Back in 2006, while participating in the NewBlood exhibition organized by the Portuguese Architects Guild, our office stated that our approach to work was one where we attempt to voluntarily un-focus or blur the image of a building and instead imagine we are designing fogs. We find that this 'mist' typology works as a design process because it better enables us to read and enact on the patterns, flows, continuities, cohesions and ruptures which better encompass the fluid nature of the systems that architecture, urban and landscape systems are made of.
Very recently, in my academic endeavors, I proposed to architecture students that they should attempt to design a cloud. The objective of the exercise was not only to engage the imagined poetics of inhabiting a cloud and its lifecycle of diffusions and condensations, but also to think of a form of distributed architecture that could still be a body.
Naturally, this terminology seems to point to an emblematic example: the "Blur" building conceived by the firm Diller+Scofidio in colaboration with Ben Rubin, EAR Studio, for the Swiss National Expo of 2002 in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland. The Blur Building is indeed a cloud (or a cloud-generator), a system made of multiple deployed water-spouts (from the lake water where it is installed) that emit extremely small droplets of water that can maintain mid-air suspension. This mist environment is monitored and calibrated according to external weather patterns creating a blurred condition, which when coupled with the movement of the spectator easily simulates the experience of walking through a cloud. More over, this ambient atmosphere is then the stage for a more intricate apparatus that plays with social networks and profiling. The thoughtful accomplishment of this building, especially back in 2002, gives it its very poignant role and legacy in several fields of design.
The cloud systems I am interested in exploring acknowledge this legacy but also situate themselves one step closer to an interest in the particles themselves.
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In both our office practice and academic pursuits, the use of fogs or clouds as metaphors had the objective of pushing the limits of performance of buildings and their programs: imagining a piece of architecture made of particles that could be themselves designed creating a distributed architecture or an architecture of distribution -- built fabrics that were thought furthermore pervasive programs adding to the natural density that defines cities. Urban and landscape entities could be created through the diffusions and congregations of these particles and the ways in which they connect with other particles, existing particles in the city, natural fogs, pollution, small gadgets, sweat ...The objective here is to think of a future where architects/designers have a more close and refined engagement with the materials and conditions they work with, and engage a more active role in designing material specifications -- properties, characteristics, chemical reactions -- into architectural programs -- programs we associate with information exchange, cultural and social forms, learning protocols, environmental integration.
The projection into the future is a natural endeavor for an architect or urban designer -- the work we do is usually built later than projected and then, in many cases, supposedly used and maintained for a much longer time-line than the project and building time combined. To work with projection into many more decades (I proposed to students more than once to aim as far as 2048 or similar) has the double objective of creating future visions that not only are extrapolating from current technological developments and their forecasting of future scenarios -- and these are constantly being redrawn by the faster pace of developments themselves -- but as well to put the architect in the position of imagining itself in a role of a cultural speculator that also influences or drives futures for technological development.
Future scenario design is used not for its own sake -- as in creating a fiction or fantasy -- but as a way of better entering in a conversation with the present, a method to integrate the parallel motions architecture and urban design have to engage regarding knowledge and interaction with other disciplines and endeavors. There is as well a legacy of how architecture and urban design have had their own romance across history with the topic itself of technology integration and adoption of scenario design from a theory perspective, a theme which I will not go into this time.
A 2005 contribution by renowned sci-fi author Bruce Sterling shows his dead serious facet on the subject of the future of design. In his book 'Shaping Things', Sterling proposes a very near future where objects will talk to each other through their increasing 'alertness' to each other's programs or features, implemented by a highly sensorial and communicative technological make-up such as RFIDs, GPS tracking and other modeling and sensing devices and tools. Sterling coins a new term for these objects -- spimes -- embeds them with a unique place and features such as their programmability and user-based development and customization, and situates them chronologically right after our current gadget era -- 'gizmos' -- and right before the very far off future of 'Biots' (also coined by Sterling, standing for the future merging of Wranglers and Spimes -- 'an entity which is both an object and a person').
In Sterling's Spime visions, objects are self-aware, self-disassembling and re-assembling to accompany market evolution time-cycles and production streams, co-opting and co-evolving recycling or reusability criteria. Furthermore, Sterling imagines a future of objects that do not even need to make it into the object form, but rather live reality through their influence as a digital model to quickly become transition phases of other prototypes that indeed become physical -- a reflection on the blur between the real and the actual in the world of objects and ideas, and of the speed involved in a diversifying set of product based industrial models.
In our office we are interested in creating a framework by which the word 'technology' can indeed be engaged through its practical corollaries -- communication and material -- in the creation of architectural and urban space. For many other design offices, the reasons vary for these consistent attempts to bind materials used in the construction of environments and products with an increasing sensibility and communicability with users and environments.
The biggest challenge to architecture and urban design (as well as planning) for this century is to resolve their position and disciplinary methods vis-à-vis new sensibility and agility in acting towards better articulations of the local and the global in a cultural and environmental way. The practice of architecture contemporarily thus acknowledges the new relationships architecture and urban design has to establish with evolving information and communication technologies as media that can increase our sensibility, measurement and communication with increasingly minute and sophisticated local conditions and as well map and create access to operations in increasingly large and multi-scalar and differentiated global articulations.
As well, the practice culture at large is starting to be aware of its improving access to information about processes that affect its design method and new processes that it can co-opt or co-evolve with to define its own material condition. As a result of this, we see not only so-called high-end technology being integrated into building components but as well the increasing new co-option of natural systems as construction buildings themselves. This condition comes from the newly revealed dimension and potential of these systems, obtained through new powerful analytic and monitoring technologies that reveal natural processes with a renewed scale of detail. Architects coming in direct and indirect impact in the definition of available materials (or their specifications) will inflect how the fabrics we build are interacting with other existing natural and fabricated systems from a cultural and physical point of view combined.
The evolving intertwining of architecture and urban design practices with material sciences and information and communication technologies -- the development of media -- is in this way easily grasped as the first step on a fundamental shift in thinking of materiality in architecture: a shift that will continually affect how architecture and infrastructure are thought of as bodies.
There are already many individuals, firms and institutions working within this active integration of new concepts of materials for architecture that increase their cloud-character, coming out of influences in the definition of matter and communication from the evolving fields of biology, physics, material sciences, computation theory, media theory, while these disciplines have been mixing and reframing new collaborative bridges between themselves. The eclectic collection of directions presented here below is not emblematic of the spectrum but somehow representative of a contemporary fragmentation of expertise, focus and research, which is recombining and transcending the status quo of disciplines and their agendas as we knew them.
We have just started to scratch the surface of this territory.
Carla Leitão is an architect, designer and writer currently living, working and teaching Architecture in New York. Practice and academic works interests in ubiquity and intersection of new media and architecture.
Research Assistant: Benjamin Rice