Recap | Phantom City

Saturday afternoon, a group of Omnibus readers, WNYC listeners, and assorted unbuilt city enthusiasts gathered in Bryant Park to listen to Museum of the Phantom City designers Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder talk about how their app works, what happens when architects collaborate with app developers, and their curatorial process.

The app, thanks to Irene and Brett’s wariness of function creep, is well edited. The speculative projects included all share what Irene called an aspect of unreality; not only were they visionary at the time they were introduced, but also unattainable. Quotes from the architects and a few architectural renderings are provided, but the user is left to draw conclusions about what the impact would have been.

Details about the Phantom projects are available to app users only once they are within range of the site, though they are accessible online at any time. This choice is intended to encourage people to treat the whole city as a museum, not just their mobile device.

After Irene and Brett’s talk we went on a short walk, exploring the projects accessible in Midtown, before finding a corner in a nearby bar to settle in and talk apps – the Great American iPhone App to be precise. A conversation about the Phantom City – what could have been – led to a discussion of what could be.  Everyone in the group, which ranged across age groups and professions, articulated what his or her dream app would be, some specific and some grand. An envisioned app that would track the daily route of the iPhone owner turned the conversation towards subjective mapping. Like a spatial journal, such an app could turn a map of the city into a personal checklist, encouraging urban exploration, as the Museum of the Phantom City’s bursts of light do, and prompting the user to fill in non-traversed areas. Or a user could access the paths other app users take through the city. Kevin Lynch’s theories put to the test. What could we learn about our city with that kind of information? What layers of the city might be revealed?

Besides the well-known GPS feature, the iPhone has several underused high-tech sensors like an accelerometer, an ambient light sensor, and an infrared sensor which can provide mass amounts of recordable data. But smartphones’ already demonstrated prowess at collecting information has not yet been matched by potential applications to centralize, disseminate, or make visible said data for advocacy or other productive uses.

Many hoped to find ways to use this technology for public information sharing beyond restaurant reviews. But close behind the utopian possibilities afforded by the new media, just as in all of the visionary sites that make up the Phantom City, are the dystopian ones. How do we ensure that this new public platform becomes something other than a new tool of consumerism? And when am I actually going to break down and buy one? At this point it doesn’t seem too far off.

Thanks to everyone who joined us, both on foot and in conversation. Check out a few photos of the event below. If you came along and have more pics to share, add them to our Flickr groupand tag them “urbanomnibus.” To find out about more upcoming events, and to stay on top of our weekly features and forum posts sign up for our weekly email, become a fan of Urban Omnibus on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Check out other recaps of the event from our co-sponsor WNYC and Omnibus advisor Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, Executive Director of the Queens Council on the Arts.

Video excerpts courtesy of Wayne Congar. Photos by Varick Shute.

Rachel Aland is project associate of Urban Omnibus. She lives in Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.