Delving Into Our Theses as Design Tools
One day of middle May in my thesis tutorial, I tried to illustrate my understanding of ‘intelligent behaviours’ with a diagram which was downloaded online featured by a brain controlling hands, eyes and neural system to grab a glass of water. After seeing that, my tutor Vasilija suggested that Rolf Pfeifer’s book ‘How the body shapes the way we think’ may help me to understand the relationship between brain and body from a new perspective.
Before reading his book, ‘The body is controlled by the brain’ was like a common sense which had already embedded in my mind. It was so naturally inhabited there that I had never questioned about. Pfeifer’s explanation of ‘intelligence requires a body’4 pointed out that intelligence can be enabled only by ‘tangible interaction’ between physical systems and its environment. Moreover, he illustrated how the sensors and materials helps the neural system to outsource its computing and control tasks, which greatly challenged my perspective on material that I used to think material is a trivial content which should be considered till the last step in design practice. From his point of view, I started to look for ‘intelligent behaviors’ in materials and structures, which may offer more interactive possibilities in my own design work.
Abramovich1 reviewed the decades of research in intelligent structures and materials and summarized the characteristic of intelligent structure as ‘a system containing multifunctional parts that can perform sensing, control, and actuation…’. As a part being incorporated into this system, smart or intelligent material is defined as designed materials that can change their geometry shape or functional property according to external stimuli, such as humidity, temperature, pH, and electric, or brightness of light.
Apart from practitioners in aerospace engineering, medical industry, new resource development and industrial design, architects have also drawn their attention at the development and implement of intelligent structures and materials for some time, and such researches facilitate them to exempt from heavy duty mechanical structures, expensive cost of construction and complex control systems.
Some projects smartly control the surface material by simple actuators, and such manipulation is realized by the designed structure or property of the surface materials. In Güvenç Özel’s interactive installation ‘cerebral hut’ (fig. 01)3, the property of origami structure alleviated the workload of control system and allow the whole surface to contract or expand smoothly just by the control of simple linear actuators. Studio INI designed their kinetic ceiling and floor ‘Urban Imprint’ (fig. 02) which interact with audience’s movement. The material they developed is a mixture of rubber and concrete, and the property of this mixture allow this material to have certain elasticity and ideal weight to balance the tension from the top control system.
Many architects are keen on discovery of materials’ physical properties. The project ‘Bloom’ (fig. 03) from DO|SU studio5 architecture harnessed the thermobimetal’s heat reaction to control the open and close of the architecture’s surface form without any energy consumption. This ‘two layers with different stress ratio’ approach can also be found in 4D print technology, allowing the flat printed structure to be self-forming in Post isothermal treatment process. Another project ‘Hygroskin Pavilion’ (fig. 04)2 is a collaboration of Achim Menges Architect, Oliver David Krieg, and Steffen Reichert. The 3D printed veneer parts not only have same texture same with plywood but also share the same reactive property as natural materials. It exposed that novel computation and manufacture can imbue man-made material with some ‘natural intelligence’.
- Abramovich, Haim. Intelligent materials and structures. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2016.
- Correa, D., and Achim Menges. “3D printed hygroscopic programmable material systems.” In MRS Proceedings, vol. 1800. 2015.
- Ozel, Guvenc. “Case for an architectural singularity: synchronization of robotically actuated motion, sense-based interaction and computational interface.” (2014).
- Pfeifer, Rolf, and Josh Bongard. How the body shapes the way we think: a new view of intelligence. MIT press, 2006.
- Sung, Doris. “Smart geometries for smart materials: taming thermobimetals to behave.” Journal of Architectural Education 70, no. 1 (2016): 96-106.
Reflecting on everything that is going on in the world currently (week of June 1, 2020), it feels like humanity is barely holding itself together at the seams – and how could it? With our world still coming to terms with the future that Covid-19 holds, the murder of George Floyd, and the thousands of people protesting around the world due to the demoralizing injustice that our society has been built upon, I can’t help but question our role in this somber future.
It makes me question ourselves not just as individuals but also as a collective of young designers rethinking human interaction. As we talk about inclusive futures in speculative design, it would be hypocritical to not consider the implications of our current context. Clearly, the current anthropomorphic world that we live in shaped by centuries of colonial powers distributing thinking and implementing the ‘society’ as we know it is not sustainable nor is there a future for it. For a long time, I have distanced myself from being ‘political’ in my art practice because the concept of ‘political’ is so intertwined with an image in our current society but what I’m discovering with time is that ‘political’ can exist in any shape or form, and to be blind to it means to be content in the anthropomorphic world that we are so urgently trying to move away from.
What is important to note as I delve into the future of the Planthropocene, a term first used by Natasha Myers, in thesis and in practice, I must clarify that this is not an attempt to run away from the realities and truths that have shaped our Anthropocene. Nor is it to turn a blind eye to the bigger problems that shape our current days. When we think of the plant and nature itself, we do not necessarily connect it with history when in fact, the majority of trees, flowers, and shrubbery seen along the roads, private gardens, and public parks all around London are silent remnants that speak to a colonial past. I would recommend reading Claire Ratinon’s essay: I Don’t Belong Here if you’re interested in reading more about this topic.
Joseph Banks, an 18th century English botanist, believed that by transplanting cotton plants taken from India to the West Indies would allow for cotton to become the nation’s fastest growing industry – which it did. The British cotton goods consumption from from 5.3 million pounds (1781) to 32.5 million pounds (1788).
Source: Wulf, Andrea. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession. London: Cornerstone Digital, 2011, p.210)
I believe through knowing history like this, we can begin to see the colonial narrative of the plant and perhaps imagine a Planthropocene that moves away from this narrative.
It is thus acknowledging history like this that I turn towards the Planthropocene. As I begin to create narrative and imagine a different world where human beings are not the only agents for a universe in motion, I am both excited and wary of how to approach this process but perhaps the best approach is to look at the lineage of speculative fiction written throughout history. The way we perceive plants in contemporary society is a result of Aristotelian thinking but time and time again, individuals have attempted to explore otherwise.
In a recent online exhibition curated by the Camden Arts Centre, The Botanical Mind is a reflection of the various views humans across the world have attempted to understand the world through vegetation. More recently, the British Library has also curated a series of fictitious tales of the Botanical Gothic – the genre of Plant Horror. Through this collection of stories, it is interesting to start perceiving the familiarity of plants as something otherworldly and even alien when we begin to imagine ourselves as the other. In Little Joe (2019), despite a somewhat sub-par but visually-beautiful cinematic exploration of an interesting idea, there is a stark reminder that synthetic biology in its rising popularity, requires speculative thinking more than ever. Baum and Leahy, in their project Microbiocene: Ancient Ooze to Future Myths presents a very compelling argument for seeing the world through a microbial lens. It is with these very resources and inspirations that I begin to write my speculative fiction of algae.
 Myers, Natasha. “Photosynthesis.” Society for Cultural Anthropology. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/photosynthesis.
 Wulf, Andrea. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession. London: Cornerstone Digital, 2011.
 Natania Meeker and Szabari Antónia, Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), p.39)