gli architetti e lo spazio digitale
Toward Anthropic Cyberspace:
for the design of cyberspace*
Whereas lively arts like choreography, video and film depict motion, architecture contains it plays the foil to action. It provides users with an overarching order and fixed points of reference. While in physical buildings these may reflect functional necessity shelter and structure in cyberspace this order can be used to orient us within an information space. This conceptual structure plays a similar role to the narrative of a film. In both cases an aesthetic continuity provides the backdrop for focal contents or events. Think of the way museum house diverse contents ranging from sculpture and painting to brochures and signage. A museumıs large-scaled continuity is a framework for concentration, receding into the background while highlighting its displays.
Architecture is an applied art, responding to a program of diverse requirements not unlike the discipline of human factors design of computer interfaces. Ultimately the computer interface like architecture must respond to the dictates of human use. Both the products of architecture and cyberspace result from deliberate design. They each involve an aesthetic, humane response to often abstract demands.
Ritual plays a role in both kinds of space as well. The computer interface requires users to employ codified gestures to control the program. Architecture makes similar demands on its users. Its physical form requires specific movements, entry and circulation to use it effectively. Buildings often house specific rituals ranging from the sacred cathedrals, temples, courthouses to the profane factories, sports facilities, parking structures. Their forms can be traced to the rituals they support.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, both cyberspace and architecture are cultural and social entities. I have stressed in this book the intrinsically human quality of space its role in thought, communication and identity. Space, through its perceived and cognitive aspects, extends us beyond ourselves to others.
Challenging the Metaphor
But the architectural metaphor doesnıt fully encompass the qualities of cyberspace. While architectureıs products (buildings) are stable and material, those of cyberspace are evanescent and symbolic sometimes changing even as we use them. Whereas the user of a building will probably have a similar experience as its previous occupant, each user of a cyberspace may take away a different interpretation of the space depending upon how it was used.
Users of cyberspaces are often complicit with the space by deliberately selecting options whereas architecture remains comparatively static. I may, for instance, visit a Web site and select options different from another visitor. I can even choose to see the source code underlying the pages. To have a similar experience in a building, it would have to change shape for me and, presenting the source of its design, take the form of any number of drawings or models.
However, of nearly all art forms, architecture comes closest to addressing our purposeful use of space our bodily understanding of containment, restraint and definition. Works of architecture and its allied disciplines, urban planning and interior design, differ from those of the narrative arts because they contain options for users to create their own narratives. How I move through a city is only one path among many, and so my experience will be unique. High dimensional displays help us make low dimensional plans of action. The ability of architecture to simultaneously embody many alternatives closely relates to the operation of current computer networks.
Curiously, architectural metaphors abound in high-tech culture. Computer technology uses terms shared by construction and architecture: firewalls, partitions, platforms, shells, modularity, design, site, windows, even architecture itself. Discussions on human factors design for computers often resemble architectural discussions on ergonomics, aesthetics and function. More recently cyberspace and graphic environments have been described as ³information architecture² by R. Saul Wurman, a leading authority on information design and architect as well. Various graphic designers and computer experts have described the creation of cyberspace as the contemporary equivalent to the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe.
The comparison is well made, for the tradition of memory palaces possibly finds itself manifested in these structures. The simultaneous use of cathedrals to house congregations and to act as a reservoir of cultural memory points to a positive use of collective cyberspaces. The vast effort of construction, incorporating the concerted efforts of many disciplines also is reflected in the present construction of on-line environments.
Designing Anthropic Cyberspace
Unlike the world that naturally surrounds us, cyberspace and architecture are contrived by humans. Whereas nature is found, cyberspace and architecture are constructed for human use. Until fairly recently cyberspace has been devoted to the relay of text and numerical information. But the trend toward spatialization in computing implies that electronic environments themselves may become subjects for design.
But in cyberspace, nothing is given. The spatial experience is a conscious choice and requires an investment of effort and resources. The strategies for these spaces require us to determine their content as well as their containing spaces. Architects make many assumptions about the users of buildings: people have a certain size and weight; they canıt occupy more than one point in space at a time physically; they are usually upright with their feet on the ground.
Cyberspace offers designers no such certainties. Users may occupy several spaces simultaneously. Orientation of the body is moot, as the body itself must be consciously rendered. Many alternatives obtain to users of these spaces, and designers must anticipate each choice, constructing the experience for consistency and grace. Further, this design must be coherent from one space to the next one state to another. This might require designers to think like the director of a film, unifying content, movement and transition through careful design.
In this way the architecture of cyberspace is more like the space of our dreams one where our environment is complicit with us anticipating our actions and responding to our states of mind. While the seemingly objective world of adulthood resists us, the illusion of cyberspace assists us. Conventional architecture of the physical world can only provide passive amenities. An architecture of cyberspace is a dynamic, changing environment that if well conceived attends us in our work and play.
The disciplines of architecture, urban planning, choreography, cinema, theater and animation all utilize space to enhance our experience they are all forms of cultural expression. As members of these disciplines increasingly use networked computation they will also influence the character of cyberspace.
The true nature of on-line environments is still being discovered. As it matures cyberspace will develop characteristics of its own. We must be careful in selecting our disciplinary models or we may miss out on cyberspaceıs true potential. But if we are willing to mix metaphors drawing on qualities taken from various disciplines we may avoid the burdens they impose while still benefiting from their cultural past. For each art form has attributes that apply to the design of anthropic cyberspace.
While I have just presented a unifying role that architecture might play, other disciplines also use processes and modes of thought that can instruct us in the design of cyberspaces. No one discipline will dominate cyberspace, instead the discipline itself will grow from those who have come from a diversity of backgrounds. Their convergence can lead to the creation of a new discipline, culturally rooted in preceding arts and technologies.
["Toward Anthropic Cyberspace" is excerpted from: Peter Anders, Envisioning cyberspace, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998]
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