Interactive architecture III

Posted: March 4, 2007 in creativity

Interactive architecture: conceptual examples

In my last post I briefly mentioned nano technology: ’scale’ is seen by Glynn and others as an enormously interesting and important facet of interactive architecture. Increasingly technologies become invisible to the naked eye and can make interactive architecture even more versatile. Usman Haque project ‘Haunt’ for example has no visible technology. To elicit physiological or psychological effects similar to those experienced in haunted places, Haque uses humidity, temperature, electromagnetic and sonic frequencies that parapsychologists have associated with spaces supposedly frequented by ghosts or other supernational being. Responses from participants included a “sense of presence”, “chills on the spine”, “uneasiness in a particular part of the room”, “dizziness”, “glowing ball” hallucinations, seeing flies in the chamber, auditory hallucination of somebody coughing in various parts of the chamber and sensations of mist.

Making technologies invisble will mean that the computer as interactive object will literally disappear, with its interface replaced by ’spaces’ of interaction within architectural artefacts. Digital systems will be invisibly embedded into these spaces, “enabling people to move around and interact with computers more naturally than they currently do”. This is where ‘magic‘ comes in: interactive architecture should convey a feeling of magic, and magic happens when it’s impossible to work out exactly how something is happening.

Ruairi Glynn believes that terms like virtual reality, cyberspace, hypersurfaces, hyperflexible space etc. are only indirectly linked to interactive architecture; exploring the ‘digital age’, they work conceptually across many domains of the arts and therefore are too general. While resisting strictly virtual or physical definitions, interactive architecture has in common with them though that it lives and operates in the constantly shifting boundary zone between virtual and physical reality. dECOi atelier architects use the analogy of Liquid Crystal Displays to describe this fluid-like structural space: LED displays have what is called a smectic state, a level of existence where a crystal is neatly ordered as a solid but exhibits fluid-like flow; traditional naming conventions simply don’t work here on a descriptive level. 

Marcos Novak uses the term Liquid Architecture in a similar way: “If we described liquid architecture as a symphony in space, this description would still fall short of the promise. A symphony, though it varies within its duration, is still a fixed object and can be repeated. At its fullest expression a liquid architecture is more than that. It is a symphony of space, but a symphony that never repeats and continues to develop. If architecture is an extension of our bodies, shelter and actor for the fragile self, a liquid architecture is that self in the act of becoming its own changing shelter. Like us, it has an identity; but this identity is only revealed fully during the course of its lifetime.”

A designer who is taking this idea of liquid space more literally is Sachiko Kodama. She engages with space by creating solid-state ferrofluid sculptures through the introduction of electro-magnetic fields to the fluid. Ferrofluid is a very interesting material originally developed by NASA it has now found itself been used for a whole range of devices including liquid seals around the spinning drive shafts in hard disks, liquid coolants in loudspeakers, or dampers for controlling and stabilizing large building that move around in the wind. Whats also amazing is that they have such lovely visual qualities when magnetized. When ferrofluid is subjected to a sufficiently strong vertical magnetic field, the surface spontaneously forms a regular pattern of corrugations. Kodama uses this effect in quite a spectacular way (see images below), not just by applying magnetic fields but also changing them through the introduction of sounds (e.g. by clapping her hands or singing); through these sounds for example, emotions can directly change space. Video clips of Kodama’s work can either be downloaded from WMMNA or viewed at YouTube; also has a page dedicated to her work.


Another practical example for the interaction between space and its inhabitants is Ruairi Glynn’s work. In his Reciprocal Space Project (see pictures below), two “Hypersurface” latex walls, running in parallel, come to life once inhabited, leading to the physical reconfiguration of space. The walls are software-controlled by a matrix of car window motors and pistons that react to the occupant’s position and change the the spatial dimensions the occupant is in. In other words: real-time bio-feedback loops are created through the interaction between the inhabitant and the space he/she inhabits. They force the occupants to respond to the changing space and to reassess their preconceived ideas of architectural space being fixed.

Reconfiguring space also happens with Angels, designed by Ruairi Glynn and Paul Burres from Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Angels are autonomous vehicles searching for interactions. They are constantly looking, listening and attempting to interpret our conversations, gestures and spatial relationships. The project investigates ways of constructing intelligent agents that can work as independent spatial features or combine to assemble virtually infinite constructs. The project looks at the possibilities of an architecture lighter than air capable of sheltering us and even bringing communities together.

The first prototype has been given a simple set of behaviors reacting to human gesture, proximity and conversation and it can only act individually. However, future iterations will investigate learning algorithms so that the Angels can adapt to their environment and work in flocks.

Glynn and Burres research explores how simple behaviors actuated by the Angels affect the experience of conversation space. Using the Angels onboard Vision System transmitted wirelessly to a local computer they processed real-time data of conversation space, using a piece of software that generated formal representations of the interactions that occurred. These projections also provided an added form of feedback when screened into the conversation space.

Muscles is a 35-foot-high “smart” skyscraper designed to change its posture by responding to the people interacting with it. The project was inspired by structural engineer Guy Nordenson’s idea of responsive structures for buildings. He said, “If architects designed a building like a body, it would have a system of bones and muscles and tendons and a brain that knows how to respond. If a building could change its posture, tighten its muscles and brace itself against the wind, its structural mass could literally be cut in half”.

