Friday, May 30, 1997

Technology, Public Buildings, and Community

Published in OnSite Ireland

I. Introduction

As technology becomes more expensive, and access to it more important, communities are pooling financial resources to bring people together both physically and technologically. Public spaces are subject to an increasing variety of demands as communities work to get the most out of their public building budgets.

How does this affect building needs, community design, and human interaction into the twenty-first century? Some of these groups will want new structures for their technology centers; what issues will they bring to the design table? Others will want to modify existing structures, even potentially historic buildings (e.g., municipal libraries); what modifications will need to be made to those spaces?

It is difficult to examine these questions without first having an idea of the technological advances which will happen in the coming few years. This is a difficult enough task on its own, and varies greatly from country to country, and from place to place within a given country. We can, however, note several overarching trends which can offer us guideposts for the journey.

II. Guideposts of Technology

Communication will become even more important than it is now, and more technologically complex, from the "back end," while at the same time getting simpler from the "front end." This applies to both wired and wireless communications. In places which are not now wired, such as Malaysia, cellular technology will be the next major communications innovation. Wires will eventually stretch to many locations throughout the developed and developing countries, but the initial steps of communications infrastructure development will be wireless in many countries.

In the wired world, those countries home already to networks of telephone wires, not to mention to the proliferation of cable television, wires and cables will be the next big addition to homes and places of business. Differences between the wired and wireless worlds will cause some problems for those attempting to design flexible-use structures.

Another certainty is that video displays will grow in number and in size. Whether showing text, still images, or video, LCD, CRT, and projection (from front and rear) displays will proliferate. These are the three major trends which we can predict with confidence.

III. Guideposts of Humanity

Human nature also provides us with some points of departure. First among these is a healthy skepticism for new things and change. People will want places and ways to escape the invasion of technological implements. Places of refuge, within the home and without, as well as in and around the workplace, will become increasingly important.

People will also tend to want as much information as quickly as possible, when they are indeed in search of it. While we can let the technology people deal with methods of sorting this information in a useful manner, architects need to work with them to provide maximum bandwidth in the wired and wireless infrastructures.

Based on the principle that "information wants to be free," public places are ideal for information gathering, viewing, and sharing. What better venue for free information than the public square? The technological version of the Town Crier may not be too far off.

IV. Economics and Lifestyles

Technology is getting increasingly expensive, though at a far smaller rate than the perceived value of the equipment. Prices of home computers go up no more than twenty percent annually, while hard disk sizes and microchip clock speeds double and triple in the same period of time. Meanwhile people want their own private access to information, though often not at the expense of other aspects of their lifestyles. The desire for privacy while digesting information contrasts with the obvious advantage of public sharing of ideas facilitated by public technology centers.

It is likely that technological expenses will soon become so high that families look to each other for assistance with access to the infrastructure. People will maintain their own Email accounts, but, as now one family has one computer for four people, perhaps four families will share two or three connections to the electronic world. This is analogous to the "party line" in the early days of telephone communications.

In Dublin, for example, several buildings in the Temple Bar area have been redesigned to take advantage of emerging technologies. Showcased in the Architectural Association of Ireland 1996 awards are three such buildings: the Arthouse, the Gallery of Photography, and the School of Photography. Also in Dublin, the Collins Barracks, now property of the National Museum of Ireland, will feature high-technology applications as an organic part of its basic design as a museum. On a smaller scale, other communities are even now using parts of their municipal libraries to ensure low-cost or free public access to the Internet. This trend will continue.

V. Specific Design Issues to Consider

In wireless communities, lines of sight between individual antennas and central towers will be important. In conflict with this will be the aesthetic desire to prevent significant public visibility of antennas on the exteriors of structures, as well as providing space and strength to support them, in varying sizes and shapes. Within these buildings, wired infrastructures will need to be laid out and organized along both technological and architectural standard guidelines. Network topology is not something most architects have studied, but any architect putting a fifty-five foot run of 10BaseT cable into a building will get an earful from the networking specialists. (Specifications only permit fifty feet of 10BaseT cable between two pieces of equipment.)

Wired communities will face not only the above internal infrastructure limitations, but also the need for more and larger cables entering buildings and winding throughout them. Security of connections is important. Netscape Communications, Inc. has three major network connections into its central facility. Two are on one side of the building, and the third is on the opposite side, for maximum physical security. In countries where cable television is common, the cable conduit will provide an initial link into homes and offices. That link, however, will need replacement or upgrading. What it connects to will change as well, as television evolves into a hybrid of today's computer and television functions. Electrical power will be in much higher demand in all of these places.

Size of video display, and methods of interaction with displays, will define how spaces are used for that purpose. As well, the function of a display (whether of a surveillance camera's view, or as a rotating display of artistic decorations) will determine its location and the surrounding space to some degree.

