Interactive Architecture was setup by myself (Ruairi Glynn) with the intention of collecting ideas from a wide range of fields on the future of how we will design or built environment. In particular it focuses on smart materials and digitally responsive technologies from nano to urban scales. I currently split my practice between production of public art installations and teaching. I am a diploma thesis tutor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London and a design tutor at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of Arts London on the MA Textile Futures and MA Industrial Design programmes. I also have lectured, run workshops and been a visiting critic to architecture and interaction design schools including the Delft faculty of Architecture (Netherlands), the Institute of Digital Art and Technology (UK), the Interactive Institute (Sweden), the Angewandte Vienna (Austria), and the Architectural Association (UK).
Interview introducing some of my interests
HMC MediaLab: Ruairi, How did you first become interested in Interactive Architecture?
I’ve always been interested in architecture and saw myself designing buildings one day but I got lured away by the beautiful work of guys like Daniel Brown’s Noodlebox, and everything Hi-ReS were doing and began studying multimedia. Then in 2000, I visited the Millennium Dome with all its interactive "Zones", I know it was given a lot of bad press but I loved the idea that there was an industry somewhere out there where people built interactive spaces. Yeah a lot of it lacked real content and the whole thing was a big failure but I just thought to myself, hey this is much cooler than making stuff that just appears on screen. Pretty unsure about how I could getting involved with this new interest, I chose to give up my place at the Bartlett School of Architecture which at degree level didn’t go into the depth I wanted in terms of digital media. I chose instead to go to MediaLab Arts (now re-branded Digital Arts and Technology) in Plymouth because the relationship between digital media and space was a major part of their research although the education wasn’t specifically architectural. The skills I learnt in HCI, programming, and design have transferred over seamlessly when I then spent my final year synthesizing this within an architectural framework. I’m now at the Bartlett working with architects on how to bring this all forward. Having come from a sculpture background originally I’ve enjoyed getting my hands dirty again.
HMC MediaLab: Is all architecture interactive?
No. Is a block of concrete interactive? I don’t think so, is a door or window interactive? Well no, there’s no intelligence in its activity. I once got told a story about how the Greater London Council some years ago banned the use of Polycarbonate as a façade material because some stupid kid got a brick and threw it at a see-through polycarbonate façade thinking it was glass. Of course the polycarbonate didn’t break, in fact the brick bounced straight back and cracked the kid in the head. Now no question the kid deserved it but the building didn’t make a valued judgment on whether the kid deserved the punishment. Interactive Architecture, for me is about the potential for digital systems to make decisions about our living environment and then influence that environment. Architecture as a whole discipline should aim to improve the environments we live and work in. Interactive Architecture is an extension of that dealing at the cutting edge of digital technology.
HMC MediaLab: You have been writing regularly on the subject of interactive architecture for many months now, but how do you categorise it? How do you decide what is interactive architecture and what is not?
interactivearchitecture.org has a life of its own. Initially when I started it was very focused reporting on what could be easily identified as interactive architecture, i.e. interactive installations for large scale architectural projects such as BIX, at the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria, Toshio Iwai’s ICE (Interactive Communicative Experience) for the Bloomberg Headquarters in Tokyo, NOX’s Son-O-House or Jason Bruges’s Memory Wall at the Puerta America Hotel. Since then I’ve begun to widen the focus to include interactive furniture, experimental projects at universities and research groups, and interesting new materials that I believe will transform how we apply technology into the built environment right down to nanotechnology such as the Buckymobile – Nano-Car. Scale is an enormously interesting facet of interactive architecture because increasingly this technology is becoming invisible to the naked eye. One guy at the moment whose work I really like is Usman Haque. His project Haunt has no visible technology but using humidity, temperature, electromagnetic and sonic frequencies that parapsychologists have associated with haunted spaces, he’s attempting to make a very powerful experience within what seems an unexceptional space. As a whole I find projects that suggest a future where integration of digital systems into the fabric of the built environment, rather than having computers as distinct objects embody what interactive architecture is about. Hopefully this will enable people to move around and interact with computers more naturally than they currently do.
