City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


While in Brisbane last week, I took the opportunity to meet a few people at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) for a chat about their work.

Dr. Marcus Foth will be known to a few of you as the energetic organiser of the Urban Informatics group on Facebook, as well as his work at QUT. We met at the QUT Kelvin Grove campus, where their well-known Institute for Creative Industries and Innovation is based, and had a long discussion about our various ideas as to making the previously invisible effects of everyday behaviour visible, with a view towards building more sustainable modes of behaviour; a form of persuasive visualisation, after Andrew vande Moere’s phrase, angled towards the personal and everyday (see Rob Annable’s long-distance write-up of my recent talk on ‘The Personal Well-Tempered Environment’ – more to follow on that.) Foth is engaged in much the same thinking, and it was great to knock ideas about with him. He’s the editor of a forthcoming book – entitled ‘Urban Informatics: Community Integration and Implementation’, which should be a great contribution, and I can’t wait to see more emerge from his research projects "Remembering the Past, Imagining the Future: Embedding Narrative and New Media in Urban Planning" and "Swarms in Urban Villages: New Media Design to Augment Social Networks of Residents in Inner-City Developments". He’s also co-organising a workshop on ‘Pervasive Persuasive Technology and Environmental Sustainability’ at Pervasive 2008 in Sydney, which I hope to attend.
Marcus also gave me a guided tour of the Kelvin Grove Urban Village (KGUV) and campus, which is an adventurous billion-dollar investment by QUT and the state government. (Some brief thoughts on the KGUV below.)

Gavin Sade is also based at QUT’s Kelvin Grove campus, within the Creative Industries faculty too, but working more in the area of teaching multimedia design. We talked of pedagogical issues in the contemporary classroom, and new classroom design – in other words, turn off the wifi if you want attention – and a bit on shaping education at this level. He also showed me some of his artwork/research, produced with the artist Priscilla Bracks (of whom you may have heard) and others as part of a collective, Kuuki. ‘Charmed’, exhibited at Experimenta in Melbourne earlier this year, is quite a beguiling little piece. It’s constructed from three small white blobs, whose appealing tactility almost begs you to pick them up. Upon handling, sensors track movement and location over a table, and an embedded screen reveals an internal world which can be prodded and poked, and reacts accordingly. Here’s Gavin’s statement:

"The touch sensitive screens of Charmed offer intimate views into a virtual world accessed via three glowing resin pods. Each pod provides an entry point to inhabitants of suburban neighborhoods, apartment buildings and city spaces. Within these highly evolved snow domes, a black and white linear aesthetic depicts a world populated by mesmerized figures carrying out the routine tasks required of their environments. Haptic gestures, like touching or tapping, provide a pathway into the spaces and a connection with the cultures, uncovering the diminutive details of the lives of these animated figures. Touching the screen can break the spell and provoke change. Repeated tapping can cause chaos, disrupting lives, forcing computers to malfunction and causing traffic accidents. Tapping can impact inhabitants, even causing a man to drink so much that the inevitable happens and he wets his pants. In Charmed each portal offers an impression of omnipotence as private lives and public spaces are exposed and controlled by our touch."


Several thousand pairs of hands later, the blobs are a little grubbier and a lot less Kubrick accordingly, but that grimy patina reflects a lot of happy investigation. Gavin also gave the KGUV tour, so I got two angles in quick succession there. You can follow Gavin’s blog here.

A day later I met up with Ben Kraal, at another QUT campus – the beautiful Gardens Point, just outside the CBD. Kraal is a research fellow in the School of Design, in the faculty of Built Environment and Engineering (the interweaving of disciplines across schools is healthily jumbled at QUT) broadly in the area of researching how people use things. I leave it that broad as his work could fit into the mainstream currents of HCI – indeed he just presented a paper at OZCHI in Adelaide – but also fits into general observational research into product design, practice, expertise, technique etc. And his current research drops the C in HCI altogether, focusing instead on nurses’ application of compression bandages, seeing them as ‘complex physical interfaces’ and detailing how expertise might be systematically engendered in training and transfer of experience – and possibly leading that learning back into the product design itself. I found it fascinating to see the well-equipped labs, and particularly the software used to log videos of observations and then extrapolate themes in practice. In his words:

"We’ve shown that existing theories of expertise (continue to) scale across tasks, activities and disciplines. Also, we think we’re able to scale our approach to other physical interfaces. And that means that we’ll be better able to understand the actual use of physical interfaces, or indeed interfaces that are a mix of physical and digital, in the real world not just in a lab. And if we can get closer to understanding what people think and do, we can design better artefacts."

