Towards a new architect: Carlo Ratti

May 5, 2009

Dan Hill meets with Carlo Ratti, an architect and engineer whose research into the less tangible qualities of the contemporary urban environment could radically alter the way we understand, and design for, the city.

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Carlo Ratti and his colleagues at the SENSEable City Lab at MIT are doing as much as anyone to define a future of architecture. Ratti and I meet up at the Metropolis Congress in Sydney, where he has delivered a keynote on his projects, sandwiched between Saskia Sassen and Kathy Pain. Ratti’s presentation provided a strong counterpoint to Sassen’s impassioned yet personal world view, and Pain’s apparently analytical yet ultimately superficial ranking of cities. The work of his team was, in contrast, suffused with data emerging from the aggregate of millions of tiny signals. Yet it was often realised in lustrous visualisations that attempted the alchemy of transmuting data into information into knowledge, while shifting effortlessly from physical to digital to physical.

Ratti, an architect and civil engineer by training, has ended up creating new urban forms from mobile phone signals, the movement of bikes and digitally-controlled jets of water. My own work, leading on ‘urban informatics’ for Arup in Australasia, is also getting our business into unlikely places, at both ends of the ‘design food chain’ and hovering around this intersection between physical and digital. The name ‘informatics’ will change, surely, just as talkies became movies, and Ratti talks instead of a “living architecture”, “liberated pixels” and “physical plus”. Yet we, and many others worldwide now, are all wrestling with the promise of digital activity thoroughly permeating urban fabric.

Ratti is a tall, slender and slightly gangling arc of good-natured exuberance. He in no way belies Italian caricatures by gesticulating with a flourish as he talks, carving the air around him into sinuous forms, sweeping his hands to indicate progressive movements. Sitting in the culturally arid hub of Darling Harbour, we talk for a couple of hours, exploring the implications of this emerging field of design work, and how it may change the nature of both architecture, and also cities and buildings themselves.
Just as with Ratti, his projects emerge from an intrinsically multidisciplinary environment. The Water Pavilion, for the Zaragoza Expo, was produced by a team of engineers, architects, sociologists and physicists, and built by Siemens. The presence of the social science disciplines is particularly interesting, enabling a focus on user behaviour in far more detail than is often the case with the built environment. As Ratti puts it, designing public spaces that are infused with informational activity means absolutely addressing “a new type of space and a new type of (augmented) physical body”, which is why he sees sociologists as so important, to help quantify some of these changes, and to monitor and understand them.

I reflect that in industrial design and web design in particular it is far more common to have that sort of user research-led approach, but that it doesn’t often happen in architecture or urban design. Though some architects have frequently indicated the possibilities of introducing industrial design techniques into architecture, others respond that buildings are generally one-offs, that “each building is a prototype”, and not mass produced as cars are (leaving aside the so far largely unrealised promise of prefab).

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Ratti agrees that approaches such as ethnographic research or user-centred design, don’t occur within architecture often. He suggests that the focus on the user’s behaviour pervading the design process (to the extent that product designers like Naoto Fukasawa can say, “Design is dissolving in behaviour”) is largely due to the rapid pace of technological change in product design, whether industrial or informational (or the emerging hybrid of the two). But, as he explains, “Traditionally architecture is much more static. Now, because of all the new technology in the city, you might require this new type of responsive city – and building that comes from other disciplines too, including industrial design.”

Architecture can be very slow-moving by nature, partly as many basic conditions don’t change that much – such as the structural loads on buildings from wind or snow – and that materials tend to have a slow pace of change, with many years in between the introduction of concrete and that of ETFE, for instance. Whereas the world of consumer electronics, product design or, more obviously, online social software, can change radically almost week to week.

Ratti notes that behaviour around these products flexes accordingly too, in a symbiotic relationship, and this must be understood in detail. At MIT, he benefits from a highly multidisciplinary environment, despite the silos universities can sometimes wrangle themselves into. Technological innovation can be situated in an environment where there can be “a dialogue between the technology side and the behavioural side – an interplay between the social and the technology”, as he puts it.

With the SmartBiking project – in the context of a Copenhagen where 30 to 40 percent of all trips are already undertaken by bicycle – attempts to further promote the use of bikes need to genuinely develop new thinking over and above the pervasive provision of bike lanes. By looking at powerful connective tissue of social software networks, Ratti’s team – working with William J. Mitchell and others at MIT – is developing what they call “spatial smart wheels” that harvest energy when the rider brakes, within the context of a city-wide carbon trading scheme. Their sensor-enabled bikes connect briefly to other cyclists as they ride by, and then enable Facebook to play back the patterns of who passed who in the street that day.

This is hardly the traditional work of the architect, yet this sense of working with a layer of soft infrastructure, overlaid onto the hard infrastructure of the city, is a theme common to this work. One thing that I consistently get asked by clients when I talk them through these kinds of changes is, “Yeah, but how will it change the physical form of cities? How will the cities look different?” I sometimes respond by referencing those other bike-sharing schemes in Barcelona, Paris, Lyon et al and illustrating how these are really informational services; soft infrastructure coordinated by informatics, and laid over the existing fabric of the city. Aside from hubs for the bikes, there are very few physical changes to the cities. Yet these systems have radically changed the sense of mobility in their cities, utterly changing the way the city feels.

Ratti agrees, seeing that digital activity is a layer in interface with the city. It’s not a separate virtual space, as some seem to think, but it’s augmenting our physical space. As he points out, we’re hardly going to change or destroy all these existing buildings and spaces anytime soon – urban form just doesn’t change that quickly, but the profound changes in the way cities feel and function may be in this internet-enabled informational layer.

