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Technology with a light touch

The blurring of the edges of the real and virtual worlds opens a new range of architectural perceptions

Suddenly IT is mainstream and not odd at all. This is a world where, in five years time, 30 per cent of new fridges will contain microprocessors which can be Internet linked, and where many of the keynote speakers at last month's 'Doors of Perception' conference have projects commissioned by some of the world's largest companies and organisations such as Philips and the New York Stock Exchange.

This year's conference is about lightness as an aim in construction, in information processing, in the way in which we touch the planet. I have used the present tense because the conference is now a website and on its website it is still growing.

This is architecture, urban design and sustainability, going way beyond the interpretations of the Architects Registration Board and the RIBA. Architecture is interchangeably an architecture of information and an architecture of things, and both are time based.

Some of us would argue that this has always been true, but now the information lives in computers as well as in buildings and in human memory. Buildings sense and respond through distributed microprocessors, which can communicate over the Internet to other computers and other people in other places.

Architecture can be commissioned to exist in the virtual world, as in the virtual trading floor by Hani Rashid, before reversing into the physical world in Asymptote's latest proposals for the New York Stock Exchange.

Real 'lightness' of design and construction was explored by Adriaan Beukers whose book of the same name is a must for all architects. His argument, that we must seek to hybridise materials into composite constructions, is the material equivalent of the hybrid structures of physical and virtual information networks discussed by others.

By comparison, Elizabeth Diller showed her attempts to create a real cloud as an exhibition pavilion hovering over Lake Neuchatel. She described the very heavy assembly of structure and pumps that is required to achieve the appearance of lightness. It became apparent that this is not the true substance of lightness - which requires a lighter touch than that demanded of a designer working on a prestigious international temporary exhibition. Lightness appears to relate to impact over time. The heavy engineering shown by Alexander Rose and Brian Eno of the Long Now foundation in their 10,000-year clock touches the planet lightly as it ticks once an hour.

The idea that the density of information and information flow can be tapped in an urban context was described by Fiona Raby from the Royal College of Art. She showed the work of her international colleagues in establishing the potential future uses of ubiquitous mobile-phone networks in urban areas.

The urban experience is enhanced by increasing people-to-people connectivity. The city is also populated by cyber animals with their own behaviours which may or not appear on WAP phones in different parts of town. I found this strange. Are these animals metaphors for other, possibly more sinister, inhabitants of the city?

The underlying theme of the conference was that a light approach would guide us towards sustainable strategies both in physical worlds and in the worlds of information. The opening address, by John Thackara, developed this theme to suggest that physical resources exist in a social environment of information.

Sustainability can be enhanced by the creation of a new economy where the production and consumption of goods and services are linked by the concept of flow. In this economy, capital goods, whether buildings or mobile phones, are rented from service providers which have the duty to ensure that minimal energy flows take place over time while distributing information widely and clearly.

In order to make sure that the conference addressed these issues, it was populated by a group of critics who described their written work or other forms of production. In a wonderfully witty presentation. Natalie Jeremijenko showed how she makes elegant virtual car parks for the Xerox Corporation, and in her 'One Tree' project is planting a clone forest across the San Francisco Bay area to demonstrate physically the power of accident and the local environment to subvert a common genetic code.

The conference was laced with buffoons, jokers, musicians and performance artists. Examples of the former came from the US to tell us how wearable monitors could ensure that we keep to a holistic lifestyle and how what appeared to be scientology can be repackaged as a management technique through the use of distributed cellular type organisations.

'Doors of Perception' is a bi-annual event. Learn more at www.doorsofperception.com

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