Here but Not Here

Architecture has yet to acknowledge the impact of social media on our experience of physical space.

Andrew Blum on Social Media

In the fall of 1999, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio opened their redesign of Brasserie, the restaurant in the basement of the Seagram Building, in New York. They had recently won a MacArthur “genius” grant—the first architects ever to do so—but Brasserie was their first built work in the city, and the glowing, red-tinged jewel box reassured the critics that they weren’t merely radical thinkers but real architects. By far, the space’s most talked-about feature was the line of video screens above the bar that showed freeze-frame images of patrons entering the restaurant, delayed just enough so that the image and the live person arrived simultaneously. At the time, it was taken as a premillennial commentary on the act of entrance in the theatrical experience of dining: all the restaurant’s a stage.

How quaint. In hindsight, it seems to me that those screens were saying something far slyer, and more prescient. The TV over the bar was no longer showing the game; it was showing us—momentarily frozen in the midst of an admittedly performative moment, on display for everyone to see. Or rather, merely on display for everyone in the restaurant. We couldn’t have known it then, but the screens were about to take over our lives. A patron walking into Brasserie today can be forgiven if she misses her big-screen appearance while lost in her own little screen, which in all likelihood is aiding her in a different kind of performative moment, perhaps a Facebook or Foursquare check-in or merely a text.

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Within the span of a decade, the impact of media in our experience of space has entirely transformed: what was once one-way (the Jumbotron and the video wall) is now two-way (the smartphone and the Facebook wall). At the urban scale, the flaneur’s sacred act of walking down the street is gone—or at least half gone, as one ear and one eye (and one brain?) become snagged in the device. “A ‘place’ used to comprise a physical space and the people within it,” writes Sherry Turkle, the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, in her new book, Alone Together. “What is a place if those who are physically present have their attention on the absent?”

Are architects asking this question? Our experience of the world around us has changed to a degree not seen since the arrival of trains and cars. The presence of “the Net”—by which I loosely mean all two-way, personal media—has become as much a factor in our experience of space as the play of light and shadow on a wall, or the cultural accretions that dignify local architectural styles. But it’s not clear to me that the process of design has meaningfully acknowledged that. In part, the challenge is generational: big architecture is an older person’s game, and the shift I’m talking about obviously skews younger (if decreasingly so). Certainly, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s considerable success in the decade since Brasserie opened has a lot to do with its ability to transmute into space this particular slice of the zeitgeist. And projects like Frank Gehry’s New World Center, in Miami Beach, Florida, or UN Studio’s Galleria Department Store, in Seoul, South Korea, show exciting new possibilities for, at the least, making the Jumbotron more immediate and dynamic.

It has also been exciting to watch the struggle among the next avant-garde to reflect this new sense of networked media and space, such as in the work of the architects David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang (practicing as The Living), Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo (practicing as Lead Pencil Studio), and Eric Höweler and J. Meejin Yoon. Aesthetically, their work is most easily characterized by its illuminated surfaces and blinking lights. But conceptually, all three are making serious efforts to create architecture that engages the invisible networks surrounding us, whether with a building skin that changes in response to air quality, or park benches that use RFID tags to interact with passersby and each other. So far, much of it remains playful and unapologetically experimental, but one would have said the same thing about Diller and Scofidio’s 1998 Jet Lag performance piece, with its “characters severed from conventions of time and space.” (How quaint.)

The real work of architecture that adapts and reflects this new mediated world is yet to come. A discussion about “social media and architecture” is still more likely to consider how architects can use Facebook—or Architizer—to market their work, rather than how social media changes our experience of it. And a conversation about “technology and architecture” is probably about parametric modeling, not about how the two spaces we inhabit—one physical, one virtual—might be pulled together. A world where we are all “alone together,” in Turkle’s formulation, is a haunting image of the future. But there remains the possibility of a new richness arriving along with our divided attention, an additional layer in our experience of the built world.

“Public spaces are always going to be sites of negotiation. They are not places, like your laptop screen, where you can do whatever you want,” David Benjamin, of The Living, told me. But what if our screens engaged in that conversation? If our building facades didn’t just communicate information to us (à la the Jumbotron), but we communicated back, communally? After all, what makes cities vital are their color and diversity, the wild mix of scales, even the noise and confusion. This has been the defining sensation of modernity, from the Parisian boulevard to the contemporary aerotropolis. Social media has the potential to amplify this quality, making people feel disoriented and overwhelmed—but also focused and inspired. Great cities have always done both, and architecture’s role has always been to help make sense of it all. It took Mies to show how the lowly industrial I-beam could be transmuted into something as grand and symbolically profound as the columns of a Greek temple. What architect will turn the networked screen into a chapel?

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