KODW2014 Workshop: Spatial Experience and Interactive Placemaking with Anijo Mathew
June 27, 2014
"The way I see it, a city is more than just bricks and mortar. It's the narrative, the stories, the music, the breakups, the proposals...for me, that layer is what it's all about." - Anijo Mathew, assistant professor at Illinois Institute of Technology
Theory: Designing With Human Experiences In Mind
Anijo Mathew says one of his ambitions is wanting to leave little information-dense 'bread crumbs' for his daughter. She's four years old right now, but Mathew says he wants his grown-up daughter to return from her travels and come home to Chicago one day to revisit where she grew up, through his eyes. Strolling down a busy street, she might walk by an office tower and her smartphone (or whatever futuristic variant of it that exists in 2030) would beep with a message triggered by her physical location. The message would be the 'bread crumb', a story from her papa telling her about their history. For example, imagine if the message told her that the building she was standing in was the old location of a restaurant they frequented together decades ago.
The design expert, currently teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology, says this idea is an illustration of his belief that great architecture is designed with places in mind, not spaces. Mathew defines space as a location, a quadrant. He says place is the experience we associate with a space. Take a casino, for example: as a space, it has gaudy carpets, lots of flashy lighting and a bunch of noisy machines. As a place, it's where you might have had drinks with your girlfriend and watched an old lady win the big jackpot. The human experience is what makes a place special to history and culture, and ultimately, to an architect trying to decide how to design an area or product.
One of these human-centric, storytelling projects Mathew worked on was a fascinating research assignment he and his architecture students created. 'Urban Forest' used two side-by-side television-like screens (complete with feedback button) located on a storefront in Chicago to pose preference-based questions to locals. Examples include: Thin Crust or Deep Dish? Cupcakes or Real Cake? Bulls or Blackhawks? Each vote was represented as a leaf that attached itself to a tree on the screen, and when the allotted 72 hour voting period was over, one tree would likely be bigger than the other. Just as Mathew planned, the project represented the human interaction with the city's dining and entertainment options.
Mathew believes low-cost prototyping is often the best option for any design product or program. Though he says the design industry defaults to spending a very large amount of money per prototype, he believes that splitting up that cash is a better idea. If a company is granted US$ 100,000 to prototype a dental drill, it is a better idea to have 10 prototypes done in succession for US$ 10,000 than to have one really expensive version. Mathew reasons that even though wonky 'Frankenstein' prototypes (makeshift versions, such as a glue gun taped to a marker with a cotton ball attached to it, for instance) look awful, they get the message across and feedback/criticism are handed to the design team. He says this cycle, applied ten times, is much more useful than one cycle alone.
Armed with this knowledge, Mathew asked us to take a break from our lecture and soak in some local culture to observe how people interact in a place, then come back to the meeting room and design a Franken-prototype of a fun, interactive project (not unlike Urban Forest), that involved Cantonese culture and innovative design. Attendees paired up, disappeared for an hour and returned to an arts-and-crafts style workspace complete with LEGO, duct tape, foamboard and a slew of other artsy tools.
After the teams presented their culture and design projects, the idea Mathew seemed to enjoy most (he suggested they actually do it) was presented by a trio of ladies. They had observed many locals on the street taking selfies with their smartphones during their lunch break and wanted to fuse this with historical-era Hong Kong. The women had designed a smartphone app that would photoshop their pictured selves onto the same street in a bygone era. The twist was that using geo-fencing technology, it would be the same street the user was standing on. They also proposed that there would be a way to share these incredible journeys into the past, such an advertised hashtag and billboards displaying the photographs.
Mathew participated in a brief Q&A and the attendees departed for the day. Of course, being the nosey writer I've always been, I had to ask him: "Cupcakes or Real Cake? Bulls or Blackhawks?"