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Title: The Metropolis of To-morrow
Author: Hugh Ferriss
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Copyright: 1986
Pages: 200
Price: $40.00
Rating: 93%
It may seem unusual for a site like Technology & Society to review a book of architectural drawings, but there is a method to the madness. Information technology professions often refer to "network architectures" or use other architecture-derived metaphors to describe their design visions. For example, Eric Sperley's The Enterprise Data Warehouse: Planning, Building, and Implementation introduces the concept of information architecture with a building easily recognized as Classic Greek: stone steps and a top cap supported by columns.

Much as Edward Tufte (Envisioning Information, Visual and Statistical Thinking Displays, Visual Display of Quantitative Information) is regarded as the patron saint of data visualization, so was Hugh Ferriss recognized as the leading practitioner of architectural renderings from the 1920s through the 1950s. The drawings in The Metropolis of To-morrow, which represent real and imaginary buildings, mostly in New York City, are particularly compelling for me because they are done in the chiaroscuro style, which (according to the back cover of the book and Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary) presents the buildings in terms of light and shade without regard to color. Unlike M.C. Escher, who did use background shading but most always sharply defined objects in the foreground, Ferriss leaves the fine details of his drawings to the reader's inner eye.

Setting aside the beauty of the book, and it is exceptionally beautiful, how do charcoal drawings of buildings real and imagined relate to the Internet? Because the information environments of the future need to be planned, both in the tactical sense embodied in Tufte's writing and in the strategic sense embodied in the Ferriss's drawings. Books on effectively presenting information are easy to come by, but there has been precious little book-length exploration of how to design navigable information environments. Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville's Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, published by O'Reilly & Associates, is a book that does some of what I'd like to see, though the authors focus on tactical issues like making a single (albeit large) site easy to navigate and search.

What I'd like to see is an exploration of information space design along the lines of the Michael Benedikt-edited Cyberspace: First Steps. Benedikt's own "Cyberspace: Some Proposals", Novak's "Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace", and Morningstar and Farmer's "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat" all present aspects of the theoretical and practical issues of shared environment sculpting I'd like to see discussed -- a mix of urban planning and network architecture, if you will. Given the number of persistent worlds springing up, both in the form of online games like Ultima Online and in virtual communities sponsored by businesses, I would hope to see a follow-up to Benedikt's book in the near future.

But enough ranting about what's not there. What is there, thanks to Ferriss and the Princeton Architectural Press, is a classic work that showcases the work of one of the great artists of the 20th century and inspires readers to look into the drawings and see what they mean.

--Curtis D. Frye, Editor of Technology & Society Book Reviews

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