[this post also appears at The Mobile City weblog]
How can architects relate to digital media?
The Mobile City keynote at the ‘Day of the Young Architect’: outcomes and further thoughts
written by Michiel de Lange & Martijn de Waal
Introducing the main questions
What do developments in digital media have to do with architecture? And how should architects and urbanists relate to developments in new media? The Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) and Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA) invited The Mobile City to address that question for the yearly ‘Day of the Young Architect’, on November 7th 2009 in the NAi in Rotterdam. This day was themed ‘the virtual’, and was organized as part of the overarching ‘connectivity’ cluster during the 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR).
We gladly accepted this challenge, since this very issue was one of the main reasons we founded The Mobile City two years ago. After all, as the boundaries between physical and digital spaces blur, this should have profound consequences not only for new media developers but also for those professionals who traditionally deal with physical spaces. We surely did not expect this to be already obvious for most architects. But the fact that only half of the audience raised their hands when asked by moderator JaapJan Berg whether architects should deal with digital media in their profession showed there is still some way to go.
This report contains the main argument of our talk. But it also presents some additional reflections, and is an attempt to take our argument further than we did at the NAi/BNA day. We address the following questions: what position can architects, planners and urbanists take in their design profession vis-a-vis new media? Why should they bother with new media in the first place? What are the challenges they face? And what are future directions and chances for these professions?
In answering these questions, we make a strong plea for an attitude of ‘critical engagement’. This posits architects should neither ignore nor completely embrace digital media. Rather we would urge them to think of themselves as designers who primarily shape social processes, and only second as designers who shape spatial forms. Which social processes underly new commissions? What kind of activities, social interactions or exclusions should a new project encourage or discourage? How can these be shaped through spatial forms? And what roles do digital media play in this? We think architects shouldn’t just build an urban screen just because you can, or the Kunsthaus in Graz has one too. Rather they should start by asking: what kind of social processes do we want to provoke or hope to avoid? Can an urban screen indeed contribute to these processes or will it disturb them? What other disciplines do we need to invite to the table to meaningfully program an urban screen so that it goes beyond mere window dressing and indeed enhances the project?