INTERactive architecture will change everything

  • Update:2010-09-07

INTERactive architecture will change everything

Michael a. fox

Cal Poly University, Pomona

Department of Architecture, College of Environmental design

Pomona, CA,  91768, USA



Introduction: What is Interactive Architecture
Interactive architecture can be defined as the total integration of the disciplines of interaction design and architecture. Although today, we are surrounded by smart and networked architectural devices and appliances, they are not considered from and architectural point of view in terms how and when they are used or how they work together. It is built upon the convergence of embedded computation (intelligence) and a physical counterpart (kinetics) that satisfies adaptation. The combination of these two areas will allow an environment to have the ability to reconfigure itself and automate physical change to respond, react, adapt, and be interactive. Interactive architecture is designed with the desire to create spaces and objects that can meet changing needs with respect to evolving individual, social, and environmental demands. Adaptive response to change must intelligently moderate human activity and the environment and build upon the task of enhancing everyday activities by creating architecture that extends our capabilities.   Such systems introduce a new approach to architectural design where objects are conventionally static, use is often singular, and responsive adaptability is typically unexplored. What is essentially being described is a kinetic structure working like a mechanistic machine that is controlled by an integrated non-mechanistic machine: the computer. In a sense, creating a building like a body with a system of bones and muscles and tendons and augmenting that body with a brain that knows how to respond.
Additionally, interactive architecture is, by definition here, a two-way street. As Usman Haque puts it, such systems must utilize a definition of interaction as circular, or they are merely “reacting” and not “interacting.” A truly interactive system is a multiple-loop system in which one enters into a conversation: a continual and constructive information exchange. As people interact with architecture, they should not be thought of as “users” but instead as “participants.”
 It is hard to anticipate how quickly interactive architectural systems will be adopted, but it is not difficult to see that they are an inevitable and completely integral part of how we will make buildings in the future. To a great extent, the success of creating such systems in architecture will be predicated upon the real-world test bed. The future of architecture will utilize unique and wholly unexplored methods and applications that address dynamic, flexible, and constantly evolving activities. It is up to architects, designers, and users to understand the foundations of the subject matter in order to extrapolate a future vision of architecture.
A Brief History
Theoretically, Interactive Architecture has been around for a long time dating back to the 1960’s but it was for the most part stuck in the world of experiments and ideas. There is a lot of terminology for specific interpretations of Interactive Architecture including: “intelligent environments,” “responsive environments,” “smart architecture,” and “soft space.” About ten years ago, Interaction Design started to infiltrate architecture in all sorts of projects like building facades, plazas etc, but this was mostly by means of digital media and not robotics. Only as recently as the early 1990s, did interactive architecture begin to take a foothold as the ideas became both technologically and economically feasible. It was also at this time that the long history of kinetics in architecture began to be reexamined under the premise that performance could be optimized if it could use computational information and processing to control physical adaptation in new ways to respond to contemporary culture. Many architectural programs now teach courses with integrated robotics using small kits such as the Audrino that allow them demonstrate and explore ideas in this area which was non-existent ten years ago. Also now a number of projects have been built outside of academia which allows potential clients to have a certain degree of confidence in this type of experimental architecture.
Benefits from Technology Transfer
Technology transfer from similarly integrated interactive developments in other fields will continue to predicate, impact, and evolve with interactive architecture. Such transfer is particularly clear with respect to the innovations in aerospace design, automotive design, interface design, and digital media. Interestingly, the forecast of development can be retrospectively viewed in industries other than architecture: “nearly 80 percent of all innovations within automobiles are derivatives of electronic systems.” Until recently, nearly all innovations were related to manufacturing and fabrication. The “drive-by-wire” technologies in the automotive industry replaced the traditional mechanical and hydraulic control systems with electronic control systems using electromechanical actuators and human-machine interfaces. This technology, of course, was predicated on fly-by-wire technology in the aircraft industry. Both are derivatives of the application of embedded computation, which is now quickly taking center stage with respect to the built architectural environment. Will we soon see the age of “live-by-wire” and “work-by-wire” technologies? Recent developments in the area of interface design will also eventually play out in interactive architectural environments. A boom in sensor innovation and manufacturing has signaled the availability of previously unimaginable means for gathering data and information.
