Carlo Ratti and Winy Maas Discuss Facial Recognition and the Shenzhen Biennale

In December 2019, the Chinese city of Shenzhen will host the world’s only Biennale focused exclusively on the topics of urbanism and urbanization. The 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture will explore new phenomena brought about by the digital revolution, and the ability of citizens to become involved in shaping cities. The Biennale curator, Carlo Ratti, exemplifies this intersection between natural and artificial, championing the power of new technologies to transform how we live and design through his work at Carlo Ratti Associati and the MIT Senseable City Lab. In the “Eyes of the City” section of the Biennale, he is joined by MVRDV, and its co-founder Winy Maas, in shaping an experience that invites visitors and observers to question how technologies such as facial recognition can be integrated into urban life.

Domestic Datascapes. Image by The Center for Spatial Technologies. Image Courtesy of Carlo Ratti Associati

Unlike previous editions of the UABB, which are traditionally located in old, forgotten areas of the city in need of regeneration, this year’s Biennale will see Ratti and his team located in the brand-new Futian highspeed railway station, which connects Shenzhen with Hong Kong and other urban areas of China. Reflecting on the vast number of people passing through the station, and the shift from anonymity to mass monitoring in airports and train stations, the curatorial team has established the vision of a “Duty-Free” that draws people from the station through a meandering journey of architecture and design.

Looking for Palladio by Yung Ho Chang. Image © Yung Ho Chang

Along this journey, the large audience set to visit the Biennale will engage with the installations and exhibitions of celebrated artists and architects around the world which examine technology in a critical, reflective way. Among them is the Chinese-American architect Yung Ho Chang, whose “Looking for Brunelleschi’ piece positions visitors at different angles of the same space to demonstrate the importance of interaction between citizens.

Looking for Brunelleschi by Yung Ho Chang. Image © Yung Ho Chang

In this exclusive interview, Carlo Ratti and Winy Maas speak with ArchDaily’s Niall Patrick Walsh about the Biennale, as well as the integration of facial recognition into the built environment. Reflecting on the future of the Biennale, and indeed the future of the design team, both Ratti and Maas set out their views on how technology is reaching every corner of the architectural world, altering how we design, what we design, and who we design with.

For more information on the UABB 2019, visit the official website here, or browse our dedicated landing page, containing several fascinating essay submissions along the theme of innovation in architecture.

Driver Less Vision was conceived by Urtzi Grau, Guillermo Fernández-Abascal and Daniel Perlin. The project was made possible thanks to the generous support from University of Technology Sydney, Rice University, and Ocular Robotics.. Image © Fake Industries

ArchDaily (Niall Patrick Walsh): Carlo Ratti, since we last spoke, could you offer our readers an overview of how the Biennale is developing, and the importance of having a practice like MVRDV involved?

CR: So, as we speak, the design of the Biennale has been finalized. Among other things, we are particularly excited by the fact that everything has been digitally fabricated in Shenzhen, making this the first Biennale ever where nothing is going to be shipped for construction. This city is often called the “factory of the world” so it was appropriate to use it as an experiment around how cities might grow in the future, merging local fabrication with the global input of code, files, ideas, and so on.

We also believe strongly in the idea of critical design: how design can help us to deal with pressing issues in society. In our section, called “Eyes of the City,” we wanted to explore this new condition where architecture has acquired the ability to see. That has led us to create what we believe is the first large public exhibition that incorporates facial recognition. We now use facial recognition every day, such as when we unlock our phone, checking in at airports, using Amazon Go. However, there is a notable absence of debate about facial recognition among people who make cities, be they planners, architects, or urbanists.

We wanted to stimulate this discussion, and that is where it has been great to have MVRDV and Winy Maas design the check-in and check-out points in the Biennale, where facial recognition has been incorporated. They have also designed the infopoint at the entrance, which forms an interface between the exhibition and the outside world. We hope that the use of facial recognition will encourage everyone to think about and establish principles for its use. Our first principle is that everything should be transparent, so the facial recognition equipment in the Biennale is very visible. We have also incorporated the idea of people “opting out” of the system. Traditionally, these systems are deployed without public knowledge, where it is implicit that you are being watched, like in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. We do not believe this is the right approach. Instead, we empower the user to decide whether they opt-in or opt-out, to be either visible or invisible to the camera.

UABB 2019 graphic design. Image © Mieke Gerritzen

AD: Winy Maas, what were the challenges of integrating facial recognition and technology into your work in the Biennale, and in MVRDV’s broader work?

WM: We try to be a think-tank and a mirror to Carlo Ratti’s group, to explore how facial recognition can be developed, and how to position it. At the Biennale site, it is manifested by these ‘entrance portals’ that make the user aware of their experience. You could describe it as a ‘filter’ that you go through, where you can choose to participate or not. It makes you therefore very much aware. It is, to begin with, very individual and dramatic. It then becomes very open and transparent, with the screens behind it. It also responds to the concept of a “duty-free” (what a concept!) or “supermarket,” which is a term Carlo has used when describing the Biennale. As Carlo said, we make the system subtle but clear and the entrance and exit, and hence it can be felt and discussed.

As for our work, there are a couple of ways to integrate new ideas. There are a lot of technologies we could discuss, so let us focus again on facial recognition. For the new museum we are doing in Rotterdam, the Depot Boijmans, the doors manifest as openable mirrors, so you see yourself and it sees you before you walk in. It is reminiscent of a James Bond film, in that way! We are investigating if this door can guide and then record your experience of the museum. Not everything is accessible, but facial recognition could maneuver you through the operable zones of the building at any given time.

