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|The architectural skin|
Published in Archis magazine for architecture, the city and visual culture, #5, Oct 2002, pp92-96.
The media festivals 'Onedotzero' in London and 'Oltre I Media' in Florence earlier this year presented an enormous wealth of architectural images, from promotional design simulation to video clips and artists' films. Digitalized architectural environments also got an airing. This is an area where the boundary between representational and real architecture really starts to blur. Lucy Bullivant draws lines in the landscape of architecture, video and other digital media.
The marginalization of architecture as cultural activity has prompted the profession to explore all manner of creative strategies as a means of breathing new life into the 'old lady'. At present architecture is greatly preoccupied with the seductive qualities of surface and appearance. Visualizations are deployed to help procure commissions and to sell urbanistic visions. Buildings that are in fact no more than CAD drawings scaffolded into 3D reality are treated to loud applause. Unfortunately, this preoccupation with appearance is distracting us from more interesting possibilities for architecture. But before we take a closer look at this situation, it is first necessary to mention three major factors currently determining the boundaries and margins of architecture.
Firstly, evolving software solutions are driving the integration of the design, production and montage, and order processing and distribution and, theoretically at least, increasing efficiency. In practice it doesn't always work out this way and there are considerable differences from country to country. Nor is the exchange of knowledge between the construction industry and the design community all it might be. On the other hand, design possibilities are constrained by the fact that industry is continually trying to standardize the use of technologies in production. The design instruments are often 'trimmed' to the capabilities of the construction company concerned. The enticing freedom of choice of the building catalogue also imposes restrictions; outside it there is less and less freedom. In Japan, where houses are already sold almost like products, an integral, system-based approach is common. This means wider choice for the consumer, but at the cost of specificity; banal solutions are the norm. It is catalogue architecture, certainly, but not yet 'spatial solutions on demand' or 'differentiated solutions for every purse'. On the other hand, young architects who try to develop pre-fabrication methods that offer greater choice seldom manage to achieve large-scale production.
A more encouraging influence is the promotional power of architectural videos, which may also draw attention to other ways of thinking about spatial qualities. The '16 hours' video that dbox made for Diller + Scofidio of the practice's (winning) design for the Eyebeam building in New York, and Neutral's presentation videos for Herzog & de Meuron (Munich Football Stadium) and Zaha Hadid (Cincinnati Center of Contemporary Arts), are examples of this. They operate at the cutting edge between the architect's urbanist responsibilities and the client's brief. Video creates a narrative environment in which the interests - and identities - of both are mutually compatible. '16 hours' conjures up the complex life of the Eyebeam work environment. The trajectories of four characters - a visitor, a student, a media artist and a choreographer - are followed via split screen projection, creating a sense of a synthesis of multiple vantage points.
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Thirdly, digital technologies are fostering an experimental dissolution of disciplinary forms; working with space is no longer the exclusive preserve of architects, and architects no longer confine themselves to traditional visual devices and sources of inspiration. Collectives like D-Fuse do not regard urban structures as the only fertile material for narratives. They mix lyrical, often abstract modulations of space with free visual associations and sound into unstable, helical themes. However, such works are only truly spatial (in a physical sense) when digital designers go on tour as VJs.
In addition to the aforementioned factors, architecture (like art) draws inspiration from the film and video industry (including computer games, which earned more globally last year than Hollywood), music and service-based industries like advertising. Architecture finds it hard to resist colonization by these forces. Against this background of image and effect, it is no wonder that the construction industry still thinks of architecture primarily in terms of CAD programmes.
Nonetheless, new media designers are becoming genuinely more spatial. If architecture is not to be reduced to a 'black box' and thus to a 'screen-based phenomenon', it needs to nurture a new hybrid branch of practice - either with interaction designers or with interaction architects themselves. Roles are being redefined, and interaction designers like Daljit Singh of Digit are taking on larger architectonic projects in which they apply media technologies in a physical way.
Incidentally, there are those who claim that interaction architecture is a misnomer for something that is better understood as a design process for interfaces that facilitate interaction. Like other forms of cultural activity, it is a form of mediation between the inner world of the self and the outer world, and it presupposes some kind of event. In the 1980s and '90s a lot of architecture took a right turn into the art gallery and towards theory for its own sake. Interaction architecture by contrast demands to be put to into practice.
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Marriages between architecture and digital media are still in their infancy so it is hard to determine just what architecture has to gain from this merger - apart from further reality checks on the concrete outcomes of the design which always have some value of course. Such hybrid projects blur the boundaries between content and context and throw up mutating identities. In addition, architecture has become spectacle. The convenient union of architectural visualizations and marketing objectives has eclipsed content. Meanwhile the context, the framework provided by the architect, is a shared place whose significance is amplified by current - and continually updatable - media.
