Apps for architects

We all know how tricky it can be getting the right gift for an architect. See The Hell of finding a gift for the architect, and  The gift always seeks recompense .

So if you’re trying to remain relevant to that spouse who is otherwise absorbed, suggest some very cool app and be the one who casually shows them how it works.

Google have always, astutely, developed apps that appeal to designers, futurists and style or opinion leaders.

Ask an architect when he/she first used Google Earth and it will be an experience he/she will be able to recall with vivid detail. It’s an app that most folk appreciate and value as a geography reference tool, but for architects it is mindblowing. They get just how powerful  that democratized ‘eye in the sky’ surveillance tool is, and feel empowered by its affirmation of the visuospatial world that they inhabit, navigate and manipulate.

What else is on the horizon then? Google has always got something ready for the twitter feed and weekly press releases. Last week it was googles (google glass), this week it is Google sneakers (the talking shoe). These wearable vehicles for apps, data collection and advertising might appeal to architects.

But the one I think the architect might enjoy most is Smileage, the product of Google’s collaboration with VW.

It connects users with Google Maps/Google Earth – puts us on the map – and with social networks of our choice. It might even encourage us to pay more attention to buildings, to photograph them as we seek sights to share with others whilst driving.


When I first read about Smileage as an app that was designed to enable people to enjoy that wasted commuting time more, transforming it into a social experience, I assumed it was an app that would encourage people to use their cars less, to use public transport and enjoy a more social experience whilst on the bus, train, tram or airplane. I figured it would be an app that could be used to help people meet and connect with other people on the same bus or plane or transit lounge. This wouldn’t suit an architect at all.

But no – it’s for solitary drivers of cars. An app that enables them to use their phone to snap, post, geo-tag, share and discuss, on social networks, some things and locations of interest along the way. I can imagine an architect liking this. Especially if they can showcase buildings  they like or dislike. And have their buildings snapped, tagged and commented on by others.

Never mind the problems raised by the logistics of this. Only a wet-blanket wife would question the safety and lawfulness of taking and tagging snaps whilst driving.

And forget the question of why anyone would bother. You may ask-  If the commute is so boring as to warrant getting an app to spice it up, then why would you want to share these dreary moments and sights with others?

Well, the banality of the content is unimportant. The popularity of Reality TV and Facebook updates demonstrate that all too clearly.  The medium is the message. What is important is the act of being an observer who creates content from the everday, who transforms the everyday into spectacle. We are self-reflexive observers affirming, defining and positioning ourselves as we frame and report these experiences and share our ‘take’ on the world.



The roadside, a row of trees, a blurred facade, a passing car – it’s all grist for the mill, the mill of being connected, phatic communication that occurs for the sake of interacting, and for creating connections between distributed networks, between people, between spaces (geographic and virtual). We share our snaps and observations with others who are interested and we share our snaps and observations with those who are not.

The big realization that led to the development of this app, according the folk at Google, was the recognition that people were bored whilst commuting. The yawning cumulative time/space of the commute must have seemed like virgin territory for google to occupy (and its clients – those who will pay for user data or for highly targeted and localised ads).



What I might ‘share’ if I had Smileage. Grist for the mill.  VW outside the Tavern in downtown Joshua Tree.


What I might ‘share’ if I had smilage.

Genre – drama. An oversized Motorhome – almost camoflagued – stuck in the gate as it tries to exit the Desert Park Zoo near  Palm Springs. Happy ending: everybody helps and the vehicle is pushed through.


Behind the gated resort, topiaried Joshua Trees that look like something out of Dr Seuss


I build therefore I am

If there is any consolation in philosophy, for those trying to come to terms with the existential impulse to build edifices, we can look to Heidegger who points out that our very basic understanding of being – I am – you are – is aligned with building and dwelling.


“The Old English and High German word for building, buan , means to dwell. . . . bauen, buan, bhu, beo , are our word bin in the versions: ich bin , I am, du bist , you are, the imperative form bis , be. What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen , to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean: I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is Buan , dwelling” (pp. 146-147)

Repurposed materials

Scooter the dog

Scooter the dog

Trade 21_1054



Some more images of Jo Stark sculptures. Stark’s hybrid creatures pop up in many places around the property.

Cartography at home: for the housebound flaneur or fugueur

For the flaneur

For the aviatrix

For s/he who yearns to go sailing

For the fugueur

And at last, for those who merely want to read about the human impulse to travel (gone horribly wrong) check out Ian Hacking’s fascinating book on the story of Albert the first documented ‘fugueur”(about transient mental illnesses and the history of psychiatry and psychiatric categories).

Redundancy in design

This cottage is characterized by considerable repetition of elements (stylistic, formal and functional). There is aesthetic logic in the repetition of some elements _ for example, the iteration of portholes & round shapes is appropriate in a renovation that develops the original (sea-captain’s) cottage with its 4 porthole windows. Antique portholes were sourced & restored for a new room, and a porthole has been included in an internal doorway. Elsewhere modern louvres and bi-fold wood & glass doors and windows have been added, affording more light and airflow to previously dim interiors.

But repetition of other elements – of much larger scale and impact – challenges the modernist imperative of efficiency in form and function. This raises the question of redundancy in architecture. Redundancy serves a purpose in language but signals excess in modernist design. So many things about this cottage defy modernist codes and conventions.
A deck on the eastern side of the house links the interior to the garden and offers views across the valley to the sea (image in previous post). A second ‘bow deck’ sits high above it, accessed in nautical style, via a drop-down ladder. This upper deck repeats the lower deck experience, albeit with a higher vantage point and greater privacy (there is no second level to the cottage, so it is not a logical extension of some other interior living space).
Unsuprisingly, it is rarely used – and in I am vindicated in my modernist disapproval of this architect’s folly. But my smugness is deflated when I find myself admiring the bow-deck – simply for being there and for affirming or repeating (excessively) the all-important link, the view to the sea. Shantanu’s photos (The Pixel Trade) have made me rethink this folly. It transcends my expectations and extends the vocabulary of design. It shows the poetic potential of repetition and redundancy.


Writers, particularly script writers, aim to minimize redundancy: characters should be well differentiated and perform distinct narrative functions – rather than occupy the same dramatic space/function as it were. Similarly actions or plot developments may be repetitive to some extent, foreshadowing later events or hearkening back to previous events. But a “well-structured” narrative will only feature an action or event more than once if it assumes a different meaning in the iteration, if it serves as an index of profound change: the character is doing this again, but see how different things are this time. Conditions have shifted: the character and circumstances have developed and will generate a different outcome, purpose or meaning.
This is what we expect of efficient narratives – and efficient design. But it is not necessarily the most expressive or poetic combination of elements.

The pixel trade images

The next few posts will feature some images taken by photographer and architect  Shantanu Starick of our renovated cottage and its surrounds. Shantanu has devoted this year to a great project called The Pixel Trade. The property is Trade XXI.

You can see some coffee beans in the coffee tree hedge bordering the driveway – am trying a new trimming style to see if they will create an arch overhead.

This side view of the back of the cottage shows in profile the new bow deck and lower deck – both of which look out towards the sea. Old ferry lights on the bow deck light up the garden at night.

Stainless steel penguin

Repurposed or recycled materials have special significance. I love this penguin – made by NZ sculptor Joe Stark from stainless steel salvaged from an old dairy. Penguin

Joe Stark Penguin

stands outside our bedroom.