CR: Indeed, as architects, we must engage with the new technological condition of our time. If we don’t, we become irrelevant. It is important that we are aware of the tools at our disposal, which is what happened at the beginning of the Modernist movement, and is happening again with developments in the digital age.

Facial recognition concept. Image Courtesy of MVRDV

AD: Reflecting on the multiple roads through architecture you have traveled, as practitioners, educators, curators, etc – what do you believe the future of the Biennale is? Will it too evolve as the digital age alters how we share information? Does it still hold a valuable role in geographically anchoring new ideas, and testing them in a defined urban condition?

CR: The Biennale is not necessarily the place where we should show designs anymore. To a certain extent, they are becoming irrelevant. You cannot just use a Biennale to show projects; the reality of the digital age is that you can see architecture online much faster. We believe that the only role of the Biennale is one that can make people think about issues, one that uses design to engage with pressing societal issues. It must start a conversation, in this case about the role of technology in cities, architecture, and most importantly, public space.

WM: I appreciate the use of the word “relevance” in reflecting on the future of the Biennale. Relevance can happen on many levels. You can make a Biennale which is relevant in a political sense, or relevant on an artistic level, to name a few. This Biennale engages in a technological relevance which is apparent in Shenzhen, not just through the facial recognition system, but through a huge range of technologies that Carlo and his team will be integrating.

CR: The place where it happens is still important. The issues one can investigate are influenced by the context in which you discuss them. Talking about “Eyes of the City”, and the role of technology in urbanization, Shenzhen seems to be the best place to do it. As a city that did not exist a few decades ago, but is now part of one of the largest urban regions in the world, it is also the place that produces much of the technological apparatus that we use across the world. It is at the epicenter of technology in cities.

Driver Less Vision was conceived by Urtzi Grau, Guillermo Fernández-Abascal and Daniel Perlin. The project was made possible thanks to the generous support from University of Technology Sydney, Rice University, and Ocular Robotics.. Image © Fake Industries

AD: You both sit at an interesting intersection of practice and education. Carlo, you direct CRA and the MIT Senseable City Lab, while Winy you direct MVRDV and The Why Factory. How important is this intersection in your work, and your ability to embrace new ideas, both in the Biennale and beyond?

CR: This is crucial for me. Let me give you my definition of design. It is inspired by Herbert Simon, who said that natural sciences look at how the world is, and design looks at how the world could be. Design is really part of this conversation about placing mutations in the built environment that could be adopted and transform what a city is, what public space is, and so on. To do that, we need to act at different levels. We work at a design level at Carlo Ratti Associati in New York and Turin, at a research level with the MIT Senseable City Lab in Boston and Singapore, but also just recently, several startups across the USA and Europe that work with electronics and micro-mobility. We also now have a third level which we call “The Factory”, which is a real factory that has a tangible output. So these three different levels offer ways to explore the same topic on a design, research, and product level.

WM: If you look at the output coming from The Why Factory, it is all explicitly future-orientated, highly experimental and speculative. It is important that the work at The Why Factory is independent of practice. It is therefore not beholden to commercial goals. Going in the other direction, you see very strongly how the output of The Why Factory has influenced the architecture of MVRDV. It has had a role in keeping us on the cutting edge, keeping us as a future-orientated company. You see a lot of people who studied or were involved in The Why Factory ultimately join MVRDV, and the general level of understanding we have for these future-orientated exercises is very high at the company. The intellectual background manifests as a design output.

Domestic Datascapes. Image by The Center for Spatial Technologies. Image Courtesy of Carlo Ratti Associati

AD: We talked about the integration of smart technologies in cities, but what of the composition of the design team? As the rate of technological change grows, will this new condition require new professionals and sectors to join the traditional design team? How will the role of the architect change in order to take advantage of these new technologies?

WM: Yes. To a certain extent that has already happened. It has begun to manifest in our architectural output in projects such as the Crystal Houses in Amsterdam. Here, TU Delft professors with a materials technology background were consulted to research the correct glue to enable us to use glass bricks. That interdisciplinary work can happen even for a commercial storefront now! So we are already seeing sectors involved in a new way in design processes. Also, you see it in the change in architects themselves. Carlo’s work has also been a fantastic example of how the role of designers is changing, and how they have to focus on different specialisms to meet what architecture is expected to be today.

CR: When you look at a complex problem, you need to bring in more disciplines. What we see at both MIT and CRA is more people from computer science, physics, mathematics, sociology, and economics involved in the process of design. It is similar to the Modernism movement when a focus on materials such as concrete heralded an era where engineers became core members of the design team. Today something similar has happened, where the new tools of our age are less concrete, and more silicone. In addition, we need an open process to match our open design team. When you open to process to the broader public, you have more feedback loops at work, which gradually grow to create an urban environment of the people.

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Cite: Niall Patrick Walsh. "Carlo Ratti and Winy Maas Discuss Facial Recognition and the Shenzhen Biennale" 26 Nov 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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Driver Less Vision was conceived by Urtzi Grau, Guillermo Fernández-Abascal and Daniel Perlin. The project was made possible thanks to the generous support from University of Technology Sydney, Rice University, and Ocular Robotics.. Image © Fake Industries


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