The Building as Microcosm
I run a communication design firm. We create projects that take design cues from insights on how people interact with information. Most recently we created an online platform called STACKD. It is a directory, a marketplace, a communications channel and a lens through which to view the city.
The idea for this project came from a number of observations after our company moved into a 20-story building on W 28th Street. First of all, we were new to the building; we did not know anyone here. Secondly, this building has some size to it. It may not be huge by New York standards, but there are over 100 tenants: four to six tenants to every floor, accessed via two main elevators with a freight elevator serving as back-up for when the mains fail (and they often do). Our previous location was a six-story building in which we knew everyone, for better or for worse. Eminem’s Record label Shady Records thumped away directly one floor above and sewing machines whirred from the sweatshop beneath us. Even though I knew who was in the building, the moment the elevator doors opened to reveal such different realities was always jarring. This sense of curiosity about what might be happening inside a large vertical building became even more pronounced once we had moved to our current, significantly taller location. I was reminded of writings by Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas that grapple with disjunction and multiplicity, so I spent some time rereading Architecture and Disjunction and Delirious New York. Tschumi distinguishes three basic types of relationships between the actual and intended uses of architectural space:
“Specifically, three basic types of relations can be distinguished: (a) the reciprocal relation, for example to skate on the skating rink; (b) the indifferent relation, for example to skate in the schoolyard; and (c) the conflictual relation, for example to skate in the chapel, to skate on the tightrope” (Tschumi 1996: p. 186)
The unexpected mix of program in a Manhattan highrise isn’t exactly “skating in the chapel” but it nonetheless excites and feeds the imagination. Rem Koolhaas sets the stage for multiplicity when he retells the birth of the skyscraper in 1909:
“The building becomes a stack of individual privacies … the use of each platform can never be known in advance of its construction…” (Koolhaas 1994: p. 85)
As we started getting familiar with our new neighborhood on the last street of the Flower District, I was curious who else was in our building. Being able to listen to the conversations in a class C building such as 150 W 28th Street would reveal much that is unexpected: a healing center that provides “scream therapy”; a wholesale-only purveyor of minerals and crystals; one of the city’s most prominent florists. The rent is reasonable for New York and the neighborhood has an ad-hoc, undefined quality that has attracted a wide range of businesses from a variety of sectors. Brief glimpses of floor directories revealed other creative industries such as design, advertising, architecture and photography. Even though some of them are the competition, it always makes me feel welcome to know there are other companies nearby that do something similar. The history of the neighborhood and its role as the Garment District has also left a trace. The last of the fur trimmers that once defined this part of the city are here, dustmotes of mink in every corner.
Supply and Demand
I caught glimpses of people in the buildings across the alley and noticed when offices were suddenly empty after they had housed busy bunches of people for months. It made me nervous, but I talked to people in the elevator, asked what they did and never had more than a few seconds to find out. Strange how we share the ride staring at our feet. People make crude flyers and notes posting items for sale or marketing their services in the elevator but they rarely pause to talk – maybe because the elevator is always moving and the chime urges you to get out quickly.
Sharing resources between multiple floors… can play a role in making the city – and its use of space – more legible. A palpable sense of the great story of New York City unfolding all around us appealed to my imagination. As an entrepreneur accustomed to identifying demand, I began to see the building as a potential market for our services. Craigslist and Ebay proved that there was a huge dormant need to connecting buyers and sellers on an individual scale. If we didn’t know already, Facebook showed that people are social animals and thrive on sharing something of themselves with each other. Twitter is taking the world by storm just by giving people a megaphone and 140 characters of broadcast time. As designers versed in proposing solutions we began to imagine whether we could create something that could make use of our specific physical location – something that would open doors for us but could also connect supply and demand on a larger scale.
One of the reasons our business is located in New York City, and I imagine the same holds true for many others, is opportunity. In my mind, opportunity is intensified by density – a density of potential clients, of talented people, of inspiration and also the density of competition. Kenneth Jackson recently lectured on the five reasons why New York will bounce back from the current recession to thrive in the next century: Density, diversity, tolerance, aspiration and the willingness to change. All of his arguments can be found above and below my desk on the 14th floor. With this in mind, we decided to narrow our focus for STACKD to an extreme. We wanted to create a way to reach the other businesses in our own building. Wouldn’t they have similar needs to our own?
