Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City

author: William J. Mitchell, MIT Media Lab, School of Architecture + Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: July 18, 2011,   recorded: December 2005,   views: 163
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The evolution of architecture resembles nothing so much as the fleshing out and refinement of an organism, in William Mitchell’s condensed account. In pre-industrial times, architecture was “fundamentally skeleton and skin—a structure that protects and keeps out the weather.” The industrial era brought an increasing awareness of the mechanical physiology of buildings: “the flows of electricity and waste removal were overlaid on the skeleton.” In our own times, buildings have acquired “artificial nervous systems” superimposed on the flow networks. Mitchell embraces new architectural forms emerging from this latest digital technology, and gestures toward entire cities connected by a mesh of intelligent buildings. He sees “more interesting urban expressions beginning to develop,” among them Chicago’s Millennium Park, where the Crown Fountain displays giant digital images of city residents through whose mouths water flows. As information becomes increasingly mobile, opportunities arise in nontraditional public spaces for digital access, and work, creativity and social clusters emerge.

Mitchell points to some of MIT’s new buildings, from dorms to the Stata Center, as examples of places that “support ad hoc interactions, spontaneous connections.” With “more fluid nomadic patterns of space occupation, this unassigned space is enormously productive,” says Mitchell. Rooms can be used at any time, for any reason—whether to work or drink coffee. But the same kind of digital access enables students in seminars “to Google topics and introduce the result of a search in real time,” Mitchell wryly notes. Ultimately, though, when “technology becomes unobtrusive” and “disappears into the woodwork,” architects will be liberated to refocus on such fundamental human requirements as light, air, and sociability.

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