1. The Penguin Pool at London Zoo – I liked it more than the penguins did

    Posted May 8, 2011 in Diary, Photos  |  No Comments so far

    Last weekend I went to London Zoo for the first time. The thing I liked most – apart from the animals obviously – was the Penguin Pool.

    Penguin Pool outside photo

    You can tell from the typeface that it’s going to be good

    The Penguin Pool was created in the 1930s by Berthold Lubetkin and Ove Arup, and is now taken care of by an independent pool management company.  It’s a masterpiece of modernist architecture, but the penguins don’t live there any more. They were evicted in 2004 amid concerns that waddling around on reinforced concrete was hurting their joints.

    Photo of inside the Penguin Pool

    To be fair it doesn’t look like an ideal penguin habitat

    I was transfixed by the Penguin Pool. The intensity of light, the curved white space, the bold double helix in the centre: I didn’t know what to do with the space, but I had a strong urge to go in there and use it somehow. Obviously the penguins didn’t feel the same way. I guess me and penguins don’t see eye to eye on everything after all.

    Another shot inside the Penguin Pool

    It’s not easy to burrow in concrete

    JG Ballard’s landscapes of broken suburban landscapes being reappropriated by nature came to mind when I gazed into the Penguin Pool. Crystal-shelled armadillos crawling along the floors of long-empty swimming pools, that sort of thing.

    Sometimes architecture serves a purpose, sometimes it doesn’t. Like the brutalist Elephant House, another listed structure at London Zoo that no longer houses its original tenants, the Penguin Pool failed to accommodate the needs of penguins just as Le Corbusier’s grand aesthetic failed to address the problems of human cities.

    But this doesn’t detract from the beauty and impact these works can retain. For me, the Penguin Pool’s only failing is that the creatures it was really designed for just haven’t been invented yet.

  2. The city as interface (part two)

    Posted August 18, 2010 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    NB: this post is a continuation of “The city as interface (part one)“, published on 6th August 2010

    The modern city is a built environment whose purpose isn’t just to house and feed us. It offers us access to both information and capability, and it has evolved ways to help us to understand and navigate its considerable complexity.

    In this sense the city is an interface and the people within it, residents and visitors alike, are its users. But the city is not a passive interface. It is a highly responsive one which evolves continually over time.

    This constant development is the result of many social and economic factors which I’m not going to explore here. Instead, I’m going to look at two mechanisms that help cities become more effective the more they are used – adaptability and feedback.

    Multiple layers of experience

    Many modern cities are so complex that even if you spend your whole life in one you’ll never fully understand it. London’s taxi drivers experience physical changes in their brains after spending years memorising its street map, which is just one of the city’s many layers. So what hope is there for the visitors experiencing it for the first time?

    The fact is that cities are not allowed to be complicated. If they can’t successfully accommodate outsiders, the outsiders won’t stay, and the city won’t be a city for much longer. The city must therefore be adaptive – it must offer a range of experiences to its users based on the extent of their familiarity and expertise.

    A first-time visitor must be able to access the features they need to use without being confused and obstructed by those they don’t. Cities achieve this by using transport networks to negate their geography, or by having certain locals (such as London’s taxi drivers) learn the intricacies so that others don’t have to.

    Locals have a better background knowledge of the city so, like power users of a computer system, most things they do become habitual, almost instinctive. But the interface of the city still accommodates their needs. An example of this in many cities is the bus system, which tends to be optimised for locals at the expense of outsiders.

    Computer interfaces have similar ways of providing a layered experience to users, and the less specialised the interface the more layers there are. The Nintendo DS has a specific purpose, so its interface has very few layers. More advanced users might configure the clock or change wireless settings, but there’s little else to do apart from load a game:

    Systems like Mac OS or Windows are very different. There is a “welcoming” layer aimed at newcomers in which commonly used applications and features are highly visible, and many people use an OS for years without moving on from this layer. But under the surface there are other layers – the registry, the command line, the process list – which can seem intimidating but are essential tools for other users of the system.

    Multi-purpose interfaces fail if they intimidate new users with difficult features, and they also fail if they force experienced users to wear kid gloves. A strong interface, like a successful city, will accommodate both user types and all the grey areas in between.

    Becoming a part of the interface

    When we “use” cities,  they use us too. They incorporate us into the experience offered to other people – we become part of the show. Here’s an example.

    One morning last week I was walking to my local tube station. Before long I started to sense that something was wrong. As I got closer to the station this conviction grew, and eventually turned out to be correct: the station was shut and all hell was breaking loose.

    How did I know there was a problem? I hadn’t received a text alert or seen any signs. Instead, I’d used something that many city dwellers use all the time, often without knowing – the city’s feedback mechanism.

    On that morning I noticed, almost subconsciously, that there were more people than normal on the pavements. Several people apparently dressed for work were walking away from the tube station, or looking confused and directionless. It was subtle but noticeable, and as I noticed it my behaviour changed also. Before long I was part of the feedback mechanism, part of the crowd whose behaviour informed others that the tube station wasn’t working.

