Technology altering cities
By Ken Fountain
Daily Cougar Staff
Architects and urban planners in the 21st century will need to incorporate
modern electronic and telecommunications technology in their
designs in the same way their 19th-century counterparts had to deal
with the products of the Industrial Revolution, an architectural scholar
said Thursday at UH.
Lorrie Novosad/The Daily Cougar
MIT School of Architecture and Planning Dean William J.
Mitchell discusses the nexus of architecture and modern media and communications
at the Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture on Thursday.
William J. Mitchell, dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's
School of Architecture and Planning, spoke before an audience of
communications and architecture students in the auditorium of the Gerald
D. Hines School of Architecture.
Mitchell, who once taught at UH, said the fields of architecture, media
and digital telecommunications are "really coming together in some
very interesting and important ways, which have very significant implications
for the future of our cities."
Mitchell said architects and urban designers will have to think about
how "electronics and physical materials fit together, and how to design
the total thing."
The title of Mitchell's 1999 book e-topia, which was also the title
of his speech, "suggests the idea of electronically mediated places," he
"There are three new interconnected waves of technology that are really
beginning to change our cities in a big way," he said.
The first of these are large-scale digital telecommunication networks
(the Internet, the World Wide Web, broadband); the second are
"nomadics," or portable devices (such as cell phones or wireless laptop
computers) that are wirelessly connected to the global
telecommunications system; and the third is "decentralized network
intelligence" embedded in any kind of physical artifact, such as the
electronics systems of modern automobiles.
Mitchell said the new digital telecommunications networks are really
"a new type of urban superstructure that follows in the footsteps of other
types of network infrastructures that have been laid down over cities
over the centuries," such as water supply and sewer networks,
transportation networks and the like.
In older cities such as Rome or Paris, he said, these different networks
have been successively laid down on top of each other over time.
More modern cities are characterized by whatever network was new at
the time the city was rapidly growing.
"A city like Phoenix (Arizona), for example, is unimaginable without
the automobile transportation networks and the electrical supply networks
to run all of those air conditioners," he said.
As in the past, the effect of the new waves of technology on modern
cities is the "fragmentation and recombination" of various functions of
building types and urban patterns, he said.
As an example, Mitchell cited a traditional urban bookstore, which combines
in one structure several functions -- advertising, storage of
books, customer browsing, a point of sale and back-office functions
such as bookkeeping.
With modern technology, such a bookstore is replaced by a company like
Amazon.com, which splits these separate functions apart in space
and time. Customers browse for books and purchase them over the Internet
from any place they have access to it.
The storage component is transformed into vast, highly-centralized warehouses
located on major transportation nodes. "And so you find cities
like Reno, Nevada, suddenly becoming centers of the book trade, because
this is an attractive place to put this new building type," he said.
"The back-office work, which used to be located near the actual action,
now floats to wherever there is appropriately skilled labor available at
an attractive price," he said, since that kind of work can be sent
"In the case of Amazon, you do it from downtown Seattle, not because
you have to do it there, but because a lot of the people who built that
company come from Seattle, and they want to be there," he said.
"We're seeing the emergence of a new palette of building types and urban
patterns that architects and urban designers need to be aware of,"
he said. "This is literally the raw material for the making of cities
in the 21st century."