Introduction to Interactive Ornament
The critical groundwork of interactive architecture, as it relates to physical computing, was established in the 1960’s by designers following the system studies of cybernetics. In his 1969 article, Towards a Theory of Architecture Machine, Nicholas Negroponte the founder of MIT’s Media Lab asked, “Can a machine deduce responses from a host of environmental data?” This question and those developed in the Media Lab sought to realize the machine and its complex mathematical relations (algorithms) as a partner or ‘associate’ to its human counterpart, ultimately seeking to develop “humanism through machines” (Negroponte, 1970). Unfortunately, as described by Tristan d’Estrée Sterk of the Office of Robotic Architectural Media & Bureau for Responsive Architecture, the study and development of interactive architecture struggled to find its foundation due to the architect’s inability to construct the computational and structural systems needed to realize the vast complexity of interactive architecture. Instead the study found residency in the fields of mechanical, electrical and structural engineering (Sterk, 2003). However, with the increased number of open source hardware and software, fabrication processes, and a vast network of information and online learning, the architect has finally been given the tools to design and prototype architecture that will respond to a host of environmental data. This network of information is described by Clay Shirky of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program as a ‘participatory culture’- a new information economy driven by users’ intrinsic motivations to share information across a community of collaborators (Shirky, 2010). Information necessary to program, hardwire and fabricate these systems is now available to the designer through digital data of networked collaborative communities. PARTeE seeks to embed itself within these networks in order to understand the new re-emergence of interactive architecture in the last decade and understand the finite elements that produce the rich soil in which the field has grown.
With the advent of building information modeling, parametric modeling software, and the designer’s ability to code complex algorithms the movement toward physical computing is an inevitable step within the evolution of architectural design. Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects declared in his Parametricist Manifesto of 2008 that the new “ism” of style and design is parametricism, stating: “The new primitives of parametricism are animate geometrical entities – splines, nurbs and subdivs. These are fundamental geometrical building blocks for dynamical systems like ‘hair’, ‘cloth’, ‘blobs’ and ‘metaballs’ that react to ‘attractors’ and can be made to resonate with each other via scripts” (Schumacher, 2010). Although highly debatable, Schumacher’s Parametricism and those designers who have harnessed algorithmically derived tools have opened the door for a new dimension of design. Designs developed through these tools reside in a virtual landscape, parametric platforms allow for a virtual time, a log of evolution of a design versioning in relation to a given set of criteria. However, the physical implementation is void of time; the design is a frozen moment within the design datum. Unlike Parametricism’s attractors, interactive architecture responds to actors-those users who occupy the physical space. The design is played out in real time weaving the physical and metaphysical with time. This reintroduction of time frees design of a preprogrammed linear interaction; instead time flows, bends and evolves as a seemingly endless datum (Boigen & Kwinter, 1991). This new movement within design allows the building’s user to become a unit a within the parametric system able to actively influence their environment-reintroducing Negroponte’s humanism through machines.
In addition to producing an environment for humanism, interactive architecture is an autocatalytic mechanism for connecting architecture to culture and urban space. Today, the architect’s role is becoming increasingly specialized in the design of the outer shell and expression of buildings. Interactive architecture produces an opportunity for functional ornament as a new expression of design lexicon. In the introduction to the book The Function of Ornament- a publication co-edited with Michael Kubo- Farshid Moussavi states that ornament is on a comeback. Ornament in this new revival plays on the dichotomy of form and function producing architecture as rich in function as it is in aesthetics. Functional ornament is integrated within the structure, materiality and program of a building. This complex physical interaction produces design that functions as patterned colors, patterned materials and pattern-making structures and assemblies. These new functional languages are able to be stitched with every changing cultural and urban fabric of the surround context.Interactive architecture as a functional ornament produces a stage upon which social, economic and physical changes play out based on the needs and expectations of its human actors over a building’s lifecycle. These changes are inevitable, in order to respond to environment changes and the needs of users, focus is placed on the unique role of the building envelope as a critical element to mediate between changing environments. Interactive architecture has the unique ability to respond to the changes occurring within both exterior and interior environments and allow these changes to be an expressional ornament.
The response to sensory data read by interactive architectural systems can dynamically affect building environmental performance and energy consumption. However, for much of its theoretical existence interactive systems have lent themselves to integrated building systems, such as air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. This gap leads to a great potential in the study of alternative spatial conditioning systems (Fox & Kemp, 2009). The development of zero energy building envelopes that respond to light levels, solar heat gains, and glare constructs an environment capable of producing environmental change that reaches further than its ornamental urban fabric. These systems have the potential to effect change on a global scale of the built environment.
