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Design and the Elastic Mind, currently on display at the MOMA is without question the best design show I’ve actually been to in person. There was a review in the NY Times which had one sentence I’d like to expand upon a little bit:

“As revolutionary in its own way as MoMA’s “Machine Art” exhibition of 1934, which introduced Modern design to a generation of Americans, the exhibition is packed with individual works of sublime beauty.”

I really believe that we are now entering this “information age” where technology, art and design are cooperating and informing each other in much the same way that they were in 1934. We are on the verge of a technosocial shift, a pivotal moment when the way that human/object and human/human interactions are redefined by the technologies we have created. Curator Paola Antonelli cites the Eames film “Powers of Ten”as an influence in this exhibit, and I would take that a step further to suggest that “Powers of Ten” is the lens through which we have gone from a macro-investigation of natural geometry in design (1934 Machine Art exhibition) to our new micro-investigation of natural geometry in design (2008 Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition). Computing power has magnified scientists, engineers, designers, and artists ability to harness the power of natural organization for constructive uses. The excellent essays in the catalog expand upon this, but to better illustrate the comparison of these two shows,

Here’s an excerpt from the 1934 Machine Art catalog:

“Machines are, visually speaking, a practical application of geometry. Forces which act in straight lines are changed in direction and degree by machines which themselves are formed of straight lines and curves. The lever is geometrically a straight line resting on a point. The wheel and axle is composed of concentric circles and radiating straight lines. The watch spring is a spiral. Sphericity and circularity are the geometrical characteristics of a ball bearing. Screws, bearing springs, and propellers are various- and variously beautiful- applications of the helix and helicoid.”

Here’s an image from the 1934 Machine Art catalog:

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Here’s an excerpt from the 2008 Design and the Elastic Mind catalog:

“Biomimicry is the strategy that designers and engineers use to observe and learn from nature’s sophisticated designs and implement these lessons in artificial objects. The lilly impeller is a mixer ‘designed using the elegant and effective geometries found in natural fluid flow,’ explains the designer. Its shape, based on the logarithmic curve known as the Fibonacci spiral and found in such objects as the nautilus shell and whirlpools, allows liquids to flow centripetally through it with little friction. As a result the device is capable of circulating millions of gallons of water with a minimal amount of energy. Used in municipal reservoir tanks, the mixer prevents drinking water from stagnating, reducing the need for disinfectant additives.”

Here’s picture from the 2008 Design and the Elastic Mind show:

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Go see this show. I’ve been twice and I’m not done yet. Better yet, get the catalog, read it, then go look at what is there- there is a LOT to digest in this exhibition.

I had a crazy busy week and I wasn’t able to blog all of the fun stuff that’s been going on.  Here is an attempt at catching up.

Recap Pt. 1

1)

On the User Experience tip, I’ve been rereading Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things”.  He might be talking about objects and products, but it is not too much of a leap to apply the concepts to entire service ecologies like the public library offers.  I haven’t yet read his book “Emotional Design”, which I believe will have a good bit of insight into how we can create “empathic-driven” services (a snazzy way of expressing our need to really identify our user’s feelings that I picked up on here).  I have also been thinking more about the guys Live|Work in the UK and their service design practice. Theirs appears to be the only comprehensive, forward thinking service ecology analysis practice out there and I think libraries could learn a lot from what they are doing.  Further, on the emotional design end of things, I’ve revisited the work of Christian Nold after I was introduced to it at Rhizome’s NextCity event.  Nold is engaging in bio-mapping, in which he attaches a sensor to a human and as they walk around the human generates datasets that correspond to their mood at any given time.  The data can then be mapped geo-spatially and you can determine where along their journey an individual was having positive and negative experiences.  Imagine how this could be used to reconsider service points or an entire architectural program.  Sounds like sci-fi now but I suspect it’ll be commonplace in the next 10 years.