The Muscles tower is designed by the WhoWhatWhenAir skyscraper team: Philippe Block, Axel Kilian, Peter Schmitt, and John Snavely. It is an articulated jointed spine structure controlled by a series of pneumatic muscles that allow it to bend in different directions, curving away from its upright equilibrium position. If no muscles are active, the core spine keeps the structure upright.These kind of structures can have many uses, from interacting with non-human environmental factors (such delivering stabilisation during earthquakes or strong winds) to responding to people, therefore fulfilling the above outlined criteria of interactive architecture …

… and so do these two: Delft’s University of Technology Hyperbody Research Group developed MuscleBody: an interior space that makes no categorical distinctions such as floor, wall, ceiling, door and changes its shape, its degrees of transparency and the sound that it generates according to the behaviour of the people that have entered the structure; HRG also created Bamboostic, a forest of mechanised bamboo trees controlled via a webcam and computer by the combined movements of a little red fish in a tank and people
going through the bamboo forest.

MUSCLE Tower II (images below) is another HRG development: a tower that reacts to its surrounding space through movement sensors by twisting and bending its body (watch quicktime video).

MuscleBody, Bamboostic and MuscleTower II are part of the vision of Kas Oosterhuis, the guy who runs the ‘Hyperbody Research Group’ at Delft and who is pushing interactive moving architecture most at the moment is. He speculates that eventually we will be able to build entire buildings capable of changing in form when built with flexible hypersurface skins; at the moment though none of his built pieces quite live up to his virtual representations but I think they make a promising start.
Aother conceptual example for Oosterhuis’ ideas is the HRG’s interactive hotel room. The so called Muscle Room envisions a concept where the user can alter his surroundings to suit his every needs. When the room is entered, it is completely empty. One big, open space. By interacting with the room the user can get a different layout or appearance. The walls can be shaped into furniture, doors, spaces to allow the guest a new sensation of freedom. Also the appearance, light, sound and climate can be influenced to create the perfect room.

Oosterhuis is involved in several other interactive architecture projects. The E-motive House extends the concept of the interactive hotel room to a whole house. It is programmable and demountable structure that can change shape in real time. The shape of the emotive house is a long, movable space, with the solid blocks of kitchen and bathroom on both ends. Traditional building materials are augmented with a swarm of built-in technology, which make the house and the furniture become programmable; everything can change, except the kitchen area and bathroom. The whole space in between these two end blocks can be transformed into dining areas, bedrooms, workspace, etc.: by translating virtual images and/or information into physical reality. In the process of interaction between house and inhabitants (as well as external factors such as the weather), the house becomes a re-actor as well as an actor, and thus seen as developing its own emotions (hence the name). The movement of the inhabitants and the changes in the weather are registered by a range of sensors, and are translated by a computer (the brain of the house) into actions, which are executed by a cooperative swarm of actuators, like pneumatic beams, contracting muscles and hydraulic cylinders. In this way, the inhabitants and the actuators of the house will develop a common language allowing them to communicate with each other.

Tobi Schneidler’s RemoteHome is an interesting concept and exhibit; it represents the idea of having one one apartment in two distant cities, like Berlin and London. People living in these two parts of the apartment communicate with each other through what Glynn calls tele-presence: physical movement being picked up by actuators embedded into the furniture and walls of the home(s). The signals are transmitted to the other parts of the apartment and translated into tangible changes of that environment (e.g. shape changes of furniture, visual clues in walls or appliances). ‘Emotional architecture’ again comes to the fore, given the very personal character of movement communication.

Bubble is an adaptable spatial pneumatic installation at an urban scale, made of large air bags or bubbles that inflate and deflate in reaction to the visitors coming to the site. If unoccupied the volume of the site is slowly filled by the spatially distributed sacks creating a translucent bubble translucent infill. As visitors enter and move through the installation, they must navigate the 6′ to 8′ diameter spheres that fill the space. When the bubbles are bumped, sensors initiate a chaotic exchange of air between the spheres. If approached the section the visitor is closest to deflates offering a pathway into the installation. More activity opens up the space more making it navigable. A ramp allows visitors to move up into the space and be completely surrounded by bubbles. When no visitors are present, the system returns to a state of equilibrium.

The installation aims at bringing an adaptive volumetric sense of architecture to the installation site that is continuously changing and compelling as it responds to visitors. The adaptability of the bubbles emulates at a super-human scale the organic thigmotropism of plant life. The changes suggest a life like yet somewhat mechanistic space creature occupying the space. The installation tackles volume over surface, interaction with space over static geometry and pushes the scale of interactive architecture.

The bubbles are made of permeable rip-stop nylon. At their center is a hard “seed” made of laser cut white HDPE plastic and strengthened with mono-filament. The seed serves two functions: it contains a micro-fluorescents lighting element to make the bubble glow, and it houses the sensor used to trigger the fan that deflates one bubble while inflating another.

Bubbles is a work by Foxlin (Michael Fox and Juintow Lin) and NONDesigns (Miao Miao and Scott Franklin) with Axel Kilian, Gabriel Renz, Darius Miller, and numerous talented volunteers.

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