Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on February 27th 2009.
It’s a crisp clear Swiss winter day. Geneva looks beautiful in the pale sun. That sun, which feels like a slowly failing 20 watt bulb, is the second clearest sign I’m a long way from the New South Wales I left behind on Monday afternoon. The clearest sign is that it’s -2°C here, which is essentially 32° difference to the Sydney summer day I departed from. I wear a coat for the first time in almost two years.
Surprisingly, given my proclivities, it’s my first time in Geneva, but being amidst the effortlessly elegant Mittel-European urban form again is a delightful confirmation of certain beliefs after getting all-too accustomed to the New World sprawls of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Bikes, trams, four–to-five storey apartment blocks, trees, pocket parks and quietly civic squares everywhere — it’s all so correct, even recognising that Geneva is far from the best example. The more institutional bits of Geneva feel more like one’s living amidst the giant sets of Tati’s Playtime (which a part of me would be entirely happy to do.)
Another difference with Australia is visible in the faces around me on the streets: the relative proximity of Africa, rather than of South-East Asia. The flat northern European colour-scheme of white, brown, grey and black across the textures of stone, brick, bare trees under filigreed clouds is a subtle and beautiful counterpoint to the intense light and rich colours of Australia. I’m lucky to live in both these worlds.
I also encounter three examples of haughty Swiss brusqueness in quick succession, from airport to taxi to hotel, which is a shock after the naturally easy-going and friendly Australian service culture. Still, I’m back in the country of my birth and I can live with this. My ‘Swiss-ness’ is something I’ve continually over-stressed, entirely out of proportion to the <2 years I spent here after my birth in Zürich, and have spent much of my adult life adulating the likes of Josef Muller-Brockmann, Le Corbusier, Max Bill, Jan Tschichold, Peter Zumthor, Claudio Sulser. The coffee is predictably poor, betraying the French heritage, but I can forgive almost all these foibles given the sheer delight of being in a country with the world’s finest array of door handles, window fittings, banknotes and transport infrastructure.
This is the pleasurable sense of disorientation I’m feeling. The less pleasurable aspects are due to the fact it took me four days to get here, when it should’ve taken just over 24 hours. This is due partly to three malfunctions across two different planes on the runway at Bangkok airport, but mainly due to the ineptitude of British Airways and Thai Airlines, which shuttled us backwards and forwards from runway to airport hotel numerous times. It was a bravura performance of truly appalling ‘customer service’, a cavalcade of unthinking, desperate, flailing, inhumane incompetence, all too familiar when encountering the raw edges often left exposed by global capital.
The journey ends up being Sydney to Bangkok to Hong Kong to London to Geneva, the last four airports all experienced within in single day. Despite the intense fatigue, hassle and frustration — which eventually left me drained of anger and resolving into a zen-like state of near-calm, as if the body itself was beginning to fade — I did at least get to explore Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (pretty good; wonderful concrete alongside giant stretched-taut silver canvas loops; not enough places to sit; over-staffed shops, which is not a bad thing necessarily; no wi-fi), Hong Kong (night-time descent along the lights of Macau; currently being re-modelled but still delivering a sense of Chinese scale; cavernous escalator-threaded atria; great automated transit; old people working everywhere; good shops and good food; good free wi-fi all over the airport), London Heathrow Terminal 5 (disclaimer: Arup worked on it; actually surprised by how much I liked it; also good automated transit; the finish of many details was very good; beautiful exposed structural details; the shops entirely out of kilter with the times (a glance down the departure lounge: Prada, Harrods; Dior; Mappin & Webb; Smythson; Tiffany & Co … all predictably empty); wi-fi everywhere but not free and therefore not used) and finally Geneva (classic small European airport; functional, efficient and pleasingly so; concourse roof being remodelled presumably; no need for automated transit or shops; surrounded by Alps and so a wonderful arrival:departure experience.)
The four-day journey is actually much longer story, which I’ll spare you in detail, but it did inadvertently provide me with strong material for the opening few minutes of my speech at the Lift 09 conference, which is why I’m here in Geneva in the first place.
