There are many speculations of what architecture will be in the future and there seems to be a common trajectory towards incorporating computational methods in its designs. With our current smart technology such as artificial intelligence and robotics, how do you think architecture will develop in the future with these inventions?
Computational methods have so far been used to advance the architects’ design process but not the architectural functionality itself. Most, if not all, speculative architectural projects you see on Evolo or those mentioned on Architectural Design journals have been wonderful in showcasing the computational prowess in generating beautiful work. However, I am disappointed that they chose to leave it within their design process and not push its boundaries into the built realm, into their architecture.
Smart technology already exists in our society. It is used extensively in the medical industry to assist doctors in prognosis and even conduct surgeries. In horticultural farming, the industry has begun employing smart technology to replace their labour intensive activities. Even closer to us, we are becoming reliant on our smartphones. I can’t imagine a day without my smartphone.
Smart technology is used in many other industries and it should also be in our architecture. The potential of smart technology lies in its ability to take input from the environment and apply thinking skills to determine the best course of action. The outcome can be a parametric analysis, a resolution to these analysis or a set of instructions to physically transform a product.
Currently, smart technologies are explored in architectural installations like Hyposurface and even in residential designs such as the House of the Future. These projects are great performative systems that engage with participants and increase efficiency in our daily lives, but once again, I believe we are not challenging ourselves enough. Smart technologies can transform architecture into dynamic and interactive designs that we can communicate and progress with.
But why do you want buildings to be able to communicate and interact with us?
Humans are social creatures. We interact with one another to learn more about ourselves and our world. When we communicate, we exchange ideas, broaden our mind and grow intellectually. When we communicate with our built environment, we learn about our environment in a whole new way. Imagine how much we stand to gain when it happens. Our future environment will be one that learns our actions and habits. It remembers our environmental preference for different activities and communicates with us by changing physically and performatively. Architecture can analyse our movement patterns, discovering the prime environment required to fulfil our needs within the space. Architecture is not just a machine to live in. It is a robot to live with.
The Future you speak of sounds a lot like futuristic movies, similar to Transformers and iRobots, about smart systems that can reconfigure itself.
I don’t think it’s a futuristic idea at all but an augmentation of our predecessors’ ideas. When I started my architectural journey, I was fascinated with the works of Archigram and saw a lot of potential in their projects. The Plug in City and Walking City of the 1960s demonstrated the need for architecture to be condition-setting, rather than imposing a formal and unadaptive environment on the society. However, they were disregarded by the society as a plausible future as they faced limited technological capabilities [of their time].
Over the years, some architects attempted to revive their ideology. The Fun Palace by Cedric Price, was a concept of reconfigurable interior space aimed to provide flexibility to its occupants. Centre Pompidou, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, also emphasised on this condition-setting environment. Designed as a museum, it has also been a library, office, convention centre and performance space. All these settings, in just one physical space.
Will it become obsolete, similar to old television sets and mobile phones? Wouldn’t it break down?
Architectural program connects the building with its societal context. If our society is ever-changing, so should the architectural programs and the building. Here lies the core of Interactive Architecture. The spatial settings changes to host various programs that changes with our social context.
Architecture has always been an end product of a design process, when it should be a materialisation of a process. Till today, architecture has been built like a final product. It satisfies the client’s requirements of that time, but it becomes the biggest obstacle when it does not meet the changes of the society. Rather than providing an environment that best suits our needs, we would have to adapt to its physical limitations. After a period of adapting to the space, we are forced to renovate the place to accommodate our changes. After multiple renovations, the architecture becomes physically exhausted and we would have to eventually demolish the building or move out.
Many sceptics have asked me, “If it’s electronical and mechanical, wouldn’t it break down?” and I reply, “Why did you buy your mobile phone, which may potentially break down, when you could just use a public pay phone?” As they are unfamiliar with interactive architecture, they can’t see pass its small possibility of breaking down to recognise the multiple benefits of the design. Our laptops, refrigerators and cars are machines that break down too but that’s not stopping us from using them. Why? Its functionality helps us more than we can live without them.
Why do you see the need for buildings to change? How is it more functional with its reconfigurable ability?
During my architectural studies, I investigated the changing nature of a home and its residents [Macaulay Hill Residential Development]. Through different stages of our lives, childhood to old age, we use our homes differently. As an infant, we need an environment that is closely connected to our parents. As a teenager and a young adult, we want to establish dominance and prefer an individual place. Finally as an elderly, we wish for a balance of both individual spaces but still connected to our families.
This planted the seed in me to explore progressive spaces that continuously adapt to the changing need of its participants. The architectural intervention was one that is highly sensitive to the life cycle of a family and has the ability to grow and reduce to suit the changing needs. Let me ask you then, if your house can accommodate all the changes throughout your lifetime and you wouldn’t need to renovate or move out, wouldn’t it be more sustainable and economically viable?
