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(Foreword) Interactive Architecture: Adaptive World

Foreword written by Ruairi Glynn in July 2015. This is a pre-edited version.

Looking through the work in this book, I am immediately struck by how much has changed in the landscape of interactive architecture over the past five years. Where Michael Fox’s first book on the field, authored with Miles Kemp, presented a vast and promising array of proto-architectural projects, here we see how quickly the field is maturing, evolving into ambitious permanent and semipermanent installations.

I believe this collection of work reflects an exciting opportunity, in a world of rapid technological change, for architecture to expand its practice and reaffirm itself as the melting pot between the arts and sciences. At the Interactive Architecture Lab, we’re finding that sensory and responsive technologies open up new and surprising ways to make connections across seemingly disparate fields, such as between robotics and performing arts, between wearable computing and perceptual sciences, between biology and the visual arts, and between artificial intelligence and digital fabrication. And all of this is happening within the wider context of whirlwind progress in robotics that promises driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of robotics to soon cohabit our built environment.

As these technologies become part of our design tool kit, our typical aesthetic considerations of space, form, and surface expand to encompass concerns of the aesthetics of behavior. Increasingly active, responsive, and kinetic, the material of the built environment is being animated in the truest sense of the word. Architecture imbued with autonomy of its own, an uncanny sense of life, challenges us to look beyond design disciplines to understand the perceptual, emotional, and social effects of these pervasive technologies.

Puppetry, an ancient art with a rich, albeit poorly recorded history, offers us a performative perspective. The trained puppeteer, a conjurer of what Nancy Staub calls the “theatre of possession,” exploits the spectator’s sensitivity to the subtitles of motion cues. Through careful manipulation of rods and strings with rhythmic motion, the essential breadth of the puppet manifests as life, the speed, duration, acceleration, and deceleration profiles of motion conveying inner emotional states. With the subtlest of changes in rhythm, the puppeteer conveys character in matter, with causal and narrative relationships born between the performance of objects and their environment. Even with little more than breadth, a thrilling, complex, and challenging set of aesthetic opportunities can be harnessed, and as the range of gestures grows, the potential to imbue objects and indeed architecture with a life and character seems endless.

Throughout the history of natural and social sciences, from Aristotle’s theories of motion as the exclusive characteristic of living things, to the early anthropological studies of primitive cultures, to the foundations of perceptual and cognitive psychology, we find the association of movement, and life itself, to be deep and universal. Today’s advancements in medical imaging are revealing the neurological roots of this impulse—the very architecture of the social human brain. At its core is the instinct to anthropomorphize the nonhuman, whether animal, inanimate object, or even natural phenomenon. To project personality onto other entities as a means the ability to better relate to them—to imagine things to think like humans, as we are, after all, only human.

So as the worlds of architecture and robotics collide, offering new motive and spatial forms of interaction, the cerebral processes of human social relationships will be irresistibly stimulated. It renders in strange and uncanny terms a built environment that may viscerally feel worthy of our care and consideration in ways that inanimate matter cannot. Anthropomorphized, we may come to perceive our architecture as responsible for its own behavior, and deserving even perhaps of punishment or reward. As eminent robotics engineer and philosopher Rod Brooks has commented, “I’ll eventually feel we have succeeded if we ever get to the point where people feel bad about switching Cog X off.” 3 The strange and uncanny psychological and social effects are impossible to fully anticipate. What seems certain is that we are, at present, ill-equipped both conceptually and technically, to understand and craft this new aesthetic of behavior.

But then this is really what is so fascinating, and what compels us to pursue the potential of an interactive architecture. And let’s not forget that this is not an entirely new preoccupation. Vitruvius dedicated an entire book of his treaties to machines. Greek mythology told us of Daedalus, the architect of the labyrinth at Knossos who crafted magnificent mechanical statues. And by the Renaissance, automaton had flourished to act as centerpieces to royal courts and town squares alike. The Florentine Francini brothers’ hydraulic statues of Saint-Germain-en-Laye famously inspired Descartes to construct his own automaton; a pursuit of understanding that challenged the relationship between the body-machine and the mind-soul, and animated not only cogs and levers, but the very foundations of western philosophy.

There is something very human about making things that come to life, whether they are mechanical, robotic, cyborg, or architectural. It touches upon a human fascination with looking for life in the inanimate on the one hand and a “yearning to play god” on the other 3. The words magic and machine share the common etymological root magh, meaning “to be able” and “to have power.” We have a compulsion to understand other living things and to imitate them. Indeed, art itself seems a product of that human need to remake the world around us in search of deeper understanding.

So let’s continue that search through code, electronics, networks, mechanics, materials, and novel methods of fabrication. As distinctions between designer and engineer, fabricator and philosopher dissolve, architecture is foreground as the space of radical multidisciplinary or perhaps more even anti-disciplinary practice. An opportunity for architects to not only ask questions about the future of our homes, work places and public spaces. But also deeper questions about what it is to be human, about our social nature, questions about the future of communities mediated by technology and our changing relationship to the inanimate and animate world around us.

  1. Interactive Architecture Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London,
  2. Nancy Lohman Staub, “Student comments,” Puppetry Journal 43, no. 4 (Summer 1992): 20.
  3. Rodney Brooks, “Natural Born Robots: Body Builders,” Scientific American Frontiers, season 10, episode 2, PBS, aired November 2, 1999.
  4. Harold B. Segel, Pinocchio’s Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Robots, and Automatons in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama, PAJ Books (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 2.

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