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Tomato catchup time

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The architectural profession is still a long way behind other creative professions in the use of computer technology

In addition to equipping offices with PCs, AutoCAD, big printers and modems, a growing number of practices are cautiously getting further into digital. As we have reported in recent issues of Architech, several have been making use of things such as job-based remote data interchanges and depositories.

But the design world took on the computer with a lot more enthusiasm - and it did it a lot earlier, aided by the Apple Macintosh and those seminal graphics applications Photoshop and Illustrator and/or FreeHand. It also took the initiative when it needed to.

The Sohonet was set up to zap very big media files at very high speeds around Soho and across the Atlantic to New York and Hollywood. It is not a recent innovation: it was set up in 1995 and is used by most major post-production houses.

What is interesting is the frame of mind the design world has developed.

Tomato Interactive is a small creative practice, an offshoot of famed design operation Tomato. You ask the team members to describe what they do and they look a bit uneasy because a lot of their work is using Director and developing Java applications, but they bill themselves as being interested in anything interactive - such as their audio-visual interactive menu on the wall of the Busabar restaurant in London's Wardour Street.

The small group at Tomato Interactive has the customary G4 Macs and big screens and a bit of editing kit for the freelancers who come in on projects - and their attitude to the technology is relaxed. It is just kit. The model of the film production company comes to mind: the coming together of a group of specialist people for a specific task. You expect that to have rubbed off from the film and television world which surrounds Tomato Interactive in Soho, but it is also pretty much the way in which a building team works - or could if the old enmities and territorialism did not still exist in this post-Egan world.

What impresses people who work with the Tomato Interactive team is that if they need some technology they simply get it. They have, for example, more or less continuous and very fast access to the Internet though not to the virtuous but expensive Sohonet. Somebody needs to work around a tricky problem, so they immediately e-mail a mate at MIT or IBM or that bloke in South America or Korea outlining the problem, and a couple of minutes or hours later, back comes the partial, complete, superannotated or whatever solution along with suggested alternatives.

The main Tomato site at www. tomato. co. uk has a 3D front page featuring transparent glass and then a navigation zone which wobbles with pleasure as you move the cursor across it.

You have to chase the section you want to look at: you have to creep up on it and pounce - and since this is fun, you don't mind at all. What architects' site expects the visitor to enjoy chasing page names around the screen - and gets away with it?

The Tomato mini-CD, designed by Interactive, does not take over the whole of your screen. Instead, it remains a discreet character-deep horizontal line until you click on one of the sections. It uses spoken poetry, house and dance music, plus images very effectively. Then there's the interactive CD-ROM published in Japan which won the IDmulti-media awards silver medal, and a site for Mitsubishi at www. wakowako. com and www. tokitoki. com. There are in-store kiosks, a kung-fu arcade game, interactive shop-window games, work for LeviStrauss Europe and more, which are the result of bringing together a variety of talents and thinking creatively.

Tomato Interactive commissions take a tad longer than the quick in-out of the average graphic-design practice, although nothing like the years involved in most architectural commissions. But Joel Baumann, a Tomato Interactive director, argues that small is sensible. 'When companies get big they become dependent on getting job after job to pay the bills. If you are small it's possible to take on jobs you are interested in and even work on independent lines of thinking - or even take a lower fee for work - which can contribute to future jobs.

We're engaged in an ongoing creative process which is more important than the end result. So we tend to plug our clients into what we're doing, we experiment with them.' If that sounds a bit like art school, that's exactly the way Baumann likes it - and the way rather a lot of young architects would like it too.

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