If the entire architecture has the ability to change, wouldn’t it require a lot of power? Can’t we keep architecture static and immutable and improve our environment by adding a virtual dimension to it? Augmented reality, such as Project Glass by Google and Productivity Future Vision by Microsoft, seems to be a growing area of research which can dramatically improve our physical spaces.
Our society does not appreciate how important architecture is. Environmental psychology reveals that form, light, colour, texture and acoustic characteristics play an important role in shaping our emotions and behaviour, and these are fundamental aspects of architecture. The physical environment we live in can increase our sense of well-being and adversely affect how we develop as individuals and communicate with people around us.
Augmented reality only elevates how we experience our built environment, similar to special effects in a movie. Once this reality is switched off, we are brought back to the physical realm. It may connect us with people from around the world, which has a great potential in expanding our social connections, but there’s a physical component it cannot fulfill.
My personal take is that it rather than elevating the experience of our surrounding, augmented reality dissociates us from our environment. If we solely rely on augmented reality to shape our environment, everyone could essentially be living and working in boxes. I reject the idea of our future generation living in a tasteless and unstimulating environment. They have the right to experience the sensory joy of discovering new environments.
Interactive architecture does not require the entire design to be able to change. Just like a human body, certain parts are fixed while others are kinetic and reconfigurable. As we speak, material scientists are working on inventing newer phase changing materials. These materials absorb energy from the atmosphere, such as solar or wind, and changes its physical state. It does not require any electrical power to achieve a kinematic response. One example is the Green Lighthouse in Denmark by Christensen & Co. Through careful design the building interacts with the environment to reduce energy consumption.
Secondly, architectural automation can be designed as an addition. When it is not required, the automated parts can be stored away till needed. In my early designs for the Kunststad at NDSM Wharf in Amsterdam, I proposed an automated studio space that moves only when the participants requires it to [Customised Modularity]. When the studios reach their final configurations, the actuators and motors are removed, leaving the structure static. This does not only reduce energy consumption but also reduces the amount of maintenance to the design.
So how does your vision differ from Cook and Herron? It seems that the core idea of their ideas and yours revolve around technology.
Technology is the answer to Archigram’s designs, but a means to an answer for interactive architecture. Archigram’s hypothetical ideas were a response to the jet age and the advent of turbine engines of the 1960s. The economy was then largely dependent on industrialisation and engineering inventions, which opened up possibilities of megastructures that can move and reconfigure. The future I speak of is a response to our information age and social age.
Our current economy has now shifted to the manipulation of information. We live in the time where global communications and instant networking forms the core of our modern society. Our industries have become more information-intensive, we are becoming increasingly productive and our societal progress have accelerated exponentially, all brought about by communication. Now and towards the future, social communication and information exchange will become the driving force of our economy. We need our physical environment to create different place settings that initiates face to face interaction between everyone.
As interactive architecture is participant sensitive, it responses in real-time to create the optimum environment for the occupants. When there are two disciplines of people, for example artists and businessman, what is the best environment for the both? Program is a crucial factor to architectural design, but we can never be sure that it works in its intended way. Rather than defining and allocating various programs and assuming that it works, interactive architecture provides settings for the different participants. The embedded smart technology allows the architecture to decide how to reconfigure and satisfy both kinds of people. By creating an optimum and fluent setting for both types within one space, the social boundaries are blurred and a setting arises for both to communicate on the same platform. When you look at Google offices or Facebook headquarWters, would you ever realise those were offices?
Traditionally, we have always assumed that such a fun and vibrant environment is a distraction to the workers but Google and Facebook are one of the world’s most successful organisations. It took years of research and analysis to realise that a creative environment is important in stimulating productivity and innovation in workers. Interactive architecture can offer this solution. It’s ability to analyse the environment and propose new place settings allows it to create different types of environment that we as designers might not have the imagination to come up with.
How will it change the way we design and appreciate architecture right now? For example, how will it affect the formulation of diagrams, spatial compositions and material selection?
The difference is the incorporation of time and performance. Traditional diagrams have been static and only reflects a fixed time situation. Once the architecture is built, the environment changes and the diagrams become somewhat inaccurate. For interactive architecture, the diagrams constantly changes to reflect the uses at different episodes. The Processing program allows us to take real-time information to influence our parametric models and create dynamic diagrams.
Once a fixed arrangement to accommodate our immediate needs, spatial compositions must now also be flexible enough to accommodate a whole range of interactions of functions for the future. Material selection must encompass new innovations, and not just what is commercially available right now. We need to continuously update ourselves on these available technologies as it becomes part of our evolving role as architects.
What is the greatest challenge in realising this vision? Is it the computational programs, technical capabilities or material availability?
It is our societal valuation of architecture that is the greatest obstacle. We already have the existing programs, technological equipment and material innovations to succeed. However, our society does not appreciate architecture enough to invest in it as much as we do. We may have the greatest ideas that can develop our community but until the very community we seek to benefit sees it as the way we do, our ideas will not be realised.