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The Phantom City: Interview with co-creator Brett Snyder

September 23, 2010

Phantom City creators, Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder

The Phantom City is a cyber/physical scavenger hunt that disperses people with their iphones throughout the city.  People “tour” NYC’s significant speculative architecture at their intended sites.  Who knows what one may discover while touring NYC’s architectural phantoms.  Below is an interview with co-creator Brett Snyder of Syracuse University School of Architecture and Cheng+Snyder -a multi-disciplinary design studio based in New York City.

Daley Wilson:  First off, what spurred the idea behind Phantom City?  Are you responding to dialogue about cyberspace vs. physical space?

Brett Snyder:  My partner and I have dual backgrounds; she is an architect- historian and I’m an architect –graphic designer.  Prior to the explosion of iPhones, we were simply discussing the need to harness mobile technology to allow urban dwellers new ways to get information about their surroundings.  The idea that only buildings from the 18th and 19th century contain building plaques with minimal information (year of construction, developer, architect, owner, name of building, and so on) seemed entirely limiting in comparison to the rich and powerful narratives that is latent in the built environment.

DW:  A major motive behind Phantom City seems to get people out into the city and explore areas they may not have before.  How much of the project was about curating the speculative architecture and how much was about producing an urban intervention?

BS:  This is a really interesting question – and I think gets to the heart of our project.  We saw it first and foremost as a “museum without walls.”  In this sense, we wanted to allow people to navigate the city in ways that haven’t been explored enough to this point.  The idea, however that this might produce new ways of curating architecture is more of a by-product, but certainly one that would be interesting to us in future incarnations of the project.

DW:  Was there any sort of system for choosing those particular speculative projects?  It seems like you are now taking suggestions from the public for projects to add.

BS:  Absolutely, there were heated discussions about what types of projects would be interesting for viewers and enhance the database – and others that felt like it would muddy the water so to speak.  Initially, we used the term “utopia” to help us select projects – but this became problematic as we were equally interested in dystopian projects (and felt these would also be interesting to viewers).  At the same time projects that were just never built, because they were not of great quality seemed less important to include in the database.  Ultimately we chose the phrase “visionary but speculative architecture” which allowed us to select a rich but varied grouping of projects.  Something we had in the back of our minds was that each of these projects may have at least a “seed” (and sometimes more!) of un-buildability in their DNA – such as Buckminster Fuller’s dome or Superstudio’s Continuous Monument.

Listen to the rest of my interview with Brett on YouTube:

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 11:35 pm

    Hi Daley!

    I am really interested with your proposed thesis and am very grateful for this post. As a non-architecture student, and I’m sure I can speak for others not well-versed in architectural jargon, some of Crisis City’s content has been hard to follow, until now. I think the collaborative effort of the group is a wonderful idea, but truth be told I haven’t witnessed much of it through the group blogging.

    That said, now that you have all narrowed down your topics a bit, I can see Crisis City’s efforts as a whole having more direction, which I think has been proven by this particular post of yours. In general, and perhaps this is the journalist in me talking, I think it is a great idea to include more real-life interviews and interactive features (ie your Youtube video, photos, diagrams, etc.) in order to pull readers and followers into your important work.

    I look forward to more of your content!


    • September 26, 2010 4:28 pm

      Thanks Melissa! It is so great to get feedback from a non-architect! One of our goals is to be accessible to the public. Hopefully we can all continue interviewing individual’s of interest & utilize interactive features in order to have well-rounded & accessible content.

  2. September 25, 2010 10:22 am

    Great Daley. The questions and answers are informative.

    I am interested in the notions of Brett’s project in terms of thinking of it as an installation. I am interested in creating installations/interventions where the user experience the urban fabric in completely new ways while simultaneous not only participating – actually is helping create the project. In a sense there are two parts to Brett and Irene’s project: making the app/visuals and then relying on the people to experience it in their own unique way.

    • Dennis Harvey permalink
      September 25, 2010 2:06 pm

      This seems like another step towards and experiential merger of physically perceived information and mentally perceived information. I used an iPad app over the summer which you can hold up to the stars and it draws out the different constellations for you on the screen. It is a virtual filter placed over physical information and is time and space responsive. I can imagine everyone wearing a filter of virtual information, like contact lenses, eliminating the need for more inefficient infrastructure like street signs and painted roadway lines. Transportation infrastructure will be responsive in realtime. Road lanes can change direction in response to traffic without the use of cones and construction crews.