 

2)

Had coffee w/ Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware and Prof. of Urban Computing @ NYU ITP.  Great conversation that really dealt with a lot of the usability issues I just mentioned, but we spoke more specifically about technologies in the library and how we use them.  We walked through the Williamsburgh Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and talked a good bit about the library catalog and different ways we could make it more fun to interact with.  Imagine a giant, projected catalog interface that used some of the tactile computing technologies that exist now, like the multi-touch screen?  Adam showed me a Youtube video of the Bloomberg Ice in Tokyo, as well as some interesting interface possibilities.  It also reminded me of something the Playful Librarian showed me:  the National Institute for Play.  He and I agreed that we’d like to see public libraries embrace some of the ideas that the NIP defines as their core mission.  Check out their shtick:
 

The National Institute for Play believes that as play is woven into the fabric of social practices, we will dramatically transform our personal health, our relationships, the education we provide our children and the capacity of our corporations to innovateWe see play as an un-realized power that can transform our social and economic lives.

Adam and I also talked at length about the idea of creating an electronic device made specifically as a service point for libraries.  According to the Pew Internet/American Life study, 2/3 of public library patrons come to use the computers.  How can we ignore that?  I’ve already ranted about how foolish it is for libraries to try to use the Amazon Kindle as one of their service points.  I don’t think we need to create an ebook reader for library patrons.  I do think that if we could provide patrons with internet access, or a device that simulated connectivity by updating firmware and caching viewed pages every time you were within a library wifi zone, we would essentially have created a municipal wifi work-around and THAT is useful to everyone.  More on this topic soon I hope- I know I didn’t really spell it out completely here. 

3)

On Thursday I went to Cooper Union and hear Steven Holl give a lecture.  The guy is building some absolutely phenomenal stuff in China, I really suggest taking a look.  He is living the architect’s dream: he’s got clients who believe that everything he does is right on, and they have an unlimited budget.  I hesitate to criticize the guy, I imagine that if I had unlimited resources to make public libraries super-wicked-awesome-enormous I’d have an awful lot of fun doing it and I wouldn’t apologize for a thing.  At the end of the lecture there was a Q&A and Holl was asked if he thought that any of the poetry was lost in his work, since it has become so massive and since much of what he does now comes off more as a feat of engineering than as thoughtfully considered, beautiful architectural, um, “poems”.  I was disappointed that Holl kind of defended himself instead of just saying straight out “I am building big, awesome buildings and having fun doing it.”  It seems pretty clear that’s what it is all about, I wish he would have just said so.

I’m not going to go too deep with it or anything, but that did give me a chance to think for a little while about how a tight budget forces innovation and creativity.  It is sort of a glass-half-full way of looking at things in public libraries as we move into this trend of “design thinking” and “user-centered-design”.  Desperate times drive us to innovate, create new service models, re-think our tired ways. 

Recap pt. 2

The other things worth mentioning from this week:

1)

On Friday I served as part of an alumni panel at Pratt.  Students from the School of Library and Information Science had the opportunity to question two public librarians, an academic librarian, a corporate librarian, and an art librarian about how we got our jobs, what we do, and anything else that came to mind.  It was a remarkably well attended event considering it took place at 5:30 on a snowy Friday.  The question that I found the most interesting and the one I’d like to expound upon a bit now came from Judy Nylen of Pratt’s Career Services.  She asked each of us to describe what part of our skillset gave us the most opportunity to innovate and have creative influence in our fields.  As an advocate of this design-thinking movement in libraries, I take that question seriously, and I believe that the most important skillset for anyone interested in implementing change is to build their communications skills. 

NOBODY is going to care how good your ideas are if you cannot convey them in a concrete, legible manner, using the mode of communication that the audience is most comfortable with.  Sometimes, despite the fact that Powerpoint sucks, you will have an audience who is used to receiving information that way and so you will have to use Powerpoint.  Sometimes you’ll send an important email to an individual 5 times, never get a response, and then realize that the only way you can communicate with that person is by phone.  Don’t talk about XML and APIs with people who don’t understand them.  Don’t bother to use a wiki to organize a project if 3 out of the 20 people on your team actually know how to communicate and collaborate that way.   Think of communication skills as internal user-centered design if that helps, similar to the way large companies have internal customer service practices between their departments.  Always know your audience, always know the best way to address them so that they feel comfortable, listen a lot, and shut up when you don’t know what you are talking about. 

Admittedly, I don’t always shut up when I don’t know what I’m talking about.

