Who says social networks make place irrelevant? Communication designer Sidney Blank begs to differ as he presents STACKD, a new site that helps people in Manhattan office buildings get in touch – for business or beers. In so doing, his project connects such themes as excess capacity, the spatial and local implications of social media and the singular opportunities presented by Manhattan’s built environment. What’s more, STACKD just might provide a powerful tool for architects, planners, developers and even management consultants to interpret how we use space and how we can use it more flexibly and more efficiently. - C.S.
The Building as Microcosm
I run a communication design firm. We create projects that take design cues from insights on how people interact with information. Most recently we created an online platform called STACKD. It is a directory, a marketplace, a communications channel and a lens through which to view the city.
The idea for this project came from a number of observations after our company moved into a 20-story building on W 28th Street. First of all, we were new to the building; we did not know anyone here. Secondly, this building has some size to it. It may not be huge by New York standards, but there are over 100 tenants: four to six tenants to every floor, accessed via two main elevators with a freight elevator serving as back-up for when the mains fail (and they often do). Our previous location was a six-story building in which we knew everyone, for better or for worse. Eminem’s Record label Shady Records thumped away directly one floor above and sewing machines whirred from the sweatshop beneath us. Even though I knew who was in the building, the moment the elevator doors opened to reveal such different realities was always jarring. This sense of curiosity about what might be happening inside a large vertical building became even more pronounced once we had moved to our current, significantly taller location. I was reminded of writings by Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas that grapple with disjunction and multiplicity, so I spent some time rereading Architecture and Disjunction and Delirious New York. Tschumi distinguishes three basic types of relationships between the actual and intended uses of architectural space:
“Specifically, three basic types of relations can be distinguished: (a) the reciprocal relation, for example to skate on the skating rink; (b) the indifferent relation, for example to skate in the schoolyard; and (c) the conflictual relation, for example to skate in the chapel, to skate on the tightrope” (Tschumi 1996: p. 186)
The unexpected mix of program in a Manhattan highrise isn’t exactly “skating in the chapel” but it nonetheless excites and feeds the imagination. Rem Koolhaas sets the stage for multiplicity when he retells the birth of the skyscraper in 1909:
“The building becomes a stack of individual privacies … the use of each platform can never be known in advance of its construction…” (Koolhaas 1994: p. 85)
As we started getting familiar with our new neighborhood on the last street of the Flower District, I was curious who else was in our building. Being able to listen to the conversations in a class Cbuilding such as 150 W 28th Street would reveal much that is unexpected: a healing center that provides “scream therapy”; a wholesale-only purveyor of minerals and crystals; one of the city’s most prominent florists. The rent is reasonable for New York and the neighborhood has an ad-hoc, undefined quality that has attracted a wide range of businesses from a variety of sectors. Brief glimpses of floor directories revealed other creative industries such as design, advertising, architecture and photography. Even though some of them are the competition, it always makes me feel welcome to know there are other companies nearby that do something similar. The history of the neighborhood and its role as the Garment District has also left a trace. The last of the fur trimmers that once defined this part of the city are here, dustmotes of mink in every corner.
Networked Spaces and the Future of the City
Urban Omnibus recently published a number of articles that address the issue of excess capacity. In a conversation with Rosalie Genevro, Frank Duffy commented on how corporations’ use of space leaves it underutilized much of the time. He posits that spaces must have the idea of change built into them in order to adapt. The theme of underutilization also drives an article withZipCar founder Robin Chase, that introduced a ride-sharing platform to make use of the excess capacity of individual seats in a car heading to a shared destination. Laura Forlano reflected on the proliferation of coworking spaces in the city. Meanwhile, New York City has discussed ways to enable cab sharing and hopefully will soon find a way to implement bike-sharing.
All of these efforts share something simple: in order to make use of the excess capacity in a network, I have to see that it exists and I have to be able to access it. STACKD offers an interface that could fit this need. Individual offices could be transformed into a network that functions as a marketplace connecting supply and demand of services, products and resources. Planners could see a fine-grain use pattern result from zoning initiatives and open-space guidelines. Businesses such as restaurants could position their next location based on geolocated market analytics. Start-ups could join ad-hoc incubators by knowing where strategic partnerships might flourish. In the city of the future, I might be able to use space and do business more efficiently. Perhaps excess space could be allocated to form building-wide or neighborhood-wide amenities. Underutilized buildings would display why they are ignored and could be retrofitted with more flexible typological configurations. Owners could make decisions about their property portfolio by incorporating space utilization statistics. We just might learn which parts of the city will continue to thrive and why.
Sidney Blank runs the strategic communication design firm Supermetric. His background in architecture greatly influences the methodology and areas of interest of his work as a designer.STACKD is the first self-initiated project created by Supermetric that aims to tie people, architecture and business together. Sidney currently teaches in the Design & Management department at Parsons, The New School.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.