Interfacing Realities

Within the "220V Electro Clips" event, a conference on Architecture and Interfaces with Manuel DeLanda (USA), Greg Lynn (USA), NOX (NL), Christian Möller (D), and Louis-Philippe Demers (CDN), moderated by Bart Lootsma (NL).

Interfacing Realities

Interfacing Realities panel

Aug 1995
13:00 to 17:30
location: V2_, Eendrachtsstraat 10, Rotterdam

Conference Theme

Hans Hollein in his 1968 manifesto All is Architecture put forth the demand that architects should at last "stop thinking only in materials". An echo of this utopian form of architecture, which no-one, including himself, has ever attempted, we may find in the present deconstructive architecture. Its struggle against the forces of gravity, the denial of the laws of matter, is remnant of that utopia-addicted time. The actual message of deconstruction would be a mathematization of space as a partial solution of an architecture of the media. The Cartesian cube, as a basic module of architecture, would then still persist as a point of departure, but would appear as an object that is now capable of being mathematically transformed and distorted. These transformations would aim towards a process of 'immaterialising' static architecture, i.e. transforming it into a dynamic system that would be context-dependent and could be locally controlled. Architecture would thus become a medium of perpetual change, both in time and space, a context-directed event-world." (Peter Weibel in Intelligente Ambiente, Ars Electronica 1994).

Architecture has turned into an interface-technology. An interface between inhabitants and their environment. In 1989, the writer and philosopher, Vilém Flusser, suggested that in the future we would be building houses which resemble living organisms, including spinal columns. Until today, buildings have not been "viable" machines, but in the future they will quickly become viable because they are becoming more "intelligent". They will become like the skin of an organism which they will simulate through an artificial nervous system. Thus we can see the emergence of the notion of the building as a living, organic environment. What these buildings will look like - whether they will be hovering egg-shells or pulsating microbes, or even, like a central nervous system, surrounded by an electro-magnetic skin - is difficult to predict at this moment in time, and may not even be too relevant. More importantly, architecture has to realize that it has to move on from the paradigms of the mechanical to the electronic age, and that this will also have far-reaching consequences for what we conceive of as architecture today.

The technological and the biological, once regarded as opposites, are increasingly merging into hybrid constellations. This calls up the old question of the definitions of life and nature, and what their relation is to technology and culture. We can observe a shift from a world of constants to a world of variables in which the biological is placed ever closer to the technological. This shift takes place simultaneously with the growing technologisation of society.

The transport revolution of a century ago, which forms part of the overall mechanisation of society, determined many facets of the development of modern cities. In a similar way, the ultimate transport revolution, i.e. the transportation of digital information via electronic networks, will leave its mark on the development of the living and working environments of people in neo-industrial societies of the next century. The colonisation of electronic space - if we can speak about space in this context - has only just begun. We see the creation of new information spaces which have structures distinctly different from those of "the landscape" or "the city", but which still refer to the latter and are influenced by them. For instance, communities emerge in these electronic spaces not in relation to geographical conditions, but on the basis of shared interests or needs. The question of the relations between the different spaces and how they are connected to each other is crucial and refers directly to architecture because the latter deals with the structure and the moulding of space, time, and function.

The electronic spaces are expanding at an incredible speed and intersect with the spaces within which we live and work on a multitude of levels. Spaces with different characteristics and specific temporal and spatial dynamics influence each other to an increasing degree. The connections, links and gateways between them are so far mainly being developed by technologists. This amplifies the cultural conflicts which emerge around the visualisation and structuration of information.

The conference addressed the following developments:

* Is there a necessity to develop an architecture which behaves as a dynamic system within which the inhabitants, environment and architecture interact and whose functions are continuously constituted and reconstituted by the interaction between the system (architectural construction) and the user?

* The electronic spaces are expanding at an incredible speed and intersect with the spaces within which we live and work on a multitude of levels. Spaces with different characteristics and their own temporal and spatial dynamics influence each other to an increasing degree. The connections, links and gateways between them are so far mainly being developed by technologists. This amplifies the cultural conflicts which emerge around the visualisation and structuration of information. According to which strategies and values can architects design the gateways between these spaces? How will architects respond to the challenge of providing interfaces between the new environments and their human users?

* The technological and the biological, once regarded as opposites, are today increasingly merging into hybrid constellations. This calls up the old question of the definitions of life and nature, and what their relation is to technology and culture. We can observe a shift from a world of constants to a world of variables in which the biological is placed ever closer to the technological and vice versa. This shift takes place simultaneously with the growing technologisation of society. Architecture should place itself at the heart of this discussion which deals with the very basics of architecture. What will the revaluation and redefinition of the concepts of Life, Nature and Culture mean for architecture and how does this articulate itself in contemporary architecture?

When we are talking about architecture in relation to the electronic media we are dealing not only with a technical question, but also with the basic elements that define architecture.


