With the change of our communication along the multimedia superhighways, the attention spans have been shortened and dispersed.
The average viewer will be bombarded with a million message every instant, from billboards to moving screen images to architecture to every type of message and communication we receive. The environments we live in have become highly branded with messages flying at us from every perceived direction that it has become more difficult to communicate. The competition has become extremely fierce.
To counter that attention seeking modern environment, the urbanite takes more and more refuge in isolation. This has become apparent in the amount of people walking the streets with headphones in their ears, a focused determined look and an impenetrable bubble around them.
We walk more and more with music, or podcasts or some other sound that we pump into our ears including phone conversation with people who are not present within our physical realm. We forget to let the street and our environment talk to us. We thus are telling people and the city to stay away and not approach us. Trust me I know it is well warranted sometimes. You surely would like to avoid the chatterbox who sees you as a perfect target to rant about their problems hoping to save on the price of a session at their psychiatrist. But most often than not by retreating into our bubble we miss out on some interesting interaction between us and the city, between us and a passer by or even between us and someone we know that we did not notice was around us. It is true that most urban environments are not conducive to that interaction really but you can find a stage anywhere. For example one of my favourite urban parks is Bryant Park. The way this park has grown throughout the years has turned it into a wonderfully engaging and engaged urban open space. Every time I go to New York I try to spend an afternoon there at least. I head there with my lunch, and a book. Two activities to which this park is so perfectly suited. The central core is open, on one side you have the New York Library and all around you have the high rises of mid manhattan. From those high-rises the scale shifts around the periphery of the park with a layer of trees and shrubbery where you have more intimate enclosed spaced that reopen towards the center. That center is where one night a week in the summer new yorkers converge with their picnic baskets to come and watch a classic movie. On any other time of the day you can take over these wood and steel green cafe chairs and tables and have yourself a quiet reflective time…. or so i always think. It never turns out to be the case. Every time, inevitably, I end up approaching or being approached by a stranger with whom i engage in a conversation about the book in either in our hands or something we overheard the other say in a conversation, maybe even an earlier phone conversation. That conversation most of the time pulls in other people in the vicinity and before we know it our little green cafe chair and table are moved around and we create an outdoor living space. If I am sitting in that same park with my headphones on I am sending a clear message to people sitting around me to stay away. What a pity that is since it would make me miss those wonderful conversations with strangers.
The urban environment used to be experienced through the dialogue that happened between its street level and its skyline. The buildings, which are individual symbolic expression of its inhabitants, are also pieces of the whole skyline. They communicate with each other like individual letters do in a text. Each is a self standing symbol, but the linguistic articulation between them and their negative spaces creates the text or the whole story. So we don’t only see a building alone but also how it is in harmony or clash with its surrounding.
Their street façade has always been more of the window through which you could read the identity of the building or the space, the canvas upon which the brand gets painted.
Theoretically it still works that way. This is why we still rely on that street level to be the space where the brand mainly unfolds and plays itself urbanely. We still work on branding those environments through architecture, interiors, communicative graphics, etc.
Yet we are becoming less effective that we used to be. As communicators we are having more trouble reaching into that self imposed isolation within the urban landscape. The disjunction between voyeur and the object of voyeurism has become so that we are not catching his attention long enough to want to make him come out of the cocoon. We walk the streets without even noticing the differences and the discrepancies of the places and spaces around us. It takes something that screams at us, like a glass box of the Apple store for us to take notice.
The plane where that urbanite breaks his isolation has become the screen, whether it is the television, the computer screen, the movie theater, the pad or especially the smart phone. In the case of the television, we go home and immerse ourselves in the reality of the shows where the brands and then their environments suddenly become our own, and we identify with them as if we belonged to or they were part of our daily lives. For example, the Idol series. It had started as a televised talent show in the UK. Now it has become such a strong phenomenon that it has now gone global, with shows in being made all over the world. When we choose to watch the show we know that we are joined by a million other viewers. Thus the characteristics of community, space and environment get redefined. The community is now dispersed and unconfined by a location, even though it is still somehow defined by time and idea. But we also know that we can safely assume that when we get to the office the next morning will be able to strike a conversation with one or several colleagues about the happenings of yesterday’s show. Thus the community gets extended to beyond the time of the show’s showing, joining like minded individuals in a new manner that has transcended the traditional sense of the meeting, and allows us to get out of isolation every once in a while. What also happens is that people get together, gathered by a community created around someone else’s life, whether fictional or real. I personally have been marginal to those shows. But every morning after the air of Idol, or Project Runway or any of these reality/ competition shows people around me would be talking about it, about what this competitor… Oh My Goodness what were they thinking, singing country on American Idol… that is soooo daring and did you see what she was wearing? And of course that poor thing falling flat on his face as he was dancing… now THAT was what cost him the competition. But i would vote for him. The culmination of all that was the Susanne Boyle phenomenon. An obscure talent who did not have the looks or the presence to be a performer came an wowed the world through one song. All of a sudden everyone identified with Susanne, everyone routed for her, everyone cried tears of joy for her. Everyone, everywhere, around the world. Even those who did not watch the show their space was invaded by it, at least for a few days.
