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Adaptive Architecture & Spatial Management

Adaptive Architecture & Spatial Management
  • On February 13, 2016


Architecture should be a “living, evolving thing.” John Frazer, a designer, educator and researcher, proposes it in the book ‘An Evolutionary Architecture (1995)’. For the traditional architecture, the building is an immutable entity space for human habitation. It is difficult to be connected to living things, while a group of scientists, engineers and architects who call themselves cyberneticists are doing the researches of living machine and living architecture. They mostly focus on the system science and let the machines manage themselves which similar like a brain of creature. However, why the cyberneticists want architecture be a living, evolving thing? What is the relationship between cybernetics and architecture? How can architecture help human beings when they are managers?

Thus this literature review will argue that the architecture can be a manager of the space, and introduce the benefits of that kind of architecture. It will focus on the cybernetic theory of architecture and the latest relevant technology which can be used to achieve the target.


What is the cybernetics?

In 1948, Norbert Wiener, an American mathematician and philosopher, wrote a book called ‘Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and machine’. This title is the best way to explain the basic meaning of cybernetics. It proposes that both animals and machines could utilize the cybernetic principles. This was saying that both living and non-living systems can have purpose. The sub-title also connects control with communication, and highlighted that efficient motion needs communication (Pangaro P., 1990). However, in the book ‘The Cybernetic Brain (2010)’, the author, Andrew Pickering who is a sociologist, philosopher and historian of science at the University of Exeter, argues that “we need to think about possible meaning of ‘control’.” The ‘control’, in the concept of cybernetics, is not like the meaning of dominate. Instead, it can be explained as ‘self-manage’, like brain control the four limbs.

Thus, cybernetics is a kind of system that could use for other field, such as mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, and social systems. Cybernetics is usable when a system need to be analysed to a closed loop; it means, where some changes in its environment motion by the system produce, that change is reflected in that system in some feedback that turn on the change of system. Cyberneticists researched concept include: communication, cognition, social control and connectivity.

On the other hand, cybernetics and AI influence each other in the search for machine intelligence. Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence are commonly misunderstood to be the same thing. However, they are different in many aspects. Glaserfeld, a philosopher, argued that “Cybernetics has evolved from a “constructivist” view of the world (1987).” And Winograd & Flores proposed that “where objectivity derives from shared agreement about meaning, and where information (or intelligence for that matter) is an attribute of an interaction rather than a commodity stored in a computer (1986).” AI in contrast is defined as the assumption that knowledge that can be stored in a machine like a commodity, and the intelligence in real world was made by the usage of that knowledge (Minsky 1968). For example, “AI (Fig 1. left) assumes that value lies in understanding ‘the world as it is’ — which presumes that knowing the world is both possible and necessary. Cybernetics (Fig 1. Right) holds that it is only necessary and only possible to be coupled to the world sufficiently to achieve goals, that is, to gain feedback in order to correct actions to achieve a goal (Pangaro P., 1990).”


Fig. 1 Contrasted between AI and Cybernetics (Pangaro P., 1990)

Thus, both Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence ought to have inter-consistent and clear notions such as epistemology, reality, representation, and memory (Fig 1. Middle), there are more differences than similarities (Pangaro P., 1990). And the cybernetics system focus more on the feedback. That kind of feedback system has been used in many field, like Organizational cybernetics, Medical cybernetics and so on. As the same, it can be used in architecture area.


Architectural cybernetics

“It is easy to argue that cybernetics is relevant to architecture in the same way that it is relevant to a host of other professions; medicine, engineering or law.” Said by a cyberneticist and architect, Gordon Pask. The point is that architect is the important system designers who have been forced, over the last 100 years, to take an interest in the management system of control, communication and development. Pask also argues, “It perpetually interacts with its inhabitants, on the one hand serving them and on the other hand controlling their behaviour. In other words structure make sense as parts of larger systems that include human components and the architect is primarily concerned with these larger systems (Pask G., 1969).”

At the same period with Pask, Cedric Price another cyberneticist and architect was perhaps the most effective of the early architects to understand the theoretical design in cybernetics and develop it to a concept of architecture called ‘anticipatory architecture.’ Many of his unbuilt projects change the building to indeterminate, responsive and flexible which could satisfy the changable needs of users and environment, such as the Fun Palace in 1961 (Fox M. & Kemp M., 2009). The Fun Palace was a simply responsive program. It also include an ideas to grow and to develop further. “With an open ground-level deck and with multiple ramps, moving walkways, moving walls, floors, and ceilings, hanging auditoriums, and an overall moving gantry crane, the physical volumes of the spaces could be changed as different usages were adopted. The kit of parts for these operations included charged static vapour barriers, optical barriers, warm air curtains, a fog dispersal plant, and horizontal and vertical lightweight blinds (Mathews S., 2005.).”


Fig. 2 A floor plan of the adaptive house, including locations of sensors and actuators (Mozer M.)

For the recent case, the modern cyberneticist, Michael Mozer, describe that the ‘intelligence’ in a house is to predict the human behaviours and give the feedback. One of his project, The Adaptive House managed itself by checking the environment and sensing the motion of users (Fox M. & Kemp M., 2009). The house is a real house in Boulder, Colorado. Mozer introduces “It has been outfitted with over seventy-five sensors that monitor various aspects of the environment, including room temperature, ambient light, sound level, motion, door and window positions, and outside weather and insolation (Fig. 2). Actuators control air heating via a whole-house furnace and electric space heaters, water heating, lighting, and ventilation.”

The cybernetic system in architecture area let architecture be a responsive machine that can get the feedback of the users and environment, then adjust itself and satisfied the demand of users. Thus what kind of technology can architect use? And how the cybernetic architecture looks like?


