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Curatorial Platform

Architect creates app to change how exhibitions are designed
For all the advances in technology over the past decade, the experience of curating and viewing museum shows has remained relatively unchanged. Even though digital archive systems exist and have certainly helped bring old institutions into the present, they have relatively little influence over the ways museum shows are designed and shared. The normal practice is more or less “old school” and even borderline “dysfunctional,” said Bika Rebek, principal of the New York and Vienna–based firm Some Place Studio. In fact, a survey she conducted early on found that many of the different software suites that museum professionals were using were major time sinks for their jobs. Fifty percent said they felt they were “wasting time” trying to fill in data or prepare presentations for design teams. To Rebek, this is very much an architectural problem, or at least a problem architects can solve. She has been working over the past two years, supported by NEW INC and the Knight Foundation, to develop Tools for Show, an interactive web-based application for designing and exploring exhibitions at various scales—from the level of a vitrine to a multi-floor museum. Leveraging her experiences as an architect, 3D graphics expert, and exhibition designer (she’s worked on major shows for the Met and Met Breuer, including the OMA-led design for the 2016 Costume Institute exhibition Manus x Machina), Rebek began developing a web-based application to enable exhibition designers and curators to collaborate, and to empower new ways of engaging with cultural material for users anywhere. Currently, institutions use many different gallery tools, she explained, which don’t necessarily interact and don’t usually let curators think spatially in a straightforward way. Tools for Show allows users to import all sorts of information and metadata from existing collection management software (or enter it anew), which is attached to artworks stored in a library that can then be dragged and dropped into a 3D environment at scale. Paintings and simple 3D shapes are automatically generated, though, for more complex forms where the image projected onto a form of a similar footprint isn’t enough, users could create their own models.  For example, to produce the New Museum’s 2017 show Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, Rebek rendered the space and included many of the basic furnishings unique to the museum. For other projects, like a test case with the Louvre's sculptures, she found free-to-use models and 3D scans online. Users can drag these objects across the 3D environments and access in-depth information about them with just a click. With quick visual results and Google Docs-style automatic updates for collaboration, Tools for Show could help not just replace more cumbersome content management systems, but endless emails too. Rebek sees Tools for Show as having many potential uses. It can be used to produce shows, allowing curators to collaboratively and easily design and re-design their exhibitions, and, after the show comes down it can serve as an archive. It can also be its own presentation system—not only allowing “visitors” from across the globe to see shows they might otherwise be unable to see, but also creating new interactive exhibitions or even just vitrines, something she’s been testing out with Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. More than just making work easier for curators and designers, Tools for Show could possibly give a degree of curatorial power and play over to a broader audience. “[Tools for Show] could give all people the ability to curate their own show without any technical knowledge,” she explained. And, after all, you can't move around archival materials IRL, so why not on an iPad? While some of the curator-focused features of Tools for Show are in the testing phase, institutions can already request the new display tools like those shown at Vizcaya. Rebek, as a faculty member at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, has also worked with students to use Tools for Show in conjunction with photogrammetry techniques in an effort to develop new display methods for otherwise inaccessible parts of the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, a history and naval and aerospace museum located in a decommissioned aircraft carrier floating in the Hudson River. At a recent critique, museum curators were invited to see the students’ new proposals and explore the spatial visualizations of the museum through interactive 3D models, AR, VR, as well as in-browser and mobile tools that included all sorts of additional media and information.
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Pop Architecture