Abstracts and Lectures


Interfacing Realities: Bart Lootsma (Introduction)

When talking about the relation between architecture and technology we traditionally deal with four different topics: organisation and infrastructure, aesthetics, construction, and production. The latter two topics are evident: while developments in the calculation of constructions have made wider suspensions possible as well as a reduction in materials, developments in construction technology have led to an industrialisation of the construction process. Such developments in production and construction were to a large degree determining for what Reyner Banham has called the First Machine Age and for the successful break-through of modern architecture. We will probably not talk much about these two topics during the conference, although it would be interesting to ask the panellists whether, and if yes, how they think the electronic revolution is also going to affect the construction and production of their designs. Machine Age or not, building is still one of the most archaic human activities. However, building is not one of the favourite subjects in the contemporary debate which focuses rather on imagining a completely immaterial architecture. 

The First Machine Age also saw important changes in the field of infrastructure and organisation. Gas, water and light entered the buildings, and motorised traffic had its impact on urban development and planning. The building itself was conceived as a machine, as a disciplining or a curing machine like it has been described by Foucault, or as a machine à habiter as outlined by Le Corbusier, for which the factory and the abattoir served as models, as well as the ideas by Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor. All of them were buildings or machines which wanted to influence or improve the conditions and the behaviour of their inhabitants - sometimes quite drastically and against their will. Architecture tried to bring nature under its control.

What is most remarkable and surprising in the contemporary discussion about the influence of technology on architecture is that the relation between architecture and nature is conceived in a completely different way. Technology is now being conceived or imagined as a means of flexibly adapting architecture to nature. The computer then plays a crucial role as an intermediary between the organism and the technology. The organism can, in this case, be an individual body as well as a group of bodies, and the way in which and the entities between which the computer "mediates" is construed very differently by today"s panellists.

The title of this conference, Interfacing Realities, suggests that the computer mediates between different realities. Between different landscapes, varying according to what we traditionally understand as landscape in architecture and urban planning, supplemented by landscapes in which wind, rain and sound also play an active role, and also fully virtual media landscapes. The computer mediates these landscapes to different configurations of bodies, configurations whose dynamic development can again be simulated and investigated by means of the computer. The mediation itself can also take on changing, dynamic forms. The dynamics of mediation sometimes makes the technology itself appear like an organism, or at least take on organic features. The dynamic role of the computer as mediator for the design also implies a shift regarding the moment of creative intervention by the designer. The design appears to receive a less and less definitive style or form specified by the designer. This form is increasingly determined by the choice of software and by the selection of data that are imported.


Interfacing Realities: Christian Möller

Generations of architects have chiseled away at the 'language of building'. Christian Möller no longer understands this language metaphorically. His installations, which consistently make use of electronic high-tech media as a mainstay of architectonic design, present a very new form of architecture. It is one that rests on the notion of dialogue, for Möller's interactive, virtual architecture reacts and acts, i.e. it quite literally enters into a discourse with its users and viewers. (...) Architecture is actually given a voice, because it is no longer an object of perception (to be interpreted in some manner or other), but rather a system of communication. In the form of interfaces integrated unobtrusively into the installation, it contains, on the one hand, sensitive perceptual organs and, on the other, sensuous acoustic and visual transmitters. Christian Möller was decisively influenced by the fact that the building materials of traditional architecture respond, if hardly noticeable, to users: floorboards squeak, tiles rattle in the wind, and window frames creak. This increasingly sought-after sensuous interactivity was what prompted Möller to devise a more clearly profiled active form of architecture.

The installations involving virtual space initially start from assumptions related to our senses: everyday sensations and phenomena, such as noises, states of balance, humidity, wind, ambient temperature or light, regulate the architectonic structures (according to predefined algorithms) - creating feelings or expressions of the edifice's human or climatic surroundings. Möller's 'interactive architecture' also gives them a much more pronounced sensuous form: things otherwise only visible become audible, the acoustic is lent visual form, and the tangible becomes visible in colour. (...)

Spatial definition, i.e. the definition of outside and inside, usually depends on the viewer's vantage point. If the latter is set in motion, then so, too, is the definition of space. In Möller's installations involving virtual space the interfaces are the viewer's architectonic playground. The room the viewer has for movement on the interfaces corresponds carefully to the spatial irritations s/he thus sets in motion. (...) In installations which focus on the interactive presentation of reproduced images, specific interfaces provide decisive room for manoeuver for the viewer and alter his/her way of looking. (Susanne Craemer)


Interfacing Realities: Greg Lynn

Historically, architects have understood movement as the travel of a moving eye in space. Yet, architecture, in both its realization and its conception, has been understood as static, fixed, ideal and inert. Themes of motion and dynamics in architecture are typically addressed through pictorial views of static forms. Not only have buildings been constructed as static forms, but more importantly architecture has been conceived and designed based on models of stasis and equilibrium. Typically, computer animation software reinforces this normative assumption that architectural design belongs in static Cartesian space waiting to be animated by a mobile view.

In his upcoming exhibition in Artists Space in New york city, Greg Lynn will present some projects that develop through the development of provisional prototypes that are chosen for their flexibility and adaptability. To initiate transformation and mutation, external constraints are exerted on these internally regulated prototypes. The result of this interaction between a generalized flexible organization and particular external constraints is a design process that has an undecidable outcome. This process of increasing novelty through the incorporation of external constraints mandates an improvisational design attitude. This shift from determinism to directed indeterminacy is central to the development of a dynamic design method. The use of topological geometries that are capable of being bent, twisted, deformed and differentiated while maintaining their continuity is also necessary. 

