Interactive ‘Ornament’ The Agents of Responsive Mediators, Kihong Ku, Jonathan Grinham, Negar Kalantar Mehrjardi, Spencer Jaehoon Lee
PARTeE (Prototyping in Architectural Robotics for Technology enriched Education) is the name of an interdisciplinary design laboratory approach that explores the potential of prototyping, architecture, robotics at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). This approach started as a small exploratory project in fall 2009 to investigate the future of design that integrates computationally driven physical kinetic systems and components into buildings and spaces to meet the changing human needs. This approach acknowledges the technological advancements that provide designers with creative opportunities and furthermore critically investigates the technical requirements of tectonics, media, digital modeling, physical computing, and rapid prototyping in relation to design. The challenge or the enthusiasm of embedding information and communication technology into adaptive, intelligent, physical-digital built environment is obvious as we can observe from the various terms used by different communities such as ‘Architectural Robotics’, ‘Interactive Architecture’, ‘Kinetic Architecture’, ‘Physical Computing’, or ‘Responsive Architecture’ that all focus on this emerging area. To engage with this field a deep understanding of the behavior of users and dynamic environments, including the interaction among people and their surroundings, is essential to address the aesthetic, social, psychological issues as integral parts of the design. A synergy between architecture, engineering, computer and behavioral science can be achieved in the design of interactive spaces. This synergy brings new forms of expression to architects but it demands new strategies that require a new interdisciplinary generation of designers, engineers, and builders that can collaborate and exchange knowledge. This article presents the initial design collaborations and research of the PARTeE research team through one of the prototypes ‘FLOWer’ which examined a kinetic shading partition. The prototype materializes an example of the notion of a novel concept ‘Interactive Ornament’ that evolved during the research. As one area of interactive architecture, ‘Interactive Ornament’ manifests a new aesthetic affect that exploits the symbiotic relationships between the exterior and interior spaces of a building to discover a new order between the tectonic, ornament and material. Through the beginning of these explorations, the PARTeE project aims to contribute to the possibilities of innovations in interactive environments…
Introduction to Interactive Ornament
The critical groundwork of interactive architecture, as it relates to physical computing, was established in the 1960’s by designers following the system studies of cybernetics. In his 1969 article, Towards a Theory of Architecture Machine, Nicholas Negroponte the founder of MIT’s Media Lab asked, “Can a machine deduce responses from a host of environmental data?” This question and those developed in the Media Lab sought to realize the machine and its complex mathematical relations (algorithms) as a partner or ‘associate’ to its human counterpart, ultimately seeking to develop “humanism through machines” (Negroponte, 1970). Unfortunately, as described by Tristan d’Estrée Sterk of the Office of Robotic Architectural Media & Bureau for Responsive Architecture, the study and development of interactive architecture struggled to find its foundation due to the architect’s inability to construct the computational and structural systems needed to realize the vast complexity of interactive architecture. Instead the study found residency in the fields of mechanical, electrical and structural engineering (Sterk, 2003). However, with the increased number of open source hardware and software, fabrication processes, and a vast network of information and online learning, the architect has finally been given the tools to design and prototype architecture that will respond to a host of environmental data. This network of information is described by Clay Shirky of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program as a ‘participatory culture’- a new information economy driven by users’ intrinsic motivations to share information across a community of collaborators (Shirky, 2010). Information necessary to program, hardwire and fabricate these systems is now available to the designer through digital data of networked collaborative communities. PARTeE seeks to embed itself within these networks in order to understand the new re-emergence of interactive architecture in the last decade and understand the finite elements that produce the rich soil in which the field has grown.
With the advent of building information modeling, parametric modeling software, and the designer’s ability to code complex algorithms the movement toward physical computing is an inevitable step within the evolution of architectural design. Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects declared in his Parametricist Manifesto of 2008 that the new “ism” of style and design is parametricism, stating: “The new primitives of parametricism are animate geometrical entities – splines, nurbs and subdivs. These are fundamental geometrical building blocks for dynamical systems like ‘hair’, ‘cloth’, ‘blobs’ and ‘metaballs’ that react to ‘attractors’ and can be made to resonate with each other via scripts” (Schumacher, 2010). Although highly debatable, Schumacher’s Parametricism and those designers who have harnessed algorithmically derived tools have opened the door for a new dimension of design. Designs developed through these tools reside in a virtual landscape, parametric platforms allow for a virtual time, a log of evolution of a design versioning in relation to a given set of criteria. However, the physical implementation is void of time; the design is a frozen moment within the design datum. Unlike Parametricism’s attractors, interactive architecture responds to actors-those users who occupy the physical space. The design is played out in real time weaving the physical and metaphysical with time. This reintroduction of time frees design of a preprogrammed linear interaction; instead time flows, bends and evolves as a seemingly endless datum (Boigen & Kwinter, 1991). This new movement within design allows the building’s user to become a unit a within the parametric system able to actively influence their environment-reintroducing Negroponte’s humanism through machines.