Björk enlists Arup engineers to design musical chamber for her latest tour
When I visited Arup’s New York offices, I was taken from the sunlit open areas on the fifth floor, down some stairs, through dark corridors, and into a windowless room with painted dark walls. There was a projector screen, someone by a computer, and a person in all black sitting off to the side. In the center of the room was a black leather swivel chair, semi-orb shaped and raised high. I was invited to sit. I said that the whole thing felt ominous, like I was being interrogated, but given that I was the interrogator in this situation, maybe it should’ve felt more like I was some B-movie villain, looking over some empire through digital screens. But this was no evil lair—this room was Arup's SoundLab, one of many across the firm's global offices, each varying in design but all with identical sound systems and sonic experiences. “Basically, you are currently sitting in a room that uses what's known as an Ambisonic sound system,” explained Raj Patel, the person in all black and a global leader of acoustics. "What the Ambisonic sound system does is it allows you to simulate sound in three dimensions. There's also a measurement technique that allows you to go and measure an existing space, capture its acoustics in three dimensions, and play it back here." It was in rooms like these that experiments were done to create a new sort of architectonic instrument in the form of a reverberation chamber for none other than Icelandic superstar Björk. “[Björk] often described two different voices that she uses for singing,” explained Arup associate and acoustic designer Shane Myrbeck, who had Skyped in from San Francisco to join the meeting. “One is the one she uses on stage, that's through the microphone, through the PA, and that's a specific emotion for her. And then there's the other voice that she uses when she's singing by herself or in a nice acoustic room.” She wanted to bring this latter experience to the stages she’ll be performing at as she travels on her Cornucopia tour, which is organized a bit like a series of theatrical residencies and began with sold-out shows at The Shed earlier this May. While Arup and Björk had been in conversation at multiple points over the past few years, the reverberation chamber was imagined just last year and was designed and built in under six months. “She was very focused on it sounding right first,” Myrbeck recounted. “We often work with architects, so there's a form to study or a palette of forms to study. In this case, our initial question, was ‘Okay, what do you want it to look like?’ And she was like, ‘Don't think of it that way. It needs to sound good first.’” Myrbeck said, “She wanted it to be as reverberant as possible…We kept using words like chapel or alluding to the cathedral-type sound.” However, cathedrals derive their distinctive sound in large part from their sheer volume, something that obviously couldn’t easily be toured across the world and mounted on any given stage. Still, “there are some precedents out there in the world,” explained Myrbeck. “Before they had digital reverbs, they would literally just have these concrete rooms in the basement and put a loudspeaker down there and just send the sound down to these chambers and record that. That was the old reverb effect. And those are pretty small rooms.” Another reference was the large-scale sculpture Tvísöngur, located on Iceland’s east coast. Opened in 2012 and designed by the German artist Lukas Kühne, the installation comprises five large concrete domes that echo the incoming wind at various harmonies. However, both of these examples were made of concrete, an unrealistic material to make a relatively large, but still easily transportable, chamber for stage out of. “[The reverberation chamber] needed to be something that she could tour with,” said Myrbeck. “A lot of the simulations that we did were materials studies.” The team used Rhino models with acoustic software that simulated the known resonances, derived from nearly a century’s worth of data, of different materials, like concrete, acrylic, plaster, and others. Inside these simulated environments the team at Arup used a sample of an isolated vocal track Björk had recorded for them and sent her the various ways it would sound in spaces of various materials and shapes, which she listened to on headphones in her own studio, and later, in a SoundLab. “One of the other things about a small room is that, just due to the size of acoustic waves, you get these very specific resonances in different places,” Myrbeck said. He compared it to the weird sonic effects of singing in your shower. In rooms like the SoundLab, where we met, one of the central design challenges is to minimize those effects in order to create a sort of neutral room that can simulate any space—whether an amphitheater, a train hall, or a small lobby. In the case of designing Björk's reverberation chamber, “it was just about embracing [those resonances] and trying to make them as evocative as possible so that Björk could experiment with those different resonances in the different places that she could stand in the chamber." Rather than eliminating all this sonic unevenness, the goal was to give the singer the power to "activate" it. In the end, Arup and Björk decided on an 16.4-foot-high, just-under 10-foot-wide octagonal structure with flat sides and a vaulted roof of molded plywood. There is one central microphone, while a few others are placed around the top perimeter. The design is modular and can easily be dis- and re-assembled. It also uses common materials: plywood and a plaster composite, about an inch thick, that has a similar density and resonance quality to concrete. These are materials that are easy to repair on the fly (while the roof is molded, the walls are just standard plywood sheets). The automated door and the transparent cutaways are acrylic, about an inch thick, while the floor is plywood and is slightly elevated so that it has its own resonant properties. The reverberation chamber has simple bolted connections that allow it to “be as airtight as possible while still allowing her to breathe freely,” protecting it against acoustic leakage. Björk will even invite inside the shows' flutists, whose own bodies reshape the resonant qualities of the compact chamber. “It's very much an instrument,” Myrbeck said, and serves as a way to literalize emotional shifts in the performance. “I think that one of the exciting things about the design process [with Björk] was her really sophisticated blend of the acoustic and natural and almost ancient tradition—there's not much more ancient than singing; it's one of the oldest forms of expression—and her embracing of the very futuristic, state-of-the-art digital technology," said Myrbeck. "The design process expressed that as well.”
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Playing House

Startup wants to automate the home design process
Anyone who’s played The Sims (especially with cheat codes) knows the fun and ease of designing your own home with a few clicks of the mouse. Anyone who's designed an actual, IRL home knows that the real process is completely different. Homebuyers who want a custom home often encounter a frustratingly opaque and expensive process, or are stuck with pre-made plans that look like everyone else’s. They’re left, as Michael Bergin, cofounder and director of architecture at the startup Higharc put it, with “houses that are just left without design.” And even getting an architect to customize stock home plans, like those available online, Bergin said, can wind up costing at least in the low five figures, so instead, most go for pre-designed plans. “People spend their entire savings, everything that they have, on something that's not fit for them." Higharc believes there could be a “middle ground” in home architecture. To that end, it's developed a web-based home design app aimed at the everyday user and homebuyer. “We are trying to…address fundamental inefficiencies, structural challenges in the home building,” said Bergin. “The product that we are developing isn't going to replace an experienced 20-year architect,” he admitted, but it will, Higharc hopes, make customization much more accessible to a wider swath of new home buyers. Higharc is trying to embed “architectural intelligence” directly into its web-based software. The app uses, among other technologies, “procedural generation,” a computational technique borrowed from video games (one of Higharc’s founding members, Thomas Holt, has game industry experience), that generates graphics on the fly. “The difference between where this lands in gaming and our approach is that we're building in these heuristic or structural rules, so that no house that's produced in our system is structurally deficient,” explained Bergin. “[Higharc] looks at the international building code and prescriptive span tables and ensures that every house that we are producing is something that's buildable.” (A recent Curbed article reported that many of these code data come from the International Code Council, which recently sued the startup UpCodes for republishing building codes.) Higharc said that as it expands into new markets (it's currently beginning its first role out in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area), it is also incorporating regional building codes. To help with siting, Higharc pulls in public GIS data. Users can pick a plot anywhere in their area from a Google Maps–like interface and try out building their home. They can then take their design and see how it fits on another plot, and Higharc will adjust the home accordingly to make sure it fits just right on the new site. Right now, The Sims comparison might go a little too far—those 3D characters don’t have to worry too much about structural integrity, after all. Higharc allows users to choose from a series of options—preset aesthetics, number of bedrooms, guest suites, number of floors, the size of each room, etc.—and automatically generates a home optimized for the user selections and the chosen plot, immediately adjusting and restructuring the entire home as the homebuyer switches options. All the while, the software displays an estimated cost range that adapts with each change to help users stay on budget. “We’re making [home building] a fun process, making it an accessible process for everyone,” said Bergin. “Ultimately, we just want to make better neighborhoods and give home buyers and builders choice—and agency.”
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Augmented Materiality

