A Cybernetic View of Studio

GSD2201 Site Representation and Research: Fall 2010
Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Instructor Paul Cote

This cybernetic approach to an urban planning and design studio examines the ways that information is organized, transformed and exchanged in the societal process of place-making.  In this course, nine students discovered and organized resources, and developed new ideas about a place, and published their work such that the critical source and manuscript documents are available in a shape that can be understood and taken forward by others. 

Draw from Information Infrastructure
The development of place-based understanding almost always involves drawing on information and ideas that have been developed by other people.  Our sources include administrative records on property and demographics, systematic inventories of land use and terrain, aerial photography, historic maps and street level photography, prior planning studies of the site and normative ideas about places and their transformation are all fodder for developing compelling ideas and arguments about how a site may be developed.  SSOme of the most interesting ideas are thos that we simply make up from our own observations and ideas.  Acknowledging and attributing sources ties our new ideas into a solid foundation of credible prior work.

The semester began with an introduction to Geographic Information Systems as a means of structuring observations about places.  Several GIS sources from public sources were transformed and brought together as a base model for the Seaport District of South Boston (Massachusetts, USA.) This base model and a more detailed discussion of sources is provided on the Project Resources page.  Students developed their own project infrastructure of documented resources including georeferenced photographs and planning documents.  The site model as a framework for organizing new information about the site that was gathered form many places -- including the imagination of the student. 

Experiment, Refine

The green arrows on the diagram above represent the heuristic challenge to turn ideas into understanding.  Doing this requires making models.  At first, conceptual models represented as diagrams and then as more concrete graphical or three dimensional forms.   Arriving at a project idea that is coherent and compelling requires in transforming situations into models and then in transforming the models, evaluating the result and trying something else.  Finally, all of this new understanding must be transformed into a coherent credible presentation. The success of this workflow lies in the student's agility in transforming concpets into digital representations and exchanging these through chains of tools, including GIS, 3d Modeling and Desktop Publishing Tools.and with ideas and with tools from

Participate, Communicate, Instigate

Thinking about the transformation of a place is worthwhile just for fun.  But it is more interesting if we believe our ideas may actually be a factor in the actual transformation of the place.  If we have this in mind, then we ought to be thinking not only of how we gather information and put it together, but also how our work becomes discovered, understood, appreciated  and taken forward by others.  This lifecycle of ideas and information in placemaking was the subject of this course.  Our journey began by taking ideas and resources out of the societal information infrastructure and in the end we exploited several aspects of the web to publish our ideas and resources.  Our images may be discovered in our Flickr group, Our videos, on our YouTube playlist, and our models may be downloaded from the Google 3d Warehouse.  Each of these resources contains a link back to a home page for each project that you can explore for yourself by clicking the links on the left side of this page. 

This video demonstrates the use of the Google Earth compilation, linked below.

A Cybernetic View of Studio

One aspect of the health or the effectiveness of a system can be explored by the ways that information is exchanged between individual components and subsystems.  The work described above links the work of individuals into the societal infrastructure understanding in several ways, but there is one more.  Through the magic of georeferencing, each of the student projects, including the resources that have been compiled form other sources may all be examined as they relate to each other spatially in the context of Boston.  This is accomplished through the Google Earth model that each student used to document the provenance and the genesis  of their ideas. Watch the YouTube movie above for a tour of the Google Earth model that brings all of this together.  If you want to explore all of these projects and all of the ways that they juxtapose with eachother, and with the Official Master Plan for the area and with the Greater Boston context, you may download GSD2201FinalProjects2010.kmz  to your computer and open it with Google Earth. 

Take it Forward
The future of the South Boston Seaport is a work in progress.  We urge you to explore and extend  the resources that we have put together to develop even better ideas. Visit the Syllabus for GSD2201 Site Representation and Research to go deeper into some of the workflows and techniques that we learned in this course.

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Subpages (2): Model Resources Projects