Finding Architecture at the 2019 SXSW
The SXSW Interactive Festival (formerly the Film & Multimedia Festival), is already as old as the PlayStation or the Segway — that lumbering early version of the electric scooter that invaded Austin for the event in years past. Although it’s announced as a conference “where creative minds come together to discuss and engage in creative problem-solving around technology, entertainment, and culture,” it still fails to fully engage with architecture professionals. While few would deny that architecture is culture, that architects form part of the creative economy, and that quite a lot of technology goes into the design and production of buildings, for most SXSW Interactive participants architecture still refers to systems engineering. On the other hand, for most brick-and-mortar architects, the festival is just another tech gathering crowded by information technology professionals who wander around like sick swine wearing cumbersome VR headsets while playing videogames. But take, for instance, Wikipedia’s job description of an immersive director, which is “to design intact worlds that are coherent; have an interior logic; contain history, geography, surface, metaphor; respond to and drive narrative; and allow an audience to be fully immersed in both environment and story,” and you might begin to think that there’s much more in common than one would imagine at first. And let’s not forget the expanding role that virtual reality is already playing in architectural visualization or augmented reality in architectural heritage sites.
Nevertheless, the technologies presented at SXSW Interactive go far beyond VR/AR, and every investor knows that the construction industry is ripe for disruption. Last year’s winner of the SXSW Pitch (formerly Accelerator) event went to ICON, an Austin-based start-up that claims to have built the first 3-D-printed house in the United States without a single bricklayer on site and without a single architect on staff. Following up this year were Matthias Kohler from the Department of Architecture at ETH Zürich, and Chris Luebkeman from Arup. While the Texas company focuses its efforts on reducing the cost and time of construction through digital fabrication, the Swiss team of architects and engineers explores how robotization can bring craftsmanship precision and complexity back into building manufacturing. The DFab house presented at the conference is definitely worth a visit, but there’s no need to mention that the architects’ dream to become Digital Master Builders didn’t get any start-up award at SXSW.
One of the hot topics at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival was the so-called autonomous car — even if Malcolm Gladwell would argue that since self-driving cars need to be deeply integrated into large and complex systems, the real autonomous car is the one you can drive yourself. Apart from that, the New Yorker contributor’s fear of a cybernetic attack resulting in multiple crashes at a global scale is well-founded, but at the same time reminiscent of Paul Virilio’s integral accidents. More interestingly, Ryan Powell, Waymo’s head of UX design, went to great lengths to explain the importance of design throughout the process of creating the most experienced driver ever. For Waymo, the color palette of the map in the app is as important as how the autonomous car communicates to the passenger what it sees on the road. Their research has even concluded that E major chords are the best to build trust in their users, and they are therefore used for notification sounds and welcoming musical themes. Surprisingly, it may be no accident that the chimes at Westminster’s Big Ben are also tuned to E major. However, little was mentioned on how the self-driving car is going to change the cities we live in or how they should be designed. If the autonomous vehicle makes long commutes bearable, will this result in urban areas expanding beyond their suburban limits?
This possibility was not shared by a group of young Californian entrepreneurs united to design homes for a more sustainable urban future. Their proposition is that creative professionals want to live downtown, and their solution to combat the ever-increasing price of real estate in attractive locations is making smaller apartments or co-living tolerable through technology. From shared concierge services to beds that hide in the ceiling at the touch of an app, they are proposing a whole set of new ideas they think will make building relationships and taking care of each other easier. And while older generations of Americans might see in some of these projects the seeds of Millennial socialism, the Silicon Valley versions of Existenzminimum lack the radicalism of Moisei Ginzburg’s 1928 Narkomfin communal house in Moscow or the elegance of Ettore Sottsass or Joe Colombo’s Total Furnishing Units of the ’70s. Yesterday’s future did look sexier, by all means.