Designer and engineer Nassia Inglessis creates responsive canopy
Today, most people live in cities—artificial structures that determine how we move through space and relate to others and the world around us. But, all too often these cities feel fixed, designed and determined by larger powers that shape a landscape that the average denizen has little direct influence over. So what would a responsive city, one that worked like a natural ecosystem and subsumed participants in its very fabric, look like? This is the question that Nassia Inglessis, founder of Studio INI, is provoking in her installation Urban Imprint, now on display in Brooklyn at A/D/O by MINI. A 340-square-foot pavilion, Urban Imprint invites visitors to move all over a field of brick-red, water-jet-cut rubber-concrete composite tiles that sinks slightly underneath one's feet, in turn deforming a hidden web of laser-cut steel below. Above, a web of that same brick-red material deforms upwards, rising in direct proportion to the weight of participants on the platform. The entire project was conceived and prototyped in just under six months, fabricated in Athens and then shipped to New York for its unveiling during New York Design Week. So often, Inglessis said, our cities are a “design that somebody has given us and we have to navigate.” From the grid of Manhattan to the walls of a building, “there is no imprint that you are leaving behind, no evidence that you've been there.” This lack of interaction leaves citizens feeling “muted,” Inglessis said, “you feel just part of somebody else's design, and we often feel that we are quite lonely in the city.” Urban Imprint is designed to resist this static notion of architecture. “It doesn't have a final form and it never will because the human element is what completes the design.” Plus, when more than one person steps on the surface, it reconfigures entirely how you relate to one another—your sightlines and ground shift and move, and the effect of other participants in this microcosm of urban space is quite palpable. You're all participating in remaking this "space." While “there are a lot of digital tools and fabrication and computational design that went into [Urban Imprint], the actual end result is completely analog,” Inglessis explained. A series of pulleys with cables hidden behind the red-hued mirrors, a color chosen to accentuate the brick facade of the former industrial space, operate the entire process. In function, Urban Imprint is like “a physical megaphone,” suggested Inglessis—taking the deformation of its participants and expanding it four times above their head, helping visitors imagine what it would be like to “have your urban environment give evidence of your presence.” Speaking on the choice of creating a analogue, mechanical final form, Inglessis reflected: “Although I had the knowledge and tools of all these amazing new capabilities that have opened up from computational design and digital fabrication tools [both of which were used to design and fabricate the steel and rubber-concrete components], I felt there was so much activity moving us towards living in a headset.” Instead, she said, “we should look at technology and the new digital tools as a means to an end, rather than an end itself.” So often, beyond just simulating the “real world” on screens and headsets, many new mixed-reality technologies just overlay digital elements onto a physical world that’s “still pretty static.” Instead of augmented reality, Inglessis proposes “augmented materiality,” a sort of “new analog” that blends old and new fabrication, production, and experiential tools to create new possibilities in our physical, urban world. In Urban Imprint, she says, “the material itself has the ability to transform, to be dynamic, to create interaction, and to be seamless.” Urban Imprint was realized by Inglessis with the help of Manos Vordonarakis and the Studio INI team. It will be on view at A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, until September 2.
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New Rules

How the U.K. forged a path to global BIM standards

During my days as a technology vendor, I chafed at the idea of introducing government standards for technology developed by a polyglot group of stakeholders. Users, software companies, and bureaucrats often sought a “lowest common denominator” between various software, sacrificing innovation and progress for vague notions like “open access.” In the early days of Building Information Modeling (BIM), several such efforts emerged, the most prominent of which were the General Services Administration (GSA) attempts to create a standard and the development of BIM-derived digital permitting submissions in Singapore. Both projects garnered much attention but gained little traction in the form of implemented technologies or operating protocols—at least in their early forms. But they had one important effect: In the loosely organized, disparate network of the building industry supply chain, government could provide a galvanizing influence. At least when government spoke, the industry listened.

In 2011, however, we witnessed a welcome change with the publication of the United Kingdom’s “Government Construction Strategy.” Much of the early theory about industry productivity and need for process integration had long emerged from that side of the Atlantic—for example, Sir Roger Egan’s seminal “Rethinking Construction” report—but there was little action. The David Cameron government, however, saw construction as a critical economic engine, concluding that improving the cost and carbon impacts of building while bolstering U.K. capabilities as a global building leader would drive growth. One pillar of the resulting government policy document was BIM, and the following requirement: “2.32. Government will require fully collaborative 3-D BIM (with all project and asset information, documentation, and data being electronic) as a minimum by 2016. A staged plan will be published with mandated milestones showing measurable progress at the end of each year.”

As upwards of 40 percent of construction dollars in the U.K. are spent by the government, the industry snapped to attention, formed cross-industry collaborations, and established and implemented BIM requirements for all their projects (with logistical and financial support from the government). BIM adoption shot up from 10 percent in 2012 to 70 percent by 2018, and savings on the first prototype projects were estimated at as much as 2.5 percent of the total lifetime cost of designing, building, and operating the project. By my own estimate, that’s as much as five times the fees likely paid to the design team and 25 percent of original construction cost. Not bad for a first effort. And, in typical British fashion, the resulting standards (search online for “PAS 1192”) were clear, rigorous, and implementable.

The success of the U.K. effort has spread across Europe, and EU government leaders have taken similar roles (at least until Brexit) in developing standards for the entire European Union, while also establishing footholds with other global networks, most notably in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Singapore, in collaboration with the U.K. team, has spurred a multiyear effort to create a standards collaboration there. As we approach the end of the second decade of BIM, one can see the slow emergence of a global network of BIM standards leading to a single market BIM, catalyzed by what may be the only cohering force in the building universe: the long arm of the law.