HMC MediaLab: Following your experiences regularly writing about and viewing Interactive Architecture, Do you now think that, despite its flexible nature, Interactive Architecture now has a defined aesthetic? Do you think it can be compared to previous, more traditional movements in architecture?
I don’t think that there is a particular aesthetic however it’s often the case that especially with low budget works that similar inputs such as camera tracking, an array of simple sensors and similar outputs such as data projectors, speakers, lighting etc are used. Also it is often the case that the software used is limited to high level languages shockwave, Max/MSP, etc. since most artists aren’t advanced coders so output can be limited. Having said this even within the limited number of input, processing and output tools I’ve named, there are virtually infinite combinations of outcomes to explore. Sure sometimes you can look at the aesthetic of a piece of work and say ‘Oh yes, that was done with that program’, and then a work starts to place itself aesthetically with a piece of software which is a shame. Professor Stephen Gage who runs the "Interactive Architecture Workshop" at the Bartlett School of Architecture, uses the word "Magic" as an aspiration. Interactive architecture should always aim to separate itself from its origins in a piece of software or other technology because when it’s impossible to work out exactly how something is happening, that’s where the magic comes in, that’s when the a project really ignites an exciting response.
HMC MediaLab: We frequently hear of cyberspace, hyperspace, Virtual reality, hyperflexible space etc. All these terms (and more) fit within the sphere of interactive architecture. What is your opinion of this diversity? Is it a strength? A weakness?
None of these terms were coined specifically for interactive architecture. Terms like virtual reality, cyberspace, hypersurfaces etc. work as concepts within many facets of the arts in exploring the ‘digital age’. Interactive architecture actually resists strictly virtual or physical definitions. Instead it acts on the constantly shifting boundary between the two. Architects dECOi for example use the analogy of Liquid Crystal Displays which have a Smectic state which is the point at which a crystal is neatly ordered as a solid but exhibits fluid like flow. Marcos Novak uses the term Liquid Architecture while others go as far as to describe this flexible space as being energized to the point of being more like a gas. Personally practice drives my investigation and theory underpins it. My real heroes in Architecture are the guys who attempt to deal with the ideas of this unstable space by engaging with it in the built environment.
HMC MediaLab: Could you describe for us 3 of your favourite / most interesting / most inspirational works and tell us how they affected your working practice, or perceptions of interactive architecture?
My work deals most with interactive physically reconfiguring architecture. Not many people tend to explore this particular facet of interactive architecture partly because of the complications that crop up working with moving parts and flexible materials but mainly because it can be extremely expensive. I’ve had to use appropriated technology like car window motors for example instead of pistons for actuators for my Reciprocal Space project. Unfortunately there’s a pay off with performance. Not every one can afford to use 900+ pistons like architects dECOi did for the Aegis Hyposurface. Tobi Schneidler’s RemoteHome was a piece that inspired me because it treated physical movement in a very personal way and suggested how we could communicate with each other through tele-presence in a subtle non-explicit way by embedding actuators into the furniture and walls of our homes. The guy who’s pushing interactive moving architecture most at the moment is Kas Oosterhuis who runs the ‘Hyperbody Research Group’ at Delft. His ideas speculate that eventually we will be able to build entire buildings capable of changing in form with flexible hypersurface skins. None of his built pieces quite match up to his virtual representations but I really respect his passion to actualize these ideas into physical pieces of architecture. The guy who’s not recognized enough is Cedric Price who was the first person to see the potential in interactivity combining with reconfigurable architecture. His ‘Fun Palace’ 1960, which was an enormous flexible environment for infinite possible events to occur in. Aesthetically it looks like a factory but was designed for the public to play around and engage with the architecture. "Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky." Cedric Price speaking about the Fun Palace. He was light years ahead of its time and influenced the work of contemporary architects from Richard Rogers and Rem Koolhaas, to Rachel Whiteread. He was also the first to experiment with buildings having their own artificial intelligence and emotional states and how this would influence reconfigurable architecture.
HMC MediaLab: How do you create the architecture of experience?
All architecture is experience, we create it for ourselves in how we move.
HMC MediaLab: Could you tell us about interactivity within architecture, especially with regard to your own work. Would your pieces have "worked" without interactivity? Would they have "worked" without architecture?