2)

Another question came up on Friday at the same panel that needs to be addressed. Toward the end, a gentleman stood up and asked: “What do you think of John Berry’s controversial Library Journal article, in which he wrote about the deskilling of librarians, and what do you think of the reaction and fuss surrounding this article?”

The briefest possible answer: I thought the article was off base (but not ENTIRELY), and rather than add to the already three page long list of comments I wrote John directly and told him a little bit about why I was “disturbed” by the whole thing.  First off, I am an advocate of the “new” service models we are seeing pop up all over the country and world.  I’m not sure that I look at the circulation desk as the service point at which the core competencies of librarianship are being or should be practiced, and because of that I really have no problem with self check machines augmenting and *not replacing* that part of library operations.  Further, I think it is important to recognize that the “classic” public library is based on an archaic definition of literacy.  Literacy is no longer about just reading text in books. We live in the “information age”, a time defined by complex cultural and media literacies.  We need new buildings and new service models to address the new literacy needs of our patronage and our potential, unrealized patronage.

Look for a full blog entry in response to this LJ article soon.  It may be late to compete with all the hype and hubbub surrounding the article now, but the issues will remain important even once the noise dies down.  Thanks to John for writing me back and being willing to engage in further argument.

3)

There was an article this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Aaron Swartz’s project, Open Library.  Open Library is basically a wiki-style, WorldCat / LibraryThing hybrid, so “while librarians maintain WorldCat, the public would maintain Open Library”.  Pretty sweet. 

Obviously OCLC is sweating this:

“Should all those connections (Wikipedia, Internet Archive, LibraryThing, and anyone else who donates their records to the project) help increase Open Library’s holdings close to the 72 million unique book records in WorldCat, Mr. Swartz’s enterprise could upend the way libraries maintain records. Librarians could choose to bypass WorldCat and contribute catalog data to Open Library, jeopardizing OCLC’s membership of more than 60,000 libraries and threatening a big chunk of its $235-million annual revenue.

It would be an amazing feat, especially since, at the moment, Open Library is struggling to get libraries to contribute.”

My thoughts?  Go Open Library!  Information wants to be free, right?  I’d love to see public libraries all over start contributing to this.  I’d love to see more of our records and material visible on the web, for free.  Again, libraries need to start recognizing and promoting their roles as educators and facilitators of knowledge in a new era of media literacies rather than the definition of literacy associated with Ye Old-Tyme Book Shoppe. 

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Last Friday I went to Nextcity: The Art of the Possible, a Rhizome event at the New Museum. Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design, artist/designer/educator Christian Nold, and artist/architect J. Meejin Yoon of Howler & Yoon all spoke with Adam Greenfield of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. This was their agenda:

“Emergent digital technologies are rapidly changing both the face of our cities and our daily experience of them, whether invoked in the production of architectural form, the representation of urban space, or our interface to the locative and other services newly available there. Dynamic maps update in real time; garments and spaces deform in response to environmental, biological and even psychological conditions. We find our very emotions made visible, public, and persistently retrievable. Somewhere along the way, we find our notions of public space, participation, and what it means to be urban undergoing the most profound sort of change.”

Though I get pretty excited about emerging technologies, particularly when they are approached from a philosophical stance, I was most interested in how this panel would address public space. It seems clear that public space will be defined differently in the rapidly approaching era of ubiquitous computing. Adam spoke briefly of Starbuck’s business model being based on Ray Oldenberg’s concept of “Third Places”: places that are neither home nor work, but places where people can publicly interact. Christian came right out and said we don’t really have many true public spaces left at this point. I, the public librarian, sat in the audience, squirming in my seat when the conversation turned in this direction.

Public Libraries are the best examples of public space (or public place, if you want to get technical) in America that I can think of. Public libraries are places of information exchange, places where knowledge is created, shared and dispersed. Libraries are the front line, they are cultural centers where anyone can bring any query and they can be answered or directed appropriately. I find it fascinating to listen to developers of open source software and data visualization projects talk about the way their work makes publicly available information accessible, manipulable, and usable for anyone and everyone. Those developers really work with the same mission public libraries do, yet somehow they represent “the future” and libraries are stuck with this archaic image as book repositories. We really need to coordinate these efforts and work together. Previously, technologies have  challenged the public library as a relevant institution because it has been so costly to invest in the flavor-of-the-month. The dramatic shift away from the home PC, the move of processing power into portable units and the environment, and the shrinking costs of memory and connectivity suggests that public libraries are in a very good position to offer information access to more people in better ways than ever before. How does these changes redefine public space? How do our behavioral patterns associated with these technologies reshape public space?