How Can Interactive Architecture Help People?
The ways in which Interactive Architecture can help humans is incredibly vast. The benefits span from pragmatic applications which deal with adaptability and optimization to humanistic applications which concern psychology and psychology. Interactive Architecture is already making a huge impact mediating needs for the elderly, disabled and children. It can also provide safety and security in ways that no traditionally static architecture could ever do. Lastly, there is a huge benefit for Sustainable architecture, the general public doesn’t seem to really understand that buildings cause about 50% of all of our CO2 emissions and Interactive architecture can help tremendously in making more efficient buildings.
While there may be many reasons for designing interactive architecture, we can always rest assured that they are a means to facilitate adaptability.Adaptability is taken in the broadest sense to include issues such as spatial efficiency, shelter, security and transportability. Such systems that are inherently deployable, connectable and producible are ideally suited to accommodate and respond to changing needs. An adaptable space flexibly responds to the requirements of any human activity from habitation, leisure, education, medicine, commerce and industry. Novel applications arise through addressing how transformable objects can dynamically occupy predefined physical space as well as how moving physical objects can share a common physical space to create adaptable spatial configurations. Applications may range from multi-use interior re-organization to complete structure transformability to response to unexpected site and program issues. Specific applications may include intelligent shading and acoustical devices, automobile-parking solutions, auditoriums, police box stations, teleconference stations, devices for ticketing and advertising, schools and pavilions, as well as flexible spaces such as sporting, convention and banquet facilities. Other spaces of consideration are those with necessary fixed exterior configurations such as airplanes, boats, transport vehicles and automobiles. Through the application of Interactive Architecture, we can also explore how objects in the built environment might physically exist only when necessary and disappear or transform when they are not functionally necessary. New architectural types are emerging and evolving within today’s technologically developing society. These new programs present practical architectural situations for unique and wholly unexplored applications that address today’s dynamic, flexible and constantly changing activities.
Learning through Building
Architects are learning a tremendous amount through constructing Interactive Architectural projects in the real world. We have constructed numerous full Scale robotic architectural environments with students whereby each system in a space is responding not only to the people in the space but also to the behaviors of the other systems. One such environment called iSpa” at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena California involved 14 separate systems.
Figure 01.  Full-scale interactive environments with students at the Art Center College of Design and the Southern California Institute of Architecture
Another project at Sci-ARC in Los Angeles was used to question our intuitions for controlling things in the environment. In interaction design, if we are not visionary with respect to behaviors, we will design specifications that demand new modes of behaviors. Or we simply adopt bad intuitions from other technologies.
Figure 01. A full-scale interactive environment with students at the Art Center College of Design
Recently we have been making robotic environments that are constructed with the use of discrete mechanical assemblies as systems. In these, simplified implementation that is based on decentralization shows great promise in having two outstanding benefits; both in terms of the robustness of the system and the economic feasibility. These projects also have led us to the thinking of control as bottom-up and emergent. The idea behind control in our project called “bubbles” is that of emergent behaviors. There is not a control algorithm behind what it does. It operates by a few simple rules and the behavior is impossible to predict. It was also at an urban scale which was a large enough environment that could interact with groups of people.
Figure 01. “Bubbles”: A full-scale interactive architectural space by the author demonstrating how emergent behaviour can occur when numerous simple systems operate in an environment that forms more complex behaviours as a collective
 Another project although smaller in scale also responded to groups of people which involved hundreds of small bots that would flock in different patterns. The rules for behavior again were very simple and emergent and the bots moved with three degrees of freedom which gave very interesting patterns of light at night.  

