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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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From Responsive to Adaptive Environments

From Responsive to Adaptive Environments


This article aims at speculating on the differences between the terms “responsive” and “adaptive” architecture, starting from the work of Gordon Pask. The project Musicolour is an interactive installation in which the author played with the concept of synaesthesia. Pask engineered a machine that visually responds to music inputs. Musicolour is grounded in the definition of potent environment [1], that is a pleasant environment in the sense that it enables its visitors to seek for novel experiences in the surroundings. In a potent environment, the aesthetically pleasing experience is not only relevant to the self, but triggers a discourse within the architecture. The author associates the terms reactive and adaptive to the project Musicolour, that is in my opinion not appropriate. From a semantic perspective, reactive and adaptive carry along different meaning. “Reactive” is used for a “shown response to a given stimulus” [2], while “adaptive” implies being “characterized by or given to adaptation” [3]. The former definitively applies. In fact, Musicolour responds with visual stimuli to each sound input, mapping new results each time for the sake of novelty. On the contrary, the latter applies only to some extent. Musicolour is a machine that learns over time from the behaviour of its player and, much alike the human, seeks for interesting changes in repetitive patterns. When that is achieved, the visual output changes. To my understanding, this is a narrow perspective on adaptive technologies, that is not relevant today, considering that almost fifty years have passed after the paper was written. The project shows adaptive capabilities only on an “immaterial” level, since the machine is still limited to a given number of physical outputs, distributed in a predetermined pattern.

I here sustain the definition of adaptive as such an environment in which the physical capabilities of architecture are not pre-thought and are in a sense fluid. In a completely adaptive environment the software based learning process of the architecture can produce results that are not bond to its physicality. Technical implementation of such a concept are recently coming to life, especially thanks to the development in bio-technologies.

To conclude, an adaptive architecture is that one where design agency lies the least on the architect and the most on the architecture itself, both on a software and hardware perspective.


[1] Gordon Pask, “A Comment, a Case History and a Plan”, in Jasia Reichardt (ed.) Cybernetics, Art and Ideas (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1971), pp.76-92
[2] “Reactive – Definition of Reactive in English | Oxford …” Accessed November 17, 2016.
[3] “Adaptive – Definition of Adaptive in English | Oxford …” Accessed November 17, 2016.

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