Tags: architecture

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Empire State

I’m in New York. Again. This time it’s for Google’s AMP Conf, where I’ll be giving ‘em a piece of my mind on a panel.

The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.

Today I realised that my hotel sits in the apex of a triangle of interesting buildings: carrier hotels.

32 Avenue Of The Americas.Telephone wires and radio unite to make neighbors of nations

Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.

The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.

60 Hudson.HEADQUARTERS The Western Union Telegraph Co. and telegraph capitol of the world 1930-1973

I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.

For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.

33 Thomas Street.33 Thomas Street, New York

Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…

Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.

A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.

New day rising

I don’t get up to London that often. Much as I like the place, the travel to and fro from Brighton can be exhausting, given the woeful state of the rail services on that line—just ask anybody who does the daily commute.

On Monday, I had an appointment in London. Rather than take the usual train to Victoria, it made more sense to take the London Bridge route. It must have been quite a while since I was last on that train because, as it pulled into London Bridge station, I was confronted with the impressive sight of a science fictional structure rising out of the city: .

Shard rising

From my subjective perspective, it came out of nowhere. The sense of having a large chunk of the future come crashing into my present was amplified by the soundscape; I was listening to the soundtrack from on a small, handheld with more storage than the combined hard drive space of all the computers I ever used up to just a few years ago. The last time I experienced this collision was on the train between Copenhagen and Malmö, listening to the soundtrack to , looking out at the colossal turbines of the offshore wind farm.

On my way back to Brighton, the experience was reversed. Heralded by the kind of doppler-stretched whistle that you only hear in old films, a steam engine raced by, hauling dining cars of elegantly-decked tables draped in white, a lamp on each one.

“The future is already here”, said . “It’s just not very evenly distributed.” The past is still here too, equally unevenly-distributed.

The present is a lumpy place on the timeline.

Designing for the street

I went along to the UXBrighton gathering on Tuesday for a screening of William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

I had already seen a clip of the film online. In fact, I was fairly sure I had republished the clip. But a search through my archive here returned nothing. So then I checked my Tumblr account which I use for posting quotes and videos. But it wasn’t there either. Then I remembered where I had posted it: Pownce. I sighed at the unbidden reminder of all that link rot I contributed to.

For the record, here’s that clip:

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It was a great companion piece to an earlier Brighton geek gathering. Dan Lockton came down last week to give a Skillswap talk on Design With Intent.

Design with Intent: How designers can influence behaviour on Huffduffer

Dan mentioned urban social places, specifically benches in English town centres, referencing William Gibson:

The street finds its own uses for things.

Like Dan’s talk, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces was filled with lessons that can be applied to web design (or as it is more fashionably known now, UX design). It also reminded me of my previous career as a busker.

In the time period between dropping out of college and discovering the web, I spent many years playing music on the streets of Europe. Whenever I showed up in a new town, I would try to figure out the best pitch for busking. I developed a sense for it. The acoustics were important, of course. I didn’t want to set up anywhere too noisy. But a completely silent place would be silent for a reason: lack of people. Yet, I didn’t want to choose a spot where the flow of foot traffic would be too heavy either or I would be ignored in the bustle. Looking back now, I realise that I was seeking out those small urban spaces where people felt comfortable congregating and where the presence of a street entertainer would be welcomed.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces was quite US-centric but the lessons were universal, regardless of place or time. I’d love to see a sequel made today. It would be interesting to compare the cities of the early 21st century with the cities of the ’70s. Maybe it could include the anecdote that Liz told:

…there was a fountain that was built in Washington Square Park in New York but before they got ‘round to turning it on, people started using it as a seating area. When the city tried to turn on the fountain, people revolted.

New York remains the place to watch for further developments. As we were sitting down in Brighton to watch a film on urban planning, citizens of Manhattan were celebrating the opening of the High Line.

Further reading

Update: Tom recommends Reading the Everyday as a very readable, more UK-centric take on urban living.

Darwinian webolution

Odeo have released an embedded recorder that you can add to your own webpages.

Del.icio.us now offers private bookmarks.

Flickr now marks up profiles using the hCard microformat.

viewing source on my Flickr profile

Something that became very clear — both at the Carson Workshops Summit and at the many web app panels at South by Southwest — is that websites like these are never finished. Instead, the site evolves, growing (and occasionally dropping) features over time.

Traditionally, the mental model for websites has been architectural. Even the term itself, website, invites a construction site comparison. Plans are drawn up and approved, then the thing gets built, then it’s done.

That approach doesn’t apply to the newer, smarter websites that are dominating the scene today. Heck, it doesn’t even apply to older websites like Amazon and Google who have always been smart about constantly iterating changes.

Steve Balmer was onto something when he said “developers, developers, developers, ad nauseam”. Websites, like Soylent Green, are people. Without the people improving and tweaking things, the edifice of the site structure will crack.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to stop thinking about the work I do on the Web in terms of building and construction: I need to find new analogies from the world of biology.

Update: Paul Hammond told me via IM about a book called “How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built”. Maybe I don’t need to abandon the architectural analogies completely.