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The city is a platform

But it needs your vote.

In what is becoming an annual ritual here, I’d like to ask for the support of Ascent Stage readers in nominating my panel for inclusion at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference/fest-a-go-go next year.

Here’s the quick version.

Cities abound in data generated by their inhabitants (virtual worlds, city websites) and created automatically by systems or monitoring. How does this online manifestation of the city interact in tangible ways with urban design and informal urban constructs? Is there such a thing as “the street as platform”?

I have a bunch of panelists in mind, including Andrew Huff of Gapers Block, Dan O’Neill from Everyblock (today of MSNBC!), and some urban design peeps, but we’ll wait to finalize if we get accepted.

The panel-picking site is live and if you’d just scoot over to it, weigh the merits of it against all the other nominees, forget about my past indiscretions and any slights I’ve made against you and your family, then vote for it that’d be great.

Wait, you say you already voted for this a year ago? Well, you may have and if you did, thank you, because this panel was submitted last year — and it was accepted! But so was another proposal I sent in and the organizers deemed the other one better. (I disagreed, thought it turned out OK.) So, if you wouldn’t mind, let’s try to go two for two.

And yes, folks, this is the first hint I’ve dropped on this blog about the newest project I’m working on. More soon!


Cities of stone

Been on a serious Lord of the Rings bender lately as my four-year-old has really taken to the film trilogy. (He can’t read yet. At least not Tolkien.)

The mythos is clearly penetrating my subconscious because the other night I woke up with a single, clear thought — so clear, in fact, that I had to write it down immediately. My insight? The city of Matera, Italy is a real world version of the vertiginous, stacked city of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor in the Tolkien legendarium. Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world and was one stop on my Italian odyssey last year.

I imagine the two cities all but indistinguishable from street-level, but can you tell which of these is Matera and which Minas Tirith?


The fictional city was filmed from a very large model. Interestingly, there seems to be a at least a few complete miniatures of Matera.

Answers (highlight to reveal): Row 1: Minas Tirith, Matera; Row 2: Minas Tirith, Matera; Row 3: Matera, Minas Tirith; Row 4: Matera, Minas Tirith

Urban library

A line in Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World comparing the streets of London to bookshelves crystallized something I had been thinking about in an informal way since I first played with the A9 Yellow Pages Search. Well, a few things. First, seen edge-on a shelf full of books does in a way resemble the variegated facades of an urban streetscape. But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a kind of functional similarity. The front of a building, like the spine of a book, is both its human interface and its metadata. Not only do you judge a book (and a building) by its cover, but you must. This is how we apprehend reality, at least initially. One of my favorite tricks in a library is finding the location of a book I think I want then browsing in the region of the book once I find it. Kind of a physical fuzzy search. Same thing with urban streets, especially where businesses cluster based on some similarity (wares, targetted demographic, etc). And this is why the A9 Yellow Pages search is so cool. Amazon merely used the experience of bookshelf scanning as a model for browsing businesses by their building facades. (Though, strangely, you can’t browse Amazon’s book collection this way.) Seems that, at heart, Amazon’s still a bookstore. And I love that.

Anyone know of any other city-as-bookshelf conceits out there? Seems ripe for exploration, especially considering the many relationships between cities and narratives. Also, if urban streets resemble a bookshelf what about suburbia? How can we tweak the analogy to account for strip malls and parking lots?

UPDATE: OpenPlans has an office-length bookshelf that is a map of Manhattan, complete with a Central Park full of wall-hung plants.

See also: Virtual flâneur | The Pavilion of Literary Profundity

Networks and lines

Abstracted map of the Paris metro

I have been thinking about networks since Craig’s thought-provoking comment about the radial nature Chicago L system a few days ago. Thing is, I can’t shake the feeling that narrative and transportation networks are somehow related.

One easy relationship has to do with consumption. I enjoy being on the subway because it affords me time to read that I otherwise would not have. (I turn down rides home because I crave the time to read on the subway.) But what I really love is the way the L — especially when it is underground and impervious to cell transmission — eliminates options. You may be late for work, but there’s really nothing you can do about it. You can’t call anyone; you can’t get off the train and get to work any faster; you’re stuck. And that is wonderful. I feel like I suffer from a surfeit of options sometimes. It is so nice to just resign yourself to the moment. I’m going to keep reading until my stop, damnit. So nice to succumb to linearity.

But that’s not really what interests me. I’m still trying to tease this out, but clearly subway system design has conceptual similarities with new media. Stories can be point-to-point, multi-linear, radial, and true networks. They can even break out of the established route, creating new stations further afield. If you mapped these narrative arcs I bet they would bear a striking resemblance to the abstracted maps of subways around the world.

Virtual flâneur

Amazon’s A9 search engine is impressive, offering smooth, dynamic filtering of results and nice integration with the store and affiliated sites, but I’ve never been able to use it exclusively. It is tough to go cold turkey from Google’s simplicity. Actually, some of A9 is powered by Google, so maybe the strategy is not to dominate, but to provide certain niche services or enhanced applications. If so, A9’s new Yellow Pages search fits that bill nicely.

Amazon sure doesn’t shy away from brute-effort labor-intensive data entry. A while ago they hired transcriptionists to enter the text from thousands of books so you could search “inside the book” for most of their titles. Now they’ve paid a phalanx of digital photogs to capture images block-by-block in major cities so that you can actually walk up and down streets virtually as you search for services, products, and the like. Is this screaming for a head-mounted display and GPS integration, or what?

Cityscape as graphic equalizer

This video is making the rounds and for good reason. Vernie Yeung directs the amazing visuals to Faultline’s “Biting Tongues.” At first I was reminded of those students at Brown who wired up the lights on the university library to play a building-scale version of Tetris, but I think what’s going on here is a projection of images onto a skyline. (The last frame is the clue.) Whatever Yeung did, it’s gorgeous.

(Thanks, Len!)

Art of the subway

It’s a day for snatches of free music: bells,
sirens, a saxophone echoing the spheres,
industrial-strength percussion from a tribe
of project kids, the techno beat
of sprockets as trains reel overhead
like runaway strips of film.
— Twenty Feet Above The Street, Stuart Dybek

The London Underground map — benchmark for all transit information design since it was created in 1933 and a work of art in its own right — was based on an electrical circuit diagram. There’s something about depicting conduits for the transport of humans using visual language developed to denote conduits for the movement of electrons that is captivating to me, a suggestion of what we really want: seamless teleport from point A to point B.

3D Tube Map, Corey Clarke

Subways have an interesting relationship to art. For a period the cars themselves were the most desirable canvases available. Then the art went inside, became sanctioned. But most often subways are the subject-matter, creative fodder for the good, the mediocre, and the atrocious. Sometimes subway trains are the means of art production themselves. Or even the means of documenting the process of production. Now that’s travelling full-circle.