Further, distribution of technological tools throughout a building (as telephones today are found all over the house) will place different demands on technological infrastructure and design features than structures and spaces designed specifically as technological centers.

Rooms will need conversion for technological capability. New structures will be built for schools and communities to house their electronic tools. Some of these will affect historic land and buildings; the past cannot forever shape the future. At some time the present must take charge and move towards the future. This may mean giving up some historic value of a building or a location. This should not be done lightly; nor should it be dismissed without proper examination.

Community living arrangements are only now beginning to gain recognition in the United States; architects are, as a rule, inexperienced with the specific needs of such living conditions, including both outdoor and indoor spaces. If these become more common as the costs of technology require conservation of financial resources, the constraints of community living will be augmented by the constraints of technological enhancement of a living arrangement.

VII. Examples

The Arthouse building, in Curved Street, Temple Bar, is a unique example of a building created during the "crossover" from traditional to new media uses in public spaces. Originally designed as a sculpture gallery, it has now adapted itself to multimedia exhibits, though the idea of multimedia as a discrete art form is still new enough to render Arthouse events not always available to the general public (whether because of esoteric installations or exorbitant admission prices). It has some features of a more traditional gallery, such as a boom for moving large pieces of artwork into and out of the display area; its spaces also functions as a multimedia exhibition hall.

The relationship between the Gallery of Photography and the School of Photography bears further exploration. In the School's building is a projector which projects still and moving images onto the side of the Gallery building, just opposite in Meetinghouse Square, Temple Bar. Each building serves a traditional function, of gallery or school, but also interact in a public theater in a revolutionary way. Photography is but one field (architecture is, of course, another) which is being shaped and reshaped rapidly as technological advances are made.

Each of these structures has won at least a commendation from the AAI; while some criticisms may no doubt be made about the design or purpose of these structures, they are revolutionary and, particularly in the case of the Gallery, well-conceived and realized buildings.

As for the Collins Barracks, much remains to be seen. Interactive kiosks, now almost a cliché in the technology world, are coming into the public realm, assisting museum and zoo visitors with interpretive displays. Rare pieces can be viewed publicly, even in multiple sites, with the assistance of technology (A prime example of this is Ben Britton's "Virtual Lasceaux" project at the University of Cincinnati, which has been displayed at EPCOT Center in Walt Disney World in Florida, as well as other locations around the United States and France).

Not only does the Collins Barracks renovation include massive electric and communications wiring conduit built into the space itself (every "techie" rejoices at accessible conduit), but the expansive size of the space permits great flexibility, including, if appropriate, using temporary partitions to section off smaller areas for productions, displays, or support equipment. A combination of indoor and outdoor facilities not only permits year-round visitations, but also permits the necessary escape from technology while simultaneously providing additional arenas for display, interpretation, and production.

VIII. Conclusions

It is clear that architects, who are very accustomed to working with general contractors and building professionals, will need to add a member to their renovation and building teams. That new member should be aware of not only current technological possibilities, but trends in the field, and be able to predict with some accuracy infrastructure demand changes of the short-term future.

It must be made clear that no contemporary issues facing architects will disappear with the growth of prevalence of technology throughout society. Rather, the information revolution will add more subjects for consideration by customers, designers, and builders.

People, who already have idiosyncratic ways of interacting with information and technology, will need to communicate effectively with the architect and the technologist to ensure that the project (whether a renovation or a new building) is completed satisfactorily.

Communities in search of a space of this nature will face their first challenge in deciding among themselves what they want, and what they want the future to hold for their design.

Monday, May 5, 1997

Theater Review: Middlebury shines in Washington

Published in the Mountainview

On the Theater Lab stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., another Middlebury College play was performed this year. This time it was Dan O'Brien '96 wo wrote the play "The Last Supper Restoration," directed it and acted in it. For his writing, he won the National Student Playwriting Award, sponsored in part by the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival.

The seats were filled to capacity, and hopeful attendees without tickets were turned away at the door. The re-staging of the play was impressive, given the time limitations and the fact that the original play had been so closely tied to the Middlebury College Studio Theater space in which it was first performed.

A significant revision of the original Middlebury production, this version was the one which went to the Irene Ryan Festival in Boston last autumn; the reworking succeeded at clarifying and simplifying a piece whose intellectual depth was matched by the quality of the company's performance. (Disclosure: the part of Caterina was played by my sister, Katherine Inglis '98.)

The cast and crew were in at least three countries and three states the week before the production went up at the Kennedy Center; airlines and car-rental companies no doubt rejoiced when they heard that O'Brien would be coming from Ireland, Coert Voorhees would fly in from Chile, Ted Dowling from Seattle, Nick Molander and Katherine Inglis from Vermont, and others from Vermont and New York City. The diaspora of the company is a testament to its level of ability; their capacity to perform the play for the first time in three months after only a couple of days of rehearsal is nothing short of phenomenal.