Lift is a conference I’ve wanted to attend for a while and so the delay was particularly irritating. I managed to make it to the conference finally half-way through day one, and so no doubt missed a few good talks (my friend Fabio Sergio recommended David Rose’s talk in particular, which rang true from my brief visit to the Ambient Devices HQ a few years ago in Cambridge, Mass.) I also regret missing the pre-conference workshop I’d signed up to, entitled ‘The Design of the Hybrid City of the Near Future’ and run by the great Fabien Girardin. It was a pleasure to finally meet Fabien though, and he introduced our session on ‘Towards A Long Here’ (named after Adam Greenfield’s choice phrase), which the conference described thus:
“As half of the world is now living in cities, it’s undeniable that the recombination of our physical environment through technological advancements will lead to unexpected changes, problems but also new opportunities. Carlo Ratti, Dan Hill and Anne Galloway will discuss how our relationship to space will change through various new technologies and examine the main challenges of this field.”
I managed to get it together enough to deliver my speech, in a session alongside Carlo Ratti and Anne Galloway. Despite my intense fatigue, the speech seemed to go OK, and I’ll try to share elements of it here later. I decided to ditch my usual talk on urban informatics — given the audience I could expect a familiarity with the basic concepts and technology, and besides, Matt Jones had delivered an excellent round-up just a week ago in New Zealand, which I was able to deliver an intercontinental link back to — but instead focus on the importance of binding urban soft infrastructure and hard infrastructure together, and the key role of multidisciplinary, holistic ‘total design’ thinking in developing this new layer of soft infrastructure, particularly including addressing business models, legal and political contexts, belief systems, and the social and cultural fabric that supports, enables or hinders all this.
Ed. Mark Vanderbeeken of Experientia posted a good synopsis of the session afterwards.
The loose conference theme centred around the reflection that the future often don’t turn out that way envisaged, and I seized on this to indicate that future urban visions overplay the technology over the social, cultural and political. I’ll try to get some notes up here later — not that I speak with notes. I also showed off my old copy of the fabulous Brian Richards 1966 book, New Movement in Cities (which features several pre-Archigram diagrams from Warren Chalk, Ron Herron and Dennis Crompton. It’s a lead I got a while ago from the ever reliable Jon Bell of Things magazine), as well as playing a clip from the magisterial 1963 film Hands Over the City, directed by Francesco Rosi.
It’s becoming clear by now that it’s always difficult following MIT’s Carlo Ratti, but that’s the card I was dealt. Carlo’s talk was full of fabulous flourishes I won’t describe in detail here. I will instead point out I’ve written up a discussion Carlo and I had at last year’s Metropolis Congress in Sydney for the next issue of Architectural Review Australia. And Anne Galloway followed me, which was nice curation by Nicolas Nova, given that she often provides the necessary antidote to the particular virus that the likes of Carlo and I can tend to spread. Her talk was full of smart questions as regards design practice around future cities, and carefully admonished those who make unthinking statements often made at techno- or design-centric conferences, such as “everyone now has a cellphone” (not something I say, I hasten to add, self-consciously.) Still, I know that some in the audience would’ve looked on quizzically when she said that, and quite possibly concluded “Not everyone has a cellphone? What can she mean? Ah yes, of course, some have two or three.”
Stéphane Distinguin of Urban Mobs gave a talk on their ‘population emotion cartography’ (arguably predicated on the very thing Anne had just warned against, but still). These visualisations of citywide mobile phone activity are always intriguing, and I hope to be shortly starting some research with UTS around using mobile phone data to assess real-time transport activity in Sydney. More later, hopefully.
I enjoyed my former colleague Matt Webb’s talk, not just for the crazy sci-fi but particularly to hear in detail about drawing and its part in the design process (particularly of their brilliant Olinda radio prototype). This, with the ghosts of Webb’s business partner Jack Schulze and Goldsmiths’ Matt Ward looming over the stage, was an insightful exposition of the role of drawing in understanding. Webb also talked about writing in the context of design, and dropped the wonderful phrase — “design is a way of walking over the landscape of possible worlds” — but I enjoyed the examples of exploring through drawing most of all. I’m enjoying several books on drawing at the moment: Architects Draw by Sue Ferguson Gussow, Peter Cook’s book Drawing: The Motive Force of Architecture, and the lovely book by Peter Cookson-Smith: The Urban Design of Impermanence: Places and spaces in Hong Kong.