Now that the technology is mature and its use stable, global BIM standards are a good thing. The U.K. effort rightly became the basis of a worldwide standard created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO; see ISO Standard 19650) and released in early 2019. Based on the now viral PAS 1192, ISO describes its work as “recommended concepts and principles for business processes across the built environment sector in support of the management and production of information during the life cycle of built assets (referred to as 'information management’) when using building information modelling (BIM).” Note the emphasis on business process driving the technology standard; precisely the right relationship for creating a stable platform for the otherwise disparate players in the global building industry.

And there’s an even larger idea here. What’s most powerful about the U.K.’s trailblazing work on BIM standards is the origin point: Rather than start with the prosaic, bottom-up question of lowest common denominator tech standards, they chose a broad organizing principle—improving building through technology is good for the economy and the environment, and doing this in a way that is agnostic to specific technologies or proprietary software drives competitive innovation that helps the entire market.

Driving BIM standards has further benefits to government, not the least of which is transactional transparency. State-run construction is rife with overbidding, conflicts of interest, and corruption. A bedrock principle of “collaborative 3-D BIM” is information clarity—all members of the building team can see and understand the physical and technical characteristics of the project in parametric three dimensions, along with the resulting arithmetic of cost projection—which makes it that much harder to manipulate a bid.

In the early days of the U.K. project there was an appointed Chief Government Construction Advisor with a direct line to high-level policy makers in the Cabinet. The United States’ construction market, roughly five times the size of the U.K.’s, could surely benefit from some policy-driven federal leadership, something that is certainly hard to imagine in today’s administration and go-go economy. But when the inevitable downturn does occur, we’ll know which way to look for inspiration for industry improvement.

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Location, location, location

How Baidu Maps turns location data into 3-D cityscapes—and big profits

Level 3, number 203. Turn right 10 feet. Go straight for 15 feet. The best way to experience data's strong grip on everyday life in China is to open up Baidu Maps, a mapping app by China’s biggest search engine company, and walk around a shopping mall for one afternoon. Inside the building, a network of Bluetooth beacons, Wi-Fi modems, and satellites from a global navigation satellite system whir and ping through the air and the ionosphere to determine your precise location. The map on the Baidu app tilts to reveal an elaborately modeled 3-D cityscape.

The resolution of Baidu Maps is stunning: Entire cities are modeled in 3-D. Within public buildings, the floorplan of each building level is precisely mapped. As I stand inside the Taikoo Hui Mall in the city of Guangzhou, China, I search for a store within the mall. Baidu Maps reveals which level the store is on and how many meters I need to walk. Strolling through the mall with the app tracking my location with a blue dot on the screen, life starts to feel like a virtual reality experience. The difference between the map's 3-D model and the reality beneath my feet is smaller than ever. The 3-D model makes an uncanny loop: Virtual models were used by architects and designers to design these spaces, which now unfold on a messy plane between real space and screen space.

China now has its own tech giants—Alibaba, JD.com, Tencent Holdings, and Baidu—homegrown behind the Great Firewall of China. Like their American counterparts, these companies have managed to surveil their users and extract valuable data to create new products and features. Baidu began as a search engine, but has now branched out into autonomous driving, and therefore, maps. The intricacy of its 3-D visualizations is the result of over 600 million users consulting the app for navigation every day or using apps that rely on Baidu Maps in the background, such as weather apps that rely on its geolocation features.

The tech company, like its counterparts such as Google, take advantage of multiple features available in smartphones. Smartphones possess the ability to determine users’ positions by communicating with an array of satellites such as GPS (Global Positioning Service); GLONASS, Russia’s version of GPS; or BeiDou, China’s satellite navigation system. Such satellite systems are public infrastructures created by American, Russian, and Chinese governments, respectively, that enable our phones to determine users’ precise longitude and latitude coordinates. The majority of apps and services on smartphones rely on location services, from food delivery to restaurant reviews. However, satellite navigation systems are still imprecise—they are often a few meters off, with anything from the weather to tall buildings affecting accuracy.

However, smartphones contain more than satellite signal receiver chips. A slew of other sensors, such as accelerometers, light sensors, and magnets are embedded in the average smartphone. In 2015, Baidu invested $10 million in IndoorAtlas, a Silicon Valley startup that specializes in indoor mapping. The company's technology is at the forefront of magnetic positioning, which allows indoor maps at 1-meter accuracy to be created simply by using an average smartphone. This technology relies on the Earth's geomagnetic field and the magnets in smartphones. By factoring in the unique magnetic "fingerprint" of each building based on the composition of its materials, such as steel, a building's floor plan can be mapped out without any data provided by the architect. However, this strategy requires user data at scale; multiple user paths need to be recorded and averaged out to account for any anomalies. Gathering large amounts of data from users becomes an imperative.

Floorplans aside, magnetic positioning is not the only dimension of user location data collection that allows data to become a spatial model. As people drive, bike, and walk, each user generates a spatial "trace" that also has velocity data attached to it. Through such data, information about the type of path can be derived: Is it a street, a sidewalk, or a highway? This information becomes increasingly useful in improving the accuracy of Baidu Maps itself, as well as Baidu's autonomous vehicle projects.

The detailed 3-D city models on Baidu Maps offer data that urban designers dream of, but such models only serve Baidu's interests. Satellite navigation system accuracy deteriorates in urban canyons, due to skyscrapers and building density, obscuring satellites from the receiver chip. These inaccuracies are problematic for autonomous vehicles, given the "safety critical" nature of self-driving cars. Baidu's 3-D maps are not just an aesthetic “wow factor” but also a feature that addresses positioning inaccuracies. By using 3-D models to factor in the sizes and shapes of building envelopes, inaccuracies in longitude and latitude coordinates can be corrected.

