Urban Technology at University of Michigan week -18

Drawing with fire + 3 questions for Melissa Harris

Twelve hundred years ago al-Mansur, second of the Abbasid Caliphs, stood by the banks of the Tigris and spun around looking at—and dreaming about—a round city 1km in diameter. It took four years to construct his city from scratch, but on this day there was not a single structure or road to be seen. Instead he was looking at a representation of his future city visualized in a most rarefied medium: fire 🔥.

Hello! I’m Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology degree at University of Michigan that will welcome its first students in the 2021-2022 academic year. If you’re new here, try this 90 second video introduction. While we launch the program, we’re using this venue to explore themes and ideas related to our studies. Thanks for reading. Have questions about any of this? Hit reply and let us know.

✏️ Drawing with Flames

Al-Mansur’s imagination started with a detailed drawing of the plan of his round city showing its protective walls, streets, palaces, and a central mosque. Drawings are great, but they’re not nearly as nice as a full sized prototype when you’re trying to understand the future potential of an idea. Seems crazy to build a prototype of something as large as a city, but if you rule the land… why not? As told by historian Ya’qubi and recounted in The Topkapi Scroll, a crew of builders that would eventually swell to 100,000 began by tracing the plan directly on the ground with ash. Then cotton soaked through with liquid petroleum was laid along the location of the planned perimeter walls and set alight.

Imagine what it felt like as al-Mansur’s workers laid their torches upon the cotton, setting the ring ablaze. Imagine watching as the flames zapped around the circle, taking perhaps 10 minutes or more to engulf the full circumference. Think about standing at the center of a 1km ring of fire sending embers into the night sky of Baghdad—a city at full scale surrounding you, before a single brick has been laid. Close your eyes. Crackling flames from all 360 degrees are overwhelming, even fearsome.

Unfortunately, today it’s far more common for cities to be mortally challenged by climate fires than to be visualized using flames for imaginative purposes. But don’t fret! Augmented and virtual reality are the current-day tool, and it comes with some advantages over pyro-prototyping. For one, we can build interactive AR/VR experiences that are portable. It also does not require 100,000 workers to do so!

At Taubman there are numerous people working on this but to share just one example, Jonathan Rule is using VR to let students view virtual construction sites so they can better understand how buildings are built. This is an exciting direction for us because one of the current challenges of urban technology is that a number of the technologies in question are scarce. There aren’t that many autonomous vehicles in existence. Maybe 10,000? Maybe?! How do you begin to understand something that’s hard to see, hear, or touch?

Have you been a passenger in a driverless car? Most people answer that question with a “no” and haven’t even seen one with their own eyes. If you live in the Bay Area or here in Detroit, you’re likely to be among a relatively small group of people that have any first-hand experience with an autonomous vehicle. Perhaps you’ve seen a hobbyist drone zipping around the local park (or hovering ominously over your house like I did last summer). Having spotted a singular drone in person a few times is one thing, but do you have the information you need to evaluate whether it would be a net positive to have drones zipping around the city’s skies making deliveries? One drone buzzing overhead might be easy enough to ignore, especially if you’re getting the benefit of cheap and fast deliveries, but how would you feel about a drone cruising by your windows every few minutes? Or multiple drones per minute?

If we want regulators to catch up to industry and if we want communities to have a legitimate and reasoned chance at self-determination, how can that happen when the things they’re being asked to consider are things they have not experienced yet, merely as phenomena of the physical world? And even when one has direct experience with a new type of technology like a drone, that doesn’t mean they have the foresight to understand the implications of that technology when it’s suddenly everywhere.

For this reason, visualization and prototyping is a critical area for urban technology as a decision making tool. When we make future technologies visible and tangible, we help citizens gain a fair foothold in discussions about possible futures that are not fully formed or “not [yet] evenly distributed.” Al-Mansur lit a kilometer circle on fire before he could make the final decision to build the Round City of Baghdad. Unless you happen to also be a caliph, you’ll need other tools to make the possible palpable. Lots of room here to explore prototyping by writing functional code, building models, making films, larping, writing. But if I had to choose a go-to it would be drawing, so let’s check in with Melissa Harris to hear more about why it continues to be so relevant.