Another somewhat disappointing session was the Place by Design finalist presentation. Place by Design is, according to SXSW’s website, “SXSW’s international public space design competition, celebrating transformative work at the intersection of art, technology, and design that rethinks how we use and interact with the places around us.” Two out of the five finalist projects were located in Austin, and only one of them was situated outside of the United States, in English-speaking Australia — which already indicates how little impact the competition announcement had outside of hard-core SXSW followers. The ideas presented were somewhat interesting,*but were more related to public programming than actually designing public space. Thankfully, Eric Klinenberg reminded everyone during a keynote on his latest book, “Palaces for the People,” that real public spaces are those that don’t ask anything from us. Moreover, the quality of place design is so important that even those same big tech companies that strive to brand social media as a replacement for public space make great efforts to provide the best architectural design to their employees to retain them.
One of the stellar architects involved in designing Silicon Valley headquarters, Bjarke Ingels, was actually in town for a featured keynote on formgiving, the Danish word for design. The optimistic lecture followed the typical hedonistic sustainability tropes with which the Lego builder keeps his fans entertained: ski slopes atop zero-emission power stations; a new flood barrier for Manhattan baptized as the “Dryline” that will compete with the High-Line; floating oceanic cities resilient to sea level rise; and even a plan to colonize Mars if we fail to save human life on planet Earth. There’s no challenge big enough for the heroic architect — as long as some real estate operation is involved. Architects too often forget that an increasing part of their success is communicating ideas, and this, we have to accept, is something at which Bjarke Ingels excels.
For those who don’t believe in the power of design to deal with every possible catastrophic challenge, speculative design can nonetheless still be employed in making a better image of the future and spark a responsible reaction, as suggested by Mick Champagne and by Casey Hudetz from marketing agency Digitas. Following the fearful themes of almost every chapter of the TV series “Black Mirror,” they presented a long list of design projects and “provotypes” (provocative prototypes) to trigger debate and make the future more tangible. In a similar line of thought, but following the chapters of his own book of conversations about contemporary art, Hans Ulrich Obrist delivered a speech made out of quotes on how “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible” (Paul Klee); the notion of “art as radar” (Marshall McLuhan); that art, like the Internet, “is for everyone” (Sir Tim Berners-Lee); that, faced with new technology, “We need to create new rituals” (Andrei Tarkovsky); and, finally, that “we all have to do something to save handwriting” (Umberto Eco). According to Obrist, “Every company should have an artist in residence.”
The best insights about the real nature of SXSW came from Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks. The cyberpunk writer observed how the presence of art curators like Obrist indicated the noticeable smell of entrepreneurship and deep pockets attending SXSW. He also commented on how every member of the middle class is being forced to become an involuntary bohemian, obliged to live a precarious lifestyle like those historically led by artists. In this context, it makes sense that a conference that started as a music festival, where young bands play to get noticed by the recording industry, would become a model for the new gig economy that applies to every professional today. Automation will keep destroying jobs, even those in the creative industries. It is no surprise that deep pockets meet liberal presidential candidates at SXSW.
When asked about who are the most relevant cyberpunks in 2019, the Texas-born author mentioned writers belonging to an Italian literary movement called Connettivismo, their word for Nexialism. The term, popularised by Canadian writer Alfred Elton van Vogt in his space opera “The Voyage of the Space Beagle,” was given to a very much needed new imaginary science that would re-establish the connections between extremely specialized disciplines. Considering that, since the first century BCE, the knowledge of an architect was to include that of “a man of letters, a skillful draftsman, a mathematician, [one] familiar with historical studies, a diligent student of philosophy, [one] acquainted with music, [who is] not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of jurisconsults, familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations” — one wonders if the profession is still today capable of bridging disciplines dealing with the built environment. Reyner Banham struggled his entire life to understand architects’ schizophrenia between technology and tradition, and the debate is still far from being resolved. And yet, it might still be better to be at work in fast company, than not to be at work at all.
Ibai Rigby is a trained architect and editor at urbanNext.net. He lives in Austin