Our Question and Answer series brings together two creative minds from a range of backgrounds to explore the transformation of our cities. Here, architect and urban designer Jeffrey Inaba and the designer and President of the Rhode Island School of Design, John Maeda, engage in a conversation about the relationship between technology and design in our built environment.
The standard approach to the technologies in buildings is to engineer them to be innocuous. The more they go unnoticed, the better. If these systems – which provide air, power, and water – are doing their jobs properly, we don’t need to think about them; we don’t have to concern ourselves with feeling too cold or too hot, with electricity outages, or not being able to take a shower. These technologies are essential since we would not be able to dwell in buildings or live in cities without them.
But despite being a requirement in every building, they are rarely a feature of the architectural experience. Since they already have to go into all structures, why not incorporate them as an active element of the design? The recent use of digital technology to support these systems poses an opportunity. Digital technology has helped to make building technologies operate efficiently. It can also be used to animate them to make them a tangible presence in our experience of the city. They can be seen, felt, and heard – even as they help to reduce the amount of resources that we consume.
Jeffrey Inaba asks: How can technology in architecture enhance the experience of cities?
John Maeda answers:
The late William J. Mitchell, former Dean of Architecture at MIT, often said that designing buildings themselves has become less of a challenge over time, but the challenge of figuring out how they connect to their surrounding city and transportation networks has grown. He often gave the example of smart cars that could park in front of a building and engage in an invisible negotiation with the building to get charged from the building’s solar panels – a seamless process to the driver of the car. Bill also talked about cars sharing information about their local environment with surrounding roads and buildings, connecting all of the components of the living landscape into an integrated grid of information. Bill’s vision of ubiquity, mobility, and interconnectedness appears to be coming true.
Because technology in cities is at the tipping point where it has become so ubiquitous, it just fades into the background as part of the architectural landscape. It is so prevalent, such a given, in most of our lives – be it in buildings, automobiles, or products and services – that it is no longer really special. Now that we have (more than) enough of it to do almost anything, all these technologies that were once luxuries have become expected modern conveniences – and thus, the advancement of the technology has become less important than its contextualization within society.
Your experience in your city, in your home or your car or your office, is often a result of some technology that has become an innate part of daily urban life – a conversation on the phone, a home-cooked meal, a hot shower, a drive across town – but it is made special and unique by design. Design adds the emotional component, humanizing the technology in our environments.
As technology disappears further into the background of our environs, the humanity we have always valued prevails. Our interactions with and our reactions to those technologies are defined by the design, which lies at the forefront. At RISD, I often talk about how what seem to be straightforward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) problems need art and design to become STEAM – the space where we will see true cutting-edge innovations.
To continue Dr. Mitchell’s example above, engineering the technical solution for a rooftop solar panel to deliver energy to a car is certainly a meaningful “STEM” innovation. But it will only feel like an innovation to the person in the car if they can easily figure out where an available parking space is, if connecting the car to the building doesn’t require a PhD, and if you can tell when the car has “had enough,” or better yet, when it moderates its own intake automatically. In other words, if the solution is well-designed.
Design is about developing a truly integrated solution – between a building and its environs, between physical spaces and the virtual information that lies within them, between a city dweller and her city. If it is doing its job, the technology disappears.
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