Tag Archives: legibility

Architecture Local

Designing for DC’s borders

All-singing, all-dancing design giant AECOM is sponsoring a student design contest for urban-scale interventions in cities with complicated relationships to their borders:

This year, we are seeking integrated design, planning, environmental restoration and engineering responses that address border, gateway and edge/fringe conditions in cities worldwide. Proposals should address urban sites currently facing chronic liveability challenges that are largely the result of a city’s location on a physical, political, cultural or economic border.

Now, I bet they’re are talking about urban centers near international borders, because those borders are much more absolute and lead to fascinating instances of disparity and extrastratecraft as business and humanity grind against governmental systems. Nonetheless, given the expectation of feasibility, I see an opportunity for proposals involving DC because its unusual legal condition is so intensified by its small size, unique economy, and structural formation.

Consider the consequences of legislative boundaries around DC: voting rights, income tax losses, diminished school funding, job opportunity, metro funding, etc. Or the geographic limitations of the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek Park: income distribution, commuting bottlenecks, racial division, and so on. Finally, what about the relationship of DC to the rest of the United States and the world? DC requires the usual things cities import, like food, but it also transfers enormous amounts of wealth, power, and human capital globally. Just because this infrastructure is not physical, does not mean that it does not have physical consequences, e.g. the security duck and  the extensive but inadequate infrastructure.

I suppose that the crises are less severe in DC, but I don’t think design will solve these problems. Instead, the curiousness of Greater Washington’s legal structure can be a much more subtle way of understanding the mechanics of government.

Architecture Other

Legible soundscapes

The New York Times reports on the controversies of the Shot Spotter gunshot locator. The device is a fascinating piece of technology that, in the words of James C. Scott, makes the soundscape “legible.”

In his book, The Tuning of the World, R. Murray Schaefer coined the term “soundscape” to describe the specific ambient conditions of a location. Like a landscape, soundscapes are an aspect of environment that remains relatively constant and which humans adapt to, interpret, and reshape. Schaefer interprets ambient noise as a part of the built environment. Take, for example, the way church bells were used to communicate time and call people to attention. The need to hear became a factor in medieval densification and growth required parishes to bud rather than sprawl. The information they conveyed was too important to do without. But, as we’ve needed bells less, they have shifted from signals into soundscape.

But, perhaps the newest tendency is not to tune ambient noise out, but to process it. Typically, this has been in the name of art, a way of humanizing it through aesthetic effects. Sometimes with simple analog acoustics, such as Lancaster’s Singing Ringing Tree, and other times through algorithms in Yokohama’s Tower of Winds. Both are interesting artworks, but they become still more interesting when seen as containing design choices in the form of the parameters that the artworks transform. The Tree might be more indiscriminate, but it’s aestheticization of wind is very transparent. The wind blows, you hear the howl and the tone at the same time, and one is explicitly the cause of the other.

The Tower of Winds, on the other hand, is controlled through algorithms that process the winds and noise it visualizes. It’s computerized and opaque, and you’d have to see the code to understand the process. I think it’s more beautiful, but it is also bound to the instruments that translate phenomena into machine-readable signals that are then interpreted by a program of more-or-less arbitrary signals. The process of getting from input to light relies, quite literally, on a black box. It is opaque.

So too is the ShotSpotter. It has assigned value to a particular range of frequency and timbre and understood them as probable gunshots. Software locates the source of the sound through trilateration and presents a monitor with a sound clip and a probable location cross-referenced to a GIS model. Further layers or readily processable information are included, hypothetically improving response time.

But, when legibility is so explicit, it also becomes possible to evade the mechanisms of gunfire by evading the identified sound of gunfire. An individual doesn’t have to suppress the sound, just distort it to the point that does not fit the parameters for a “gunshot.” At this point the precision of the system starts to fall apart – and it is the precision that gives police departments a time advantage over human call-in.

All this to say that how you pick parameters matters as much as how you manipulate their content. It’s hard to get criminals to agree to standards.