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.

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