified newspaper box. Saddened by the lack of papers still populating these boxes, I stole a quick glance of the headline of that day’s FT to get a bite of the news. “Bush seeks remaining $350bn of rescue fund” the headline told me, and I crossed the street. I chewed over the headline for a while – “Bush? In the news today?” I thought to myself. Then, thinking about the $350bn referenced, the only thought I had was maybe that was how he was funding his retirement. Nothing about this made sense, so I doubled back across the street, and looked again – the issue of the FT I was referencing was dated January 13, 2009. My instinctive bite of the daily headlines was drawing information from 2 and a half years earlier.

While it was unfortunate that another newspaper box had been abandoned, the interesting thing for me was that my perception of the information delivery vehicle, the newspaper box, was still wired to an outdated model. Now, I’m about as much of a RSS feed addict as it is possible to be, and no luddite by any definition, but in my rushed moment of stealing a glance of the news in the hustle of crossing a busy street, I was drawing on an almost subconscious wiring formed during my student days in Boston when this would be my quick news feed on my way to class. My relationship with the newspaper box had already been formed, but instead of having to re-learn a relationship with this object, the responsibility now seemed to “un-learn”, essentially to have no relationship with this function-less object. That’s a tough thing to do – to change an existing relationship with an element of the urban landscape not into a new one, but into a non relationship.

Back home in London, I was sitting outside at a cafe thinking about this when a uniquely London game of cat and mouse was unfolding in front of me that linked with my thoughts. A public maintenance worker had just finished cleaning out one of London’s iconic red phone booths, with a pile of garish escort cards being swept up into his cart before he walked around the corner to tackle the next booth. As the sounds of his wheels faded into the next street, a man stepped into the clean phone booth, took a stack of cards from his pocket and began pasting a new batch of escort cards throughout the booth.

With the near universal adoption of mobile phones and almost total abandonment of using public phones, particularly in London, this has become something of the default function of these public booths – a street-level adult services directory. There is a slight sophistication to this use of the dormant phone booths, as each booth displays cards from locally based escorts; in this way, each booth becomes something of a local directory of services, and provides a private booth from which to make a call on your mobile phone. While it is easy to dismiss or discard this notion of use of these phone booths, the booths retain an informational function within the urban landscape by hosting these cards. The cleaners, while respectfully doing their job and removing the cards, also remove the booths of their new function. Yet within minutes, the cards come back and the modified function returns.

We are at a fascinating moment in our physical relationship with the city. As our relationship to information, news and communication channels have become deeply individual in both use and access, the public icons and objects anchored to our streets and shared spaces remain as memorials to when these services were points in the urban landscape. At times, we are left with no choice but to try and train ourselves to un-learn our existing relationships with these objects, such as with the American newspaper boxes, or to accept the informal re-purposing of these objects in the case of the London phone booths.

The instinct of most cities is simply to remove these physical embodiments of past behaviors. I’d like to think in a different manner – to think of re-programming these analogue structures into serving new functions in the city. A re-programmed, re-purposed object still retains its link with its original use, and there is value in that. There is a balance between sentimentality and breaking the commonality of relationship that we had with our physical urban icons. When we remove these tributes to objects of common use, our notion of common relationships with our physical surroundings is removed slightly as well.

SHIFTboston: Barge 2011 Design Competition

SHIFTboston has announced another in their increasingly impressive lineup of design competitions to consider future design and architecture opportunities for the city of Boston. THINK: FLOATING SENSORY EXPERIENCE has a deadline of 4 March. More info from SHIFTboston follows:

SHIFTboston is calling on architects, installation artists, designers and landscape architects professionals and students to design an experience installation on a barge in Boston’s Fort Point Channel. Competitors are asked to develop a concept which might include one or all of the following components: recycled/recyclable materials, water, plants and perhaps digitally fabricated parts. We would like designers to create a unique SENSORY EXPERIENCE for barge visitors by experimenting with a variety of interesting materials and applications in order to provide a TACTILE, OLFACTORY and VISUAL experience.

We expect elements such as: water (spray, steam, shallow pools, piping), comfortable lounging spaces, lighting, sound. We would like competitors to explore a closed-loop system. We prefer design elements which will NOT require grid-based energy. Competitors should seek alternative energy sources, laws of physics and environmental fluid mechanics.


