Information as Design

| October 5, 2010

I woke up this morning thinking of the café in Gottesman Library at Teachers College. Don’t ask me, I can’t control these things.

It struck me that its use is despite itself.

Never mind that the most obvious door, flowing into the life of the college is locked, no doubt because the cafe bridges the security gates of the library. And never mind that those gates were loudly dysfunctional and have been disabled from early on, serving now only to complicate the flow of people.

And never mind that it is separated from the collaborative space of the library, adjacent instead to, well… first to the dead space of a vestigial stairwell and exit that no longer works, but then, eventually, to the standing terminals and circulation desk.

Never mind all of that. Architecture gets stuck sometimes. It is an unwieldy form. (Although to be sure, it would be simple to mitigate these things.)

No, what I woke up thinking about was the two TV’s, high up on the café’s wall, displaying the news. And then the blow-ups of the front pages of newspapers that adorn the walls. And maybe even the small book display and magazine rack.

It strikes me that they are not what they seem.

They seem to be there to pass on their information. Except that virtually nobody pays them any attention. (Although to be sure, I will often read a snippet of an article off the far wall while waiting in line for coffee. I am usually acutely aware of how this is my attention just seeking for distraction.) If you think of what people are actually doing in that space, you would be hard pressed to not come up with an image of people attending to their own needs: of food, caffeine, email and group plotting. Turned distinctly away from the TV’s and headlines.

So what are these things doing?

I suspect that they are the inverse of what they present themselves as. They present themselves as information that has been designed and presented for consumption. The layout and delivery is meant to facilitate the transfer of information. Design in the service of information.

Instead, what if they are information in the service of design? (And by design here, I mean in the diminutive sense, as the thing one does to an item to make it palatable and usable, not in the deeper sense advocated by Tim Brown, for example.) That is, the information itself is irrelevant. What is being displayed is the displaying of information. The café is presenting itself as the place in the college that serves as the interface to the outside world at the moment. Today’s breaking news.

It is only because its actual function is so different that this stands out as absurd. Amidst people finishing their homework, the headlines amount to decoration by signifiers.

Perhaps we can imagine it as an inadvertent version of Warhol’s soup cans. Indeed, while Warhol highlighted the essential multiplicity found in the design of a can of soup, the media itself has long considered its own proliferation. The wall of TV’s is a constant trope, as is the image of the newsroom in the background: the news portrays the proliferation of the news. We speak of embedded media, but media itself is embedded, picture in picture.

Centre Georges Pompidou

I think, finally, of the seminal Centre Pompidou in Paris, housing the Bibliothèque publique d’information, a public library, and the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Designed by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, et al, it is nothing so much as a building turned inside out, displaying on the outside the duct-work and engineering of the functions of the building itself. The goal, in a sense was the same as the café’s: to mediate inside and outside. One jury praised the Pompidou for, “transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.”

One can imagine that the façade of the Pompidou is turned not just inside out, but inward even further, so that it is the books themselves that serve as the bricks of this interior edifice, displayed as the emblem of information.