Interactive architecture II

Posted: March 5, 2007 in creativity

What is Interactive Architecture?

A good first step to answer this question seems to look at some basic definitions of this term. In the world of dwellings, as distinct from human organisation and computer systems (where the term are also used), architecture is the art and science of erecting buildings. As such it is a process (from design to construction) and therefore already a means of interaction: between humans and humans, and humans and nature. Buildings are designed and build through interaction.

At the same time, buildings are also designed for interaction. Like in the process of designing a building through interaction, designing for interaction also needs to take into account the two levels of human-to-human and human-nature relationships. Interaction for example takes place between the artefact (the building) and its non-human surroundings (e.g. the building is reacting to weather or earthquakes), and there is interaction between humans and the building (e.g. from walking into a building to decorating it to using it in a variety of ways, which includes interaction between humans).

The category of human-building-interaction again can be divided into two areas of interest: building design that allows for purely reactive building responses (e.g. the opening of doors or windows in a building, wear and tear as a result of human inhabitance, semi-elastic materials like polycarbonate react to human action) and for proactive building actions based on a advanced technological relationship between building and its inhabitants (the building itself makes decisions on how to interact based on technology incorporated into the building design, e.g. shutters adjust automatically to outside heat, the behaviour of people inside a building leads to design reconfiguration by the building). It is the latter aspect of interactive architecture that I am looking at.

Architecture in general is not just based on functionality (e.g. providing shelter, work or storage space) but also subject to experience. We don’t just like to live in buildings because we need a roof over our heads, but also because we like to consciously experience the space we inhabit – which makes architecture itself an experience. Interactive architecture takes these two purposes (space and experience) onto a new level: it frees space from its constraints of being a passive, reactive object by allowing ‘it’ to itself experience its inhabitant while, at the same time, adding an enhancing quality to human experience through the interaction with intelligent or seemingly intelligent space – a concept that will reach a deeper potential once artificial intelligence is employed in space.

Based on this conceptual framework I like what I would define as Ruairi Glynn’s four components of interactive architecture: 1. digital virtual experiences and technologies merge with tangible and physical spatial experiences; 2. human tangible spatial experiences are based on decisions made by digitally intelligent space about itself; 3. interactivity is a reciprocal relationship between space and inhabitant in which both ‘experience/feel’ each other’s presence and where changes are initiated through feedback loops; 4. interactivity is only present when space changes challenge the space inhabitant’s cognitive perception of space.

Given the importance of digital technology in this model of interactive architecture, the concept of Immersive Digital Environments (IDE) comes to mind; IDE are related to Virtual Reality (with the exception of actual reality having to be simulated). In both cases, interactive architecture and IDE, users should feel like being a fully integrated part of the simulated ‘universe’ they are in. in the case of IDE this is achieved through highly engaging 3D-graphics, surround sound, appropriate functionality, high potential for enjoyment, realistic effects like wind, seat vibration and ambient lighting, and, of course, interactive user input. A lot of these attributes, in fact (depending on specific circumstances) all of them, can also be employed by interactive architecture, which in turn would fully immerses the inhabitant’s senses into the constantly changing space he or she are part of.

In a way, this kind of architectural flux is not new; it is simply an extension of what is already taking place in non-interactive built space. Architecture is not fixed. Constant movement of people and an ever-changing environment give space a very dynamic dimension; digital information flow simply enhances these effects through kinetic, visual, tactile and audio responses. Glynn for example has been experimenting for some time with using Bio-Feedback mechanisms to make space as immersive as possible. “If the response to your interaction is sent back to you in real time, your bond with the space is increased” he says: “the space starts to work at your biological and psychological level of cognition”. Interactivity in this context adds intelligence architecture in flux; otherwise feedback loops will become predictable and arrest the growth potential and complexity of a person’s spatial experience.

Another way of looking at interactive architecture is to say that it adds the fourth dimensional element of time to the traditional three dimensional focus of architecture. Space changes over time, through events happening in it, events that are created by those inhabiting the space. The changes are mediated by objects or materials, e.g. interactive furniture, new substances capable of transforming how technology will be integrated into the built environment, or nano technology (such as the Buckymobile, a nano car).

As Usman Haque mentions on his website, “the domain of architecture has been transformed in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centred design, contextual awareness, RFID system and ubiquitous computing. These technologies alter our understanding of space and change the way we relate to each other”. Architecture does not have to be thought of any longer “as static and immutable”; instead we can “see it as dynamic, responsive and conversant”.

As the examples in the next two posts will demonstrate, interactive architecture is free and unlimited in the use of materials when creating immersive relationships between people and the space they inhabit. This requires an almost multi-disciplinary understanding of technologies. Glynn sees architecture “as a melting pot between the arts and sciences” and he describes this quality quite vividly when referring to who he communicates with to create immersive user experiences: “One day I’m speaking to a specialist on Laminar Air Flow, the next day an electronics engineer, the next day a composite rubber specialist and so on”.

Finally: what is the future for interactive architecture? First: it seems, that a lot of work still needs to be done to make architects realise that one can do more with intelligent architecture than just control heating, airflow, and security systems. That hopefully will become easier as projects like the ones mentioned below will be transformed from their conceptual existence to become practical applications. Second: if current applications don’t just want to remain expressions of once-novelty architecture and become historical artefacts, they have to be created as systems open to change and renewal. Buildings last a long time, with their uses changing and technology evolving. They therefore must be built to be adaptive to those changes. Given the convergence happening in so many areas of life (e.g. integration of digital technology in transport, household goods and lifestyle appliances, or the merging of computer, TV, radio and phone technologies), I am optimistic that traditional architecture will not only more and more integrate information technology into building design, but also do so in a flexible way that will make buildings adaptable. Consequently, while many of the experimental conceptual projects below might look weird or unrealistic, I am certain that we will see their translation into interactive, immersive space design sooner than we currently think.

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