TwitterHouse: an approach for urban design with new media

TwitterHouse

About Twitterhouse
Saturday March 27 2010 I attended the public presentation of the project TwitterHouse at Center for Architecture Arcam in Amsterdam. This project, initiated by Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder of XML Architecture, Research and Urbanism, explores the potential of new media in the architectural design process. As part of their final assignment bachelor architecture students of Delft University had to follow one Amsterdam-based ‘tweep’ (someone who twitters) who regularly uses the platform and also posts more or less personal messages. The students had to analyze his/her lifestyle from these ‘tweets’ without actually getting in touch with this person. Based on this analysis the students designed a house for their ‘virtual clients’ who initially were unaware that they were part of this project. At the end of the assignment the virtual clients were informed that they unwittingly were part of this project. They were invited and several of them actually attended the presentation. From the announcement:

Twitter, Facebook, Hyves, Flickr, MySpace, Linkedin.. We increasingly organize our lives online and share it with whoever wants to follow. What is the potential of these parallel online and offline lives? How do online networks, so eagerly called ‘social media’, organize offline social ties, and the inverse? And what is the effect of this on the collective spaces of the city? To what extend do new forms and meanings of public and private spaces arise from these exchanges?

In the fall of academic year 2009/2010 architecture students at Delft University researched these question under the guidance of XML.

A part of Amsterdam’s historical center was divided into 500×500 meter quadrants. Each student was assigned one quadrant to find a fitting location for a house of about 130 m2. They had to follow two rules: nothing could be demolished, and the house had to fit in the existing urban fabric. Because an interesting living space only comes into being in dialogue with an interesting client students were coupled to a ‘virtual client’. Eleven inhabitants of Amsterdam were selected who share their lives online via Twitter (and Facebook, Linkedin, and so on). These clients did not know they were part of an assignment to design a house for them.

Durting the ten weeks of the assignment an increasingly personal picture arose of the lifestyles of these clients from following their lives online. Twitter revealed were and how they drink their coffee, whether they prefer to stay on the couch or go into town, where their children are at school: in short, the personal lifestyle and life sphere of the virtual client. On the basis of this Twitter analysis a program of demands was developed that was specifically targeted at the virtual client. This program was translated into a architectonic concept for the chosen location which fitted the lifestyle of the virtual client.

During the presentation at Arcam the students showed their final work (maquettes and collages) and presented their research in short 3-minute ‘pitches’. Almost all students departed from an analysis of how their client organizes the day temporally and spatially, and on ‘reading’ their personality from the tweets. The majority of students focussed on spatial divisions in someone’s life: between public and private life, between work and home life, between order and chaos. In the case of most tweeps the students found these distinctions are very blurry. These persons they tweet a lot of private information. They often also work at home, and interact with friends while at work. In some cases however, particularly when the tweeps were more or less public figures (like @vkoblenko and @fatimaelatik), students concluded that these people would want to shield themselves off from prying eyes and need a vestige to retreat from public life. Most students also realized that what someone shares via Twitter is not necessarily the full picture of his/her life. Yet they did get a sense of getting to know the person better by following him/her online.

Accommodating or offering an alternative?
The difficult part was how to translate little chunks of information about someone’s life schedule and lifestyle into a physical design for a house. I discerned a broad division of proposals at the level of the ‘content’ of the ideas. The majority of proposed concepts were designed to accommodate the individual lifestyle of the client, and a minority of interventions were deliberate attempts to subvert or offer an alternative to the client’s lifestyle. An example of the former was the project for @covergirlsunny, a female DJ in a trendy nightclub with an outgoing personality who enjoys showing herself to an audience. The student following her concluded she needs a podium to show herself to the outside world. The idea developed was based on the typology of the theater with a big transparent frontstage lifted up from the ground where parties and fashion expositions can take place, and a small backstage area below ground level. An example of the latter was the project for @arjanduffels, a male entrepreneur who likes luxurious things, to consume, and often goes out to restaurants and bars with friends. Almost all of his social functions normally take place outside of the home domain. The proposed idea was to design a communal home which combines various functions internally and were he can live together with some of his friends.

How to move from concept to form?
Another broad distinction I saw was at the level of the ‘form’ of the ideas. How to translate someone’s lifestyle into a physical shape? Some projects chose a form that reflected the unique individuality of the client. One such project was a home for fashion designer @jolinejolink. She says she wants to be “unknown yet famous”: her brand should be recognizable but she herself wants to stay away from the spotlights. The proposed home tried to reflect the sculptural qualities of her work and be recognizable as the ‘brand Joline’. There was also a little studio space in the house and room for showcasing her work, but at the same time it offered a shelter for her to retreat. By contrast, other concepts in their shape tried to capture the social dynamics and mobilities of the client as an embedded part of wider networks and – perhaps, in my interpretation – their identities as a ‘distributed self’. Projects for @paulsebes and @marjolijn departed from the idea of ‘living’ as rooted in a fixed home. The last project in particular came up with the radical idea of temporary living spaces or “hubs” scattered throughout the city. Each of these special locations (a climbing wall, an old attic, etc.) can be leased for a limited period of time. Together they offer a “collage of experiences” of the city.

