Made to Measure

March 21, 2012

The sightline calculation is central to how stadia are designed. The C value is the only real objective value the industry has to judge, design (and regulate) how well a person can see an event. As part of Populous R&D fellowship, Michael Westlake and Alan Tansey started their research with the question of  ‘what does the sightline calculation actually do?’ and from there ‘how can we improve this?’ After over a year of study and work I think we are closer to being able to answer these questions. However through this study another question has arisen, which for me is far more interesting, ‘are we aware of the effects of our measuring systems and the influence they have on us?’

My point is this: how we choose to measure actually has a greater effect on the world we live in than we may like to admit. The maths and algorithms that we often unleash into the world have unimaginable effects and consequences. A recent talk by Kevin Slavin, ‘How algorithms shape our world’ discusses how the equations at the heart of automated trading have unforeseen affects that begin to shape our physical world. It’s well worth a watch and is a great illustration of this idea.

In terms of design, having worked on stadia in both metric and imperial I find it interesting that aisle widths in one part of the world are required to be 1200mm and in others 1219mm (3.937 feet versus 4 feet) isn’t this just a rounding issue? A small difference but it has an effect nonetheless. Neither of these numbers are actually correct and lost somewhere in the measuring systems we use is the true width and reason that was at the heart of it all. The affect units have on proportion fascinates me. When we travel from country to country there are small differences that you can instinctively feel in the proportion of a door, the street width, the cup from which you drink. I would argue much of the cultural differences in proportion goes back simply to the rulers people were using (and back much further than imperial and metric measuring systems).

But back to the sightline study. The biggest opportunity I see in all of this is that by measuring the same thing in a new way we begin to open the door to design possibilities that may not have been there before. This innocuous sightline equation has effectively dictated the size and height of pretty much all the buildings we design. In today’s increasingly complex society most knowledge and assumptions that we trust have been built upon multiple times, and of course there would be no progress in anything if we didn’t do this. But sometimes it is worth looking at things we trust afresh, and as we look down on the foundations on which we are standing we might find we actually get a better view.


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