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UG Architecture Professor Michael Chen finds that we can get the most complete representation of the city that has ever existed by looking at that the infrastructure of mobile phone base stations.Michael Chen and Justin Snider, assistant professors in the UG Architecture program, had the honor of having their project City Sensing: Signal Spaces included in the 13th Venice Biennale of Architecture this summer.

The project was one of 100 that were ultimately selected by a jury for display in the United States Pavilion, which for the first time ever in the Biennale’s 26-year history was premiated, receiving the Golden Lion Special Mention. Curated by the Institute for Urban Design, the exhibition within the U.S. Pavilion was titled Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good. Chen and Snider undertook the project through Normal Projects, the firm where Chen is principal and Snider an architect.

Chen, who teaches the required first-year Technics class as well as the fifth-year Thesis Studio, said that the project reflects his teaching methodology, which relies greatly on design research. The team initially conceived the project in conjunction with an article in the forthcoming issue of Bracket, a scholarly journal on architecture and infrastructure.

The project started as a look at the historic relationship between antennas and the development of the skyline. The Empire State Building, and at one time the World Trade Center, both housed most of the city’s broadcast antennae as their height allowed a straight line of site for users. These tall buildings not only represent a cultural significance but a technological one as well, claims Chen.

It evolved into a study of the mobile phone infrastructure, a mode of communication that is today transcending broadcast. One of the significant differences the team found was that mobile towers are privately owned and their locations are largely secret. After a number of antenna-spotting tours with students, the team cross- referenced and mapped the locations of the cellular antennae based on height and age using information they got from the Department of Buildings permits for electrical and structural work. They charted these permits from 2004 to 2012 and found more than 4,000 distinct base stations in New York City. There were so many because, unlike broadcast towers, these base stations have no clear line of site, but instead must accommodate for obstructions, tailoring themselves to the shape of the city through spatial algorithms.

Chen argues that these stations store an incredible amount of information about users: GPS location, whom you talk to, how you pay, etc. This database of information coupled with the physical story the spatial algorithms can explain is the “most complete representation of the city that has ever existed,” declared Chen. “They tell about the physical shape of the city and virtually all of the people in it.”

The team is also working with developers on mobile phone apps that record information that your phone is sharing with your mobile phone network, including which antenna you are communicating with, and they are organizing antenna spotting events to collect images and log the locations of base stations throughout the city with the aim of making all of their work available to the public this winter through a new website that will feature maps, visualizations, and downloadable data and mapping tools for designers, planners, and the general public to use. For more information, click here.

Text: Bay Brown
Photo: Normal Projects

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