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Addressing online identities
This research raises questions about ‘impression management’ via new media. Twitter messages of course do not reflect the ‘whole’ of someone’s personality. In Goffmanian terms social media platforms appear a stage for radical ‘frontstage’ behavior in presenting a public face to an audience. However, in practice the distinction between a public frontstage and a private backstage is blurring. Often people engage in semi-private one-to-one messages with other people which can be ‘eavesdropped’ by others. The role of the audience has shifted from being physically present and complicit in the performance to being largely invisible and unknown. Some of the tweeps who received notice that they were part of this experiment said they felt shocked. Moreover, an individual is less and less able to control his/her public face online. Even though he imposes a media ‘code’ on himself, others may not abide and for instance put ‘incriminating’ photos and messages online. The project itself shows that stuff people share online can end up in very different contexts that it was originally intended for (juridically it is questionable whether people’s uploaded photos are allowed to be republished in the project book..).

Some projects struggled to go beyond too literal or gimmicky translation of a person’s lifestyle to a concept. (Should a politician who is actively involved in the theme of migrant integration live under a roof with red tiles that ‘integrate’ well in a block with other buildings? To the credit of this student, he had other ideas as well that in my view were definitely good). Still, I believe the project as a whole is an interesting exploration of the potential of new media technologies (and social media in particular) in urban design. The project took up the glove to translate social processes, which now to a large extend happen via new media, into physical design interventions.

Relations between urban design and new media
After our talk at the Day of the Young Architect we have been working on possible approaches to the relation between urban design and new media. One version that departs from technologies and/or an underlying normative view of the city has been posted recently. An alternative – less poetic, more rigorous – framework distinguishes between (1) Urban design with new media: how new media can be used in various ways as instruments in the design of cities; (2) Urban design for new media: how new media technologies and practices can be integrated in the actual design of spaces; (3) New media design for urban culture: how new media can be designed in order to contribute to a lively and healthy urban culture; (4) Applying urban design to new media: how architectural spatial knowledge can be employed to design informational spaces in intelligible ways. (More about this analysis will follow in an announcement we will make shortly). TwitterHouse clearly fits best in the first category. It has been used mostly as a tool in the design process. Interestingly, the idea of ‘educating the client’ which we developed in our talk may require rethinking. Who are the clients anyway? Do new media – and social platforms in particular – have the potential to change how design assignments are commissioned, and in its wake change the notion of ownership? But then the question arises why not interact with the virtual clients?

Conclusions
TwitterHouse raises several other questions. First of all, in most cases the virtual clients active on Twitter are without children and relatively young (aged 20-40). What about the changes in someone’s life patterns when he/she gets older? Will the house grow along and offer room for adaptation? Will it sell to someone else? Further, the focus on designing a house according to the inferred lifestyle of one individual may have caused the most poignant aspect of social media platforms – changes in how we organize social relations – to be ‘lost in translation’. To what extend is the social character of these media platforms acknowledged in this assignment which predominantly focussed on building a home for the individual lifestyle of a tweep? Perhaps it would have made more sense to use Twitter for the design of a more public place, a meeting space? Also, none of the students took a very critical look at the role of social media platforms in shaping urban life itself. Some of the well-known (well-worn?) themes are how such media not only afford individuals to organize their lives more flexibly but also puts various kinds of pressure on them (e.g. to be always available, the crumbling of work/leisure boundaries); how social platforms make interacting with the people we already know much easier but often at the expense of meeting strangers; and how new media may ‘optimize’ the use of urban spaces and services at the expense of surprise encounters and loss of privacy. In my view only a few students got to the heart of the question: is the (social) practice of ‘living’ still the same, and therefore should a house still be a house as we know it? If indeed it is not, as some concluded, should architecture uncritically accommodate to these developments (e.g. the nomadic living proposal) or should it offer an alternative, a commentary that ‘critically engages’ with these developments? The practice of architecture itself could have been questioned, but instead was left open. But then again, as one of the students confided to me afterwards, architecture must not overstate its importance in shaping social processes and the urban fabric. Sometimes a house is just a house.

==update==

See the talk by XML Architecture, Research and Urbanism at ‘Designing the Hybrid City’.

Michiel de Lange
Michiel de Lange (1976) is a part-time Lecturer in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, and a researcher and adviser of new media and urbanism. He is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project (www.nomadicmilk.net). He worked for Knowledgeland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds. Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.