The most important aim for me is to build immersive environments that question the widely held notion that architecture is fixed. In reality architecture is in constant flux as people, the environment and now digital information flows in, out and around these built environments. I express this with kinetic responses but many others have used a whole array of visual, tactile and audio effects. I’ve been experimenting for some time now with using Bio-Feedback mechanisms to make these spaces as immersive as possible. If the response to your interaction is sent back to you in real time your bond with the space is increased, the space starts to work at your biological and psychological level of cognition. Interactivity is necessary to give intelligence to this process so that the feedback loop that occurs does not become predictable but instead grows in complexity as your experience of the space does. My work is always intended to inhabit an existing space and then create its own or augment the spatial experience of that architecture.
HMC MediaLab: What projects are you currently working on, or hoping to work on in the near future?
I’m designing my first full scale building with Paul Burres who’s a traditionally trained Architect. It’s an extremely interesting process. It’s a speculative project based on creating physical spaces which you then build immaterial spaces within that can reconfigure in real time as the inhabitants converse and move around. Interactive architecture is always cross-disciplinary and it’s rare if not unheard of for someone to create a project entirely on their own. Architecture as a melting pot between the arts and sciences has increasingly become a cross disciplinary platform for discussion and experimentation into our new ‘Digital Society’. That’s what makes it so exciting to be involved in. One day I’m speaking to a specialist on Laminar Air Flow, the next day an electronics engineer, the next day a composite rubber specialist and so on. Interactive reconfigurable kinetic architecture is my focus. My last project Reciprocal Space which was essentially a room where the walls changed shape in response to an inhabitants movements creating a performance much like two people dancing together. It’s a real challenge working with interactive physically reconfiguring space because of the lack of appropriate materials and technology available. Reciprocal Space was constructed out of 32 car window motors, hacked computer parts, sheets of latex and hundreds of meters of cabling. Hardly Hi-Tech but it worked although installing something like this for permanent installation into a building requires a great deal more rigor in terms of reliability and safety. When you begin to design for the built environment funny little things called building regulations begin to start to influence your practice, you have to start considering what happens in the event of a fire or a flood, and rightly so you have to make spaces that are accessible for people in wheelchairs and consider the safety of children. I don’t find these constraints limiting though, as its often when you start to put parameters within which you build these environments that you really begin to push yourself. As for the future, I’ve just started making a book without any digital technology in sight, just an experiment into how the book as a collection of 2D planes can create architectural experience using image, text, material, binding etc. I think it’s important to work on something small and delicate while you’re working on something monstrous like a building. It keeps you in touch with the 1:1 scale which you don’t get from drawing 1:100 scale plans and sections of buildings.
HMC MediaLab: What do you see is the future for Interactive Architecture? You mention on your site that it is flexible and semi-permanent. Because of this transient sensibility will Interactive Architecture perhaps not be around for too long?
No far from it. It’s still seen by mainstream architects as a quirky add-on for those who can afford it. Until that changes it will be treated as novelty architecture like it was in the Millennium Dome. I think it’s beginning to get wider recognition as a valuable asset to the buildings where it has been used well and as the technology for these kinds of projects become cheaper, more powerful and importantly smaller to the point of becoming invisible I see it being embedded into wider mainstream architecture. The problem is making architects realize that you can do more with intelligent architecture than just control heating, airflow, and security systems. When I talk about it as semi-permanent I’m saying that it would arrogant and short sighted of any interactive architect to believe he can design an interactive installation that will have a fixed function for the same lifetime as a building. Simply because buildings last a long time and in their lifetimes their uses change. Technology and the way people use it changes too and so I believe good Interactive Architecture does one of two things. It either accepts its place in time and serves a function for that period and then either is replaced or it is kept as a historical artifact or it is an open system capable of change so as to adapt to the changing role of the fixed architecture it inhabits. Its important to recognize however that while technological obsolescence can almost be charted on a graph, the cultural obsolescence of existing and future examples of Interactive Architecture are much harder to predict. I hope the BIX is still running in 50 or a 100 years time even though it is already out of date in respect to the available technologies that can be used to build its hypersurfaces. I hope at the same time though that interactive architects can come up with more open systems capable of lasting or even exceeding the lifetime of the physical spaces they are initially built within.