Data Drives Architecture in the Windy City

June 17, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service
Chicago: City of Big Data exhibit

It takes only a passing interest in architecture to know that Chicago is an undisputed leader in this arena, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential imprint to countless skyscraper styles that reflect just about every modern American design movement.

These days, however, Chicago is also a champion when it comes to big data — otherwise known as the generation, movement, collection, and application of massive amounts of digital urban information.

The marriage of those two Windy City elements — an architectural legacy and an unquenchable thirst for data — has now transformed Chicago into something quite spectacular: a global example of how data can be used to improve urban planning, new-building design, and existing-building infrastructure.

“What’s amazing about the big data boom is that we’re developing a better understanding of how our city works,” says Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) President and CEO Lynn Osmond. “Never before have we been able to measure in such detail how our buildings and infrastructure operate.”

Putting Data-Driven Design on Display

Since last year, Osmond’s organization, in partnership with IBM and architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, has showcased the city’s data-meets-design progress in a big way, thanks to the ongoing “Chicago: City of Big Data” exhibit at CAF’s Atrium Gallery.

A centerpiece for this interactive show is a new take on the now-iconic Chicago Model, the continuously updated, full-city replication of Chicago’s downtown. The model has been infused with colorful data visualizations that show everything from 311 service request trends to bike-share data to power usage.

“A large amount the exhibition planning involved connecting with big data experts and tapping them for information,” says Anjuli Maniam, CAF Curator of Exhibitions and Visitor Engagement. “We then mapped out exhibition narratives that would help visitors understand the basics of big data, and how others are using data to make better design decisions in the city.”

For organizations interested in offering similar exhibitions in other cities, Maniam recommends building partnerships with those who are working in big data at all levels, from the city government all the way down to the civic hacker.

“It’s important to understand and convey how pervasive big data is in our everyday lives,” he explains. “For our audience, connecting big data to well-known applications such as historical maps, digital profiles, and environmental sensors was important to provide multiple entry points into the topic.”

How Data Can Inform Architectural Decisions

To fully understand Chicago’s data-driven design commitment, though, it helps to look beyond this intriguing exhibit to some active architectural applications.

In the city’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, for example, Landon Bone Baker Architects has teamed up with Bickerdike Redevelopment, a non-profit urban-housing preservation organization, to create airLab. This student-run workshop will gather and visualize indoor air quality data for recently constructed residential buildings, compare findings to air-quality data at a recently certified LEED apartment building, and explore design improvements for future urban-housing design.

Another ambitious example is the Chicago Lakeside Development project on Chicago’s South Side. The 30-year redevelopment project will yield an enormous ecologically minded urban-community — complete with residences, working offices, and a network of parks — on the former 600-acre site of the U.S. Steel plant.

For many planners and consultants involved, Lakeside presents an incredible opportunity to use data as the design foundation.

For example, Kathleen Cagney, associate professor of sociology and health studies at University of Chicago, is already busy collecting oodles of data on the neighborhoods surrounding the Lakeside site to monitor the development’s wider impact.

That data will likely be added to LakeSim, a data-driven technical collaboration between the university, the development firm, and architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to create a computational prototype for modeling the site’s final design.

“If we can pull that data in, the first thing we can do is validate design decisions about a site in terms of the long-term impact on energy, climate, water and transportation,” Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data Director, Charlie Catlett, recently explained. “Then, we can feed those answers back and actually optimize the design of that site, and optimize the architecture based on the outcomes that you want to see.”

What it all adds up to is this: as Chicago is demonstrating to the rest of the world, data is becoming a building material just as important as pavement, glass, metal, or concrete, and will likely reshape architecture and urban planning in the years to come — provided, of course, that it’s easily accessible to the forward-thinking Frank Lloyd Wrights of the 21st century.


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