Much of this research has been a race between U.S. and Chinese companies in the quest to build self-driving cars. While some 3-D models come from city planning data, in China's ever-changing urban landscape, satellite data has proved far more helpful in generating 3-D building models. Similar to Google's 3-D-generated buildings, a combination of shadow analysis, satellite imagery, and street view have proved essential for automatically creating 3-D building models rather than the manual task of user-generated, uploaded buildings or relying on city surveyors for the most recent and accurate building dimensions.

None of this data is available to the people who design cities or buildings. Both Baidu and Google have End User License Agreements (EULAs) that restrict where their data can be used, and emphasize that such data has to be used within Baidu or Google apps. Some data is made available for computer scientists and self-driving car researchers, such as Baidu's Research Open-Access Dataset (BROAD) training data sets. Most designers have to rely on free, open-source data such as Open Street Maps, a Wikipedia-like alternative to Baidu and Google Maps. By walling off valuable data that could help urban planning, tech companies are gaining a foothold and control over the reality of material life: they have more valuable insights into transport networks and the movements of people than urban designers do. It's no surprise then, that both Baidu and Google are making forays into piloting smart cities like Toronto’s Quayside or Shanghai's Baoshan District, and gaining even greater control over urban space. No doubt, urban planning and architecture are becoming increasingly automated and privately controlled in the realm of computer scientists rather than designers.

In Shoshana Zuboff's 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she examines how tech companies throughout the world are employing surveillance and data extraction methods to turn users into free laborers. Our “behavioral surplus,” as she terms it, becomes transformed into products that are highly lucrative for these companies, and feature proprietary, walled-off data that ordinary users cannot access, even though their labor has helped create these products. These products are also marketed as “predictive,” which feeds the desires of companies that hope to anticipate users’ behavior—companies that see users only as targets of advertising.

Over the past several years, American rhetoric surrounding the Chinese “surveillance state” has reached fever pitch. But while China is perceived to be a single-party communist country with state-owned enterprises that do its bidding, the truth is, since the 1990s, much of the country’s emphasis has been on private growth. Baidu is a private company, not a state-owned enterprise. Companies like Baidu have majority investment from global companies, including many U.S.-based funds like T. Rowe Price, Vanguard, and BlackRock. As China's economy slows down, the government is increasingly pressured to play by the rules of the global capitalist book and offer greater freedom to private companies alongside less interference from the government. However, private companies often contract with the government to create surveillance measures used across the country.

The rhetoric about the dangers of Chinese state surveillance obfuscates what is also happening in American homes—literally. As Google unveils home assistants that interface with other “smart” appliances, and Google Maps installed on mobile phones tracks user locations, surveillance becomes ubiquitous. Based on your location data, appliances can turn on as you enter your home, and advertisements for milk from your smart fridge can pop up as you walk by the grocery stores. Third-party data provider companies also tap into geolocation data, and combined with the use of smart objects like smart TVs, toasters, and fridges, it's easy to see why the future might be filled with such scenarios. Indeed, if you own certain smart appliances, Google probably knows what the inside of your home is like. In 2018, iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum, announced that it was partnering with Google to improve the indoor mapping of homes, and now setting up a Roomba with Google Home has never been easier. Big tech companies in the U.S. would like us to believe that surveillance is worse elsewhere, when really, surveillance capitalism is a global condition.

Over the past 30 years, cities around the world have been the locus of enormous economic growth and corresponding increases in inequality. Metropolitan areas with tech-driven economies, such as the Shenzhen-Guangzhou-Hong Kong corridor and the Greater Bay Area, are home to some of the largest tech companies in the world. They are also home to some of the most advanced forms of technological urbanism: While Baidu may not have every single business mapped in rural China, it certainly has the listing of every shop in every mall of Guangzhou.

The overlap between cities as beacons of capital and as spaces where surveillance is ubiquitous is no coincidence. As Google’s parent company, Alphabet, makes moves to build cities and as Baidu aggressively pursues autonomous driving, data about a place, the people who live there, and their daily movements is increasingly crucial to the project of optimizing the city and creating new products, which in turn generates more wealth and more inequality. Places like San Francisco and Shenzhen are well-mapped by large tech companies but harbor some of the worst income gaps in the world.

The "smart city" urbanism enabled by surveillance and ubiquitous data collection is no different from other forms of development that erode affordable housing and public space. Reclaiming our cities in this digital age is not just about reclaiming physical space. We must also reclaim our data.