I’m excited as hell to meet with Adam next week and to talk with him about where the urban public library fits into the Nextcity. I had a forward-thinking professor at Pratt institute, David Walczyk, who said at one point to a classroom full of soon-to-be librarians that if we don’t take a strong creative roles and define the direction in which our libraries are going to grow, then some consultant will get the job and you’ll just be stuck doing what you should have told the library to do years before. I’m convinced that librarians need to look outside their profession to find the future of their libraries. We need to get off our reference-desked asses. Lets take those creative roles and define the Nextlibrary. I’m not going to let a consultant do it*.

*parties interested in hiring me as a consultant feel free to email me with offers :)

I haven’t written much in the past few days because I’ve been slammed with work. Readers can expect a flurry of activity now that I’m emerging from my pile of projects.

Last night I attended a panel discussion at the Pratt Institute called “Tipping Points: Art, Politics, and Civic Engagement”. I really expected a packed house for this discussion, but I think the democratic debate had many people otherwise engaged. The program was moderated by Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis Magazine. Some of the speakers really had excellent things to say. Check out the panel:

• Letitia James = City Councilwoman; Brooklyn, District 35
• Wendy Feuer – Asst. Commissioner for Urban Art and Planning; DOT
• Laurie Kerr – Mayor’s Office for Long Term Planning and Sustainability
• Blaise Backer – Director, Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project
• Sean Meenan – Habana Outpost
• Deborah Marton – The Design Trust for Public Space
• Eva Hanhardt – professor/coordinator EMS planning

Letitia James was the first one to bring up the carbon belt and the health problems associated with living by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I felt that one: I live by the BQE, only further north in Brooklyn. She spoke about the city’s aging infrastructure and the need to update it. She also brought up the fact that we can’t really go with congestion pricing

I was interested in Blaise Backer’s commentary. As the director of the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District, he has to encourage business owners to think about sustainability in their practices while he supports them in their quest for profits and success. Sometimes it is not easy to do this. For example, there was an initiative to plant new trees all along Myrtle Avenue. You would think that everyone would immediately support something like that, but to a business owner the tree represents a potential liability to passers-by. It also obscures the awning of a ground level store, making it harder to bring in foot traffic.

I was exceptionally impressed with Deborah Marton and the work of The Design Trust for Public Space. If I understood correctly, Marton’s work involved taking the design innovations and breakthroughs from the private investment and development, where money often abounds, translating this information into a format that the Department of Design and Construction can use for public agencies with building projects, and then serving as something of a link between the DDC and the public agency to ensure that the job gets done efficiently. I’ll have to read more about this, but what a great mission: to act as a non-profit that brings private innovations to public agencies.

Finally, Sean Meenan of Habana Outpost was great. That restaurant is awesome, and he brought a real down-to-earth, lets stop talking about all of this, do it, and have fun the whole time attitude to everything. Habana Outpost is solar powered, and only uses corn plastics for their cups and silverware. They have worked with architecture and design students from Pratt so they reclaim all of their water. Sean was exactly the kind of guy you would want to bring in to talk to a bunch of teenagers or kids about these issues, because he was the kind of guy they’d respect. He even drives a car the that will run on the used fry oil from his restaurant. I’ll be looking into getting him to a do a program at the Brooklyn Public Library some time.

Finally Chris Jordan showed us his “Portraits of American Mass Consumption” which demonstrate just how much  junk we go through every day. Cell phones discarded, stack and stacks of computer paper, disposable beverage cups… Great stuff.

I’m going to go ahead and post my paper proposal in its entirety since I’ve had so many hits on my other entry. Again, the thumbnail image at the bottom will link to a larger more readable pic.

