Back to the future

Cybertect James Law on the Death Star and intelligent mirrors

James Law.
James Law.
The Technosphere.
The Technosphere.
Law's intelligent mirror helps its owners keep fit,
Law's intelligent mirror helps its owners keep fit,

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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 a similar project in Mumbai has ensured that Law’s reputation generally precedes him.

“Some people call me the Asian Tony Stark,” said Law, with an ironic smile, sitting in the lobby of Dubai’s Al Qasr Hotel, stirring his jasmine tea. “I have a lab not too dissimilar to his,” he continued. “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 presented a demonstration of a new intelligent mirror that 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,” Law explained. “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 with who is an architect and who is an interior designer or whatever,” he said. “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 and our very way of life which need 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 explained. “They are made out of concrete, steel and glass. They have traffic jams, and 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, and everything has to work together like a piece of nature.

“This is the ubiquitous city. We can’t plan a city any more just to get cars to drive around, just to make people travel inordinate distances to get the things that they need and get to the places that they work. We need to think about it in a multi-dimensional way,” he said.

Easier said than done, critics may say, but Law believes that the 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 is able to data mind the diagnostic standards of the city and learn from that and evolve the city into a 21st century city,” he explained.

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; we expect it to work, but do you trust it or distrust it to the extent that you say, oh, I won’t drive the car. We believe in that.

“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, there’s a record. So it’s just degrees of trust, and society relies on that,” he said.

“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 emphasise the big picture thinking angle of Cybertecture, but it remains true that buildings form a big part of the firm’s work, and an even bigger part of the philosophy behind it. 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 absorb energy, and have 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 created areas of rainforest. These areas are used to cool the building but also to be home to nature that is being transported from all over the world,” he said.

“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.”

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 lofty 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, you can’t dig up all the sewers, but schemes like the Hong Kong nodal points are an example of ways of making existing 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 evolving and introducing some of these things into existing cities and trying your best to start again where there are new opportunities and not to waste those new 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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