Soft Bodies – Masters Brief 2015-16
We’ve just released this years brief for the Masters Students of The Interactive Architecture Lab 2015-16. Each year’s theme is intended to drive early research exploration and the development of core skills. However, the studio actively encourages students to break out and over the course of the year develop their own research agendas.
Research Theme: This year we will soften the perceived boundaries between the body and our built environment. Through the design of physical and virtual installations we will explore material and immaterial ideas of what a soft architecture can be. A number of recent technological developments will lead our exploration.
Soft Robotics: The future of robotics is soft. Improvements in flexible and programmable materials are literally re-shaping robotics away from typically rigid structures driven by servomotor systems, towards more fluidic and responsive mechanics inspired by nature. Visionary architects such as Mark Fisher, Archigram and Ant Farm foresaw the potential of these technologies long before the field of robotics. Inflatable, mobile kinetic structures critiqued the hardness and uncompromising forms of modernism and promised a future built environment responsive and adaptive to peoples needs. Questions of durability and wastefulness proved early work to be unsustainable, but advances in material sciences, computational design, and robotic control systems suggest it now worth reexamining.
Virtual Reality: Low cost virtual reality headsets and open source software development have turned around a technology which suffered huge commercial failure in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The consensual hallucination’s promised by cyberpunk, of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) “Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding” fed the imagination of a generation of architects. Yet the technology to realize these worlds stayed out of reach. Today we now have the means to explore these new spaces of disembodied interaction. Yet the failure of VR in its first incarnation was not only technological, but physiological. The indivisible relationship between our visual and auditory experience of virtual space and our entire sensing body grounded in physical space often caused visceral and nauseating reactions. We will find ways to bridge the virtual and physical, to build mixed realities where both immaterial and material worlds interact.
Artificial Intelligence: In Nicholas Negroponte’s Soft Architecture Machines (1976) he discusses the possibility of buildings able to achieve a multiplicity of uses by undergoing physical transformations, but alongside physical change, he examines the potential of adaptive computational systems that learn about occupant behaviour and reciprocally modify their behaviour. Such forms of intelligence one might argue will begin to have a life of their own. An aesthetic of animacy appearing in the design of our buildings. Negroponte speculates on spaces that ‘might giggle at a funny gesture or be reluctant to be transformed into something else’, and so he perhaps suggests a future role for architects working more like animators, or puppeteers in the design of behavior, or even like gods shaping the behavior of strange synthetic ecologies. In the search for a softer body to architecture, we will explore the soft architecture of the human brain, studying the nature of ‘thinking’ through Cybernetic theory and experiments in computational neuroethology. We will listen to the thoughts of plants, hear the electrical tremors of our own brains, and build our own artificially intelligent spaces of interaction.