American public libraries exist to promote self-initiated lifelong learning and to build an informed democracy. Parks, town squares and public libraries are the only public spaces in the United States; spaces free to everyone provided they adhere to basic rules of socially acceptable conduct. Ample public space promotes a healthy community ecology; it facilitates the cross-pollination of ideas and conversations between individuals. How are public libraries to extend this same community building, conversation-facilitating, discourse-enabling paradigm to the virtual world? How do the rules of engagement differ, and what are the challenges, similarities, and differences associated with community building on the social web?

Successfully transforming a physical public space into a public place requires a leap of faith on the part of the administrators who oversee that space, because place-making is user driven. A public space is built with a specific programmatic projection, but the space only becomes place when the patronage re-enforces the programmatic function of the facility though use. This is the appropriation of space. The appropriation of physical space is an instinctive, intuitive, self-organizing activity, taking place both at an individual level and as a collaborative, intuitive effort on the part of multiple participants.

The social web is not actually space. The social web is a self-organizing metaphor for space, a simulation of space, and while the rules of engagement in this virtual space originate in the established context of physical space, they are embedded in a digital mediation which lacks the complexity and intricacies of interface that our physical body has evolved in order to interact with real space. Social web participants create place via their virtual personalities, profiles, or avatars. They customize their profiles in the way we decorate our apartments in the physical world. Efficient place-making then becomes relative to the usability of the particular social web platform; place-making as a practice is reinvented by the social web medium as personality-making. A public library’s place-making potential on the social web lies in enabling and facilitating the creation of patrons’ personalities, not in trying to recreate itself, the library, as a personality. Personality is regularly re-appropriated on the social web when html code is cut and pasted from one personality to another, much the way a skateboarder re-appropriates a set of stairs as a recreational obstacle in the physical world.

A complete paper will further examine personality-making as a place-making practice in virtual architectures, investigate the ways in which physical public libraries can or cannot support these efforts, and anticipate useful programs for virtual public spaces as community-building enterprises in the future. It will present case studies of successes and failures of attempts at community building via social web architectures in public libraries. It will explore best practices for bridging the gap between digitally mediated virtual space and the real, flesh and blood individuals that make physical communities.

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I’ve been doing some research on how public space becomes public place at public libraries, in both physical architectures and virtual architectures.

I just submitted an abstract as a proposal to present a full paper on this topic at a conference. Fingers crossed. I hope to be writing a lot more about this topic in the future. In the meantime, I wanted to share with my readers a graphic that sort of explains my train of thought. Click on the thumbnail to be directed to a larger image.

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Every once in a while I have to stop thinking about libraries and post something that is just plain cool. That usually is something architecture or design related, and its a safe bet that in a week or two I’ll find a way to relate it back to public spaces.  For now, it is just fun.

I was watching an old music video by Front 242 called “Headhunter” the other day and was reminded of the Atomium building, built for the 1958 World Fair Expo in Belgium.

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From the official web site:

“The Atomium is a symbol of the atom concept, because it represents an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times. In this crystal system, the atoms are placed on the vertexes of a cube, and one atom occupies its center. The elementary centered cubic system is composed of 9 atoms. In crystal chemistry, the structure of crystals is commonly represented by spheres the centers of which materialise the mean position of the atom in the crystal network ; the binding forces which exist between the atoms are materialised by links interconnecting the spheres. These binding forces are the essential cause of the chemical properties and the mechanical resistance of the different elements, and particularly metals ; if is thus perfectly logical to clearly mark their existence in any representation of crystals.

Starting from the basic idea of an iron crystal at atomic scale as a symbol – which was suitable for both the metal industry, promoter of the project, and the Exhibition, I thought of considerably increasing (in fact, 165 billion times) the distances which separate the centers of the atom in the cristalline system, so as turn them into a construction in which the spheres representing the atoms would be of sufficient size to house the exhibits relative to this branch of science. The public had to be able to move from one sphere to the other without effort, which meant placing escalators in the inclined tubes representing the binding forces ; this condition led to choice of diameter for the interconnecting tubes. The dimensions which I initially proposed for the actual spheres (a diameter of about 65.6 ft) were not directly scaled up from the actual steel atom dimensions because, if this had been the case, they would have been larger. The diameter finally chosen (59 ft) was a compromise between a hall of suitable size and practicability of construction.”

And here watch the awkwardly dated Front 242 video, as it channels Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and others. Great modernist architecture pictured here, if anyone knows what some of the other buildings pictured are I’d love to hear from them. Enjoy.

