Cities have a language
by Nina Reetzke | May 7, 2012
Bjarke Ingels, Chris Lübkeman and Andreas Schulz (f.l.t.r.), photo © Zumtobel

What is special about life in the city? What infrastructure involving complex technology is absolutely necessary? Are the crafts trades gaining in importance thanks to immigrants? Should cities be construed as an open source? Should they by nature be complex but always incomplete like a mathematical algorithm? Does this approach help ensure the concept of the city endures? Only if open source is construed not as a raft of possibilities but as active engagement, the one or other might answer. At the moment, such a state still seems light years away. US sociologist and economist Saskia Sassen confirms: "Cities have speech. They talk to us. But we don't know that language any more."

"Your Light in a World of Change" – this was the motto that Zumtobel chose for its panel of experts at this year's Light+Building in Frankfurt. Stefan von Terzi, the Austrian light solution provider's Marketing Director, presented the pending challenges. In light of globalization, urbanization, demographics and sustainability the makers and shakers in the lighting industry need, he says, ask what the future living and working scenarios will look like. In 2020, for example, 45 percent of the BMW payroll will probably be over 50 years old. How to foster the employees' wellbeing, and how to keep innovation and productivity at a high level? What will multi-generational offices look like? A glance at the current Zumtobel product range shows that light systems such as "Luxmate Litenet" already let you change the light intensity and color temperature, to factor in daylight and the ambient mood, and thus support human biorhythms.

The expert panel included not only Saskia Sassen but also Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, Chris Lübkeman of Arup engineers and Andreas Schulz from the Licht Kunst Licht planning office. Alongside the chestnuts such as new uses for buildings, social integration and networked thinking, against the backdrop of increasing complexity, specialization and standardization, on various occasions the protagonists championed crafts, low-tech, local cultures, everyday structures and deceleration.

Saskia Sassen asked what happens to buildings when the technology they house becomes outdated. What happens to all the lighting systems, a/c and heating facilities, when they are no longer needed? Could it be that construction cycles are defined by the infrastructure? This problem becomes especially obvious if one takes outdated office buildings that are full of outmoded electrical wiring. Sassen spoke out in favor of structures that adapt to integrate workflows, preferences and errors. Today's interactive systems, by contrast, usually only offer the user a limited number of options and prove to be comparatively inflexible.

Chris Lübkeman emphasized uninhibited access to information and the swift spread of news as the basis for the "smart city". But how will content in general be handled? At what level will the individual be able to engage? As of when will things be too complicated for most? Here, Lübkemann spoke of what he termed normality. He felt the key question is how we define the norms of tomorrow, and he felt that there would be more than one answer to it.

With a view to globalization, Andreas Schulz spoke in favor of comparisons between today and the past as a good means of better understanding today. Global development are so fast, he said, that often it is impossible to follow them. When he set up his own office in Bonn in 1990 it was difficult, he recalled, to phone someone in east Germany, although it was only a couple of hundred kilometers away. Today, his office communicates smoothly with people in China. Back then, Nike stood for the US way of life, with production hubs in Asia things are now different, though.

Bjarke Ingels surprised the audience when he said "I love the definition of pollution." He suggested that pollution is what occurs when you have a process that delivers a product that is popular. Everybody then wants the product and the process gets maintained. The byproduct is initially harmless, but it accumulates until it becomes a problem. And, he continued, it is also a renewable resource if you invent something to use it appropriately. The panel mentioned the example of a research project in Denmark. A bacteria that is introduced into polluted water produces a plastic that in the final instance dissolves itself. The question then arose as to how to label something as "negative" or "positive".

The expert panel could hardly have addressed broader themes than those of globalization, urbanization, demographics and sustainability. In the space of only 90 minutes, some aspects were merely touched on, as there was no time for in-depth elaboration or conclusive summaries. Given the full program during the Light+Building, the event was persuasive precisely because the presentation was so compact.

Bjarke Ingels, Chris Lübkeman and Andreas Schulz (f.l.t.r.), photo © Zumtobel
Andreas Schulz and Saskia Sassen, photo © Zumtobel
Stefan von Terzi, photo © Zumtobel
Saskia Sassen, photo © Zumtobel
The Städel Museum is equipped with Zumtobel light-systems, photo © Zumtobel
The Harpa Concept Hall also counts to the Zumtobel references, photo © Zumtobel
Army historic museum Dresden, photo © Zumtobel
Salewa headquarter, photo © Zumtobel
Cheonan gallery, photo © Kim Yong-kwan
Google headquarter, photo © Zumtobel