3 Questions for Melissa Harris

Finished drawings are great for communicating with others, but the act of drawing is itself a powerful process for communicating with yourself. You don’t need to be able to draw as well as Taubman College drawing instructor Melissa Harris to take benefits from sketching and drawing. If you study with her, you’ll understand that drawing is as much about seeing as it is about making marks. Whether you’re tracing lines with pencil lead or flames in the night sky, the more you draw, the more you see.

Q. What’s your favorite city and why?

The first big city I felt like I “got to know” is New York city. We could reach it by train from Raleigh, my hometown, and we did, even a few times as teens. I worked between my graduate school years at Edward Larrabee Barnes office, and lived in Stuyvesant Town. I may have been succumbing to the notion many southerners of my generation felt, that to really make it, you had to go to New York.

For tightness of fit between building and land, sheer physical beauty, Helsinki and San Francisco. Markets spill out of boats in Helsinki. The streets become vertical walls in San Francisco, like the painter Wayne Thiebaud features. Or Salzburg, Austria, where the mountains are so close that one’s sense of ground is upended by that same rupture to flatland. Closer to my home, a small town in the mountains of North Carolina called Spruce Pine, its steep ridge is carved by a high street and a low street stepping down the slope.

I was most moved, unexpectedly by a city, during a conference trip to New Orleans. I was there to soak up the accreditation know how. And the fresh oysters. But I had never seen music literally shaping spaces and making places, that never close.

Q. You teach drawing but the class is called “seeing.” What’s up with that?

The two are intertwined, drawing and seeing, bound together as essential components of observation. Looking closely requires stopping, taking time to witness a thorn emerge from smooth bark. With concerted looking, we can make associations and discoveries. Our biggest aim is to excite folks to move about the world with open and attuned eyes, learning. Drawing is a foundation, a language, and a mirror.

Q. How does drawing help you understand a city?

I can sort through lots of information quickly. As an architect, lucky enough to have lived in a few big cities, I think immediately of a map. And a map is essentially a big floor plan. This is the most all-encompassing viewpoint, an overview, and when you have a big picture, it’s harder to get lost.

Drawing helps you diagram things, break them apart and put them back together – sentences, family trees, trips, networks, an argument. Tons of information is reduced to a few lines. Drawing also allows a layer by layer approach, a way to disaggregate, separate the overwhelming multitudes and look at one thing at a time like trees in relation to paths. With the imagination drawing practice engenders, we might understand systems, connections of so many things, maybe sharing more than a surface.


🔥 For a very different use of the word fire, this syllabus by Ashley Blewer based on the TV show Halt & Catch Fire looks rad! h/t Jason Kottke.

✈️ Jason coined the term “single-serving website” for a simple website that does it all on one page. Shame Plane, which visualizes CO2 from flights, is a nice example. h/t Erika Hall

💩 Analysis of AI used to assess job applicant interviews. Don’t use AI like this. Do explain the pitfalls of AI like this. h/t Jer Thorp

🏡 ASMR goes visual as people are making longform videos of interior ambience as an escape mechanism. This will drive the architecture students wild. Reminds me of the corner of YouTube where people make very long videos of Sci-Fi background noise, like this twenty four hour loop of Starship Enterprise idling (though I prefer Deckard’s apartment which was shot in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House).

🖥 On the topic of digital drawing, lots of new 3d modeling software showing up on my radar these days. Spline is built for web exports. Buerli makes it easy for builders to include CAD workflows in their apps (h/t Galo Canizares). picoCAD is a low polygon modeler in development that’s really quite cute.

This week: A call with prospective students, some long term planning, number crunching and document flipping, and a couple of very kind emails in the inbox. Spun up a special project with Justine Allenette Ross that involves a visual riddle and some runes. Dropped in for a discussion with Malcolm McCullough and his masters of architecture thesis students. 🏃‍♂️