June 24, 2013
As previously mentioned on Design Decoded, New York City starting updating all their street signs last year with a new, more legible model designed specifically for transit. Well, they’re already obsolete. Design agency BREAKFAST have created what they’re describing as “the future of how people find where they’re headed next.” That seems a little vague, so let me clarify: they’re talking about a street sign. Futuristic street signs.
“Points,” as this high-tech sign is known, lives up to its name by indicating direction and distance. But it can do much more than that. The simple, familiar looking street sign conceals thousands of LED lights and an incredibly complex, incredibly quiet mechanism. When a passerby presses one of five buttons located on the signpost, Points comes alive – its three LED displays are rewritten while quietly whirring and whirling around to provide new information and point in the right direction.
It’s almost like a cartoon. One can imagine the Roadrunner zipping by at top speed, spinning the sign around to lead the coyote astray. But this is more controlled, more deliberate, and more high-tech. Like a Pixar cartoon of an anxious, ready-to-please street sign voiced by an autotuned Woody Allen.
The programmable control panel can change automatically over the course of a day, updating with more popular or relevant options. For example, at 8 a.m. a Points sign in a city might lead you to coffee or to the bus (noting arrival times), while at 8 p.m., that same sign might show you the way to the nearest cocktail or theater.
Points gathers content from the web and popular social media services, and can accommodate custom extensions. It can be a news ticker or a Twitter display. Why you would want a street sign to display tweets, I can only guess. But it sure looks cool. Like design firm BERG, who transformed twitter into a cuckoo clock, BREAKFAST are interested in combining network technology with real-world objects in a way that lets users physically interact with data. As they say on their website:
We’re officially living in the future….Some people call what we do “the internet of things” or “web 3.0.” In our opinion those sound a bit silly. We simply think of ourselves as inventors who take the amazingness of what can be done online and bring it into never-been-done-before devices and real world experiences. Everyday objects can be smarter, an ad campaign can be a circuit board, and a public space can react when it knows who you are.
It’s time to stop going on as though flying cars and telekinesis don’t exist, and time to make the real world as advanced as the virtual one that’s changed our lives in a single decade.
And while it could ostensibly work as a convenient, high-tech street sign in cities, it’s easy (and kind of fun) to imagine that these signs could also be used for more nefarious purposes. A wily Wile E. Coyote type or rogue Situationist might hack the city by reprogramming signs to purposely lead unsuspecting roadrunners and tourists astray down alleys or unexpected venues. Alas, such acts may simply be the dystopic trade-offs for “living in the future.”
With its need for constant power, a WiFi connection, and some serious weather-proofing (not to mention city proofing), Points currently seems targeted more toward commercial uses and can be rented out for events. BREAKFAST suggests that their system would be perfect for conventions, sporting events, theme parks, or festivals. Soon, the signs will begin appearing in big business and tourist destinations like Dubai and Las Vegas, a city with a particularly rich history of innovative and iconic signs. If Points proves to be a success, when you next come across two roads diverging, you may find yourself taking the one less tweeted.
June 7, 2013
The BMW Guggenhim Lab is, as the name suggests, a research collaboration between the automaker and museum franchise. Based on the belief that cities are catalysts for innovation and human progress, the joint venture takes the form of a “mobile urban laboratory” that, over the last two years, has traveled to three major world cities holding free programs and workshops to inspire and cultivate ideas about design and urban living. Recently, the Lab launched a website listing the top 100 urban trends in the three cities they visited–New York City, Berlin, and Mumbai–based on discussions and research presented in each city. According to Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, the trend list is a means to “further the conversations started by the Lab and spark analyses of these three cities and comparisons of the respective urban environments.”
A few items on the list have been discussed on Design Decoded before. 3-D printers, for example, are among the top design trends in both New York and Berlin, and are recognized as viable alternatives to mass production with potentially profound implications in industrial design and architecture. Additionally, small-scale building proved a popular topic in NYC, with affordable housing, micro apartments, and shipping container architecture making the list. These small buildings and environments are seen as ways that good design can transform the way urbanites live and more efficiently use the limited spaces available to them. The New York and Berlin Lab was itself a type of versatile, micro architecture. The lightweight carbon fiber pavilion (top image) was designed by Tokyo-based architects Atelier Bow-Wow as a sort of architectural “toolbox” concealing performance equipment that could be lowered into the presentation space as needed.