In addition to producing an environment for humanism, interactive architecture is an autocatalytic mechanism for connecting architecture to culture and urban space. Today, the architect’s role is becoming increasingly specialized in the design of the outer shell and expression of buildings. Interactive architecture produces an opportunity for functional ornament as a new expression of design lexicon. In the introduction to the book The Function of Ornament- a publication co-edited with Michael Kubo- Farshid Moussavi states that ornament is on a comeback. Ornament in this new revival plays on the dichotomy of form and function producing architecture as rich in function as it is in aesthetics. Functional ornament is integrated within the structure, materiality and program of a building. This complex physical interaction produces design that functions as patterned colors, patterned materials and pattern-making structures and assemblies. These new functional languages are able to be stitched with every changing cultural and urban fabric of the surround context.Interactive architecture as a functional ornament produces a stage upon which social, economic and physical changes play out based on the needs and expectations of its human actors over a building’s lifecycle. These changes are inevitable, in order to respond to environment changes and the needs of users, focus is placed on the unique role of the building envelope as a critical element to mediate between changing environments. Interactive architecture has the unique ability to respond to the changes occurring within both exterior and interior environments and allow these changes to be an expressional ornament.
The response to sensory data read by interactive architectural systems can dynamically affect building environmental performance and energy consumption. However, for much of its theoretical existence interactive systems have lent themselves to integrated building systems, such as air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. This gap leads to a great potential in the study of alternative spatial conditioning systems (Fox & Kemp, 2009). The development of zero energy building envelopes that respond to light levels, solar heat gains, and glare constructs an environment capable of producing environmental change that reaches further than its ornamental urban fabric. These systems have the potential to effect change on a global scale of the built environment.
FLOWer: A Prototype of the Agents of Responsive Mediators
The agents of responsive mediators are the finite elements of interactive ornament. These agents describe the concept, logic, mechanics and behavior of interactive architectural systems. Biology, specifically biomimicry provides a fundamental natural history and concept inspiration for interactive architecture. An organism is successful partly because it uses the minimum amount of material to make its structure and partly because it can then optimize its reaction to the local environment. The more of its environment it can control and utilize for energy gain, the more successful the organism will be. In the case of FLOWer the functional typology of light mitigating surface was first established. The design concept was inspired by the Christmas tree worm- a cone-shaped worm found on tropical coral reefs that retracts into its burrow in response to the slightest touch or shadow.
Behavioral logic is the digital memory stored on the processing unit of the interactive architectural system. This logic does not simply describe the rational for the motion construct’s physicality, but rather it produces a construct intended to evoke an emotional response of a user to the interactive architecture. The understanding of behavioral complexity is examined through agent models that describe systems able to perceive their environment through sensory-data, reason about the data and affect the perceived environment (Maher & Merrick, 2005). In the case of FLOWer a swarm intelligence model is used to describe the basic response of the system. Swarm intelligence produces collective behaviors of unsophisticated agents interacting locally within their environment causing coherent functional global patterns to emerge (Maher & Merrick, 2005). More complex models will be described later in architectural scenarios of FLOWer. The model was developed through the open source programming language, Processing, in conjunction with open source microprocessors, Arduino. The use of open source programming languages allows for an easily developable coding platform with a global community of collaborative support.
The establishment of an internal logic must then ask how is the logic actuated? The mechanical scheme describes the physical and spatial design of how the motion is created, the impetus for action. PARTeE’s FLOWer seeks to understand the mechanical construct through “off the shelf” actuators. The use of ubiquitous mechanical actuators such as servomotors, linear actuators and piezo speakers allowed for a consistency of engineering and a freedom to understand the design of the interaction. This freedom is provided through the open source programming described above. The extensive network of peer-reviewed code allows for the development of coding “libraries” which provide an almost plug and play programming approach.