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Rebar Bot

Brooklyn-based startup is using robots for rebar assembly
Two Brooklyn-based construction entrepreneurs began their business with a simple observation: steel rebar, used in concrete construction throughout the world, isn't always easy to work with. Ian Cohen and Daniel Blank noticed this when they were watching wind turbines being erected. “Watching the process of people manually moving these huge, heavy objects looked dangerous and difficult,” Cohen explained. Often made from scrap metal, rebar is a “really sharp, dirty material for humans to interact with.” They pivoted their URBAN-X accelerated startup, Toggle, which they founded two-and-a-half years ago with a focus on renewable energy, to the even more fundamental work of making the production of reinforced concrete faster and safer through automation. Rebar steel is “traditionally manually picked up and erected into cages and shaped to hold reinforced concrete structures in place,” explained Cohen. These cages may be as long as 50 feet. That’s hard work for humans but is exactly the kind of job robots are suited for: taking very heavy things and moving them precisely. Using customized industrial robots, Toggle made modifications that allow the automated arms to “achieve bespoke movements.” The design-to-build process is also streamlined, with custom software that takes a design file, evaluates types of cages needed, then derives a build sequence, and goes straight into digital fabrication. Currently, Toggle, which is in the early stages of its technology, is using a “cooperative process”—a human and robot working side by side. The robot does the dangerous work and heavy lifting, picking up and manipulating the bars, while the human does just the final wire tying. Toggle is in the process of automating this step as well, aiming to increase productivity over all-human rebar processing by as much as five times while halving the cost. The two also plan on adding a linear track that would allow the robot to produce larger meshes, though currently, they are operating at a fairly substantial maximum of 20 feet. No mere experiment, the robot is currently being put to work, fabricating rebar for projects in New York City and the surrounding area. Part of the plan is to develop a system that works something like vertical farming, Cohen explained, where production happens close to where there is need, minimizing the logistical demands and long-distance transportation and “allowing civil infrastructure to be developed and constructed in the societies that need them most.” New York, of course, is a perfect testing ground with its constant construction. Currently, global labor shortages, including in the U.S., make infrastructure construction expensive according to Cohen. Toggle’s goal is to “reduce cost and accelerate construction projects around the world, all while maximizing safety.” The intent, Cohen says, is not about getting rid of human labor but about “taking work away from humans that is not suited for them and putting them in jobs that are better for humans.”
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Say Cheese

Skanska puts 360-degree photography to work on New York job sites
Three-sixty-degree photography on construction sites is sort of like Google Street View at a smaller scale—a worker walks through a job site with a monopod or sometimes even with a helmet-mounted set of cameras and captures the sights and sounds at all angles. And the technology has become a boon for Skanska, especially for projects like the Moynihan Train Hall and LaGuardia Terminal B in New York. “The resolution is just phenomenal,” said Tony Colonna, senior vice president of innovative construction solutions at Skanska of the new photography techniques, which increasingly can be done with off-the-shelf consumer products. “You can basically take anyone on a walkthrough without being at the site.” The 360-degree video is almost like being there, he reports. “You're in complete control. You can stop, look around, look up, look down. So you're not limited let's say with traditional photographs or traditional video to just see maybe where the camera was pointing. With the 360 you have complete flexibility.” It’s helped teams collaborate more fluidly and accurately across cities. “We might run into some sort of challenge on a site, and hey, you know what, the expert's at the other side of the country,” Colonna explained. “You can bring them onto the site. We give them this kind of experience and have that engagement to help solve a problem.” “These photographs are game-changing," said Albert Zulps, regional director, virtual design, and construction at Skanska. “You capture that space and then later you can actually look at versions of those photographs, go back in time, peel back the sheetrock and go into the wall.” Three-sixty-degree photography can also offer a tremendous time savings and improve worksite safety, he said. The photos integrate well with other tech, including software like StructionSite and HoloBuilder as well as mobile apps that allow people to locate themselves within a floor plan while taking a 360-degree photograph. In addition, it plays well with other emerging technologies Skanska is using, including models generated from 3D laser scans, VR headsets, and tech for making mixed reality environments. “What we've started to do is take that footage, and take those pictures, and you overlay them with the model,” said Colonna. “If you really want to think about how everything ties together, it is all about collaboration,” Colonna said. “When you look at the construction industry, you're trying to effectively manage a lot of different entities, from the design team, to the owner, to the builder, to all the contractors. What Skanska is doing as a construction manager is finding new ways to collaborate with all those teams. It's really about, how do we use more visual technology to help us work better together?”
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Soak up the sun

The solar-powered FutureHAUS is coming to Times Square
New housing is coming to Times Square, at least temporarily. The Virginia Tech team of students and faculty behind the FutureHAUS, which won the Solar Decathlon Middle East 2018, a competition supported by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and U.S. Department of Energy, will bring a new iteration of its solar-powered home to New York for New York Design Week in collaboration with New York City–based architects DXA Studio. The first Dubai iteration was a 900-square-foot prefab home, that, in addition to being entirely solar powered, featured 67 “futuristic devices,” centered around a few core areas including, according to the team’s website: “entertainment, energy management, aging-in-place, and accessibility.” This included everything from gait recognition for unique user identities and taps that put out precise amounts of water given by voice control to tables with integrated displays and AV-outfitted adjustable rooms. One of the home’s biggest innovations, however, is its cartridge system, developed over the past 20 years by Virginia Tech professor Joe Wheeler. The home comprises a number of prefabricated blocks or "cartridges"—a series of program cartridges includes the kitchen and the living room, and a series of service cartridges contained wet mechanical space and a solar power system. The spine cartridge integrates all these various parts and provides the “central nervous system” to the high-tech house. These all form walls or central mechanical elements that then serve as the central structure the home is built around, sort of like high-tech LEGO blocks. The inspiration behind the cartridges came from the high-efficiency industrial manufacturing and assembly line techniques of the automotive and aerospace industries and leveraged the latest in digital fabrication, CNC routing, robotics, and 3D printing all managed and operated through BIM software. Once the cartridges have been fabricated, assembly is fast. In New York it will take just three days to be packed, shipped, and constructed, “a testament to how successful this system of fabrication and construction is,” said Jordan Rogove, a partner DXA Studio, who is helping realize the New York version of the home. The FutureHAUS team claims that this fast construction leads to a higher-quality final product and ends up reducing cost overall. The cartridge system also came in handy when building in New York with its notoriously complicated permitting process and limited space. “In Dubai an eight-ton crane was used to assemble the cartridges,” explained Rogove. “But to use a crane in Times Square requires a lengthy permit process and approval from the MTA directly below. Thankfully the cartridge system is so versatile that the team has devised a way to assemble without the crane and production it would've entailed.” There have obviously been some alterations to the FutureHAUS in New York. For example, while in Dubai there were screen walls and a courtyard with olive trees and yucca, the Times Square house will be totally open and easy to see, decorated with plants native to the area. The FutureHAUS will be up in Times Square for a week and a half during New York’s design week, May 10 through May 22.
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Set Lasers to Scan