While design trends in New York and Berlin were quite similar, those in Mumbai addressed an entirely different set of issues. Perhaps reflecting the fact that the city was a relatively unique venue, a new Lab pavilion was constructed for the Mumbai program (above image). Designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, the light, bamboo structure was inspired by a type of Indian pavilion known as a mandapa, typically used for celebrations and public events.
Mumbai is the most populous city in India and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. And like many cities in the developing world, it’s growing quickly and without any sort of formal planning. It’s no surprise then that issues related to overcrowding and infrastructure were among the primary concerns of designers in Mumbai. Public transit issues in particular seem to be a hot topic, with buses, auto rickshaws, and “informal” transit featured prominently on the list, along with discussions on infrastructure planning and centralized data collection.
Architectural restoration, thought not often touted as a proactive agent of change, was also discussed as an economical means to improve the quickly changing city while preserving and celebrating its rich history and eclectic urban fabric. Other “trends” unique to Mumbai were the fascinating notions of “City Mythology” and “infraspace.” City Mythology is defined as “the weaving together of mythological places that appear in folklore and religious texts with real, physical urban spaces.” Public spaces given value through cultural traditions and stories serve to cultivate a sense of community and pride among a city’s populace and foster “a type of imagined historical memory.” Infraspace is a term coined by one of the Mumbai Lab team members to describe the latent architectural and spatial possibilities inherent in Mumbai’s infrastructure. For example, architect Neville Mars suggested transforming an enormous defunct pipeline into an auto rickshaw highway and pedestrian bridge.
Of course, no discussion of Mumbai would be complete without addressing one of the most prominent and pressing issues in the city: slums. A large percentage of Mumbai’s population –60 percent by some estimates– live in slums, defined by the United Nations as “a heavily populated urban area characterized by substandard housing and squalor.” Issues related to the development, research and growth of slums were obviously at the forefront of many Lab discussions in Mumbai. Many of these high density settlements exist with scarce access to clean water or civic infrastructure, and if they’re at all considered during the urban development process it’s often only in terms of eviction and demolition. The Mumbai Lab was interested in studying these places more closely, in looking at them as a unique architectural typology that developed organically and has its own intrinsic values. During one of the Lab’s design exercises, architecture students worked with a slum contractor to design a “tool house” – a typical slum building type that includes both work and live spaces. This exercise was conducted to better understand the complex economic, social, and architectural systems that exist within the slums like a cultural microclimate, systems that shape and are shaped by the slum typology.
While some of these design “trends” are cutting edge, others represent the continued interest in longstanding, and sometimes overlooked, issues. With cities around the world become larger and denser, many designers are casting a critical eye on their environment to improve living conditions for everyone. As the Lab writes in its mission statement, “greater urban density can mean more conflict, but it can also produce a greater diversity of viewpoints and more opportunity for positive change.”
This research collected by the BMW Guggenheim Lab will culminate with an exhibition this October at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
April 26, 2013
Cities around the world are covered in spray-painted hieroglyphics and cryptic designations scrawled on public surfaces; unintelligible tags and arcane signs intended to communicate messages to a specialized audience with a trained eye. Such markings are so prevalent that they just blend into the urban patina of dirt and disrepair and go largely unnoticed. I’m not talking about illegal graffiti. Rather, the officially sanctioned infrastructural “tagging” employed by public works departments around the country.
