Site Object Experience: ICA 2011 Presentation

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Later this week I’m going to Boston to attend my first ever International Communication Association conference. I’ve never felt particularly at home in any of the “communication associations,” so these conferences have never really been on my annual circuit. But I was invited to participate this year in a panel on design and communication. It’s just a quick trip up to Boston, so I figured, oh what the hell. At the very least I’ll meet the other interesting people on my panel… and the one other design-focused panel on the program.

I’m doing something different — and rather selfish — with this presentation: I’m rehearsing some ideas for the “personal statement” I’ll have to write for my tenure dossier. I hope that’s not a terrible idea. In the statement I have to narrate my research trajectory over the past ten or so years and convince my reviewers, who hold my fate in their hands, that there’s been some coherent purpose to what I’ve been up to. The text still needs a lot of polish for the dossier, but I decided at midnight tonight that this is good enough for a 15+-minute talk.

Site Object Experience: Designing Material Media Spaces

Slides Here 

For decades scholars and critics have been examining design as communication. Their work has addressed [SLIDE2] the symbolism of the manufactured object (Barthes 1957; Candlin/Guins 2009), [SLIDE3] the means by which a built space communicates its function (Venturi 1966; Eco 1968), [SLIDE4] even the communicative action of the design process (Alexander 1987; Mattern 2003). Methodologies emerging from [SLIDE5] the relatively new field of design studies, as well as new theoretical approaches—including [SLIDE6] the “new materialism” (Gumbrecht/Pfeiffer 1994; Miller 2005), [SLIDE7] “thing theory” (Appadurai 1996; Brown 2001), and [SLIDE8] media archaeology (Huhtamo 1997; Zielinski 2006)—offer models through which communication scholars can study [SLIDE9] the design of communicative objects, from codices to ebooks, from pencils to joysticks.

In my own work for over a decade, I’ve drawn on these various traditions, focusing specifically on [SLIDE10] the relationships between media and communication and spatial design practices – at the interior, architectural, urban, and, occasionally, national scales. In what follows I’ll provide a brief overview of the projects I’ve undertaken in an effort to highlight the concepts and theoretical frameworks, the methodologies and interconnected scales of analysis, that I’ve developed for this work. And then for the last few minutes I’ll home in on [SLIDE11] a recent article that focuses on an under-the-radar 1000 square-foot room in a library not far from here: the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library. [SLIDE12]

Essentially, what I’m about to present is a sort of intellectual autobiography – a choice of genre that might seem rather presumptuous for someone who’s still junior. But as a junior faculty member who will very soon face [SLIDE13] a major review that will seal my professional fate, I found this exercise – of conceptually and methodologically organizing my work – to be fantastic preparation for the work that lies before me this summer. I hope the following will prove to be of some use for you, too.

I began my academic career wondering why so few media scholars studied [SLIDE14] libraries – which seemed to me the ideal “objects to think with.” They contained media of various formats, spanning a wide stretch of media history. They contained their own networks of media distribution and consumption – and, in some cases, production, too. They embodied particular practices of reading and listening and looking. And the buildings themselves, as Victor Hugo, Walter Benjamin, Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, and others have shown us, [SLIDE15] constitute among the most massive, resolutely material media in existence. I was for a time in graduate school steeped in the [SLIDE16] Media Ecology tradition – and while I no longer identify strongly with this tradition, the lessons I’ve learned from Innis, McLuhan, Giedeon, and other figures who focused on media “form” and, although some might not have used this term, design, helped to build my intellectual foundation.

In 1999 I set out to study what was shaping up to be one of the most closely watched design projects of the turn-of-the-21st century: [SLIDE17] Rem Koolhaas’s design of the Seattle Public Library. I focused just as much on the design process – I looked at design as multimodal discursive action – as on the designed product. I examined how [SLIDE18] local and international media shaped the discourse surrounding the design of the Library; [SLIDE19] how the architects communicated the design in small-group settings and large-scale public addresses; [SLIDE20] how the building itself functioned as a symbol of civic and institutional identity – which required that I also examine city and regional planning initiatives; [SLIDE21] and, finally, how the architecture informed its publics’ interactions with media in various formats.