FLOWer: A Prototype of the Agents of Responsive Mediators
The agents of responsive mediators are the finite elements of interactive ornament. These agents describe the concept, logic, mechanics and behavior of interactive architectural systems. Biology, specifically biomimicry provides a fundamental natural history and concept inspiration for interactive architecture. An organism is successful partly because it uses the minimum amount of material to make its structure and partly because it can then optimize its reaction to the local environment. The more of its environment it can control and utilize for energy gain, the more successful the organism will be. In the case of FLOWer the functional typology of light mitigating surface was first established. The design concept was inspired by the Christmas tree worm- a cone-shaped worm found on tropical coral reefs that retracts into its burrow in response to the slightest touch or shadow.
Behavioral logic is the digital memory stored on the processing unit of the interactive architectural system. This logic does not simply describe the rational for the motion construct’s physicality, but rather it produces a construct intended to evoke an emotional response of a user to the interactive architecture. The understanding of behavioral complexity is examined through agent models that describe systems able to perceive their environment through sensory-data, reason about the data and affect the perceived environment (Maher & Merrick, 2005). In the case of FLOWer a swarm intelligence model is used to describe the basic response of the system. Swarm intelligence produces collective behaviors of unsophisticated agents interacting locally within their environment causing coherent functional global patterns to emerge (Maher & Merrick, 2005). More complex models will be described later in architectural scenarios of FLOWer. The model was developed through the open source programming language, Processing, in conjunction with open source microprocessors, Arduino. The use of open source programming languages allows for an easily developable coding platform with a global community of collaborative support.
The establishment of an internal logic must then ask how is the logic actuated? The mechanical scheme describes the physical and spatial design of how the motion is created, the impetus for action. PARTeE’s FLOWer seeks to understand the mechanical construct through “off the shelf” actuators. The use of ubiquitous mechanical actuators such as servomotors, linear actuators and piezo speakers allowed for a consistency of engineering and a freedom to understand the design of the interaction. This freedom is provided through the open source programming described above. The extensive network of peer-reviewed code allows for the development of coding “libraries” which provide an almost plug and play programming approach.
Once a response and action can be deduced from a system a new level of architectural design emerges. The development of parametric models through Grasshopper, a graphic algorithm editor developed for Rhino 4.0 a nurbs based modeler, allowed a new dimension of simulation and prototyping. Sensory data can be read by the model through the microprocessor and then model in real time. Parametric and kinetic relationships can be explored in real time allowing designers the ability to virtually test designs using onsite sensors with real time data. However, the new parametric developed through interactive design is the physical structure of motion, the performance of the interactive design. In the case of FLOWer the inherent physical quality of elasticity and memory of felt along with a described geometry produced by computer numerically controlled laser cutting produces an almost unforeseeable physical emergence. FLOWer no longer resides within the rigidity of computer software. Instead the physical motion and timing of the agents produce an amiable, lifelike reaction that could only be described through the physicality of the felt.
FLOWer: Architectural Scenarios
The use of interactive design elements required that their logic is transparent and changeable. PARTeE explores concepts of kinetic interaction and programming. Using a series of touch sensors FLOWer can be physically programmed using hands on one-to-one kinetic memory. The control of pixels grouping of FLOWer agents- is key element of the human interaction within interactive design. Users can physically train the motion of FLOWer. By recording a movement placed upon an agent of FLOWer, FLOWer’s logic can remember the motion then respond with the given motion when the user chooses. Within this scenario users are identified by RFID tags, as they enter the space FLOWer remembers the tags corresponding movement and time delay.
The initial explorations of PARTeE acknowledge the paradigm shift towards an interactive architecture that is based on real-time responsiveness and networked environments where architecture becomes an intelligent interface between the virtual and physical. The emerging technologies present tremendous opportunities for architecture to integrate intelligent environmentally responsive systems into buildings such as the concept of interactive ornament that can be customized to meet individual users’ needs such as thermal comfort and energy usage; to augment homes to provide better control for elderly or physically challenged people; to interconnect globally dispersed communities via architectural interfaces, and so forth. We focused on a small prototype (FLOWer) of a shading partition to question the function of sensing light, motion, touch, if embedded in architecture. Rather than providing answers we hope to leave the reader with questions as to how to interpret and design building’s behavior so that buildings can enhance social interactions and environmental responsiveness. The ever expanding toolkit of off-the-shelf robotics, open source computing and knowledge communities have lowered the threshold for designers to explore these opportunities. We emphasize that the practice of architects and designers demands interdisciplinary design approaches to pursue the new possibilities for shaping our environment.
We would like to thank the Center for Creative Technologies in the Arts at Virginia Tech for recognizing the value of our work and the initial financial support.