How Skanska is putting 3D scanning to work in New York City
The Swedish multinational construction and development company Skanska is responsible for many of the world’s biggest building projects. Right now in New York City alone, it is overseeing two massive infrastructural and architectural undertakings: The Moynihan Train Hall and the LaGuardia Terminal B redevelopment. The design and construction of these projects are being reshaped by the latest technology, particularly when it comes to “reality capture”—laser scanning, drones, 360 photography, virtual reality, and other technologies that are all becoming powerful, scalable, affordable, and interoperable. AN and Tech+ Expo spoke with Skanska’s Tony Colonna, Senior Vice President of Innovative Construction Solutions and Albert Zulps, Regional Director, Virtual Design and Construction to get their insight into how technology is shaping projects today. Skanska's 3D laser scanning has been especially useful on projects like the Moynihan Train Hall where there is existing construction. “At Moynihan, we went down into the catacombs, into the tunnels below, the train tracks below,” explained Zulps. “Getting access through Amtrak is limited to weekends, after hours, late at night. To bring all the subcontractors and  people that have an interest will be putting systems in there eventually, it is pretty difficult.” Instead of trying to cram everyone underground at inconvenient hours and to mitigate problems of limited access, Skanska 3D scanned the entire job site and shared between subcontractors, architects, engineers, and others the resulting 3D model that could be imported into software like Revit and Navisworks. This interoperability and ease of use, along with significantly reduced cost, have turned laser scanning from a pricey gimmick into an almost necessary tool. “There's a right time and place for technology, and both Moynihan and La Guardia are benefited by that,” said Zulps. “These subcontractors—if they didn't have a scan, they would have to go down individually on their own to these different spaces, take measurements, make their own assumptions,” he said. “This gives them that information, and it gives it to them on day one. There's no one or two weeks of doing pipe measurements and drawings to figure out what you're doing. And that actually allows you to compress the schedule a bit.” Laser scanning existing structures helps the design and construction teams evaluate inaccuracies in historic plans, as well as account for any shifts that might have happened in the intervening years. In the case of Moynihan Train Hall, Colonna said: “We were going gut it, bring it down to its bones, and then refit out. The plans that the architects were using were not actually what was there. So once we stripped it down, we went in and we did a three-dimensional laser scan, we put that into a model, and then when you overlay that with models that the architects had, you could see the differences in some of the structures. Some of the columns weren't where they thought they were.” “There's a lot of trusses and beams and complex girders that are built 100 years ago, and they are very complex,” Zulps explained. “I don't know where the original drawings came from how the architects originally formulated their assumptions-but some of the assumptions are wrong.” Sometimes there are pleasant surprises—beams that would’ve gotten in the way but were never built, but at other times laser scanning can help unveil structural issues early on so that architects and structural engineers can collaboratively adapt beforehand, rather than after an unfortunate discovery during the building process. They can also mark “hotspots” on the 3D models, Colonna said, allowing everyone to notice slight differences like tilts on historic walls. "What I think is exciting is when technologies overlap,” said Zulps of all the new reality capture technology Skanska’s been using. The scans can also be combined with other technology, like 360 photographs, to create hyper-realistic walkthroughs. “Just a few people go down into the train platform with a laser scanner, capture all those conditions, and then share that point cloud and those 360 photos that it takes with all the subcontractors, architects, engineers, all people to test against their assumptions and also use for their background,” explained Zulps. “We're giving them a virtual walkthrough. We're giving them the laser scan to walk through and query dimensions. It saves having to get out a lighter, it saves having to book for the time with Amtrak to get down there or the Port Authority. On a project like a renovation when you have to go through an operating train station, laser scanning is just amazing.” Zulps went on: “We're making sure the models are available to people in the field. When people ultimately put the buildings together, you have to understand what they're doing and have clear instructions, and we want to leverage the models we use during coordination. We're delivering those models on iPads to the subcontractors and our supers.” Now instead of everyone having their own in-house models or drawings, everyone working on a project can coordinate on a model and real time. “Getting that information out into the field is a small thing, but it makes a big difference.” Though primarily used on retrofits and renovations, laser scanning has also come in handy on new construction, such as the project at LaGuardia. One use is quality control, said Albert. “You do the laser scan to make sure that before you go too far that the foundation is in the right place, for instance. And there have been times on projects where a surveyor might've made a mistake or there's translation error or things were changed and they weren't caught. So before you go too far down that path, it's good to catch those errors.” It can also be a good way to prepare for future steps in the construction process. “We had a central utility plant with a bridge going from a concourse to a head house, and we needed temporarily to put caps on top or pour concrete on top of where those columns were, knowing that in the future, we'd have to open the concrete up and then tie the steel in when that bridge was built,” recalled Zulps. They built laser scanning into their construction process so that “later when the surveyor said, ‘What are we gonna do? We have to break the concrete before we know where to put the new steel.’ One hundred percent, we were like, ‘Don't worry about it. We did a laser scan.’” The possibilities are still being explored. “We've also used the technology even just for maintenance after the buildings are done,” said Colonna. “There are just a tremendous amount of opportunities.” For more on the latest in AEC technology and for information about the upcoming TECH+ conference, visit techplusexpo.com/nyc/.
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Lite Brite