How it works
STACKD emphasizes physical proximity in each feature that it offers. Users are prompted to act upon the information STACKD provides for the simple reason that updates are extremely timely and that someone else is easy to reach because they are located close by. You can see these qualities emerging in systems that did not originally account for them. For example, Craigslist users have introduced an informal feature dubbed “curb-alert” in which people post when and where they are going to put something out for free pick-up. If it’s close to where you are, you score.
Let me give you a quick tour through the STACKD user interface.
The current version does only a few things. On a map, it shows which buildings belong to the network. Once a user wants to know more and has selected a building they are prompted to log into the system (or join if they are not a member yet). Membership is important to track information and to ensure that only users who are willing to share information can also access it. Once you are logged in and click on a building you can see – listed in a vertical stack – the businesses located there. Selecting a particular business reveals contact information and industry as well as what the business offers and needs on a regular basis. If that’s all you need to know, then click on the contact email address and send the business a note or give them a call. Above this directory listing is an area that we call the feed. This is where the building does its talking and where you can listen in. Every building is set up with a twitter account so that others can tweet to it and follow the collective conversation. Once you have used STACKD for a while, the twitter feature becomes an important alert to information that is time-sensitive or changing. I could tweet that I have a chair to sell, or that I am looking for a tip on where to go for lunch. If we were to consider our building to be part of a network that can circumvent the borders of individual offices then I could also let other businesses know when our conference room is free or that we have a spare desk on Thursdays and Fridays.
Clearly, resource sharing requires an open attitude and the desire to change established conventions. However, with coworking communities emerging throughout New York City, sharing resources between multiple floors may not be far behind. As we continue to work on STACKD and as it expands to other buildings, perhaps it can play a role in making the city and its use of space more legible. Architectural typologies could adapt to contemporary needs and business cycles. The first step is seeing what is happening. One of the biggest challenges with large amounts of information is making sense of it all. As visual creatures, we’re equipped with sophisticated interpretative capabilities that yield insights at a glance far more readily than confronted with purely quantitative information. With the right interface and mapping capabilities we could gain a more fine-grained understanding of what kinds of activities are performed in what parts of the city.
Networked Spaces and the Future of the City
Urban Omnibus recently published a number of articles that address the issue of excess capacity. In a conversation with Rosalie Genevro, Frank Duffy commented on how corporations’ use of space leaves it underutilized much of the time. He posits that spaces must have the idea of change built into them in order to adapt. The theme of underutilization also drives an article with ZipCar founder Robin Chase, that introduced a ride-sharing platform to make use of the excess capacity of individual seats in a car heading to a shared destination. Laura Forlano reflected on the proliferation of coworking spaces in the city. Meanwhile, New York City has discussed ways to enable cab sharing and hopefully will soon find a way to implement bike-sharing.
All of these efforts share something simple: in order to make use of the excess capacity in a network, I have to see that it exists and I have to be able to access it. STACKD offers an interface that could fit this need. Individual offices could be transformed into a network that functions as a marketplace connecting supply and demand of services, products and resources. Planners could see a fine-grain use pattern result from zoning initiatives and open-space guidelines. Businesses such as restaurants could position their next location based on geolocated market analytics. Start-ups could join ad-hoc incubators by knowing where strategic partnerships might flourish. In the city of the future, I might be able to use space and do business more efficiently. Perhaps excess space could be allocated to form building-wide or neighborhood-wide amenities. Underutilized buildings would display why they are ignored and could be retrofitted with more flexible typological configurations. Owners could make decisions about their property portfolio by incorporating space utilization statistics. We just might learn which parts of the city will continue to thrive and why.
Sidney Blank runs the strategic communication design firm Supermetric. His background in architecture greatly influences the methodology and areas of interest of his work as a designer. STACKD is the first self-initiated project created by Supermetric that aims to tie people, architecture and business together. Sidney currently teaches in the Design & Management department at Parsons, The New School.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.