In other words, I investigated [SLIDE22][CLICK] the role of communication in design (the role of interpersonal and mass media and various analogue and digital design media – e.g., models, sketches, animated fly-throughs); [CLICK] architectural design as communication (building as symbol, as embodiment of its function); [CLICK] the design (or “architecture”) of various media formats and communication technologies (from microform to Kindles); [CLICK] and design of spaces for those myriad forms of media. [SLIDE23] This work involved interviewing architects, librarians, urban planners, library pages, city mayors, patrons, and other stakeholders; studying design media and documentation (research reports, blueprints, models, meeting minutes); reviewing press coverage and internal communication; observing meetings and public fora; reviewing the design and theoretical work of the various parties involved in these design processes; and of course studying the history of the designer, the city, and the institution and its architecture.

My other research projects have applied similar theoretical models and methodologies in studying the design or renovation of other “information” facilities – [SLIDE24] including Louis Kahn’s Philips Exeter Academy Library, [SLIDE25] which recently celebrated its 40th birthday (and has struggled to incorporate new networked media into its very classically geometric codex-inspired design); [SLIDE26] Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room, which recently underwent a controversial renovation, also in an attempt to accommodate “today’s volume and character of use”; [SLIDE27] and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, which represents and archival space in limbo, between the analogue and digital.

Recognizing that much of the design scholarship and criticism on these and other buildings was overwhelmingly ocularcentric, over time I expanded my focus to examine how libraries and archives can be designed to accommodate [SLIDE28] multiple sensory “conditions of attendance” – particularly the sonic conditions – necessitated by various media formats and habits of use. [SLIDE29] “Conditions of attendance” is a concern I’ve borrowed from my media ecology background. [SLIDE30] I’ve also found Bourdieu’s habitus to be a useful tool for thinking about how architecture is a structure that structures our interactions with media, and with each other.

Architecture constructs a habitus that informs not only how people consume media, but also how they produce it; so I’ve also looked at how media companies – [SLIDE31] like China Central Television in Beijing and [SLIDE32] InterActive Corporation in New York — can design buildings that communicate their corporate and local identities, facilitate the production of media, and embody particular ideologies and labor practices.

As I’ve examined these individual structures, I’ve recognized that spatial design strategies at different scales, as well as the discourses surrounding them, bleed together. “Scaling up” or “down” the spatial unit of analysis has also helped me to appreciate [SLIDE33] how “spatial design” is often integrated with other design practices, like graphic design or [CLICK] interaction design, or furniture design, or industrial designers’ work in shaping particular media artifacts. For example, we might consider the role of architectural signage in a building’s ability to communicate its function and identity – [SLIDE34] or, at a larger scale, the role played by a custom-designed typeface in “re-branding” an entire nation. There are many other interesting convergences of media design – particularly print publication – and architectural design; [SLIDE35] I recently completed a study on “paper architecture” – the production of little magazines and zines – as an alterative architectural practice.

[SLIDE36] My current project is intended to tackle this integration of scales – the connection of design “nodes” into networks – and the integration of various design practices, including even engineering. I’ve also been particularly inspired by [SLIDE37] recent work problematizing the supposed “immateriality” and “ubiquity” of networked media, [CLICK] and by work on infrastructure. Lisa Parks’ and Brian Larkins’ work has proven inspirational. Over the past few years I’ve begun to examine how [SLIDE38] the “design” of historical media networks and infrastructures, like pneumatic tubes and telecommunications networks, have shaped the material city. [SLIDE39] Drawing on media archaeology – and methods from real archaeology – I aim in my next book to show how those historical media, from the voice to print to telegraphy, have laid the path for contemporary media networks.

[SLIDE40] Through all of this work, I’ve come to appreciate the value of integrating various scales of analysis – how the reading or screening room works with in the building, which itself interacts with its city and region – and examining how various design practices work in tandem. This integrated approach helps to uncover the ontological integration of communication and design: [SLIDE41] in other words, looking simultaneously at communication in design, design as communication, and design for communication, can help us appreciate the mutual construction of material sites for, objects for, and experiences of communication.

