It seemed strange that there was virtually no difference in the contents of Bill Mitchell's lecture this week and the one he gave a few years ago at the AA.
The development of new technology is so consistent, and so fast, that one would have expected a significant transformation of the information landscape, and implications for the physical landscape in the intervening period. It was a further irony that Jenny Turton of the DLTR, apparently claiming ignorance of Mitchell's research, should suggest afterwards that 'if we had had this lecture when we were writing the Urban White Paper, God knows what we would have written'.
The most notable, and telling, difference in the two occasions was one of presentation. This time, due to the events in the US, Mitchell was unable to grace the lecture hall in person, and instead spoke by video-link from Boston - followed by an animated question-and-answer session. But, astonishingly, he barely touched on the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the significant role played by mobile phones in the aftermath. These events have revealed, unimaginably vividly, the limitations, potential redundancy, and, indeed, dangers of physical architectural mass in an era of advanced communications-technology.
Mitchell did acknowledge that the word in New York is that 'the day of the trophy tower may be gone' - and one can hardly help wondering whether there was always something unnatural about the ambition to build towers more than 100 storeys high. As he pointed out, 'dispersed interconnected systems', where 'connectivity matters more and adjacency matters less', have created more flexible work patterns, and provided greater security against disaster; electronic security becomes more important than physical security. He also suggested that there has been a 'decline in the power of the predetermined architectural programme to define space'.He cited the example of Fumihiko Maki, currently building a new media lab on the campus at MIT without a programme - an investigation of 'flexible habitats for unpredictable inhabitation'.
But Mitchell remains clear in his position that we will not see a disappearance of architecture under the impact of technology, rather a 'continuation by other means'. The 'fragmentation and recombination of building types and neighbourhood patterns' which he speaks of, including the death of familiar buildings, such as branch-banks, promises much of value. It will include economic revitalisation, by rewiring without destruction of historic fabrics, and what he calls the 'revenge of place' - where 'attractive' places become more important than ever before. It is just that 'urban design in the Internet age has a broader definition than in the past'. He urged designers to innovate and speculate with new prototypes for the future.
Bill Mitchell, dean of architecture and planning at MIT, was giving the Urban Design Alliance Annual Lecture - 'City Past, City Future: The Impact of Information and Communication Technology on Urban Design'. The full text can be visited on the website sap. mit. edu; or e-mail wjm@mit. edu