John Warwicker of Tomato, collaborated as media architect with LAB Architects on Federation Square, Melbourne, the first public scheme of its kind to erase the distinction between architecture, programmable space, information and identity. He describes his firm's role as the creation of an identity and signage that permeates the entire complex. Because no one element represents the whole, and because the boundaries between the information architecture (which provides content and navigation) and the tectonic architecture (which facilitates information architecture as well as 'giving it a place') are blurred, any desire for cohesion is unfulfillable. It is therefore the bringing together of content and context, rather than their seamless reconciliation, that matters here. Federation Square is a pioneering project in this respect; certainly no prior practicable model existed. Whereas meaning traditionally coincides with the built form, here it lies in the hybrid nature of the project; a multiplicity of meanings are produced via LED-based projection and signage systems that are geared more the language of the web than to any existing symbolism. In this kind of environment, the design functions more as a radar or navigation system for facilitating dialogue between identities, giving rise to a self-organizing heterogeneity rather than a homogeneous hierarchy of uses. At the same time such a project is not without risks. Not only is there a danger of rapid functional obsolescence - today's 'state of the art' is already a bit dated after three years and completely antique after six years - but the content is under pressure from the word go; the interweaving of information architecture and the marketing programme threatens the diversity of individual activities in public space.
One paradox of the information age is that while it has brought us more information it has not made things more controllable. Our daily environment is far from comprehensible. Complexities as banal as they are opaque coexist with an exploding array of options and strategies. As Kevin Kelly notes in Out of Control, this is mirrored in the informational world. In such a climate, architecture of value is bound to try to rise above that culture by providing some kind of direction. Developments in digital film suggest the prospect of multiple narrative lines in architecture that do not circumscribe patterns of behaviour but instead allow for more spontaneous effects.
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Traditionally, architecture has always been about hardware, about form and about enclosure by means of floors, walls and a roof. Someone like Fiona Raby, an interaction architect whose latest research projects make use of mobile telephones and software programs, has indeed left those classical architectural notions of space enclosure completely behind her. Not so Pletts Haque, a young London architectural partnership specializing in interaction design and research, who propose including software in the definition of architecture and focusing on what happens within those enclosures. The analogy with the computer is clear: its physical form, the hardware, only 'comes alive' as it were when the software is active. Only then does the computer acquire a personality - or personalities, if one thinks in terms of 'windows' and hypertext links. As Sherry Turkle has pointed out (in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet), 'windows' and 'links' have become potent metaphors for a multiplicity of perspectives and for the expression of different aspects of self.
If an architect, who is in principle concerned with the expressive space between material forms, wants to move into the interactive field, he or she will need to think like the designer of an operating system. A system or framework will still be needed, but it is subordinate to the means of expression provided by the software. It is in this 'in-between space' that Pletts Haque operates, for example with the Worldview project that has been set up at various urban locations around the globe. Worldview is an 'urban attractor' that encourages people to record their experiences with the aid of three familiar devices: the Japanese 'puri-kura' or instant photo booth, webcams and holiday snapshots. As a mirror of and a window on disparate and dispersed physical spaces, this 'system' lets loose a single information stream on public circulation routes, thereby encouraging spontaneous communication. Such a project, modest as it seems, connects a series of global 'events', newly created from one moment to the next.
Another approach consists of offering resistance to the homogenizing effect of aesthetics, as Kas Oosterhuis does with his interactive designs. The spaces in this ludic architecture are driven by subjectivity. The building affects the actions of those present and vice versa. Architecture's traditional sense of social responsibility, filtered through the notion of play, is reinvented as a more 'modal' way of using space. An ever-changing modality.
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Another kind of unstable architectural environment is Diller + Scofidio's Blur building for the Swiss Expo.02 (see Archis no. 4, 2002). Using various forms of water - mist, dew, fog and drinking water - as the substance of its architecture, the pavilion produces a new kind of non-static landscape. While seemingly unaffected by entropy, it is nonetheless protean, without form or surface, based on immaterial spatial qualities that are constantly in flux. It doesn't obliterate the difference between the self and its commodity-dominated surroundings as surface-oriented CAD concepts are prone to do. In the Blur pavilion, personal imagination is the essence of the work.
Whatever the specific conditions in the various disciplines, there are strong parallels in the challenges faced by both interaction designers and architects. For example, the 'user base' (interaction design jargon for detailed information about prospective users) which is necessary to deal with the vagaries of people and events. But also the distinction between open and closed systems, even though architecture always produces physical boundaries. More fundamental, however, is the question of whether the designer (interactive or not) should give people what they want, or reformulate that need according this his or her own insights. Implicit in this question is an important criterion for evaluating the contribution made by interaction architecture.
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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