Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Urban Legibility: Shining Light on New Perspectives

Continuing from the last post, the GEL conference featured an unusual combination of speakers for a business meeting.

Crossing Disciplines to See Things New

Why and how is GEL unusual? Mark Hurst, the conference's founder, breaks down the usual "us vs. them" assumptions on which gathering of business professionals are usually built. Most conferences ask the question: How can WE (businesses) get more money from THEM (individual customers or entire markets)?

What's the Alternative?

Hurst unites customer experience in a value recognizable to both business people and those on whom they make their living by inviting attendees to explore assumptions about everything -- competition, marketing, business, brand, community, investment, risk, and so on. In other words, GEL asks attendees to redefine value as a concept as well as in its particulars.

The Theme: Hidden Potential

The conference’s theme was hidden potential Hurst used the opportunity to invite speakers across disciplines and put their ideas side by side. It was an unusual opportunity to see the values of each discipline in a new perspective based on their connections to others one would not ordinarily consider.

Hidden Potential as a Theme: Shining Light on Hidden Value

Leni Shwendinger is a conceptual and visual artist who is fascinated with the legibility of cities at night. According to Shwendinger, the nighttime city loses much of its daytime accessibility and its potential is usually neglected.

Leni spoke on the hidden potential of cities and used as an example her project Glasgow involving the Kingston Bridge.

Shwendinger began by demonstrating the degree to which the bridge is "unlovely." On top of the bridge, those in cars daily suffered noise, smog, and regular traffic. Because of commuter delays, the bridge also had become an annoyance, something to be avoided if possible.

The bridge was also ugly to look at from the side. A tacky faux exterior hid a hollow space from the side view. Shwendinger approached her research -- both primary and secondary -- wondering what beauty she could bring out under these circumstances. She wanted to find some hidden value in the bridge and demonstrate the relationship to that of the city and to the individuals who live there.

Urban Blight Hides Quiet Spaces

Below the bridge, Shwendinger found inspiration in the "perspectival grandeur" of the underside's scale and shape, the river Clyde flowing powerfully beneath, and the sky that could be seen through the spaces above.

With the help of a traffic expert, architects, and others, Shwendinger designed a grid with colors that marked the level of traffic flow as it changed. She used the same grid measurements to articulate the flow of the river and the spot in which it turned. Computer equipment in nearby boxes tracked the changes, and, finally, each data set was combined with the other to create color combinations that illustrated the relationship.

In this way, colors were selected and projected onto the bridge at night.

Transformed Perspective

The art piece transformed the city's perspective on the Kingston Bridge in several ways.

First, the lights drew attention to the relationship between the bridge and the river. The noise and smell of the traffic found a quiet contrast in the naturally powerful water beneath it. Both the bridge and river are urban landmarks with similar functions. Less than a century ago, it was the river that carried goods and people up and down the country. In terms of Scottish history, the change was relatively recent, and the connection is meaningful. And it was all done visually with light.

But Wait, There's (Always) More

Perhaps most obviously, when night fell, the bridge was transformed from eyesore to stunning color. However, the palate was functional as well as beautiful. Each shade, derived the algorithms of flows from traffic and the river, offered information about traffic patterns at every point in the bridge and the Clyde's movement as well. The measurements changed every five minutes to keep them accurate and useful for those who approached.

Transforming Blight Through Light
Last, the reflection of the lights on the water connected the natural world to that of the man-made in this urban environment. The space under the bridge became transformed into a place one wanted to be instead of a place to be avoided.

We were all left to wonder: what other ideas whose value has long been dismissed could be reclaimed with a little thought and insight.

More on GEL speakers in the next post.

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