In their search for systems that can simulate the appearance of life, the special effects and animation industry has developed a useful set of tools for these investigations; as contemporary animation software utilizes a combination of deformable surfaces and physical forces. The convergence of computer aided technological processes and biological models of growth, development and transformation can be investigated using animation rather than conventional architectural design software. Rather than being designed as stationary inert forms, space is highly plastic, flexible, and mutable in its dynamic evolution through motion and transformation. In animation simulations, form is not only defined by its internal parameters, as it is also effected by a mosaic of other fluctuating external, invisible forces and gradients including: gravity, wind, turbulence, magnetism and swarms of moving particles. These gradient field effects are used as abstract analogies for: pedestrian and automotive movement, environmental forces such as wind and sun, urban views and alignments, and intensities of use and occupation in time.

Interfacing Realities: NOX

EGO-GYRO suggests to give up the distinction between body, architecture and technology for good. Could there be a plasma of concrete, flesh and electrons which can react dynamically to events, in which the events are nothing other than mutual animations of architecture, body and technology? At present we only know the relation between these three in the form of comfort, in which technology seems to strive irrepressibly to take over all activities of the human body - "comfort is the technique of softening things up until the distinction between the body and the prosthesis vanishes. It is a lubricant that in the long run makes it possible for us to slide through the world without resistance: a technical anaesthetic..." But while the surrounding appliances automate the movements of the body to a degree that it becomes completely paralysed, the body itself will, by means of its motor system and its suppleness, try to automate each activity in order to meet with as little resistance from the outside world as possible.

EGO-GYRO implies the notion that a soft architecture can only consist of a direct relation with the mobility of the human body (and cannot be based on use, function and form). Imagine an architecture that has been swallowed up by technology so completely that it has become able to speed up the body instead of calming it down, an architecture which is able completely to absorb and enhance the plasticity and the suppleness of the human body. Soft architecture can never be sure of its form, its form is always something dynamic - and it should be evident that this cannot be achieved by classical architectural means.

Interfacing Realities: Manuel DeLanda

Bottom-up computer simulations (as they are used, for example, in Artificial Life) are changing the way we explore dynamical systems, such as cities and the societies they house. With a short historical view, introducing the distinction between capital and metropolis (say, Rome and Venice in the Middle Ages, or Washington and New York today), I will explain how some historians (Braudel, McNeill) now view the rapid rise of the West as partly attributable to the dynamics of metropolises. From here we will get into a philosophical discussion of the issues raised in the conference, as they can be explored via virtual environments within computers. Understanding how the virtual worlds created by computer simulations can allow us to go beyond the limitations of top-down analytical techniques (and to instead "synthesise a dynamical system" from the bottom-up) will involve a discussion of the concepts from a variety of disciplines: The far-from-equilibrium dynamics of Prigogine, the non-linear conceptsof chaos and complexity theory, and the "population thinking" which characterises neo-Darwinism.

The discipline of Artificial Life (AL), in which evolutionary questions are explored by unleashing a population of virtual animals within a computer, and the evolution of the population over many generations explored, is a good example of a modern research program which embodies ideas from all three fields above. However, the exact same techniques used in AL can be adapted for the study of urban dynamics.




Vilém Flusser kondigde in 1989 aan dat we huizen zullen bouwen die lijken op levende organismen inclusief een ruggegraat. Gebouwen waren tot vandaag de dag niet-levensvatbare machines maar zullen snel levensvatbaar worden omdat ze "intelligenter" worden. Ze zullen als de huid van een organisme worden en deze stimuleren via een kunstmatig zenuwstelsel. Hier doemt het idee op van het gebouw als een levend organisme. Hoe deze gebouwen er uit zullen zien - of het zwevende eierschalen zijn of pulserende microben of zelfs als een centraal zenuwstelsel omhuld door een electromagnetische huid - is momenteel moeilijk te voorspellen en eigenlijk helemaal niet relevant. Architectuur zal moeten erkennen dat het de paradigma's moet doormaken van het mechanische naar het electronische tijdperk en dat dit tevens verstrekkende gevolgen zal hebben voor de architectuur zoals we die nu kennen. Het technologische en biologische , eens vanuit de tegenstelling bekeken, lijken zich in onze samenleving steeds verder te versmeltentot hybride constellaties die oude vragen oproepen over definities van Leven en Natuur en hoe deze zich verhouden tot Technologie en Cultuur. We zien een verschuiving van een wereld van de constanten naar een wereld van de variabelen waarin het biologische steeds dichter bij het technologische geplaatst wordt. Als we het over architectuur in relatie tot de electronische media hebben, lijkt het om een technische probleemstelling te gaan maar het zal duidelijk zijn dat het hier wel degelijk ook om de hele verschijningsvorm van de architectuur gaat. Sprekers: Manuel DeLanda, Greg Lynn, Christiaan Möller en NOX, met als moderator Bart Loodsma.

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