“Technology is reformatting the mind. 44% of people see their phone as an extension of their memory.”
We live in an age of mass replication. The information explosion is one of the defining characteristics of Web 2.0, where fresh ideas are uploaded, multiplied and dispersed endlessly across the internet. Arriving elsewhere, they are appropriated and recirculated, absorbing fresh meaning and context with each new copy. At the same time, notions of here and now are dissolving. Previously, to be here meant being nowhere else – our physical experience was rooted in both time and place. Today, our devices can connect us instantly to all of humanity’s knowledge, past and present, and virtual reality places us at the centre of imagined worlds. Here and now become anywhere and always.
Meanwhile, technology is reformatting the mind. 44% of people see their phone as an extension of their memory according to cyber-security company Kaspersky Lab. The consequence of this is a decreased ability to remember details, but an increased capacity to find and draw links between different sources of information. The blurring of boundaries between technology, psyche and physical space is laying the foundation for a referential language in design that juxtaposes familiar but apparently unrelated ideas – concepts taken from one place and collided with others, then superimposed somewhere else. Presented as both finished product and ongoing commentary, they are an end and a beginning simultaneously.
Chicago-born creative Virgil Abloh pursues this process unwaveringly. Garments from his fashion label Off-White™ are peppered with repurposed elements – from zip ties and tension straps, to city graphics and LCD screens – that tap into cultural moments as collages of readymade forms. Captured on smartphones and shared internationally, these co-opted universal motifs result in brand recognition at industrial scale, echoing Marshall Mcluhan’s 1967 observation that “when two seemingly disparate elements are imaginatively apposed, put in apposition in new and unique ways, startling discoveries often result.” This plays out in his retail spaces too, like the location for a potential store in Aoyama, Japan, that Abloh felt had the appearance of a corporate office. Rather than change the space, his team worked with architect Dong-Ping Wong (of Food Architects) to lean further into its visual character, installing desks, water coolers, and a functioning market ticker linked to the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The result, opened as Something & Associates, explores the friction between the known and new; a physical manifestation of déjà vu. Closer to art than shopping, it challenges the traditional idea of retail stores as boxes to sell products.
New Paper, a visiting school run by London’s Architectural Association (AA) at Melbourne School of Design, examines this paradigm-shift from a different angle. Where Abloh utilises the mechanics of digital information to create physical products, the AA pulls reality into the virtual to interrogate new processes for architectural design. Spread across glass-walled labs, different design units explore far-reaching agendas. In one space, a team assembles algorithmically-defined structures using augmented reality overlays as guides. In another, students pan across the internet collecting 3D assets to assemble into a vast architectural carpet, visible only in virtual reality. Stolen, a design unit that I am running, adopts the language of music sampling to 3D scan, decontextualise and remix real objects and locations into new architectural typologies. Combined with virtual sculpting, the results have a human scale and imperfection that shuns the colossal precision inherent in modern Parametricism (the successor to post-modern and modern architecture).
“Like architecture’s version of ‘Uber for X’, the offshoots that these projects create share a common misconception about the process. Simply recreating the model is not a formula for success; the difference is the intent.”
Visiting School Director, Mond Qu, believes this enmeshed relationship is necessary and inevitable. “The digital world is ineluctably moving into the spatial dimension and, as it shapes our physical behaviours, we urgently need a new breed of designers that adopt these pixelated challenges. Architects of today need to design within this new spectrum as this is where the next frontier of architecture is – bridging design across realities and ultimately becoming an experience machine.”
What does this mean for our cities? Through abundant access to digital information and duplication, is design destined to become more and more referential? No new phenomenon, copying is a theme that reverberates through history. The Highline redefined post-industrial architecture as cultural opportunity and now every other major city has a linear park. The Guggenheim catalysed the economy of Bilbao, spawning a plethora of copycats in the process, including requests for an identical replica by the city of Łódź, Poland. Like architecture’s version of ‘Uber for X’, the offshoots that these projects create share a common misconception about the process. Simply recreating the model is not a formula for success; the difference is the intent. The result, inauthentic. Where Abloh and the design units of New Paper succeed is in their ability to combine disparate ideas and superimpose themselves into existing narratives in order to create something new. If “nothing is original”, as Jim Jarmusch says, ultimately the best we can hope for is to take the ideas that we love and build on them, pushing them forward in the process.
Thomas Wing-Evans is Senior Strategist at Right Angle Studio, contributing to the company’s strategy and design insights. As an architect, he has delivered projects at all scales, from high-profile masterplans to public pavilions and digital installations. He has a passion for urbanism and technology, which he applies in research-led projects as a tutor for the Architectural Association’s Visiting School program and as the Digital Innovation Fellow for the State Library of NSW.