You’ve probably seen these markings on streets and sidewalks. Multi-colored lines, arrows and diamonds denoting the presence of some subterranean infrastructure or encode instruction for construction or maintenance workers. A secret language that temporarily manifests the invisible systems that power our world. Recently, Columbia’s Studio-X blog shared the decoder ring that unlocks these secret messages:
A version of the above code was first implemented in California after construction workers accidentally cut through a petroleum pipeline in 1976, resulting in a fatal explosion that destroyed half a city block. To prevent future incidents, a system of notation known as DigAlert was developed to communicate vital information to anyone who might be doing construction work or excavations in areas near underground cables or pipelines. Since then, the American Public Works Association established a standard color code to identify subterranean infrastructure in American cities. This standard is a recommended by most national agencies, but, like the “fire diamond,” it is not a mandate intended to supersede any local regulations.
These “safety colors” –expanded to include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, grey, white, and black– have been formalized by the American Standards Institute (ANSI) as Safety Color Code Z535, which provides Munsell notation and Pantone color-matching information to help ensure consistency across mediums.
While the color system warns workers about certain types of hazard, there is a complementary language used to approximately mark the underground location of a conduit, cable, or pipe. According to the Guidelines for Operator Facility Field Delineation established by the Common Ground Alliance, spray-painted lines (in the appropriate color, of course) space between four-feet and fifty-feet apart should be used to mark the center of a single facility or, if multiple conduits are running in a single trench, over their outside edges with arrows pointing in the the direction the services are running with a perpendicular line connecting the edge marks to form an H (as seen in the photo at the top of this post). A diamond is used instead of the perpendicular line to indicate a duct system.
While just as esoteric (though not as artistic) as illegal graffiti, these regulated utility markings encode a different type of turf. And knowing that Krylon code can save lives. Such urban annotation reveals the danger and complexity of American cities and is just one more example of the standardized, secret signs that surround us.
Previously: Decoding the City: The Fire Diamond
April 10, 2013
Cities are full of signs. Signs telling us where to go and how to get there; signs suggesting things to buy and signs keeping us from where we shouldn’t be. Every sign is a code of sorts, a graphic system linked to something else – an idea, an instruction, a building. Typically, these codes are carefully designed to be decipherable by as many people as possible – everyone, ideally. They reduce meaning to its most essential components: RED=STOP. But occasionally in cities, there are signs that aren’t intended to be read by everyone, coded messages for specific agencies or civil service employees. These signs are ubiquitous but largely indecipherable and mostly go unnoticed. One such sign is NFPA 704 – perhaps better known as the “fire diamond.”
NFPA 704 is the American system for identifying hazardous materials created by the National Fire Protection Association. It was first developed in 1957 by the NFPA’s Sectional Committee on Classification, Labeling, and Properties of Flammable Liquids “to safeguard the lives of those individuals who may be concerned with fires occurring in an industrial plant or storage location where the fire hazards of materials may not be readily apparent.” In 1961, the NFPA formally adopted the primary-colored diamond design as a National standard, providing emergency workers with a simple, readily recognized and decipherable system of signage describing general hazards to help workers in planning a safe and effective response.
These signs are found on chemical tanks, warehouse doors, and loading docks all over the country – any industrial, commercial, or institutional building that manufactures, processes, uses, or stores hazardous materials that “would cause, or significantly contribute to an increased risk of serious injury, incapacitating illness or increased risk of death.” They are exclusively used on structures or containers; signage for vehicles carrying hazardous materials is regulated by the Department of Transportation. Although the National Fire Protection Agency standard describes the relative sizes of the diamonds and the numbers, including the suggestion that diamonds used on building exteriors measure no less than 15 inches by 15 inches, local authorities have final jurisdiction over how the signs are implemented, including their location and size.
The basic form is familiar to anyone who’s every had some sidewalk chalk and a ball. A diamond divided into four smaller diamonds, each given a color code and number to signify a specific hazard: the blue diamond is the health signal, ranked according to the level of toxicity and effects of exposure to response personnel; the red signifies the level of flammability, and the yellow indicates reactivity. The white diamond is reserved for any other necessary information, such as water reactivity, radioactivity, the need for protective equipment, or specialized extinguishing agents. The number within each diamonds indicates the severity of the threat, ranging from 0, indicating no hazard or unstable materials, to 4, which indicates highly combustible, toxic, or reactive materials that could cause death or major injury.
