Many people believe that the Internet makes the city obsolete because it allows businesses to remove themselves from the congestion of urban living. After all, money no longer needs banks and mail is something we send more with the press of a computer button than we do by walks to the post office.
Cities have proven to be resilient though. In fact, rather than undermining the need for common social spaces, the Internet and more recently cell phone messaging have intensified the city. An unimagined relationship between the city and new communications technologies is evolving. Look at the "Smart Mob" phenomenon as an example. The city plaza / cell messaging duo have precipitated at least two recent political upheavals - both relatively peaceful by revolution standards.
Toronto too is experiencing this digitally driven intensification. There is something in the air that cannot be ascribed only to the recent building boom. People are talking about the city. Governments are acting proactively to limit its sprawl into the countryside. They're also making strong moves to re-imagine the waterfront. Is it true? Is there a new awareness of the city? If so, where will it lead?
Reuters news agency reported today that the Vatican used SMS and e-mail technology to alert the world's news agencies of the Pope's death. Phil Stewart, a Reuters reporter goes on to say:
TV spectators across the globe learned of the Pope's death even before the thousands of faithful gathered in prayer below the Pope's window in St. Peter's Square.
Archbishop Leonardo Sandri only informed them minutes later and their reaction -- a long round of applause, an Italian custom -- was captured on television in real time.
The use of the plaza as a forum for communication is replaced by a symbolic plaza - the physical place where people come to share a collective experience. More and more they are brought to those places by real-time, person-to-person communications technologies like SMS. Rather than destroying the plaza these technologies are reconfirming its importance in a civic life.
John Street in Toronto has the potential to be this city's media plaza. The modern media plaza, like its classical predecessors, is not necessarily one space. It is a sequence of spaces, passageways, and events that lead to places of assembly. With its parks, museums, media and cultural outlets John Street has the potential to be a great, modern civic amenity.
BIX is a permanent light- and media installation for the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria by realities:united architects from Berlin. (see http://www.bix.at) They describe the interactive installation as
A matrix of 930 fluorescent lamps is integrated into the eastern acrylic glass facade of the biomorphic building structure of the new Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria. Through the possibility to individually adjust the lamps’ brightness at an infinite variability with 20 frames/second images, films and animations can be displayed - the Kunsthaus' skin is transformed into a giant low resolution computer display.
In the BIX project realities:united combines communications and building technologies to create an amenity with an engaging and provocative civic function. It is easy to imagine how Toronto's John Street - the conceptual centre of this country's media and entertainment industry - could be enhanced by a similar installation. Canadian architects have technology and media resources on par with those available in Europe. So why haven't we seen more technologically sophisticated, media-centric buildings here?