    The city is full of behavioural patterns that we observe, follow, and unwittingly learn from all the time. Their importance can’t be overstated. Remove the flow of humanity and the city becomes a surreal, frightening place, a sensation that was exploited by the film 28 Days Later.

    The inherent eeriness of an empty city

    It’s only recently, in the age of social software, that computer interfaces have developed the ability to emulate this sort of feedback mechanism. Older interfaces couldn’t reflect aggregate user behaviour in the experiences offered to individual users. But in today’s online environment things are different.

    When you browse Amazon, your navigational choices are used by the system to influence the choices that subsequent visitors will see. When you watch a video on Youtube, you add to its view count in a way that’s visible to others. And if you removed the flow of users from Twitter or Facebook you’d be left with literally nothing at all.

    Modern interfaces are starting to use feedback mechanisms similar to those that cities have been using for centuries. Our use of the system affects the system, and affects how others experience it too. The dividing line between the user and the interface becomes a blur.


    Analogy is a slippery slope. Successful interactive interfaces may well have lots in common with successful cities, and we may well think of the city as an interface, but the analogy shouldn’t be taken too far. Cities have spatial constraints that computer systems don’t share, and they tend to be the result of long-term evolutionary design processes rather than centrally directed ones.

    But even with these differences in mind there’s a lot we can learn from how cities function as interfaces. Cities solve problems that interactive systems have only recently become sophisticated enough to have. If we can understand those problems well enough, the modern city can be a treasure trove of inspiration and insight to designers of future interactive systems.

  3. The city as interface (part one)

    Posted August 2, 2010 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    In Responsive Environments: Architecture, Art and Design, writer Lucy Bullivant refers to urban environments as “interfaces in their own right”. Reading this, I found myself wondering – do modern cities function as interfaces? If so, how? And can designers of interactive systems find new inspiration by thinking of cities in this way?

    “The map is not the territory”

    By expressing functionality in a way that’s more suited to our needs, interfaces help us understand and act upon devices and systems that could otherwise be confusing. They’re most helpful when something’s function is not directly expressed by its form: a pencil doesn’t need an interface, but a pencil sharpener might.

    From this perspective, it could be said that the Tube map of London is an interface for the city. After all, it abstracts the tangled system of London streets into a neatly organised network of straight lines, making its complexity manageable even to tourists. But this is incorrect. It’s the tube network itself – not the Tube map – that acts as an interface for London.

    This is because the Tube map isn’t actually an abstraction: it might distort geography, but it represents the network’s structure faithfully. The network itself is the abstraction, the layer of navigation that helps us forget the confusing mess of streets and avenues above ground. It is interactive: we can use it. The Tube map is an ingenious visualisation of that interface, but is not an interface in itself. As Alfred Korzybski said, the map is not the territory.

    So when we think of cities as interfaces, we should go beyond thinking of visualisations and maps and focus instead on how the physical make-up of the city facilitates its use.

    The problems cities are required to solve

    All human settlements have certain things in common. Places for people to eat and sleep, and facilities for producing food, materials and so on. Another is navigation. Even the smallest hamlet has a navigational or wayfinding role to play, acting as a landmark for passing travellers with no interest in local happenings.

    These three basic roles – habitation, production and navigation – apply to almost every place that people live. But in larger settlements additional uses are encountered. A traveller passing through a town might look for medical assistance, or establishments providing food and accommodation. In a larger town, there might be thriving local industries, academic institutions, working artisans.

    As settlements grow in size these roles explode in number. These in turn attract ever more visitors, many of whom establish businesses and institutions and therefore add to the range of uses on offer. After a while the vast size and complexity of the settlement begins to pose a new challenge: how can anyone possibly understand everything that’s happening?

    It’s in response to this challenge of incomprehensibility that the “interface” of the city has evolved over time.

    The designed environment

    As cities grow, they effectively become designed environments. Rivers are submerged beneath roads, hills and valleys are smoothed over, landfill and burial sites override the natural topography. When we’re surrounded by city we’re in an environment shaped (consciously or not) by humans, an environment whose very structure has a function: to point us towards the roles, uses and amenities that the city offers.

    If the city’s environment fails to do this well, the city itself is failing. Visitors looking to sell won’t locate the businesses willing to buy. People needing help won’t know where to look for it. The “functionality” of the city will go undiscovered and the city won’t be used. The goal of the urban environment is to make the city’s functionality discoverable to its users.


    The structure of a city, then, has objectives in common with “conventional” interfaces – to help users locate and utilise underlying capability. In a city, this capability could be anything from acquiring a visa to buying a rare, imported album. In a computer system, it might be turning the wi-fi antenna off and on. But in cities, the number of capabilities is significantly greater. So how do cities help us make sense of them?

    One way – which can also be seen in interactive interface design – is through the presence of patterns which help make cities comprehensible. As we enter an unfamiliar city from its outskirts, we will probably know without being told when we’re entering its central district. Other patterns are more specialised. Record collectors visiting unfamiliar cities will often find record shops easily, thanks to the patterns that “signpost” those sorts of areas.