With the exception of the poison and radiation symbols, NFPA 704 is almost completely opaque to the average person and just fades into the background of visual white noise produced by the modern American built environment. But to those for whom they’re intended, the signs provide invaluable, and potentially life-saving information. Other countries have their own unique standards, such as the orange hazard symbols required on all European vehicles carrying dangerous materials. Have you observed similar signs oversees? Are you curious about other signs and symbols? Let us know in the comments!
March 22, 2013
It’s been five years since the Make It Right organization broke ground on their first house in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood in New Orleans, an area that was completely devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The non-profit was formed in 2007 with the optimistic and ambitious plan to build 150 sustainable homes for returning residents who were struggling to rebuild. From the very beginning it was a high-profile project, partially because of the 21 renown architects commissioned to design new homes and duplexes for the area, but mostly due to the fact that it was founded by actor and architecture enthusiast Brad Pitt, whose celebrity gave the project an early boost and briefly made it a cause cêlèbre for many wealthy donors. This week, The New Republic ran a disparaging piece questioning the progress that Make It Right has made over the last five years, and MIR Executive Director Tom Darden responded with his own strongly worded rebuttal, calling The New Republic piece by Lydia DePillis a “flawed and inaccurate account” of their work. Taken together, the two articles provide some compelling insight into the nature of the project and, more broadly speaking, the benefits and detriments of large-scale building projects in disaster-stricken cities.
I should probably say up front that I lived in New Orleans for more than six years and left the city in the wake of Katrina. After leaving, I visited New Orleans frequently and would occasionally document the progress of the Make It Right development on my personal blog. The reconstruction of the Lower 9th Ward is a complex issue with both emotional and political ramifications. There is no right answer to disaster recovery and there probably never will be. That’s what makes it such a fascinating and incredibly difficult problem. Make It Right believed that good design is the solution.
But of course, good design is expensive. One of the biggest complaints levied against Make it Right by DePillis is the cost of their houses:
Make It Right has managed to build about 90 homes, at a cost of nearly $45 million, in this largely barren moonscape—viewed from the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, which connects the ward to the center city, they spread out like a field of pastel-colored UFOs….Construction on the cutting-edge designs has run into more than its share of complications, like mold plaguing walls built with untested material, and averaged upwards of $400,000 per house. Although costs have come down, Make It Right is struggling to finance the rest of the 150 homes it promised, using revenue from other projects in Newark and Kansas City to supplement its dwindling pot of Hollywood cash.
The article argues that the same amount of money could have potentially been used to accomplish much more. It’s a valid point that many people agree with, but TNR played it a little fast and loose with their numbers. Make It Right has actually spent $24 million on the construction of 90 homes. Still a significant amount, and Darden admits that yes, more conventional homes could be built more cheaply and in greater numbers. But that was never the point of Make It Right. Not exactly, anyway. The organization was formed to build high-quality homes for those that needed them the most. Darden writes:
While the academic debate about the fate of the Lower 9th Ward raged, families were already returning to the neighborhood, living in toxic FEMA trailers and planning to rebuild. These homeowners had decided to come home, but lacked the resources to rebuild in a way that would be safe and sustainable. Make It Right decided not to try to build as many houses as possible, but to design and build the best houses possible for this community.
For Make It Right, “the best” means that all houses meet stringent design guidelines that require them to meet the highest sustainability standard, LEED Platinum, incorporate new building technologies, and work with the latest construction methods and materials. Additionally, every home is structurally engineered to withstand 130 mph winds and five-foot flood surges.
