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Wed 8 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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Back to the future

Cybertect James Law speaks to Middle East Architect about intelligent mirrors, the Death Star and the evolution of cities.

Back to the future

As the designer of the infamous Dubai
‘Death Star’, there are few people in the GCC that won’t have heard of Hong Kong architect James Law. The spherical eco-project
– which contained its own river, waterfall and rainforest – was an early
casualty of the financial crisis, but similar projects elsewhere have ensured
that Law’s reputation generally precedes him.

“Some people call me the Asian Tony Stark,” says Law, with
an ironic smile, sitting in the lobby of Dubai’s
Al Qasr Hotel and stirring his jasmine tea. “I have a lab not to dissimilar to
his,” he continues. “We’ve got engineers and scientists all putting cool stuff
together. My dream is to have the world’s most advanced factory and help solve
the world’s problems.”

Just moments earlier Law had shown Middle East Architect a
demonstration of a new intelligent mirror he has designed and built in his Hong Kong lab. The Al Qasr could be the first hotel in
the world to pioneer the product, which helps its owners keep fit, surf the web
and keep in touch with friends. It is bold, but it is just the beginning.

“We built the mirror from scratch, we even made our own glass,”
he explains. “But we have a whole mish-mash of things we are working on around
the world. I’m working on a new type of tile which can generate energy for the
building, as well as a new module that can be added to seating, which allows
you to be linked to the internet and communicate with your friends.”

Critics may ask what an architect is doing inventing stuff,
but the name of Law’s firm – James Law Cybertecture – goes some way to explain
it. “The company is full of architects, engineers, industrial designers,
researchers, all working together with no differentiation between who is who,”
he says. “We call ourselves imagineers now. We call ourselves Cybertects,
because it’s not just about architecture, it’s much more.”

The concept behind Law’s work is as epochal as it is
controversial. He believes that it is not just our buildings that have to
change in the 21st century, it is our cities, our very way of life that needs
to be considered by architects and designers. Cities should no longer be
thought of as satellites, sub-divided by districts and buildings, but as part
of an intelligent network – from the mirror that watches your weight, to the
building with its own eco-system.

“Contemporary cities are very outdated things,” Law
explains. “They are made out of concrete, steel and glass. They have traffic
jams, they’re not energy efficient. They have a lot of social and political
problems. We have these really incredibly huge challenges to face – climate
change, natural disasters, growing population, lack of food supply – and we
need to create something new for the world, something more efficient, something
different.

“It is our responsibility, as the designers and engineers of
the future, to really look at the whole thing in a different light and move
forward. A city should not be built as it was before, it should be conceived
much more like a piece of technology, like a circuit board, every piece of
circuit is symbiotically linked to everything else. Everything has to work
together like a piece of nature. This is the ubiquitous city.” Easier said than
done, critics may say, but Law believes that he current projects his firm has
underway in Hong Kong and India
prove that such lofty ideas can be translated into reality.

Law recently
installed a system of ‘nodes’ in Hong Kong,
which are able to monitor the movement of people and traffic and provide real
time information to city planners and the government. “As the city changes
these poles are monitoring the traffic security, monitoring the people,
delivering information and the government able to data mind the diagnostic
standards of the city and learn from that and evolve the city into a 21st
century city,” he explains.

It all sounds a bit Orwellian, doesn’t it? Not so, says Law.

“Technology is already around us. When we’re driving a car
we expect the ABS brakes to work. There’s lots of information being gathered
about us, when we make a phone call, when we search Google, even when we go to
the library and borrow a book. So it’s just degrees of trust, and society
relies on that,” he says.

“The 21st century city needs new components. New components
like the mirror, to keep people healthy and safe, and ultra green buildings,
which will eventually create their own energy. We need planetary cities which
house a greater number of people in a more efficient way, and finally we need
ubiquitous urban networks that help us to monitor the state of the city.”

Law is keen to emphasize the big picture thinking angle of
Cybertecture, but it remains true that buildings form a big part of the firm’s
work. A city is made up of its buildings, and sustainability has to start with
them.

“I see my buildings more as super green devices which have
skins that absorbs energy, has sky gardens that give greenery back to the city.
Take the Dubai Technosphere, it is designed to be home to 30,000 people. There
is a valley which is naturally ventilated and a river which is cooling the
space but also recycling the water in the building. On the edges of the sphere
we have crated areas of rainforest. These areas are home to nature that is
being transported from all over the world,” he says.

“Another example I gave was the Egg building I did in
Mumbai, which is an ultra green building. This has not been built and conceived
in the same way as a piece of architecture, it’s conceived as a mechanical
piece of nature. It’s like a pod, it doesn’t need columns to hold it up, the
shape is orientated towards the sun, so that it’s taking on less heat. All of
these things we have the tools to do now, we have the tools to build
space-craft and air craft and cars and thermal dynamics, we can now integrate
those by using the skills of the cybertect, as opposed to the architect, who is
only concerned with concrete, steel and glass,” he says.

The question is how to realise this future in a world where
old-fashioned cities, with their pollution, overpopulation, sewage and waste,
are so integral to our social, political and economic lives. Critics would
rightly ask how Law suggests the world implements his ideas without abandoning New York, London and Shanghai and starting
from scratch.

“Of course you can’t knock all the buildings down and start
again, but schemes like the Hong Kong nodal
points are an example of ways of making exiting cities better. At the same
time, there are a lot of new cities coming forward. Masdar, and numerous
projects in China and India.

“This is an opportunity to get it right from the start and
not just hark back to the old ways of doing things and make a mess of it again.
There’s a balance between introducing new things into existing cities and
starting again where there are opportunities.”

It’s an ambitious call to arms, but Law will have to
persuade a great deal of people before our cities will follow. Until then, it’s
back to the lab for Asia’s Tony Stark.

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