    Just as computer interfaces use patterns to accommodate the mental models of their users, cities use them to reward familiarity: the more cities you know, the easier it is to find your way around the ones you don’t. And there’s a functional importance too. These patterns often develop into localised “clusters” within which industries or disciplines are closely concentrated, such as the cluster of media businesses around Soho or the legal profession’s concentration around Chancery Lane.

    Windows 7 control panel

    Grouping related controls in Windows 7

    When this happens the city isn’t just making itself easier to navigate, it’s making itself easier to operate, just as an interactive system is more usable when similar features are placed near one another. And when cities are easy to operate, all constituent parts – from local businesses to visiting strangers – feel the benefits.

    So far we’ve explored how the structures of successful cities share some of the conventions of successful interfaces. But real interfaces are interactive – they aren’t just static maps and informational aids. When we do something with them, we receive feedback and response. The second part of this post will look at how the city provides feedback and how, when we  use a city, we become a part of the interface ourselves.

    This is part one of a two-part post. Click here for part two of this article

  4. On Iain Sinclair, ant colonies, generative music and emergent systems

    Posted April 6, 2010 in books  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve recently started to notice a new pattern forming in my reading habits. Well, maybe it’s been around for ages and has just become more evident since I started using this blog for book reviews. Either way, it seems to have something to do with memory, emergence, cities, complexity and ants.

    Back in late 2009 I finished reading Haunted Weather, a collection of essays about 21st century soundscapes by David Toop. In that book, Toop touches on how modern sound-processing software (Max/MSP, Supercollider) allows music to be created using genetic algorithms. The unpredictable, evolving nature of these algorithms leads to music which is unpredictable and ever-changing: generative music.

    During the section on generative music Toop refers to another book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Stephen Johnson. I told Cathy that I was after a copy of this book, and it presently turned up as a Christmas gift.

    I didn’t start reading it straight away, though. At the time I was reading the Iain Sinclair-compiled London: City of Disappearances, on loan from my friend Jamie. In London: City of Disappearances, fiction and non-fiction from contributors including JG Ballard, Bill Drummond, Alan Moore and Rachel Lichtenstein loosely circles around the central theme of disappearance and loss in London.

    After reading that I moved on to The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, which was borrowed from my friend Lindsey. Gladwell has a model for describing the viral spread of cultural phenomena, where Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen propel memes into mainstream awareness. The process via which cultural phenomena “tip” is portrayed as a decentralised one, which usually lacks conscious co-ordination.

    When I was done with The Tipping Point I started reading Emergence. Its author, Steven Johnson, introduces the scientific phenomenon of emergence, where systems develop complex behaviours at a macro level even though system components are governed by far simpler and more basic rules. Before long, Emergence made me start noticing that the series of books I’d been reading recently had a common thread, even though on the surface they seemed extremely dissimilar.

    In Emergence, Stanford’s Deborah Gordon describes her studies of ant colonies over the course of their entire lifespans. She observed that ant colonies follow a consistent behavioural pattern, becoming gradually less aggressive and more predictable as they age. This happens over a period of roughly fifteen years, even though individual ants (the queen excepted) live for only one. So ant colonies have a “memory” which exists at the macro level (the colony) as opposed to micro level (individual ants).

    This trait of ant colonies can be found in human cities, whose memories also outlive those of their individual inhabitants. Cities have patterns which persist through the ages: a time traveller from Florence circa 800 years ago would find much of the modern city (including its language) alien, but would still be familiar with the locations of trades such as the silk merchants of Por Santa Maria.

    The persistence of these patterns in the face of continual physical change means that cities can be seen as memory storage devices. Lewis Mumford is quoted (from 1961’s The City In History) as saying that “the great city is the best organ of memory man has yet created”. Reading all this made me see London: City of Disappearances in a new light. Its underlying theme, that London is defined as much by what has vanished by what now exists, resonated with the idea of the city as an “organ of memory”, and the book itself was an example of that “organ of memory” at work.

    In some ways City of Disappearances is a work not of Sinclair and his contributors but of London itself. London wants to be remembered: as a system, it must be remembered in order to survive. And to be remembered, it must inspire fascination among those who live in it and who visit it, fascination that in turn inspires research, document and contribute to the collective memory of the city.

    Happy that Emergence had given me a new way to look at the Iain Sinclair compendium , I kept on reading and soon found myself rethinking my understanding of The Tipping Point too. The “tipping point” described by Gladwell is a phase transition triggered not by centralised direction (e.g. a big-budget marketing campaign) but by a complex set of interactions. In other words, the tipping point is itself an emergent behaviour.

    This made me feel a bit more charitable towards The Tipping Point. Emergent systems are difficult to describe, especially when human beings are the micro-level parts. Malcolm Gladwell describes a kind of behaviour in human societies that is actually quite complex, and does so in a way that is accessible and engaging: no mean feat.

    The pattern developing in my reading habits is leading me towards further exploration of cities, communities, markets – and the web itself – as complex systems where real change is driven not by charismatic individuals (hello Steve Jobs) but by emergent properties which are less predictable and less easy to control.

    And I might even be tempted to start learning more about ant colonies, even though I’ve got a bad history with them: the last time I came across an ant colony I tried to destroy it, but next time I might not be so hasty.