[SLIDE42] In my last couple minutes here, I’m going to briefly talk about site that allows us to appreciate this ontological integration. The Woodberry Poetry Room boasts a marvelous collection of 20th- and 21st-century poetry books, including many small press editions, pamphlets, magazines, broadsides, and manuscripts “from the entire English-speaking world,” and serves as home to readings from some of the worlds most renowned poets. It was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and opened in 1949 in Harvard University’s Lamont Library, the country’s first undergrad library. The room had originated in 1931 in Widener Library, in a more formal incarnation consistent with the New Criticism then in vogue. Yet its founding mission was far from New Criticism: it was dedicated to “bringing alive the poet’s voice and creating a place at Harvard…for the enduring delight and significance of poetry.”

[SLIDE43] But by 2006, the furniture was worn out, the asbestos in the ceiling had raised concern, and the room’s technical capabilities had become sorely apparent – so the libraries planned a renovation. Granted, the renovation was rather hush-hush, and rushed, but the design and preservation communities’ reactions to the project revealed dramatic differences in the way the design community, the library community, and the poetry community regarded the form and materiality of the poetic text and the room that housed them. [SLIDE44] Critics regarded the renovation as “vandalism”: the “reading room,” the press said, was a “jewel” of a design that should be kept in its perfect, complete form. [SLIDE45] All those “amenities,” like computers, could simply be placed in an adjacent location. Besides, “reading and listening to poetry are not activities that have changed much in centuries.” The problems are that technology cannot be set aside – even the manuscript is technology – …and reading and listening to poetry have changed dramatically as a result of technological and cultural change.

[SLIDE46] The room had always been technologically advanced: Aalto – who had a history of experimenting with new forms, and designing spaces that recognized the integration of sensory perception and intellectual cognition in people’s appropriation of architecture – designed these eight “listening stations,” which were the “high tech” of 1949. While preservationists regarded the poetic medium as something static, and the precious “masterwork” that contained those media as something similarly perfect and complete, George E. Woodberry, who bequeathed the gift that established the room, and a long line of the room’s curators, [SLIDE47] as well as the faculty and students who used it, valued its ability to offer up, in the words of Seamus Heaney, the “living history of modern poetry.” Poetry is a dynamic thing, which can exist as a printed text on a page, a handwritten manuscript, an audiorecording (the room was a pioneer in creating poetry recordings), or a live performance. The poetic “medium” was something multiple – it was Barthes’ “text” – whereas the preservationists wanted poetry, and the room that housed it, to be crystallized as a masterwork.

[SLIDE48] Aalto’s approach to design, one concerned primarily with the user’s embodied experience of both architecture and media, proved consistent with the pedagogical approach implied in the room’s founding mission—an approach that recognizes the integration of affect and cognition, of delight and critical engagement—and the curators’ appreciation of the fluidity and dynamism of poetry’s forms. The controversy over the renovation, it seemed to me, reflected disagreement regarding the fluidity or fixity—the ontology—of the architectural “object” and the poetic text and how users (readers, listeners, writers, inhabitants) engage with those texts. In order to arrive at this conclusion, I had to examine the media coverage of the design, how the design communicated a particular pedagogical philosophy and an architectural “character,” and how the room facilitated engagement with poetry in its myriad mediated formats. These variables mutually constructed a material site for, objects for, and experiences of communication.

As my research has evolved, I’ve recognized that, over the past 10 years, it has come to flesh out [SLIDE49] Anna McCarthy and Nick Couldry’s “five levels” of media space, which they outlined in their 2004 book, MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age:

  1. Studying media representations (media coverage of design processes)
  2. The study of how media images, texts, and data flow across space and, in so doing, reconfigure social space (how spaces create conditions of attendance, inform practices of looking, hearing, media-making)
  3. The study of the specific spaces at either end of the media process, the space of consumption and the space of production (and the spaces in-between – distribution)
  4. The study of the scale-effects, or complex entanglements of scale, which result from the operation of media in space (each of my projects works across scales)
  5. Studying how media-caused entanglements of scale are variously experienced and understood in particular places (comparative studies – as in my first book, which examined 15 libraries, and my new book project which examines various cities around the world, from various periods in history)

[SLIDE50] We might supplement this list with a few additional concepts: the interaction between physical and virtual spaces; those spaces in-between production and consumption; the material and virtual infrastructures that support these production/distribution/consumption cycles; the roles various media objects play within these networks, etc. [SLIDE51] Thinking across these levels of analysis could help us to better appreciate the multifaceted interactions between spatial design and media – between site, object, and experience.

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