Once a response and action can be deduced from a system a new level of architectural design emerges. The development of parametric models through Grasshopper, a graphic algorithm editor developed for Rhino 4.0 a nurbs based modeler, allowed a new dimension of simulation and prototyping. Sensory data can be read by the model through the microprocessor and then model in real time. Parametric and kinetic relationships can be explored in real time allowing designers the ability to virtually test designs using onsite sensors with real time data. However, the new parametric developed through interactive design is the physical structure of motion, the performance of the interactive design. In the case of FLOWer the inherent physical quality of elasticity and memory of felt along with a described geometry produced by computer numerically controlled laser cutting produces an almost unforeseeable physical emergence. FLOWer no longer resides within the rigidity of computer software. Instead the physical motion and timing of the agents produce an amiable, lifelike reaction that could only be described through the physicality of the felt.
FLOWer: Architectural Scenarios
FLOWer is designed under the primary scenario of a light-mitigating device that reduces the solar heat gains that fall on a building’s façade. As a building façade the individual agents of the swarm logic respond to their own photocell measuring the light levels falling on each unit of FLOWer. Throughout the day the FLOWer blossoms with increased light. In the morning and night the agents are extended as cylindrical tubes by the elasticity and memory of the felt, the minimal area of the elongated cylinder increases both views out as well as the programmatic reading of the building’s space from the outside. As light levels increase FLOWer contracts the felt cylinder, producing a blossoming effect that in turn produces a volume with a greater surface area shading the building façade. The swarm logic allows for the emergence of complex patterning in direct relation to isolated solar exposure and shadowing from adjacent geometries. This phenomenon produces a dynamically changing façade that is free of a linear design. Patterns emerge slowly with time and develop over entire seasons.
PARTeE seeks to understand the way in which the user and the newly described parametric agent interact with the physical construct. The above scenario is woven with multiple layers of complexity and human exploration. Using optical actuation developed through a Processing tracking code, the user’s spatial occupancy is woven into the logic of FLOWer. As the user passes they unconsciously actuate the units of FLOWer through gestural interaction. The user’s silhouette is impressed upon FLOWer, the localized units expand out as they are actuated. This action produces a new level of interactive design. As a design for the purpose of utility the gestural interface allows for controlled mitigation of solar gains while also producing an isolated view out for the user. However, a more complex level of interaction is produced; users may be enticed to play with the FLOWer as though each unit is a living. The building ornamental patterning changes, a flowing pattern emerges and disappears with the building occupancy. The element of time and complex logic is introduced. Replay uses a motivated agent model that allows for time to fold and bend upon itself. If the system logic gets bored, if it is not actuated within a given set of time- what is described as a rare occurrence in the model- it can replay the more exciting daily routines and interactions of its occupants.
The use of interactive design elements required that their logic is transparent and changeable. PARTeE explores concepts of kinetic interaction and programming. Using a series of touch sensors FLOWer can be physically programmed using hands on one-to-one kinetic memory. The control of pixels grouping of FLOWer agents- is key element of the human interaction within interactive design. Users can physically train the motion of FLOWer. By recording a movement placed upon an agent of FLOWer, FLOWer’s logic can remember the motion then respond with the given motion when the user chooses. Within this scenario users are identified by RFID tags, as they enter the space FLOWer remembers the tags corresponding movement and time delay.
FLOWer also has the capacity to entertain. Mark Goulthrope’s Hyposurface, a pliable surface able to articulate complex shapes through hundreds of hydraulic actuators, is described as one of the most important developments in signage technology. Given its ability to shape highly articulated form Hyposurface is capable of three-dimensionally representing a given graphic input. Like Hyposurface, FLOWer allows for a graphic override. Using simple monochromic graphics developed in Processing, FLOWer is capable of displaying multiple levels of information across the building façade.
The initial explorations of PARTeE acknowledge the paradigm shift towards an interactive architecture that is based on real-time responsiveness and networked environments where architecture becomes an intelligent interface between the virtual and physical. The emerging technologies present tremendous opportunities for architecture to integrate intelligent environmentally responsive systems into buildings such as the concept of interactive ornament that can be customized to meet individual users’ needs such as thermal comfort and energy usage; to augment homes to provide better control for elderly or physically challenged people; to interconnect globally dispersed communities via architectural interfaces, and so forth. We focused on a small prototype (FLOWer) of a shading partition to question the function of sensing light, motion, touch, if embedded in architecture. Rather than providing answers we hope to leave the reader with questions as to how to interpret and design building’s behavior so that buildings can enhance social interactions and environmental responsiveness. The ever expanding toolkit of off-the-shelf robotics, open source computing and knowledge communities have lowered the threshold for designers to explore these opportunities. We emphasize that the practice of architects and designers demands interdisciplinary design approaches to pursue the new possibilities for shaping our environment.
We would like to thank the Center for Creative Technologies in the Arts at Virginia Tech for recognizing the value of our work and the initial financial support.
All illustrations are created by the authors.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue 14