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The medium is the message

Digital publishing follows a society keen to experience the multiplicity of reading

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message − for example, in film it is the relationship between images, space and time that structures the user’s experience.

For McLuhan the deep structures of a medium characterise how a society can be engaged by more than content.

Today, interactive digital books collage text, photography, video, illustrations and commentary into a single experience. While drawing on established media, they differ from e-books as they facilitate a multiplicity of readings compared with the linearity of a print structure. Through interactivity, flow and depth of navigation create a different type of engagement, as our navigations over the iPad become almost an extension of our nervous system.

Established in 2010, Outcast Editions is testing this medium to publish ‘Illustrated Contemporary Interactive Architecture Books’ with a focus on contemporary houses. Its current six titles range from Slip House in the UK by Carl Turner to an extensive New South Wales beach house by Peter Stutchbury. International in locations, designed specifically for iPad, they mix the visualimmediacy of a graphic magazine with the detail of a monograph.

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Our screen dependency recalls McLuhan’s misleadingly telescoped (and rather paternalistic) quotation from Romeo and Juliet: ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks … she speaks, and yet says nothing’

Digital publishing marks a significant transition in our experience of reading and consuming, a development from online shopping where the anticipation of an Amazon box ends with a tangible product.

With Outcast Editions it is replaced with the instantaneous arrival of an icon to the desktop bookstore; an icon that has multiple entry points, allowing varying journeys by each user or even every time it is ‘read’ by the same user.

While Amazon eroded the high-street bookstore, digital books make redundant a chain of infrastructure and production, from printing to storage and distribution, to the need for a publisher. Its replacement offers instantaneous access to a global audience through a global online shop. Outcast Editions, a digital publishing house formed by three people, bypasses the control of a traditional publisher, and directly accesses a global market through the App Store. Apple understood the medium is the message, creating a structural change that connected the producer and user directly.

One of three English houses documented by Outcast, Slip House by Carl Turner Architects is a new-build house in south London that forms a home and office for the architect. The opening interface is structured with four rows of thumbnails: a map separating contents by media − from text, video, photographs, drawings and details. Each stratum can be slid horizontally for an instant overview, allowing access directly to anindividual drawing or the full selection of photos. This interface allows shallow navigation, a fast overview in a single gaze, a structure that prevents a linear experience.

Full-screen photos have a stunning quality; here the tactility of print is replaced by the luminosity of the screen. The ‘+’ icon to the centre of the photos acts as a link that activates a plan locating the photo with a brief description. The general arrangement drawings and the details have a consistent clear quality; the details are immaculately produced and allow layers of construction to be read in a simple clean graphic.

Considerable effort has been placed on developing the quality of the drawings, and they act as a tool to amplify the understanding of construction.

The ‘+’ icon is also located on each plan; tapping it brings up section lines, elevation markers and detail locations. Tapping these brings you to the relevant section or detail. Within the details the ‘+’ brings up a plan locating the detail, tapping the plan will return you to full plan drawing.

This interactivity invites engagement that is characterised by flow and speed, aided by the clarity of the graphic organisation, allowing shallow or deep navigation. If linear structures create hierarchy and separation, digital space collapses distance and erodes separation, allowing a seamless transition from photo to text to video.

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Here there is a neat mirroring between medium and message: in Slip House, work and living are collapsed into one space. While they are separate, the house facilitates both programmes in a flexible relationship where work co-exists with living. This flexibility is a response to a desire to create an economic sustainability as much as a consciousness for reducing energy.

Carl Turner designed, produced and managed the build of this house. Setting up finance in a recession and having to sell other properties to make the project feasible shows a determination to create a modern home. Given the rise in self-employed consultancy brought on by the recession, it acts as a typology that accommodates the needs of an emerging employment structure. As a process it shows how architects may erode their dependency on clients as being the only way to build.

Turner, in a short video describing the architectural approach to the house, explains the environmental strategy with its focus on retaining energy, the formal organisation and the focus on organising space defined by daylight. The film creates an immediate engagement with the architect; with drawing and photos it adds a layer of communication that extends the opportunity to experience architecture.

With interactive books, directing a message is replaced with a structure that allows the relationship between video, image and text to resonate dependent on the method of navigation. As McLuhan noted, television cannot be judged as better or worse than radio, it just presents another form of awareness.

Slip House: Carl Turner Architects, Outcast Editions, £6.99

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