I also enjoyed the talk on CERN and its role in the development of the web by James Gillies, not least for the images of scrawled notes on academic papers beginning to trace outlines of what would be the key development of the last 25 years: one saying “network + network + network = network”, and a note on Tim Berners-Lee’s paper on the web from March 1989: “vague but exciting”. (Both of these off-hand insights are still as good a description of the Web I’ve heard.)
The role of social democratic-funded government institutions in these developments is worth repeating again and again, particularly now. This theme was echoed later as ‘father of the internet’ Vint Cerf delivered the closing keynote. It was a pleasure to hear Cerf, now at Google, discuss the engineering underpinning the past and future of the internet, and how the TCP/IP protocol may not be suitable for interplanetary communication.
Former organiser of Brisbane’s legendary Livid Festival (something she is probably less well-known for) Natalie Jeremijenko gave one of her usually fascinating, freewheeling and slightly unsettling talks. I liked her terrarium-like subterranean greenery installation I saw at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (in the Premier’s Awards for New Media recently) and her work with the Environmental Health Clinic is hugely promising, acting as a kind of nagging splinter under the fingernail of ‘domestic-scale’ sustainability.
Fabio Sergio’s talk was predictably excellent. I particularly liked his overheard observation on Milano’s smart card-based transport system: “In the past you had to stamp the ticket. Now you simply caress the machine”. One day, I want to post a series on ‘entirely new 21st gestures and movements’ created by touch-based systems. (Ed. Reader, I did.)
Another nice quote from Fabio was “technology as a material to sketch with”, referring to the digital/physical prototyping environment at Frog Design in Milano, where he now works.
James Auger’s talk on UV Flykiller Parasite Robots, Coffee Table Mousetrap Robots and the like was very entertaining, generating biomass-derived energy from dead mouse and flies. Former Microsoft researcher and now Superflux director Anab Jain started with an image by Superstudio, which immediately earns brownie points, and then showed a few great projects, with particularly smart use of video as a design prototyping tool.
Bill Thompson’s talk on privacy was also great, veering into wildly philosophical territory linking post-Enlightenment thinking on what it is to be an individual to digital rights management, via J. Edgar Hoover and Twitter. I thought he was going to cover a little more on how the particular and peculiar American sense of privacy is infecting other cultures elsewhere, but no.
Clive van Heerden, senior director of design-led innovation at Philips Design showed some great work. He works in the third of the notional three horizons of design research, the extremely difficult 20-year horizon. Their Philips Design Probes are well-crafted evocative and impressionistic shoft films. Beautifully done, these provocations covered varied aspects of culture, from electronic tattoos to skin dresses to food creation, without focusing on particular technologies. Very smart.
‘White hat hacker’ Melanie Rieback later gave a completely geeky talk on security problems in RFID, and her RFID Guardian project. The precise details of Selective RFID Jamming and RFID Fuzzing were interesting at the time, but escape me now, as I try to describe them!
And as ever, with these kind of conferences, it’s all a bit random. Many talks just don’t resonate, inspire, make it past translation issues (sometimes translation from another language to English; sometimes translation from g33k) and so on. Equally, many talks are fantastic. Conferences like this should take chances, and Lift is smart and confident enough to take chances now. And it works. The air around the CICG is fizzing with great discussions, possibilities and practicalities, and there’s a general sense of camaraderie, collaboration and innovation around the entire conference. Congratulations to the organisers, and thanks to Nicolas Nova in particular for inviting me. (It’s also a pleasure to physically hook up with a few old networks of interest which tend exist only in a stunted form digitally.)
I have a policy of making sure I escape any conference at some point to see the host city via a long, long walk, and my jetlag necessitates as much exposure to fresh air and pale sun as I can justify. With a flying visit such as this, that means skipping a session this afternoon, so apologies to those speakers I missed.
Yet I often find the experience of a few hours tramping around a new map, understanding the city through my camera and other senses, to be as inspiring and enlightening as the conference itself. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the conference; rather, see it as the point of doing events in a particular place. You can read about that walk through Geneva here.
Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on February 27th 2009.
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