As an architect or urban designer, how do you represent “smart city” technology? Something that deals with environmental conditions, government bureaucracies, and endless data streams as well as public space, human movement, and architecture?
Governments and businesses are rushing to develop and implement these technologies, making this a pressing challenge for any designer seeking to represent contemporary cities. Control Syntax Rio at the Storefront for Art and Architecture offers its own evocative approach by avoiding the all-too-familiar format of wall-mounted photos, diagrams, and timelines. Instead, Control Syntax Rio uses an enormous streetscape model whose detailed tableaus—animated by sound effects, film, and vibrations—immerse visitors in a complex and unique piece of smart city command-and-control infrastructure in Rio de Janeiro.
Control Syntax Rio was designed and curated by two Columbia GSAPP faculty members: Farzin Lotfi-Jam, principal at multidisciplinary studio farzinfarzin, and Mark Wasiuta, co-director of the GSAPP’s CCCP program. The pair were tasked with creating an exhibition on Rio de Janerio’s Centro de Operações Rio (The Center of Operations Rio, abbreviated to “COR”) by the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. The institute had been organizing a series of exhibits and events around the theme of the Olympics and the COR was developed to prepare Rio de Janeiro for hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic games. As Wasiuta told The Architect’s Newspaper (AN), the city’s “topography, infrastructure, population distribution, disparities between the formalized and informalized parts” make it difficult to manage. “The International Olympic Committee (IOC) wanted Rio to develop something like the center of operations, in order to demonstrate… that they were capable of managing the metabolism of the city.”
At the heart of the COR are a series of “if, then” statements—an algorithm that originated from IBM—that govern how the city responds to escalating levels of crises. The system first detects and categorizes a disruption (which range from quotidian “incident” and “event” to “emergency” and “crisis”) then coordinates a response. Along this spectrum falls everything from traffic jams and peaceful gatherings to police actions, earthquakes, and landslides.
Complicating Farzin and Wasiuta’s task was that this system isn’t hidden from the public eye: in addition to serving as a management device, the COR is a public relations tool aimed at Rio’s residents and the IOC. The COR is how this smart city “sees itself, how it portrays that image of ongoing information extraction and control, how it portrays that image back to its residents and an international audience…. A representation producing device and mechanism for the city,” said Wasiuta.
Farzin and Wasiuta grappled with how to represent the COR in its dual functions. To tackle both challenges, Farzin said they created two intertwined “paths” to follow in the exhibition’s model. One is physical: a single street leads the visitor through a series of events, emergencies, etc., that are frozen in time. Placed at eye-level (some may have to go on their tippy-toes), the model immerses you in each scene. Opposite the model is twenty monitors that depict the second “path,” the algorithm itself. Half the monitors show a live feed streamed by small surveillance cameras trained on the model.
— Zachary Edelson (@ZacharyEdelson) March 27, 2017
The other ten monitors display a pre-recorded film of the model that moves from tableau to tableau. The film is supplemented by a monotone computer voice that narrates the COR algorithm at work: which sensors detected the event, current environmental conditions, the nature of the event, the coordinated response, etc. “We forced ourselves to put these multiple fragments and inputs into a singular whole… a continuous narrative” that depicts this “emerging computational urbanism,” said Farzin. You feel almost as though you’re the algorithm itself: hearing your own thought processes as your cameras—not penetrating beyond facades and hardtop—scan the streetscape. Meanwhile, it also feels like a performance: faced with scenes of perpetual crises, the COR is always there to respond. “We don’t really want it to read like a model,” Farzin added. “It’s not such much a model as it is a movement path, a decision path through the city, and it’s a film set. We wanted it to read that way more than an object.”
The end result is a fascinating depiction of the COR and how the COR depicts itself, all rolled into one. Thankfully, the exhibition is not a fetishistic enterprise of documenting the actual COR in all its high-tech, “situation room” glory. Instead, it takes us inside how the COR thinks and evokes how it would like to be seen—methodical, calm, and efficient in reacting to disruption. (It did make me wonder, however: What happens when technology enables cities to be proactive, even aggressive, in preventing disaster? When algorithms and controls shape how we use the cities, subtly or otherwise, to either prevent disasters or increase efficiencies?)
Ultimately, the definition and practice of “smart cities” are still up in the air. Farzin and Wasiuta are currently looking at a project in South Korea that’s built from the ground-up with smart city tech; it’s a very different exercise as compared to retrofitting an old city like Rio de Janeiro. But faced with this specific urban condition in Rio de Janeiro, one where narrative and self-representation are critical, the pair eschewed a standard exhibition format. “We made a conscious decision not to be didactic or documentary in the sense that one might be,” said Wasiuta. “Which isn’t to say those projects can be amazing. But it was a conscious experiment to position the research within that space of representation and ask, ‘What’s still legible within that?'”
Control Syntax Rio runs from March 28th to May 20th, 2017 at the Storefront for Art and Architecture (97 Kenmare St, New York, NY). It was originally commissioned by the Rotterdam-based organization Het Nieuwe Instituut, where it was on view from June 2016 to January 2017.