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Landscape and Inscape
Monday, 28 March 2011
More Coffee
Topic: Cyborg self - networked city

In a Starbucks in Newark – or maybe it is FremontCalifornia: not that the cities don’t have their own character, but you can’t tell if this Starbucks is on this side or that of the municipal boundary…

In Newark the buses carry advertisements for McDonalds in Hindi.  The stores have signs in Vietnamese.  This Starbucks however does not have signage in any language other than English, but the sound track is completely different than the sound track played in San Francisco or Mill Valley, and I don’t recognize the language.

Just finished a productive meeting with a client, and sitting in my truck, what is my next move?  Next thing I need to do is finish-edit and send off proposals to two other clients.  I could do that from anywhere, I don’t need to go back to Marin to do that.  Nothing programmed for this evening either, so no reason to go to San Francisco. 

So I am not constrained by place.  I am constrained by time.  The sooner the proposals go out the better, and preferably during the business day.  Although what constitutes the “business day” is also loosing meaning.  My client of this morning, a senior official of her organization, wryly observed that her 24-hour X 7-day schedule means that I could communicate with her at any time and she would be likely to get it and respond.  And the next seat over is a middle-aged guy sound asleep in a sofa chair with his computer (off) on his lap.  Snoring audibly.  For him it is the middle of the night.  He wakes only to mumble a response to a call on his smartphone, then he goes back to sleep.

Where we are not grounded by place, nor by time, what secures our sense of being?  Starbucks and other “coffee” shops, I am coming to believe, are not the “third place” – between workplace and home.  They are instead both workplace and home.  At my favourite Starbucks in San Francisco – the 24-hour shop in Laurel Village – a couple of months ago, sitting next to a younger guy I’ve seen there a few times: he showed me his work, putting colour to the Marvel comics for the line drawings penned by the author-artists.  These are not simple illustrations.  He has no office or studio.  Starbuck is his office and studio.  He probably doesn’t sleep there though, as the fellow in the next seat over, getting louder and louder, and now somewhat irritating.

Where we are not grounded by place, nor by time, what secures our sense of being?  There was a time when journalists were journalists because they were part of an organization that delivered news content in a world where content required an elaborate content creation organization, as Clay Shirky points out (2008 Here Comes Everybody).  Today news organizations have less and less tenure over news creation and delivery but journalists are still around because they can write well and provide incisive analysis.  Similarly, in such a world a place is a place, that is, anywhere is actually somewhere, because it has intrinsic character or features.  In other words, it is a “sacred” space, where “sacred” means set off from the daily use-spaces that we frequent.

This is one of the reasons, I am coming to believe, that there appears to be almost a mushrooming in interest in and creation of urban farms / urban intensive agriculture / “permaculture”.  An urban farm is somewhere, of course, and usually surrounded by the dense fabric of the city.  As often as not an urban farm is created ex nihilo from abandoned residential or industrial land.  So the farm is in great contrast to the surrounding built landscape – it is a sacred space in this sense: it is noticeably set off from the rest of city. 

The nineteenth century public parks created in North America embodying the romantic landscape image of private English landscape gardens were specifically designed to improve the character of the working class population and to provide a place to re-create oneself.  They were set off and designed in contrast to the industrial age city – a city of dirt or cobbled streets, horses and horse-sh, the air thick with smoke from coal fires, dense clouds of wires on poles, and according to David Henkin hundreds of billboards yammering at you and handbills floating at arms level (1998 City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces).  Urban farms are the spiritual or at least thematic descendants today of nineteenth century public parks, as a place of respite from the city, where one can "recreate" oneself and refresh …  Urban farms are also usually community institutions, run by and for communities, so they also embody place in this way: they manifest in one place a host of personal and extended relationships, and are sacred for this reason as well.


Posted by geoffreykatz at 8:09 PM PDT
Updated: Monday, 28 March 2011 8:24 PM PDT
Monday, 24 January 2011
Coffee Anyone?
Topic: Cyborg self - networked city

Coffee shops in the USA and Canada are a publicly-accessible distributed network of multipurpose spaces for meetings, entertainment, or work.   

You can meet to discuss business transactions with clients and associates, review the current class assignment, or chew over family affairs.  You can view a movie, surf the net, and watch the va-et-vient of people dashing in to buy beverages and more, including pre-dawn polished business people, 10am locals, casually dressed, and harried parents at 4pm.  Many bring their portable office environment in the form of their laptop, or perhaps iPad too at this point, and get a good four hours of work done before rushing off somewhere.   

A coffee shop is a comfortable space.  Should Starbucks, Piets, or all the local coffee shops charge by the hour for use of the space, instead of for the coffee?  What are they really selling?  It isn’t coffee, exactly.   Starbucks knows this: they are consciously creating the “third place”. 

Bill Mitchell points out (in ME++, MIT Press 2003) that   As continuous fields of presence are overlaid on architectural and urban space, the ancient distinction between settlers and nomads… is eroding in subtle but important ways.  In the emerging wireless era, our buildings and urban environments need fewer specialized spaces built around sites of accumulation and resource availability and more versatile, hospitable, accommodating spaces that simply attract occupation and can serve diverse purposes as required.  A café table can serve as a library reading room.  A quiet place under a tree can become a design studio.  A subway car can become a place for watching movies...” 

“Now, spatially dispersed yet coordinated, fluid collections of wirelessly interconnecting individuals – perhaps assembled, from the beginning, in cyberspace rather than at any physical location – are becoming a crucial fact of urban life.”  

"For architects, continuous fields of presence and the destabilization of person-to-place relationships demand some radical rethinking of the fundamentals.  The standard procedure of twentieth-century modernism was to start by distinguishing and separating functions – the better to optimize spaces for particular functions and to announce those functions visually… At an urban scale, housing areas were to be distinguished from industrial and commercial zones.  At building scale, there were to be specialized spaces, with associated equipment, for the activities that were to be accommodated.  And the physical fabric of a building was to be articulated functionally – for example, by separating the supporting and enclosing functions of a wall by substituting columns for support and a nonbearing curtain wall for enclosure.  But this strategy makes little sense when wireless electronic devices can support many different activities an a single location or the same activity at many different locations, and when running different software can radically alter the functions provided by a device without changing its format all.  Time division multiplexing of activities is starting to look smarter than space division.” p 159-162


Although a coffee shop may be an archetype of flexible space, many activities are still dependent on specialized equipment, specialized supply of energy, availability of resources, or topography and other specific character of the landscape, and therefore are still very place and program-based.  Examples: steel mill, surgery operating room, quarry, harbour.  Even for these, however, the specific location and configuration of programmed spaces for such activities is more flexible than might have been in the past because transportation and communications technology permit flexibility in site selection – yet as an investment is made in one site, the specific locus of the activities becomes fixed at that site. 


As an example, the very high tech and very high security Santa Clara Crime Lab for which I was landscape Project Manager 2003-7 required a location in Santa Clara County, California.  Three alternative sites within the county offering different opportunities were considered.  When a site was chosen, we worked closely with the design architect to consider alternative site dispositions for the building, and subsequently alternative building-site configurations to express but control public access, regulate secure parking, incorporate fortresslike security devices, not to mention achieve LEED certification.  At each stage more and more investment in the specific site was made.


Posted by geoffreykatz at 12:15 AM PST
Updated: Monday, 28 March 2011 8:18 PM PDT

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