Figure 07.   The “FlockWall”: A full-scale interactive architectural space by the author demonstrating how emergent behaviour can occur through decentralized intelligence
The Changing Face of Robotics
Interactive Architecture is essentially architecture that has robotics completely “integrated” into it. For many applications ranging from cleaning carpets and windows to adjustable furniture, designers are moving away from the precedent of figural humanoid robots to transformable systems made up of a number of smaller robots. Designers are moving away from traditional uses of automated mechanical devices in architecture to transformable systems that are made up of a number of small robots. Current advancements in evolutionary and self-assembling robots, specifically dealing with the scale of the building block and the amount of intelligent responsiveness that can be embedded in such modules, are setting new standards for robotics. We propose that such new interactive assembly systems will bring new unprecedented levels of customization and reconfigurability to the architectural palette. It is then an architectural question as to how these pieces should come together and how these configurations will respond to the constant flow of information between inhabitants and space; to re-envision the creation of dynamic space.
Figure 03. Architectural students’ scaled prototypes of module designs
Figure 04.   Architectural students’ scaled prototypes of module designs
When a large architectural space is responding to a single element then a centralized system can be effective in executing a command to a single agent but when there are many unknown stimuli such as groups of individuals behaving in unknown ways and an exterior environment which is constantly changing, then decentralized intelligence can be a very effective way to handle the sensing and response (perception and action).
Biological Paradigm
Recent developments have begun to signal a shift from a mechanical paradigm of adaptation to a biological paradigm. The prevalence of the organic paradigm is beginning to alter the conceptual model that we apply in order to comprehend our environment and, consequently, design in our environment. Organic theory emerges from nature, and possesses evolutionary patterns that produce forms of growth and strategies of behavior, optimizing each particular pattern to the contextual situation. Consequently, the organic paradigm of kinetic adaptation has driven a profound set of developments in materials, autonomous robotics, biomimetics, and evolutionary systems, whereby the adaptation becomes much more holistic, and operates on a very small scale.Change in the mechanical world is cyclical, but there is no development, as the factors are continually repeated with set outcomes; the organic paradigm is developmental and reciprocal: it emulates life. Organic theory emerges from nature, an environment that possesses evolutionary patterns that produce forms of growth and strategies of behavior, optimizing each particular pattern to the contextual situation. Consequentially, the organic paradigm of kinetic adaptation has driven a profound set of developments in both robotics and new materials whereby the adaptation becomes much more holistic, and operates on a very small internal scale. Technology has provided recent unprecedented insight into the workings of microscopic natural mechanisms and advanced manufacturing of high-quality kinetic parts with new materials such as fabrics, ceramics, polymers and gels, fabrics, shape-memory alloy compounds, and composites. In the same vein, we cannot ignore those structures and systems being explored at even smaller scales, such as the nano. Nanocomposite materials are being developed that are self-sensing and self-actuating to improve strength, reliability, and performance. The combination of new materials and robotics at a very small scale opens up a fascinating area that is relevant to interactive architecture in bio-nanotechnology. Interactive architecture could greatly benefit from the integration of biological functions and nanoscale precision.
The possibilities in Interactive Architecture from the vantage point of a biological paradigm make the mechanical paradigm seem dated, ironically before it ever had a chance to fully manifest itself. The notion of mechanical shading devices seems absurd no matter how intelligent the system is, when the glass itself can change opacity or tinting or UV resistance. The idea of small robots scaling a building to repair a facade or clean the glass seems absurd when the materials can heal themselves from decay and cracking like a bone remodels itself and the windows can utilize ultrasound to clean themselves. A mechanical device to scrape snow from a roof could be replaced by a material that heats itself and never allows snow to collect in the first place. The organic paradigm also ensnares a reinterpretation of the scale at which designers work and view the world. Interestingly, this issue of scale is inherently tied to manufacturing and fabrication. While recent innovations have been derived through electronics, we are beginning to see a renewed upsurge of innovation in manufacturing and fabrication that is heavily influenced by both biology and scale. It is also important to mention that many early examples of interactive architecture were based on developments in digital media, and will continue to be articulated through the accessibility (both economically and technically) of non-tangible forms of interaction.
While we cannot deny the relevance of interaction design in architecture, considering its increasing prevalence in recent years, it is still difficult to determine to what extent it is here to stay. The subject of Interactive Architecture still has many unanswered questions: Will it be robust enough to withstand failures and gain widespread acceptance? Will it ever become economically feasible enough to allow for the broad dissemination needed to bring about real change in areas of sustainability and other global issues? Will it make our buildings look any different? Will it impact how we actually use our buildings? It is more than likely that Interactive Architecture will accomplish all of the above, and yet ironically fade to the background of our lives. In the same way that users do not think of how the structural system of a building works to hold the building up against physical forces, or how an HVAC system works to provide thermal comfort, Interactive Architectural systems will also disappear into our buildings and become the architecture itself. Interactivity will become truly seamless. Yet, while we can imagine all buildings integrating various interactive systems that are hidden within their fabric, we must also recognize that it is the responsibility of good design to express interactive architecture from a design standpoint and therefore define its relevance. If architecture is to continue to respond to the possibilities of technological innovation that surround it as a profession, then we may no longer ask “What is that building?,” or “How was it made?,” but rather, “What does that building do?”


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