We also had a hugely enjoyable, incredibly detailed yet free-wheeling (no pun intended) conversation on car design, with particular reference to rotary engines and how different design and construction methodologies in the Japanese car industry impact on their possible adaptation and re-use of components (cf. Toyota). I hasten to add that all the detail was coming from Ben. You can follow Ben’s blog here.

Many thanks to Marcus Foth, Gavin Sade and Ben Kraal. The fourth person I wanted to see, obliquely referred to above, was on holiday in the UK for Christmas. That’s John Frazer (see also), who Arup’s Tristram Carfrae had recommended and is Head of the School of Design. His research in informational models of cities is fairly unbeatable, ditto the use of generative systems in architecture. We hope to catch up another time.
I’d also like to catch up with the Centre for Sub-Tropical Design at QUT, next time I’m up. I’ve been fascinated in their work for years, and I’m a bit gutted I missed their recent ‘Hearing the city’ event (nice PDF on that here) and related ‘Brisbane River Audio Stream’, co-produced with Lawrence English, supremo of the internationally-renowned local label, Room 40.

These two campus sites, Gardens Point and Kelvin Grove, are both good and interesting. The former, Gardens Point, is perhaps the more appealing currently, though it’s hardly a fair comparison given that Kelvin Grove is still in the very early stages of a ‘tabula rasa’-style development, whereas Gardens Point has borne an educational establishment for almost a century.
Gardens Point has much of the same ‘sub-tropical foliage reclaims sci-fi-brutalist space station’ feel that the University of Queensland campus has, further up the river. It’s a quite wonderful sensation and the campus cleverly snakes a few elevated walkways through the wide variety of buildings, ’70s hulks next to late colonial architecture.





How great to walk over the Brisbane River, via the Goodwill Bridge, above the tangles of black, silty mangroves, and into the campus. The other side of the campus backs onto the city’s Botanical Gardens, bursting with overgrown fig trees and blooming tropical plants, and on the other sides by the CBD and the river. A pretty good spot to think. [photos of Gardens Point here]

Kelvin Grove Urban Village is, as mentioned, at a far earlier stage of development. It’s just post-construction and pre-character. However, the facilities are excellent, it’s 3km from the city centre, and the complex has a variety of building types spread across the now-ubiquitous mixed-use development. Things are falling into place. Its architecture isn’t particularly distinguished, though perfectly functional and with a good quality build. There are solar-powered bus stops a-plenty, decent cafés and other services. There is affordable housing as well as other (unaffordable?) housing, cheek by jowl. Although, somewhat oddly, the affordable is all in one block, which is apparently causing some issues. But essentially, the only thing the whole place needs is to be lived-in a bit. That, and the mass-transit connection to the centre, promised in the form of light rail. It just smacks of a new town development – a rare sensation for someone from the UK to feel – where only half the residents and services are in. Which is essentially what it is. While I don’t like the phrase ‘urban village’ – it’s an oxymoron; is it ‘urban’ or ‘village’? – it seems to have been well-planned. Possibly over-planned, but on a decent scale.





Inside the buildings, the facilities are generally excellent. And outside, there’s a giant billboard (the now familiar ‘largest in the southern hemisphere’ phrase is applicable here, apparently) and some nifty projectors in the ‘square’, trained on a large blank wall. Not used so much yet, these have potential. It’s also rather charming how the former inhabitants, the 100-year-old Gona Army Barracks, are still visible in the form of old wooden huts and a long straight line of palm trees denoting the parade grounds. Ditto the naming and landscaping drawn from the relationship between the Indigenous Turrbal people and the land. While Gardens Point bears witness to a fully-formed campus, as evidenced in the height of the foliage, it’ll be fascinating to see how the Kelvin Grove develops – it deserves to do well. [photos of Kelvin Grove here]


One response to “QUT, Brisbane: 3 (or 4) people, 2 campuses”

  1. Ben Kraal Avatar
    Ben Kraal

    Thanks, Dan. It was a pleasure meeting you, too.


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