Logistical Interface: Hyper-Mediated City


As far back as 1964, Marshall McLuhan described the global village as a place not so much altered by the content of a medium, but rather, a space transformed by the very nature of medias themselves. For some, this is little more than the inevitable evolution of urban space in the digital age. For others, it represents the city's liberation from the condition of stasis... While McLuhan was referring to the spatial impact of emerging media, the television in particular, this could conceptually include a literal understanding of media intervention in architectural and urban spaces. If the logistical city is a mediated environment, architecture and urban space must be re-conceived as hyper-mediated spaces or interfaces. Architecture itself has always been a phenomenological and perceptual medium in which materiality and formal composition allow us enter a dialogue with the built environment. Before ever the introduction of digital technology, we understand that the wall divides space, program and experience and can even be thought of as an interstitial medium in and of itself. The advent of the share economy and its digital technologies has produced a further layer of engagement through which we relate to the environment around us.

For example, media interfaces or screens of digital information expedite communication and consumption independent of our location. Peapod, an online grocery delivery service, once enabled passersby to shop for groceries by pointing smartphone cameras at a "virtual grocery store" which is a billboard of product images and corresponding QR codes. The strategy is an example of how online order fulfillment undermines the brick and mortar grocery by closing the gap between a shopper and the products through a smartphone interface - grocery shopping can happen anywhere. There are, in addition, common yet overlooked forms of media that more directly alter architecture and experience. Fast-food drive-thru's or loading docks, for instance, are architectural apertures which are designed to accommodate vehicles interfacing with the spaces of back-of-house operations. These hyper-mediated spaces are an alteration of existing architectural or urban space through a logistical interface, embedding elements of logistical systems to extend architectural faculties to modes of delivery.

The idea of hyper-mediated space is not new. There are common forms of interface that have served to smooth the frictions between architecture, people, and product flows. Dispensary machines, such as ATM's and vending machines (from food kiosks to product kiosk's) have been extant for decades. These interfaces that depend on virtual networks collapse the time and distance that separate consumers from cash or products via information and automation. Teller windows at Currency Exchange stores safely facilitate monetary transactions that could otherwise become hostile. Dumbwaiters or elevators are other spatial interfaces that link vertical spaces and serve as logistical corridors for the movement of products and people. Further, the elevator is one historical example of how mechanical media has informed the architecture that houses it, being partly responsible for the emergence of skyscrapers in the 19th century. The drive-thru window in its various forms is one example of an invasive architectural interface that lessens the time and distance between a consumer on-the-go and fast food. So too is the weather-sealed gasket of the warehouse which Deborah Richmond describes in Consumers Gone Wild as an architectural back - the final threshold between the delivery fulfillment chain and the retail environment. The necessity for this back-stage interface is responsible for the "mullet" effect of big box retail stores such as Wal-Mart and also suburban shopping malls and strip malls which emphasize an eye-catching front while conducting business on the back. One could arguably trace the docking bays of fulfillment and distribution centers themselves to the shipping port. The port is the cultural and economic interface bridging ocean and continent, and has been critical in the development of human civilization.

It's evident these forms and scales of interface have served the fluidity of markets by optimizing processes of commercial exchange, but they are often overlooked as architectural informers. They are typically interpreted as consequences of the need for commercial efficiency and functionality. As Branden Hookway identifies in Pandemonium, they are abstractions that are actually the boundary between idea and matter, spatial and temporal relationships. An interface can be conventionally understood as an aperture or screen, but like Hookway, if instead we think about interface itself as the symbolic and functional relationship between at least two parties pending an interaction or exchange then this can open up more formal possibilities. Also, while we may not think of these intermediary devices as media per se, they are nonetheless means to specific ends in the consumer-producer relationship that have a significant stake in the logistics of product movement. The hyper-mediated spaces of the logistical city would take this understanding to an extreme, for example, in the realm of delivery fulfillment.

Unlike the proliferation of massive distribution centers away from urban density, hyper-mediated space would concentrate in denser areas close to the consumer. Concentration in a neighborhood or at a residence, for example, would close the gap between warehouse logistics and the private domain.

The street itself is a type of urban conduit that already mediates between the home and the neighborhood. In Chicago, the alley is an existing logistical conveyor for garbage handling, telecom and power line maintenance, and an outlet for backyard garages - a public corridor for the delivery of privately utilized services. The alley can be re-imagined as a possible interface to become a further localized segment of the delivery fulfillment chain - accommodating an additional logistical layer for package distribution. In this model, the home directly interfaces with the fulfillment chain by deploying the conveyor belt in the alley as a fulfillment conduit on which packages are picked up and delivered at the alley ends. Given the demand by the consumer for expedient delivery and the ease of online ordering, the conveyor becomes critical in both receiving and shipping. The frictions between ordering and delivering are further smoothed, adding to the comforts of home life in a similar way that the conveyor has added to the convenience of sorting processes in distribution centers.

Porting the docking bay to the home allows the influence of market transaction directly into the domestic realm which, as history has shown with the fulfillment center and shipping port, can lead to the dramatic development of those mediated environments. Conveyor invasion could similarly alter existing domestic types beginning with the transformation of the domestic interior, which is already a revolving door of commodities. Taken to a logical though quite dystopian extreme, the home would no longer be a static commodity container but rather a dynamic, hyper-mediated, space for the consumption of things as they are needed.

A hyper-mediated city involves logistical developments at neighborhood and domestic scales that reflect the current paradigm of rapid and optimal product delivery and service. The result is an expansion of operation of the fulfillment center to that of the neighborhood block and its constituent houses - the final and elusive frontier of big box operation. In a sense, neighborhood blocks themselves become distribution satellites for the final leg of delivery. Meanwhile, the house, as Deborah Richmond suggests in Consumers Gone Wild, has itself become a speculative capital flow, a literal commodity inside the flows of commodities in the neighborhood of the hyper-mediated city. The residential domain is finally "consumed" by the fulfillment chain itself taking its place as a "small box" or just another node in a vast logistical network.