Architecture as a manager

In 1909, a science fiction named the machine stop (Forster E.M., 1909) describe: “There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.” This part displays a feedback system of a room which could serve user well. It organizes itself well to respond all demand. Even there is no description that it use computation system or only the structure of mechanism, this room is a cybernetic space that we mentioned before. And it also a well space manager.

The theory of cybernetics will help the architecture to be a good space manager. As the cybernetics, it has a main system of controlling. Thus for the space manager the system is called the ‘embedded computation’. “An embedded computation system is a computer system with a dedicated function within a larger mechanical or electrical system, often with real-time computing constraints. It is embedded as part of a complete device often including hardware and mechanical parts” Fox and Kemp explain it in their book ‘Interactive Architecture (2009)’.

Secondly, the basic job of space manager is planning the function or form of space, like an architect or interior designer. However, for the traditional architecture, the building cannot be change again after it constructed. So in order to satisfy the needs of multifunction. The ‘kinetic architecture’ may be needed. William zuk argues in his book ‘kinetic architecture’ that “our present task is to unfreeze architecture, to make it a fluid, vibrating, changeable-backdrop for the varied and constantly changing architecture would reflect life as it is today and therefore be part of it.” Zuk also mentions that a solution of kinetic is to build a space which could satisfy any functional requires. For example that a multifunctional material designed by rvtr shares how the structure could be changed (Fig. 3). It uses several triangles to build a structure which could change the size of the board through hiding some pieces (mollynorthover, 2013).


Fig. 3 Resonant Chamber Installation (mollynorthover, 2013)

The manager may also need to message the user. It could remind some information that can’t be seeing in physical world, like temperature, to the user or showing the notes that user prewrite. There is a noun called ‘mediated environments’. “It is commonly explained as environments that are media induced: users experience spatial information in much the same way as the natural environment” said by Fox and Kemp (2009). There is a case of counterintelligence kitchen that designed by Leonardo Bonanni who studied Phd in MIT media lab. “We present Counter Intelligence, a conventional kitchen augmented with the projection of information onto its objects and surfaces to orient users, coordinate between multiple tasks and increase confidence in the system. Five discrete systems gather information from the kitchen and display information in an intuitive manner with special consideration for directing the user’s attention (Fig. 4).” Described by Bonanni (2005).


Fig. 4 Augmented Reality Kitchen (Bonanni L., 2005).

To combine the each technologies, the embedded computation is the main ‘brain’ of the architecture, the kinds of technology, like Kinects architecture and mediated environment, are the sub-function in the system. The simple loop is that the sub-function sense get the information from environment and transform to the ‘brain’, the ‘brain’ analyse that information and give a feedback to the sub-function again. It may be more complex that the feedback may be developed by several information; ‘brain’ can select the best choice to achieve the user’s demand. This could be one of the benefits of cybernetic architecture.

Another benefits for the future is that the technology of adaptive architecture can move the space from one space to another, like a car; or get a transformable space to achieve the multifunction in small space.



The aim of this literature review is to propose that architecture can manage the space by the theory of cybernetics. It firstly introduced the definition of cybernetics which means, as the sub-title said, the control and communication in animal and machine. Then, it explained the theory of architectural cybernetics that establish an adaptive system for architecture to respond the environment. Finally it illustrated approaches that let the architecture be a good space manager whereby the latest technologies. As this article mentioned above, the cybernetics is not equal to the artificial intelligent. So for the cybernetic architecture, it will not like the big brother. Most it achieve the goal that responds the demand and give a prior service, but not to control the user.

However, for the recent technology, it still need more study of how to respond more frequently. It may be a very common to see every space has its own manager in the future.


Key References:

Fox M. & Kemp M., 2009. Interactive architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Pask G., 1969. The architectural relevance of cybernetics. [pdf] Available: <> [Accessed January 14 2016].

Wiener N., 1948. Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and the machine. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press.

Supporting References:

Bonanni L., Lee C. & Selker T., 2005. CounterIntelligence: Augmented Reality Kitchen. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press.

Forster E.M., 1909. The machine stop. Oxford

Frazer J. 1995. An evolutionary architecture. London: E.G. Bond Ltd.

Mathews S., 2005. The fun palace: Cedric Price’s experiment in architecture and technology. Inyellect Ltd.

Minsky M., 1968. Semantic information processing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press.

Mollynorthover, 2013. Cybernetic: a definition. [Online] Available: <> [Accessed January 14 2016].

Mozer M. C., Lessons from an adaptive house, In D. Cook & R. Das (Eds.), Smart environments: Technologies, protocols, and applications. J. Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Pangaro P., 1990. Acoustically Responsive Envelope. [Online] Available: <> [Accessed December 3 2015].

Pickering A., 2010. The cybernetic brain: sketches of another future. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Von G. E., 1987. The Construction of knowledge, contributions to conceptual semantics. Seaside, California: Intersystems Publications.

WinogradT. & Fernando F., 1986. Understanding computers and cognition: a new foundation for design. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

List of Figures:

Fig 1. Pangaro P., 1990. Acoustically Responsive Envelope. [Online] Available: <> [Accessed December 3 2015].

Fig 2. Mozer M. C., Lessons from an adaptive house, In D. Cook & R. Das (Eds.), Smart environments: Technologies, protocols, and applications. J. Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Fig 3. Mollynorthover, 2013. Cybernetic: a definition. [Online] Available: <> [Accessed January 14 2016].

Fig 4. Bonanni L., Lee C. & Selker T., 2005. CounterIntelligence: Augmented Reality Kitchen. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press.

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