Leo Villareal and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands architects to illuminate the Thames
Londoners will see the Thames in a whole new light beginning this summer. In a collaboration between British architecture firm Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (LDS) and U.S. artist Leo Villareal, up to 15 London bridges—including UNESCO World Heritage sites—will be outfitted with an array of new lighting for at least the next decade. The project, called Illuminated River, will highlight the bridges' unique sculptural and environmental qualities, breathe new life into urban spaces, and connect communities all along the waterway. This summer, Illuminated River will begin with four bridges—Southwark, Cannon Street, London and Millennium bridges—getting lit up. The massive installation will continue to be built over the next few years, with a further section to be completed in 2020, and an aimed completion date of 2022. The collaboration between artist and architect was natural, said LDS’s Alex Lifschutz in a statement. “Architects collaborate with many different species of being. Indeed, architects are many species of being,” he said. Villareal, who has previously illuminated bridges like San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, felt similarly. “We rely on each other’s views to achieve this great ambition," Villareal said. "The collaboration is so far a success because it is based on trust and the respect of one another’s expertise and unique vision.” The architects and artist worked together to use the latest in LED technology, along with custom software, to outfit the bridges to produce an effect that is, according to Villarreal, “gently kinetic.” While, Lifschutz pointed out, there's been a “huge revolution” in LED technology—in terms of efficiency, scalability, cost, color, control, and other attributes—in the wrong hands LED fittings are “a very potent destructive mechanism.” Lifschutz explained: “LED fittings are maybe five times more efficient than standard fittings. People have thought, ‘Well, that's fantastic. We'll save a lot of energy and the world will be all the better for it. And climate change will be that much further away.’ The unintended consequence of this high efficiency is that people use more of them. And the world has become brighter and jazzier as a result, which is a great shame." LDS and Villareal's answer is to use light “very judicially.” The architects and artist did a huge number of studies using the latest laser techniques. While the top surfaces of bridges are “straightforward,” the undersides—with all their supports and trusses—are “incredibly interesting and abstract,” said Lifschutz. “Each bridge has its own character,” he said. "It's like having 15 children—not that I do—but each one has a different character and each one deserve a different way of talking about it, of dealing with it.” They considered how to light the bridge as both a piece of art and architecture, working where the two intersected to manage the relationship between structure, form, and function in order find the best places to provide light and fix fittings, all while not affecting the structure, especially on the “very precious bridges.” “Both [Villareal and I] have a technical background in the color of light, the spread of light, the way in which light falls on surfaces, and the kinds of fittings or kinds of technical fittings that are available to make the magic happen,” explained Lifschutz. “And light is very magical, obviously.” Additionally, the river is not only a site of architectural life and preservation, but also of ecological vibrancy and conservation. The team had to do a number of ecological studies, some reportedly more thorough and substantive than those that had been done before, and research the effect of light on the creatures living in the Thames. “If you have a line of light that lies across the water, fish generally don't like to cross that,” explained Lifschutz. “It may affect spawning patterns in the shoreline and so on.” In their research, they discovered much of the existing lighting on London’s bridges was already detrimental to wildlife. “[The lighting] is spraying light everywhere; it’s the wrong color.” Many naturally uncommon colors and color temperatures—many of which are currently in use before the team’s intervention—negatively affect the wildlife swimming below. The competition to develop the river project was supported by the office of Mayor Sadiq Khan, received over 105 entries, and was done in collaboration with over 100 local organizations on and around the river. It required numerous approvals to work with listed structures. The local groups have "mostly been hugely enthusiastic,” reported Lifschutz. And it is apt that the project is titled Illuminated River—working at a scale Lifschutz calls “epic,” there will be integration across all 15 bridges to create a cohesive, unified effect and artwork “painting with light,” as Villareal put it, across the whole of London’s main waterway. “We hope Illuminated River will open up the riverside public realm spaces for people to linger, appreciate the enhanced architecture of the bridges, cultivate new opportunities, and encourage tourists to come to London and enjoy nightlife activities,” said Villareal. “It will celebrate the unique character and the amazing landmarks of the city through art.”
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Sunny Days

EPFL puts new high-efficiency rooftop solar panels to the test
While solar panels have become increasingly common, the ones usually found on rooftops and the like can convert at most between 17 and 19 percent of received solar energy to usable electricity. This average yield has plateaued, increasingly only about 3.5 percent since the 2000s. More efficient panels are available, like those used on satellites, but they remain cost prohibitive. Insolight, a Swiss startup from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), claims to have developed a scalable alternative, however. The company's new technology uses the same high-efficiency cells found in orbiting satellites but assembled in such a way that minimizes cost differences. Insolight's Mathieu Ackermann, Laurent Coulot, and Florian Gerlich have constructed arrays of very small versions of these high-efficiency cells, mounted with an optical magnifier that concentrates sunlight around 100 times, resulting in cells that take up less than .5 percent of the panel’s surface area but harvest a much larger percentage of the light hitting the panel. Most concentrator-operated solar systems require constant maneuvering to be tilted towards the sun. In order to maximize efficiency without requiring new mounting technology or complicated tilting mechanics, each of the cells is detailed so that it can make tiny, millimeter-level movements to position itself to track the sun without all the cost, space, and reliability issues found in many already available concentrator systems. Insolight's “microtracking” can reportedly capture 100 percent of the light that hits it, regardless of its angle of incidence. The ultra-thin panels can be mounted similarly to any traditional photovoltaic cell, even in a hybrid array layered with standard panels, which is especially useful for cloudy days. The panels spent a year on the roofs of an EPFL pilot site and worked “without a hitch,” according to the trio. In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, Insolight projects that the panels could cut electricity bills by as much as 30 percent, as well as provide a greater return on investment than other commercially-available solar options. The company hopes to bring its first products to the market in 2022. For more on the latest in AEC technology and for information about the upcoming TECH+ conference, visit techplusexpo.com/nyc/.