The space where we truly allow ourselves to come out is the virtual communities on the computer screen. Where we go to a virtual community, for example Facebook, we are there intentionally to communicate. We choose to whom we want to talk to, even if they are strangers, by virtue of a selection process that allows us to narrow from a few million to a few hundred… We can browse, chat and create virtual communities that create a network with time being the common bond.
On some websites we can create our own avatars and live alternate lives.
In our real physical world it is not that different, we continuously make choices, even though we do not have an elimination listing system, we do go through the same process but in a different manner. So the interaction between us and the people around us are more defined by the space and time continuum.
That confinement has gone a step further with the smartphones and pad where you can have apps allowing you to ‘check-in’ and where others within your network would be able to know your location and either meet up with you or give you recommendations. Or the apps that allow you to know who in your vicinity would be a potential good suit, or a potential adventure and allows you to connect with them virtually and then physically. Those apps confine us to a pre-set number or characteristics that bind our experience to what the app defines as ‘ours’. Our role of reading the space and scanning through faces and places become minimized to the app we hold in our hands and our ability to read it and use it. It removes the element of play and the unknown, restricting our experiences and our potential experiences while enhancing and reinforcing the ones we know and have experienced before.
Thus the city and the urban landscape have to contend with a very tough competition. The old dilemma raise by Victor Hugo in ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ about the advent of the Guttenberg press is back. ‘Ceci tuera cela, le livre tuera l’edifice’ (this will kill that, the book will kill the edifice).
‘Ceci tuera cela’ was a declaration of the loss of legibility of the architecture due to the spread of the books, thanks to the modern printing press. It was also about the fear of the clergy of loosing power over the masses, since up till then they alone had the power of knowledge and choice given by the book, and the architectural edifice was a manifestation of that power over the population. It was majestic, it towered over the population showing then that through religion they could gain the vertical connection to God and to the heavens. The edifice also offered the gathering space for the community, where they get united to be guided by the choice. The fear of the clergy was that knowledge through the book would offer the population choices, thus diminishing their power, and that the book would create isolation dispersing the masses and again diminishing their power.
Yet architecture never really lost its legibility. It simply acquired a new set of linguistic symbols through which it communicated. It was a language that was alive, changing and timeless at the same time. It reflected the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age). So when we see a certain type of architecture, we can tell what period it was built in as well as what is the message it is trying to convey to us.
The architecture has always been part of a branded expression, that speaks about identity. From the pharaonic pyramids, the temple, the church, the mosque, to the corporate edifice, even passing through residential and vernacular architecture. It is the stamp of identity of a certain group. It helped foster a sense of identity, of belonging, of attachment, a belief, and even sometimes a sense of structure and hierarchy through which norms were set and accountability was determined.
The brand expression was not only in the exteriors but it included the interior and the environment with every piece of it communicating whether iconoclastically or architectonically. In our modern architecture we have not shifted away from that paradigm.
The architecture was never killed by the book, its methods have shifted and altered, but it always finds a way to reinvent itself as communication tool. The book was nothing but an extension of the space to when you are not present in it, especially when it came to religion where the argument originated from. It created a virtual world build through imagination. But it did not have the same power the screen has these days since reading the book was still an individual endeavor.
Architecture is about the community and the connection with the other, while the books are about isolation and refuge.
Will our modern day isolation methods’ impact prove to be similar to those that have been felt by the book, an extension of the physical world, or will it prove to create something completely different where it becomes a alternate world? Will the physical world need redefinition in terms of its paradigm and its messaging in order to keep its stature as a major message giver? It should be able to compete with the Sim-Cities and the Second-Lives out there where people can go live their alternative lives and have more choices. Will this duality and dichotomy redefine our architectural and urban expression? Will it create a new architectonic language that has a different way of expressing, spaces, function, loyalty, power or any of the other expressions architecture and space are so adept at making? In some cases like in China it has. A lot of people there live dual lives, the shown and the hidden. They splurge on what others can see to give the impression of wealth, as well as conformity. Yet in the confines of their homes it is a different story, and on the ‘chinese Facebook’ and qq it is an even more different landscape. They lives lives that are non conforming the requirements of tradition and culture. When trying to communicate to the chinese consumer one has to know on which plane they need to be and how to communicate through it which has been a struggle western, designers, architects and communicators have been facing.
Choice is the key word here. For the corporate world, which in a way equates the clergy at the time of Hugo, there will be a necessity to overcome the stance it has long taken an imposing its values upon its consumer and shift to making the consumer part of the process by giving them more choices. Maybe if the physical environment offered choices that were parallel to the avatars, and the control-alt-delete, the disconnect between the screen and the 3D world would be bridged. Choice that might actually lead us to a more flat and democratic architectural expression. A different type of space that has a capacity to transcend its own physicality and break the traditional social norms.