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And yet, Ratti is an architect (in practice with his Turin-based firm carlorattiassociati – Walter Nicolino & Carlo Ratti) and he is still drawn to creating new forms and shaping physical space. The Water Pavilion suggests a newly fluid, reconfigurable architecture, although with exterior walls comprising jets of water. By controlling these jets – broadly, with a similar principle to ink-jet printers – words and shapes can be formed in the ‘walls’ and the walls themselves can appear and disappear from one second to another, such that the form of the building responds to people approaching it, shifting climactic conditions and other patterns of behaviour. In this sense, it’s beyond simply responsive architecture, and more genuinely interactive. Ratti describes these projects as exploring a new form of skin, which he sees has potential to be “reactive, responsive, more living”. He’s proud of how kids in particular responded to it, fluidly altering the physical space. “More Spacebook than Facebook,” he says, smiling.

For the New York Talk Exchange (NYTE) project – a visualisation of global traffic over AT&T’s network, zooming from country to city to borough, to construct a kind of real-time census – the team included an urban designer, information designer, sociologist, exhibition designer, architecture student and a couple of advisers on the content itself. The latter was to advise the project on the content contained within the data, almost to avoid the team becoming seduced by the visualisation possibilities. Ratti believes this project begins to enable an understanding of the structure of cities from the fine-grain (even though the NYTE project could still be criticised for its lack of context, poor Dr Kathy Pain following Ratti’s presentation at Metropolis simply had no way of responding to this detail of data; the GAWC index of cities begins to look very old-fashioned as a result).

Real-Time Rome provided another compelling example of these urban patterns, drawn from the aggregated mobile phone signals over the course of three days surrounding the 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France. Using AI techniques to infer pedestrian activity from the signals, it’s clear in which bits of the city the fans gathered to watch the game, where the victorious Italian team paraded the trophy through the streets, and how this use of the city changed in response to events during or after the game.

We then talk of how ‘dataviz’ like NYTE and Real-Time Rome may have a physical existence too, a presence in the city. Ratti certainly sees the possibilities in extending these information layers across mobile phones and web, onto the fabric of our streets and buildings, using LEDs and other technologies to enable quite fluid forms of display. He likes the idea of these clouds of pixels deployed around the street, the idea of the ‘liberated pixel’ not contained within the overbearing rectangular form of ‘the big screen’.

Yet beyond installations, Ratti suggests that these kinds of real-time systems may actually radically reorient services such as transport, which are still wedded to the somewhat blunt Industrial Age artefacts of timetables and prescribed routes. Put simply, he says the bus could follow us, rather than us following the bus.
As with the internet itself, this work comes from somewhere, and also has a history within architecture. Perhaps our roots are showing, but in terms of antecedents, I suggest (Brits) Archigram, Reyner Banham and Cedric Price, whereas Ratti references (Italians) Archizoom and Superstudio. Yet for Ratti, Buckminster Fuller’s concept of “comprehensive anticipatory design” provided most inspiration.

His team, he says, are trying to define possible future urban conditions, which are articulated through design and then generate research responses. I suggest this approach – design and publish – is also close to Archigram and Superstudio, and Ratti particularly responds to the Superstudio comparison. He recalls their technique of creating radical visions of extreme or absurd conditions. In this sense, he thinks, they were not anticipatory, instead extrapolating a present condition to absurdity, as with the Continuous Monument or its heritage-parodying proposal for flooding Florence.

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With these intense exaggerations of form and city, they were commentaries on contemporary conditions, almost as a science fiction writer will almost inevitably write about today when depicting visions of tomorrow. Ratti is clearly drawn by this idea of exaggeration and extrapolation, almost to the point of absurd reductions, and I wonder whether there’s a link with Real-Time Rome, where instead of addressing the vast richness of all of city life, we use only mobile phone data to tell a story about the city. It’s a slice through the city on only one axis, which is a slightly absurd thing to do. Yet it still enables interpretation. It still speaks of now.

Ratti agrees, but then outlines the possibility of accreting layers of such data – in partnership with the buses, the taxis, the wider city – to create a platform for exploring the city through data. In this, his aspirations are indeed closer to Fuller than Superstudio, as it becomes a form of anticipatory design. He doesn’t think you can show the city of the future as it will be, but you can see real-time information along one slice, one axis, and this enables us to anticipate a future city where perhaps the majority of the urban activity will generate impossible swathes of real-time data.

I wonder whether we can almost think of information as a material in a sense, in terms of it having its own capabilities, qualities and performance criteria. Ratti responds by saying that there’s no doubt that the digital revolution has genuinely changed the way we do things, the way we live, the way we interact and talk with others. And rapidly too, as if 1993 was 50 years ago in “internet years”. He thinks there are similar conditions here as those that Le Corbusier reflected upon in 1929, when he saw a machine civilisation looking for and finding its architectural expression. Clearly Ratti believes that this age too has now begun its search.

So these cities of the future are still made of concrete, but also of transient slivers of silicon and amorphous clouds of wireless activity. Atoms and bits. The great promise of informatics – or whatever we end up calling it – is that the fabric of the city is once again malleable, responsive and can adapt through learning from layered patterns of behaviour. Perhaps we don’t call it informatics, but architecture and engineering, just a new form of both crafts. Yet these developments pose radical changes, from the point of view of skills, processes, business models and purpose, and Ratti and his crew of collaborators are indicating one possible future for our work. He concludes by tentatively suggesting, “It’s almost redefining, I believe, what being an architect is.”

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