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An Urban Architectural Diary

How technology shapes our environment
March 13, 2006

When Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” he captured the special relationship between people and the places they inhabit. In Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City, William Mitchell, head of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, describes the equally important relationship between technology and the space around it.

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Two revolutions shaped that relationship, Mitchell contends. Tools born of the Industrial Revolution enabled the skyscraper – the great symbol of corporate power that could bring entire companies under one centralized roof. But the Digital Revolution introduced e-mail and file sharing and teleconferencing, which, he explains, rendered centralized office buildings unnecessary and ushered in the sprawling suburban campus.

Placing Words is a collection of 33 well-crafted essays, many of which first appeared in Mitchell’s monthly column in the Royal Institute of British Architects Journal. Together they form a sort of “urban architectural diary” that is lively, thought-provoking, and fun to read.

In “Carriage Return,” Mitchell shares a vivid recollection of his hometown, which he affectionately describes as “a lonely flyspeck on the absurdly empty map of the Australian interior.” Though he left it as a young boy, the town made a lasting impression that still influences how he thinks about space. “There was a tremendous sense of isolation and of being in the middle of a vast, vast empty space,” he says. “But there was also a very strong sense of community – with the railway station, grocery, and post office.” In the essay, Mitchell remembers the train that passed through each evening as “an encapsulated, displaced fragment of the mysterious life that was lived at the end of the line.”

But Mitchell doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. He’s more intrigued by than resentful of the changes technology has wrought and often views new tech-nologies as reincarnations of old ones. MIT’s once-popular Athena clusters, for example, hardly differ in concept from a village well: a place where people gather to obtain a valuable resource. And just as modern plumbing made the village well obsolete, wired dorm rooms diminished the appeal of Athena clusters.

Mitchell says that as technology improves, it should disappear into the woodwork. Telephones, once hefty wooden boxes anchored to the wall, now slip easily inside a pocket or purse. “When you have limited technology, you have to build spaces around those limitations,” Mitchell says. “But when technology gets really good, it ceases to dominate. And when that happens, architecture can go back to responding to fundamental human needs.”

Recent Books
From the MIT community

Software Abstractions: Logic, Language, and Analysis
By Daniel Jackson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and leader of CSAIL’s Software Design Group
MIT Press, 2006, $37.50

Revolutionaries of the Cosmos: The Astro-Physicists
By Ian S. Glass, SM ‘64, PhD ‘68
Oxford University Press, 2006, $74.50

Engineering Thermofluids: Thermodynamics, Fluid Mechanics, and Heat Transfer
By Mahmoud Massoud, NUE ‘78, SM ‘78
Springer, 2005, $159.00

Fractal-Based Point Processes
By Steven Bradley Lowen and Malvin Carl Teich ‘61
Wiley-Interscience, 2005, $99.95

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road
By Jamie Flinchbaugh, SM ‘98, and Andy Carlino
Society of Manufacturing Engineers, 2005, $30.00

Encyclopedia of Nonlinear Science
Edited by Alwyn Scott ‘52, SM ‘58, ScD ‘61
Taylor and Francis, 2004, $225.00

Knowledge Power: Intellectual Property, Information, and Privacy
By Renee Marlin-Bennett,SM ‘83, PhD ‘87
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004, $23.50

We invite you to submit the names of books and papers published in 2005 and 2006 to be considered for this column.

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