One of the great things about going to conferences in strange cities is that you get to explore new architecture and have a different urban experience than you may be used to in your own city. I definitely took advantage of this at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society is an example of architectural genius, so I had to see it.

As a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn I have long admired the Williamsburg Houses, a housing project located where Bushwick Avenue and Grand Street intersect. That’s right, I admire the architecture of the projects. While some would argue that the public housing schemes that were designed as utopian visions in the 1930s-1950s, many by European immigrants, were urban planning disasters, one has to step back, consider their historical context, and admire the concepts and aesthetics of which they were born. William Lescaze, a Scandinavian immigrant and proponent of International Style architecture, was responsible for the design of the Williamsburg Houses. In 2003 here was a NYC Landmark and Preservation Committee hearing concerning these buildings. I’ll quote it below, or you can read the pdf here.

“A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938. The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete. Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

Lescaze’s townhouse office, also a masterpiece, is in midtown Manhattan and you can visit it.

So naturally I was really excited to see another of Lescaze’s realized projects, the first International Style skyscraper. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building is a real Philadelphia landmark; it stands in center city with pride and prominence. My favorite aspect of the PSFS building is actually more of a Functionalist feature. Check this out:

“For the first time, instead of hiding the different functional areas in the building, they were made visible in the exterior form. For each of these functional areas, different materials were used.

The base of the building, which included retail stores, is covered with polish gray granite. The base forms a podium from which a 30-story T-shaped office tower rises. The rear of the building acts as the service core and is covered with glazed and unglazed black brick. It contrasts with the sand colored limestone facade of the offices. The windows form horizontal strips, emphasizing the horizontal layers of office floors. Wilcox objected to this idea, so as a compromise exposed vertical columns were added.”

I wrote a post about participant-driven re-appropriation of library space a little while ago, and I spoke a bit about repurposing, renovating, and re-tasking buildings as a creative practice that is a crucial part of simultaneous individual human development and urban development. I didn’t really address the important issue of preservation and the delicate balance between repurposing architecture to maintain a healthy community versus preserving historically significant buildings as cultural artifacts. Loews Hotel’s stepped in and purchased the building in 1997 after the PSFS parent company went bankrupt. It’s a pretty snazzy hotel now, and a lot of the American Library Association functions associated with the conference were held in their facilities. I was initially distraught when I realized that Lescaze’s building had been renovated and retasked, but it has been a few days now and I’ve had the distance to get a grip and see this as a positive outcome. I had hoped to visit this place and enter a time warp, like the type of time warp you experience when you visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Instead I was sitting in this giant conference room with cheap carpet and junky furniture. I was looking at a 1997 reinterpretation of a 1932 space, and much to the dismay of the preservationist in me it totally worked.

This, as often seems to be the case, got me back to thinking about public libraries, specifically old Carnegie era facilities, and how we renovate them to serve as 21st century libraries. I can really only speak of the branches at Brooklyn Public Library with any authority, but I know that it is a real challenge to be burdened with these beautiful, landmarked, aging, costly to maintain facilities that are frequently poorly located and were built to serve as knowledge sharing spaces for different people in a different time. Unfortunately, I have yet to visit any renovated early 20th century style library (let’s say pre-1930), in Brooklyn or otherwise, that I feel is a really exceptional reconsideration of a library space via the needs of 21st century users. Put simply: as of thus far, it appears to me that we need to build entirely new libraries, totally rethink the way library systems function, reconsider the distribution of materials between facilities, and start from the ground up. I want to be wrong, I want this to run parallel to my experience with the Loews Hotel renovation of Lescaze’s building, I want to look back at this post in a few days and find that I am just being something like a crank purist preservationist.  Until then….

A designer friend dropped me a link the other day to the Patent Room blog. The blog offers a wealth of inspiration, a candystore of oddities. In my first post on this blog I cited Norman Bel Geddes’s remarkably fresh quote from 1940 to demonstrate that new mediations of old ideas can result in new successes. Ever since I wrote that, I keep on finding more examples of old, unrealized projects from bygone eras that upon reconsideration might offer innovative solutions to contemporary problems. Bruce Sterling introduced me to the concept of metafutures, got me all fired up about futures studies, and this idea that the future of right now is totally different from the future offered five minutes from now. Separate that by fifty years instead of five minutes and you get a reason to start a fun blog, like Paleo-future. Recently I stumbled into an exceptional example of what I thought was a laughably bad idea from 1925 that is currently regarded as a clever innovation.


