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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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A note on ‘embodied networks’

A note on ‘embodied networks’

Architecture, in a traditional understanding of the term, is mainly composed of observed objects (chairs, radiators and walls – such as Rietveld’s interior pictured above) while its users are considered as observers. Technology has enabled us to introduce trivial machines to architecture, such as the thermostat. These mechanisms are a form of first order cybernetics in the sense that they depend on a basic feedback loop to achieve a goal, whether visible (automatic light systems) to the observer or not (air filtering systems). However, we can argue that these devices are also observers themselves, as they observe the conditions of a space which is constantly being changed by the users. They are neither interactive nor intelligent, as Ranulph Glanville discusses in his paper ‘An Intelligent Architecture’, however they form part of a two-way observation system, partially direct and partially indirectly through the environment.

It is quite obvious that these trivial machines have a very limited ability of observation, and cannot observe the global effects of the their actions let alone those performed by other actors, yet they still perform in this complex scenario of observers and observed. This ‘complex scenario’ is nothing more than a large group of objects, users included, which act and react, either directly or through the environment. We can interpret this as a network of active/ reactive objects, with the environment acting as an interface. In this context we can introduce ourselves, as architects, who are on a different level to this system (which we can call architecture) and can actively interact with it. We are on the second order of cybernetics.

This however is only true when describing this particular ‘network of objects’ which we are designing, because we too form part of a larger network; the city, which includes our ‘network of objects’ and thousands of others similar to it. This highlights how relative the description of ‘first order’ or ‘second order’ really is, because it depends mainly on where we put our observer, within the network or outside of it.

My current research focuses on the notion of architecture as an ‘embodied network of objects’, whose performance depends on the behavior of each ‘object’ (including users) and the environment in which they operate.

R. Glanville, An intelligent architecture
S. Gage, The boat/helmsman

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