Those designs are a mixed bag, and in some cases the final built project bears little resemblance to the original design. This is due to the fact that, as I understand it, the design architects relinquish control of their projects after handing over construction documents to Make it Right’s team of architects and builders. Ostensibly, this is to help keep costs down and strengthen the vernacular elements of each building to create something that feels like a true neighborhood despite the fact that it was born from disparate architectural visions. One of the most jarring examples of this is the minimalist home designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban:
From rendering to reality, something got lost in translation. The strong horizontals of Ban’s design have been lost to extraneous moldings, some profound design changes, and a less than flattering paint job. Though these may seem like small concessions, the cumulative result has destroyed the craft and elegance that was a critical element of the original design. To be fair though, these changes may have been the result of conversations between MIR and the homeowner. Collaboration is a key part of the MIR process. But if such drastic changes were necessary, I can’t help but think that Ban’s design shouldn’t have been considered in the first place. There are a few other questionable designs by architects that just don’t seem to “get” building in New Orleans, and during my last visit to Lower 9th Ward back in 2010, I couldn’t help but think that it felt more like an exhibition of experimental housing than a neighborhood. Perhaps that will change with time, natural growth, and much-needed commercial development.
To be sure though, there are also some terrific designs. While it’s exciting and press-friendly to have projects from high profile international architects like Ban, Frank Gehry, Morphosis, and David Adjaye, I think the most successful Make It Right homes have come from local architects like Waggoner & Ball and Bild design, who are familiar with the city’s traditional architecture have have created some of the most innovative houses in New Orleans by analyzing and reinterpreting classic local building types like the “shotgun house” and the “camelback.” For these firms, it’s not about always about imitating how the traditional buildings looked, but how they performed.
Design aside, perhaps The New Republic’s ire is misdirected. I can’t believe that the people behind Make It Right have anything but the best intentions for the city and are doing the best they can to fulfill their mission. However, some people have argued –and continue to argue– that they should never have been allowed to begin. The 9th Ward is one of the more remote parts of the city and due to its near total devastation, there was some speculation that the neighborhood might be abandoned completely and allowed to transform back into a natural flood plain. There was even talk that the entire city might shrink – a not implausible idea. After all, Detroit recently unveiled a 50-year plan, dubbed “Detroit Future City,” to do just that:
The Motor City hopes to manage its shrinking population with large-scale “deconstruction” to clean up blighted and sparsely occupied neighborhoods that pose a threat to public safety and an unnecessary strain on civic infrastructure. These decommissioned blocks will be replaced with parks, “ecological landscapes,” and even urban farms. The idea is that the city’s limited resources could be more efficiently employed in dense areas. It’s like a utopian plan mixed with the plot of RoboCop.
However, the City of New Orleans, for reasons that were surely both emotional and political, elected not to shrink their footprint. The strain on resources and infrastructure that may have resulted from this decision is one of the problems highlighted by The New Republic piece. This has been a constant debate since the rebuilding began. Why divert valuable resources to remote areas instead of relocating those residents to denser areas that are better served? It’s a good question. The city has only recently agreed to invest in the civic infrastructure of the Lower 9th Ward – to the tune of $110 million. This is a welcome relief for some of the city’s residents and for others a waste of funds that comes at the expense of more central neighborhoods. For Make It Right, it’s a sign that the city is finally taking the initiative to invest in more innovative infrastructure. Darden notes that “The new streets are made in part of pervious concrete that reduces runoff by absorbing water,” adding that “The city should be applauded for developing some of the most innovative infrastructure in the country, not chastised for it.” It’s interesting to think that if such innovations were to continue in the Lower 9th Ward, the neighborhood could become a sort of urban laboratory where new sustainable initiatives and materials can be tested –safely, of course– before being used in denser areas throughout the city.
The articles written by The New Republic and Make It Right offer many other salient points and counterpoints and I recommend reading them both for a comprehensive view on the issue. They make for a compelling read and include some touching anecdotes from neighborhood residents. Reconstruction at this scale is an urban issue that Make It Right started addressing with architecture.But architecture can only do so much. There are obviously larger social and political issues that are still need to be figured out. And then of course, there are events that can’t be predicted, like how the remarkable shifting demographics of Post-Katrina New Orleans will change the city. At first, Make It Right was an optimistic, symbolic kick-off to reconstruction. Five years later it’s a become a case study and a contentious point of discussion and debate. But there’s a lot of value to that as well. As I said in the introduction, there is no right answer. But that’s exactly why we need to keep talking.