Frederick Kiesler
was something of an oddball architect/designer (the best kind). I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a copy of his 1930 book “Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and its Display” a while back. The book itself is a masterpiece; the typography and layout were way ahead of their time. Kiesler’s “polydimensional” approach to architecture was pretty out there. My favorite image from the book is Kiesler’s outrageous proposed horizontal skyscraper, meant to be constructed in Paris. The drawing is a De Stijl work of art, the form looks like giant deconstructed Gerrit Rietveld chair. But a horizontal skyscraper? Are you kidding? That is like the dumbest idea I ever heard of! Until… enter Steven Holl. His Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China is a spitting image of Kiesler’s plan from 1925!

I’m not going to compile a list of the unrealized then re-realized projects out there; that is a job for somebody else. If it already exists, please email it to me! The point is that this phenomenon points to a really different model for innovation than we are used to. Rather than “learn from your mistakes”, this suggests that we should embrace mistakes rather than reject them. In order to look forward, we have to scrutinize and re-examine the past. If you are an archivist you should embrace this idea: if preserving and organizing mistakes, oddities, and dreams actually drives innovation, you hold the gatekey. That’s a big responsibility. What does this suggest for librarians who are designing information service spaces and interfaces for the future? Maybe reading Engadget and Gizmodo is the wrong idea? Perhaps we need to reconsider everything and look to the fringes, the unrealized futures of Buckminster Fuller or Ted Nelson?

Here is Kiesler’s Horizontal Skyscraper:

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Here’s Holl’s horizontal skyscraper:

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A shoutout to the Playful Librarian, who picked up on a great article about impression management on the social web in the New York Times the other day.  Here is his post, here is the Times article.

The Playful Librarian says he wants “to understand how social networking technologies are blurring the lines between public and private behavior”.  This question takes it out of the realm of virtual space and into that of public spaces- physical public spaces.  How does activity on the social web bleed into the physical world?

Right now I’d say the social web exists as a major conversation piece in our daily lives.  Its not enough for me to just play Scrabulous with my Facebook peers, it is not even enough for me to IM with them during the game.  Without fail, when I see those people “in human” we talk trash about the Scrabulous game, about Facebook in general, about the apps we use, why its way better than MySpace, etc, etc.  This may seem like minutia, but it is absolutely not.  It important to note that however intricate the social web phenomena are, they are ALWAYS tied to real world experience, if only through conversation.  For example, successful online dating leads to real dating, “in human”.  Put simply: most social web tools at this point lack the complexity of interface to actually redefine space.

Where does the line between public and private behavior begin to really get hazy?  I suspect this happens in the more robust online environments, places like Second Life or other gaming environments.  I’d suggest that the greatest blurring of public and private behavior happens in these virtual environments, between avatars.  Just as a tool like a hammer becomes an extension of your physical self when you use it, an online environment becomes an extension of your space when you greet and interact with other characters there.

In the physical world we are beginning to see the same extension of space into the virtual world, but it is a little different.  Mark Shepard writes in “Urban Computing and its Discontents” about observing a person in a bar in Brooklyn:

“The guy was constantly shifting his attention between his conversation partner and his new iPhone…. Mr. iPhones attention is constantly shifting between the virtual and actual modes of presence… What happens when the virtual and the actual are not understood in terms of a strict dichotomy but rather a continuity or gradient? How might we design for scenarios like this?”

I’m guessing we’ll see these two scenarios meld not-so-seamlessly into one in the coming years, like the heads side and the tails side of a coin somehow meeting in the middle yet retaining distinct opposite sides.  Admittedly that’s cryptic, but it’s the best I can give for now.  I’m going to be interested in designing our public libraries to operate in both of these spaces, on both sides of this coin and in the murky area in between.  I’m excited to create access to information for patrons coming from virtual or physical spaces.  The definition of space is changing.  These are exciting times.

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