      Time is another element which can be transcended. Instead of the city as it currently exists you can turn on a filter of the city 100 years ago and see what it looked like then. This would take the idea of museum without walls to a new level. Perhaps buildings will merely become environmentally controlled green screens and virtual filters add all the facade ornament dependent on what the owners of the building want at that current time. Or perhaps we control what the city looks like. Maybe I want it to look sleek and modern but my friend sees it as city with 2nd Empire style or baroque ornament.

      And then there will be the class of primitivists who don’t want a cyborg existence. They will live in an information poor world but will profess spiritual pursuits over progress. Progress, however, will have breached the bounds of the bio-physical. These social secessionists will always exist but they will never be able to overcome the obvious advantage of virtual omniscience.

      This world seems eerily close to reality…

      • Dennis Harvey permalink
        September 25, 2010 3:35 pm

        Perhaps the first line of the above statement could read better like this…

        This seems like another step towards a perceptual merger of spatial/temporal information and virtual information.

      • September 26, 2010 4:45 pm

        Dennis, you need to make an updated version of the film “Metropolis”! Those are some incredible propositions (good or bad), but it does expand upon the basic concept behind Phantom City. Our world is increasingly faced with the merging of cyber & physical space. Perhaps there needs to be some research/polling amongst Crisis City members regarding the effects/successes of the cyber world on our physical space. Sometimes reading a book in pastoral Central Park is all the stimulation one needs, however, outside of parks- which are sometimes places that “pretend” that the city doesn’t exist- it is nearly impossible to not be forced to interact in the physical & digital worlds (i.e. walking down the street w/data phones, iPods, digital billboards, etc). You seem to be suggesting a step further into simultaneous cyber/physical cities, like “smart-streets” that respond to traffic & construction based on digital data. Cyberspace is increasingly becoming a framing device or filter through which we understand & experience the city. So, we probably should accept it because we aren’t going to backtrack & get away from it, right? How do we embrace it & use it?

      • September 26, 2010 5:26 pm

        This brings up a really integral concept to Daley’s thesis, I think.

        Dennis mentioned a “world” in which different inhabitants could perceive the city in totally different ways, based on their personal preferences.

        This of course, sounds like a logical next step, in a world where the news, products – even search results – we consume are all curated or tailored to better match some idea of our personal preferences. However, being a part of a personalized rewards program at Walmart is a completely different paradigm from inhabiting public space. I really question the benefits (and worry about the consequences) of a “total world experience” which is highly individualized. In such a world, is there any shared or common experience? How would one develop personal preferences anyway, if there’s no baseline commonality to differentiate yourself from? These are deep philosophical questions to consider, before architects (or whomever) eagerly jump onboard with the novelty of virtualization.

        Where I see this tapping into Daley’s project is this bipolar disparity between (on one hand) the highly individualized, vibrant community experiences experienced in the virtual realm of Facebook and the blogosphere, and (on the other) the largely conventional, homogenous, and stifling experience of physical public space. Daley has questioned why people are so outgoing online, but check their vibrant individuality once they enter physical public space.

        Mutations is one in a long line of books/papers discussing the role the virtual environment (aka, the Internet) has played in killing public space. Lootsma, writing in a post-iPhone world, might have talked about how iPhones will guide you around a city of undifferentiated boxes, devoid of any of the signage / wayfinding / street life / monuments / identity (all of which I’d throw into the term “armature”) of traditional cities. Physical space becomes a backdrop for (and subservient to) the virtual life served up from your device.

        I’d argue we might not need to be concerned with “embracing” or “getting used to it.” Consumer electronics, inter-city travel, and recreational Internet use will all be greatly impacted (if not completely transformed) when oil inevitably reaches $200 or $300 a barrel. At that point, our presuppositions about our “Modern” lifestyles will be radically altered, and I think the emphasis will tilt back to more traditional, physical, community-based ways of life. You can see inklings of this reversal in our food landscape, where the plastic-wrapped, preservative-injected foods of oil-rich 1950’s America are being traded in for farmers’ markets, organic farms, and community-supported agriculture.

        In short, I think there will be, increasingly, steps back from the futuristic (and, personally, frightening/alienating) landscape Dennis describes — and fewer steps towards it.

      • September 28, 2010 4:52 pm

        In that vein: — an interesting interview with Mark Zuckerberg about how he sees Facebook (and the Internet) shaping society in the future. I find it particularly relevant to what you’re talking about, even though its not overtly “architectural.”


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