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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Architectures of Firmness and Softness

Architectures of Firmness and Softness

Before discussing soft architecture, it is worthwhile to understand how architecture can be hard. Hardness immediately evokes the physical building materials which comprise the majority of the built environment. Buildings are made to withstand the elements—a quality Vitruvius called ‘firmness’1—and their materiality reflects this; clay is fired into brick, wood is dried and compressed, and sand is melted and annealed into its solid form. Another kind of hardness in architecture is situated in the psychological and social role it plays in our lives. Rooms are designed with specific purposes in mind and dictate how and where we live our social lives. This intangible hardness is evident even in building conversions: a movie theater which is made into a bookstore is a ‘clever reuse’, implying that its proper use is embedded in its physical structure.

El Ateneo Bookstore in Buenos Aires--a theater that was converted into a bookstore.

El Ateneo Bookstore in Buenos Aires–a theater that was converted into a bookstore.

Yet, even in describing this hardness, it is clear that softness percolates through hard facades. Physically, soft foams wrap our furniture. Curtains filter light and sway with the breeze. Socially and psychologically, our memories graft themselves to structures, like muscles that wrap architectural bones.[*] These memories soften the edges of hard architecture; our recollection of a room is more often defined by atmosphere, people, and events rather than physical dimensions. In essence, our agency enables us to accept or reject the hard features of architecture and reshape them according to our wants and needs.

Both the hard and soft dimensions of architecture mentioned earlier rely on an assumption; namely, that buildings themselves do not have agency. As early as the 1970s, however, architects have speculated about automated, even intelligent, architecture. One such architect was Negroponte. In his book Soft Architecture Machine, he speaks of a room which ‘might giggle at a funny gesture or be reluctant to be transformed into something else’.2 Negroponte explores how architecture might become softer, both in its movements and its materials, and more personal, by introducing intelligent computers which allow non-architects to participate in the design of their homes intuitively.[†] Negroponte’s work is still poignant today because of his emphasis on buildings with agency, as opposed to merely using technology to facilitate human agency. His ideas conjure images of a world where buildings are not hard, static structures, but soft characters in our lives—animate, thinking, and emotive beings which actively house and protect us physically as well as psychologically.

We still lack the technology to make buildings with artificial intelligence, but the combined work of interactive architecture and automated design is approximating the architecture Negroponte envisioned. We now have programs which can design buildings3 and labs devoted to designing interactive technology. [‡]  Researchers are also producing technology which closely mimics intelligence, ranging from the uncanny to the comical.[§] That being said, cutting edge artificial intelligence is perhaps more accurately described as dynamic animation—a series of preprogrammed, imitative responses that resemble social interactions. While we may, at times, relate to the concept of socialization as a series of preprogrammed responses, it is clear that machines are missing something critical which distinguishes human intelligence from artificial intelligence.[**]

A video explaining how Merrell et al. generate complete floorplans with a computer program.

Because we still use animation to create interactive architecture, perhaps there is relevant inspiration in the strategies we use to animate. John Lasseter, CEO of Pixar, gave advice on animating inanimate objects by suggesting that an object’s  ‘longing in life is to do what it was designed to do, [and] all the things that prevent it from doing [this] would cause it worries and anxieties.’4 As we search for softer architecture, we might keep this in mind: what would architecture want to do, and what would give it anxiety?

[*] See de Botton’s introduction in The Architecture of Happiness for a poetic description of our relationships with buildings.5

[†] In some ways, this work resembles Chalmer’s and Clark’s concept of the ‘Extended Mind’

[‡] For interactive architecture, see the work of the Interactive Architecture Lab, MIT Media Lab, and Stanford HCI group, to name a few.

[§] For the uncanny, see the interview with the robot Phillip on Nova Science Now: Social Robots (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAMR7F47oBc). For the comical, see the Reddit.com forum ‘SubredditSimulator’, in which computer bots generate posts, comments, and discussions through Markov chains in an attempt to mimic human-users’ posts on the site (available at https://www.reddit.com/r/subredditsimulator).

[**] Some neurological disorders, such as Asberger’s Syndrome (see http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/detail_asperger.htm) and alexithymia (see http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150818-what-is-it-like-to-have-never-felt-an-emotion) are disorders which prevent people from genuinely experiencing or understanding social cues for emotions. Often times these people rely on mimicking behavior to be socially accepted.

Sources:

  1. Fields, D. Architecture in Black. (The Athlone Press, 2000).
  1. Negroponte, N. Soft architecture machines. (MIT Press, 1975).
  1. Merrell, P., Schkufza, E. & Koltun, V. Computer-generated residential building layouts. ACM SIGGRAPH Asia 2010 Pap. – SIGGRAPH ASIA ’10 29, 1 (2010).
  1. Lasseter, J. John Lasseter Q&A Bringing inanimate objects to life. (2009). at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6m_Wi3Z-A4>
  1. De Botton, A. The Architecture of Hapiness. (Penguin Books, 2006).

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