Dealing with three different time periods in the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the play is a detailed amalgam of the lives of Leonardo da Vinci, a restorer of da Vinci's "The Last Supper," and the son of that restorer. Blending the diverse threads of art, homosexuality, Nazism, Judaism, love, fear, and death (among others), "The Last Supper Restoration" is in itself a restoration of multi-level dramatic arts, when each speech had multiple meanings, and each character stood for something much more than just one person in a

O'Brien's National Student Playwriting Award is actually a series of awards, including cash awards, professional memberships and development opportunities, and the publication of his play by high-profile drama publisher Samuel French, Inc. In addition to those awards, O'Brien is currently on a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship in Ireland acting in Irish productions and working on new plays of his own.

In attendance at the first national production of an O'Brien play were members of the Middlebury alumni community in Washington, D.C., an impressive contingent from the College (attending in both official and unofficial roles), and a large number of the general public. Comments in the audience afterward ranged from the confused to the congratulatory, though the reaction was unanimous to a scene in which an airline stewardess puts her hand inside a bag of a passenger's vomit.

O'Brien has made a promising beginning with a play which appeals to the intellectual and the emotional, combining history and conjecture in a story which entrances and intrigues. We will definitely hear more from O'Brien soon, and we congratulate him on his success to date.

The ICC/ACTF program is a national program for all dramatic arts, sponsored by academic institutions, businesses, and theater organizations nationwide. Awards are given for excellence in areas too numerous to name, and the prestige of such awards is great in the world of theater. Middlebury College has historically had good luck participating in KC/ACTT and its regional Irene Ryan awards; the theater department here is known for its strength and quality of acting, performance, and production.

Opinion: Women's Issues? Not quite.

Published in the Mountainview

It's time we had a talk. Just you and me. Man to man. (Women, you can read this, too.) The Report of the Task Force on the Status of Women was just issued, and it's time you sat down and read it. Yes, you. Yes, even if you read it before. Siddown.

The issues in this report are not women's issues. They are human issues, and they affect you and me as much as they affect the women with whom we share this campus and this town. Here are some very cold facts, which don't make me proud.
•           The woman sitting next to you in evening seminar doesn't feel safe walking home in the dark.
•           The woman just behind you in the line at Proctor is going to eat some salad and maybe an apple today. That's all.
•           The woman who lives across the hall from you is the only woman in her year who is majoring in her field. She's also found that all the classes she has left to take are taught by men.
•           The woman behind the counter at Proctor, serving your food, has three kids she hasn't seen since this morning. She'll miss seeing them tonight before they go to bed, because she has to work late cleaning up.
•           The faculty member who just walked past you coming out of the Crest Room is afraid she'll never get tenure. She gave up having a family to have an academic career; now she might have neither.

These are all real problems which are happening here and now. They are not problems without solutions. They are not someone else's problem. They are my problem, as an alumnus, and they are your problem, as a male student, faculty, or staff. It is your personal problem, and you, yourself, today, need to fix ii Here are some ideas, to get you started:
•           If you feel comfortable doing so, start talking to that woman next to you in class. Keep up the conversation after class and walk with her wherever she's going, talking all the way. Then go where you were going. She'll be safer, you'll have helped solve the problem, and she didn't even have to admit she's scared.
•           Have a look at what your friends eat, men and women. If your roommate is gorging himself on onion rings, point out that there are fresh onions over on the salad bar. If his girlfriend has a single chickpea on her plate, let her know you care about how she takes care of herself.
•           On course evaluations, say what you think would have been different if your class had been taught by someone of the opposite gender of your real professor.
•           Thank the woman who just put the food on your plate. At least let her smile once today.
•           When someone you think should get tenure is up for review, write a letter to the Committee on Review, or to the department chair. Qualified women and men deserve a shot a Middlebury careers; help them out.

You're going to ask me why you should do this. There are a couple of answers. The first is that the world can always stand to be a better place. If you work towards that goal, in whatever ways you feel comfortable, everyone will be a little better off. That's the "piein-the-sky reason," The other reason is that someday you will be a minority somewhere. You'll be the only white person on the street in Chinatown, New York, or you'll be working somewhere where everyone else behaves properly towards women and men. You'll need their help, and you'll have to earn it. Start now.

These subjects are not just women's issues. The fact that any human beings are in these situations demands our immediate action. Caring about others — women and men — and being respectful of their rights and responsibilities, is something you will have to do for the rest of your life. Middlebury is an excellent place to start; everyone can work on it together, and we can all help each other. But you, and you personally, have to do something about it today.