Do Janne’s Weekly Post | Dialoog met Giovanni de Niederhausern

Dit is alweer de vierde dialoog in een serie waarin Architect in Residence Do Janne Vermeulen per email een tweegesprek voert met mensen uit een ander vakgebied. Zo ontstaan er steeds gedachtewisselingen tussen twee vakgebieden, ieder vanuit zijn of haar eigen standpunt. 

Weekly Post (4 juni 2019)
Do Janne Vermeulen e-mailt deze week met Giovanni de Niederhausern, CEO van het Italiaanse architectenbureau Carlo Ratti Associati

Deze dialoog vond plaats in het Engels.

Do Janne:
Dear Giovanni de Niederhausern, thank you very much for agreeing to this dialogue by email. During this term at the Amsterdam Architecture Centre as an Architect in Residence I am getting more and more intrigued by the apparent gap between the design of the physical realm and the digital applications that we use. When reading more into the extensive topic your office Carlo Ratti Associati stands out because of the extensive research in the field, the link with the academic world but also because of the term ‘senseable city’ and the direct link to experiences, for instance with the Digital Water Pavilion or the Dynamic Street Pavement for Sidewalk Labs. The focus on data and systems as well as design of physical experiences within the same team seems interesting to me. It would often appear that the digital screen (tablet, smartphone, glasses, etc) will remain the main interface between the two in the future. But should the physical design of our streets, buildings, parks and squares adapt? And how? Will the digitization really be a disruption and require changes or can new sensor-based and digital systems comfortably take place within the current built environment?

Dear Do Janne, The questions you raise are indeed very important and have been at the core of our company’s research for a long time now. One of the premises of our “senseable” approach to design is that the Internet is entering physical space, becoming the Internet-of-Things (IoT) – and ushering in a series of unprecedented possibilities in terms of how we can understand, design and live. In this context, “senseable” means both “able to sense” and “sensible,” emphasizing the human – as opposed to merely technological – side of things

One important consideration I would like to put forward is that the “senseable”, cities, we believe, will not appear, from the outside, much different from the cities we have now, in the same way, that our cities are not so different from the ancient Roman “urbs.” We will always need the “Fundamentals” of architecture, as celebrated by Rem Koolhaas in his 2014 Venice Biennale: horizontal floors for living, vertical walls to delineate spaces and exterior enclosures to protect us from the outside. Cities in the future will be dramatically different, not in physical appearance, but in our way of living them – no longer as purely physical entities, but as spaces at the convergence of the physical and digital worlds. It is the experience of a city that digital technologies will alter most noticeably.

Agnelli Foundation HQ renovation by Carlo Ratti Associati

Coming to your question, the digital innovation we will see, therefore, will apply as much to older buildings as to new ones, as we tried to do with our renovation of the Agnelli Foundation HQ in the heart of Torino, where we worked closely with Siemens Italia as a technological partner. For this project, we equipped the century-old building with hundreds of digital sensors that monitor different sets of data, including occupancy, temperature, carbon dioxide level and the status of meeting rooms. The system responds according to occupants’ preferences, potentially following them with their lighting, heating and cooling settings as they move around the building, just like an “environmental bubble.”

So, what is the next chapter of the IoT revolution? It might very well be Artificial Intelligence, whose impact on urbanism and architecture is far from being well understood. It is a theme we hope to explore more deeply in China, where Carlo Ratti will be a chief curator of the 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture in Shenzhen, China. The curating team’s proposal for 2019 asks how life will change under the “eyes of the city”: i.e. in sensor-imbued cities, with a particular focus on Artificial Intelligence.

We might say that the future of architecture lies somewhere at the intersection between bits and atoms. That is what we are most excited about.

Do Janne:
Dear Giovanni, Thank you very much for your reply. In this period one of my main questions was exactly that: how much do the fundamentals of architecture and urbanism need to change? Our design for the refurbishment of the Atlas Building at the University of Eindhoven has strong similarities to the Agnelli Foundation HQ project: here also the University researchers will use the building as a living lab for their research into (amongst other topics) seasonal affective disorder with the buildings smart lighting and services systems using IoT. As you mention how life will change ‘under the eyes of the city’: do you also see negative aspects of the development and integration of data-technology? And what is it essentially that we should achieve with sensoring the city?

ATLAS TU/E, Den Dolech, Eindhoven, Nederland, Team V Architectuur

Dear Do Janne, I don’t think it is necessary that the fundamentals of architecture and urbanism change – our hope is that the use of Big Data and the implementation of sensors in the built environment will actually allow for a fundamental element to these disciplines re-emerge, after having been obscured: people. After all, Big Data essentially means a better knowledge of the urban environment, which can be shared more broadly than it is now.

More bottom-up processes, coupled with digital networks, can lead to what we can call open-source architecture. Open-source architecture relies on all interested parties being involved in the design process. Digital technologies can play an important role here, creating new feedback channels, but the priority remains driving development through human desires. However, there are also risks to keep in mind with the integration of data-technology: like the issue of data ownership. Today, there is a risk of data asymmetry, with just a few companies and public institutions knowing a lot about us, while we know so little about them. There is a real danger of data monopolies and data misuse by both large corporations and governments.

I believe that the next few years are an important time for experimentation. Though I am positive about it, it is important to note, once again, that in order to begin processes of trial and error, city governments must communicate with citizens, allowing ideas and innovations to be tested by people, and using feedback loops in order to take users’ responses to those ideas into account, instead of implementing them from the top-down.

Do Janne:
Dear Giovanni, This notion seems apt: if data would be more commonly owned, then the asymmetric power of the select companies and public institutions becomes more balanced. It is the same conclusion that came out of the Smart Cities Debate we organized last week. Also, we have to be aware that this gathered data does not start making our decisions for us, but rather informs Smart Citizens amongst us. I believe that in order to achieve this in architecture and urbanism we need trained and equitable professionals to actively work on data driven design and decision making. Innovation may come bottom-up, and feedback too, but we still need to take control of what we make.


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