  • The winner will present his/her concept at the SHIFTboston BARGE Forum at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.
  • The winning design will be fabricated and installed on a barge. The finished barge will be open to visitors during the months of September and October of 2011.
  • All finalists and eligible entries will be promoted on the SHIFTboston blog and website and will be come part of the SHIFTboston BARGE book.

Stefan Behnisch, Principal and Founder of Behnisch Architekten, Stuttgart Germany, Venice CA, and Boston MA
Michael Cantalupa, Senior Vice President of Development of Boston Properties, Boston MA
Kathryn Dean, Principal of Dean Wolf Architects, New York NY
Olympia Kazi, Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute, New Yok NY
Timothy Kirwan, Managing Director of the InterContinental Boston
Matt Johnson, Associate Principal of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Boston MA
Richard McGuinness, Deputy Director of Waterfront Planning, Boston Redevelopment Authority, Boston, MA
Hillary Sample, Principal of MOS LLC, New Haven CT, Cambridge MA
Craig Scott, Principal of Iwamoto Scott Architects, San Francisco CA

Sponsors and Partners
The ICA/Boston
Boston Society of Architects
The Friends of Fort Point Channel
Barging IN

10 Years Ago Today: BLUE at The National Theatre London for World AIDS Day

Derek Jarman’s film BLUE projected onto the National Theatre, London, 2000

Today is a day that brings a special memory to mind – one of my first large-scale urban public projects, created for The National Theatre in London to create a public space for remembrance and reflection on World AIDS Day 2000. To mark World AIDS Day today, and to re-visit the 10th anniversary of the project briefly, I thought I’d share it here.

Blue was a film by Derek Jarman – his last film, made as the final stages of the disease was causing Jarman to lose his sight. The film consists of no image but a single deep blue colour, with an audio track revealing a rich and personal account of Jarman’s thoughts and writings during the advances of AIDS. I created the project to provide London with a temporary memorial and a space where people could gather on the evening of 1 December to pay tribute to those lost and affected by AIDS, and to experience one of the most moving films exploring the personal experiences of gradually succumbing to the virus.

The solid blue color of the film was projected onto the exterior of The National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre, and the audio was broadcast to wireless headsets for those gathered at the base of the projection, and on a FM frequency for those viewing from afar. It was important to me that the audio was experienced through individual headsets, allowing people to have a very intimate relationship with Jarman’s words and scenes, while at the same time being part of a much larger community attending the event. In a way, relating to the work in a similar fashion to how one experiences loss with the virus – individual experiences within a much larger community.

The projection seen from the far side of Waterloo Bridge

Having lost several friends to AIDS, the project remains one of the most personally meaningful projects I’ve done. It also taught me an important lesson about the impact a project can have – even if you don’t realise it in the moment. When the projection began, I surveyed the group of people standing at the base of the projection, pleased at the turnout, but then confided to a friend, “I was hoping more people would take part.” He said “look at the bridge”. I turned and looked at Waterloo Bridge, and saw hundreds of people lining the bridge, watching from afar, as the image above shows. It was one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever had with a project.

The project has appeared in several books since then. Going through my archives today to remember the project and the day, I came across an interview I gave recently for another book which featured the project. It is as good a summary of what the project meant, and means to me, as I could write here:

Of all the projects, exhibitions and events I’ve done since then, and there have been many, my projection of Blue at The National Theatre remains the one that means the most to me. Most interestingly, it has become part of the collective consciousness of London over the years. I cannot count the number of times I have been at an opening, or a meeting, or discussing a new project when someone asks me about my previous work, and when I mention projecting Blue onto the National Theatre, I am met with an almost universal “that was you?!” And then tales follow of people walking along South Bank or crossing Waterloo Bridge [above] on the night and stopping to just watch the bold blue colour along the Thames, even without knowing formally of the event. In a way, this perhaps was the perfect triumph of Jarman’s desire, to think that several hundred, if not thousands, of people that night, in addition to the ones who intentionally took part, paused along the Thames to, as he would say, bathe in the blue: “Blue is the universal love in which man bathes … Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits.”

The Listing for BLUE from The National Theatre’s Programme