Thesis 14


Thesis 14

Everyware acts at the scale of the building.

In this thesis and the next, which concerns the extension of everyware into public space, we reach scales where the ubiquitous deployment of processing starts to have consequences beyond ones we can easily envision. When we find networked intelligence operating at the scale of whole buildings, it doesn't even necessarily make sense to speak of how the everyware experience diverges from that of personal computingthese are places that people using PCs have rarely if ever been able to reach.

The idea of a building whose program, circulation, and even structure are deeply molded by flows of digital information is nothing new. As a profession, architecture has been assuming that this is going to happen for quite awhile now. The design press of the 1990s was saturated with such visions. Anyone who regularly read Metropolis or wallpaper or ID in those years will likely remember a stream of blobjectified buildings, all nurbly and spliny, with tightly-kerned Helvetica Neue wrapped around the corners to represent "interactive surfaces," and images of Asian women sleekly coutoured in Jil Sander Photoshopped into the foreground to connote generic urban futurity.[*] But the role played by networked information in such projects mostly seemed to mean some variation on Web-on-the-wall.

[*] Architects: I kid. I kid, because I love.

For all the lovely renderings, we have yet to see the appearance of buildings structurally modified in any significant way by the provision of realtime, networked information.

Yet since the 1970s, it has been commonplace of commercial architecture and engineering, at least, that information technology allows impressive efficiencies to be realized when incorporated in the design of buildings. It is now rare for a new, premium commercial building to break ground without offering some such provision.

Circulation and delivery of services in so-called "smart buildings" can be tuned in real time, in pursuit of some nominal efficiency profile. Instead of stupidly offering an unvarying program of light, heat, and air conditioning, energy management control systems (EMCS) infer appropriate environmental strategies from the time of day and of year, solar gain, and the presence or absence of occupants. And security and custodial staffs are assisted in their duties by the extension of computational awareness throughout the structure. It would be a stretch to call such systems "routine," but only just barely.

Other computationally-enhanced building systems are becoming increasingly common, like Schindler Elevator's Miconic 10, which optimizes load by aggregating passenger groups based on where they're going. Instead of the time-honored principle of pressing an "up" button, and then waiting in a gaggle with all the other upbound passengers, the Miconic 10's clever load-optimization algorithm matches people bound for the same floor with the elevator cab currently offering the shortest wait time. (It's simpler to do than it is to explain.) Schindler claims the elevators make each individual trip 30 percent faster, and also allow a building to handle a proportionally increased flow of visitors.[*]

[*] What gets lost, though, in all of thisas with so many digitally "rationalized" processesis the opportunity for serendipitous interaction that happens when people from different floors share this particular forty-five-second interval of the day. Isn't the whole cherished trope of the "elevator pitch" based around the scenario of a kid from the mailroom finding him-or herself willy-nilly sharing a cab with the CXO types headed for the executive floors?

When such systems are coupled to the relational, adaptive possibilities offered up by everyware in its other aspects, we start to get into some really interesting territory. The Arch-OS "operating system for architecture," for example, a project of the School of Computing, Communications and Electronics at the University of Plymouth, suggests some of the possible directions. As its Web site explains, the project aims to capture the state of a building in real time from inputs including "building energy management systems...the flow of people and social interactions, ambient noise levels and environmental conditions," and return that state to public awareness through a variety of visualizations.

While there's ample reason to believe that such ambient displays of information relating to building systems will become both prevalent and useful, most of the Arch-OS projects to date lean toward the artistic. While it sounds fascinating, for example, it's unclear from the project's documentation whether the "psychometric architecture" projectthe recording of activity in a building throughout the day, for playback on its outer envelope at nightwas ever attempted. The generative soundscapes and abstract visualizations on hand do seem to mesh well, though, with other recent efforts to equip the outer surfaces of a building with interactive media.

Consider dECOi's 2003 Aegis Hyposurface, a continuously-transformable membrane that allows digital inputwhether from microphone, keyboard, or motion sensorto be physically rendered on the surface itself, showing up as symbols, shapes, and other deformations. Its creators call Aegis "a giant sketchpad for a new age," and while its complexity has kept it from being produced as anything beyond a prototype, it at least was explicitly designed to respond to the kind of inputs Arch-OS produces.

Meanwhile, similar systems, which have actually been deployed commercially, fail to quite close the loop. UNStudio's recent digital facade for Seoul's high-end Galleria department store, developed in association with Arup Engineering and lighting designer Rogier van der Heide, is one such project. The architects wrapped a matrix of LED-illuminated disks around what used to be a drab concrete box, turning the whole surface into a field of ever-renewing data and color. It's a successit currently bathes the Apgujeong district with gorgeous washes of light nightlyand yet the images flowing across the surface seem to cry out for some generative connection to the inner life of the building.

But already a vanguard few are wrestling with challenges beyond the mere display of information, exploring the new architectural morphologies that become possible when computation is everywhere in the structure itself. Los Angelesbased architect Peter Testa has designed a prototype building called the Carbon Tower: an all-composite, forty-story high-rise knit, braided and woven from carbon fiber.

Unlike conventional architecture, the Carbon Tower dispenses with all internal bracing, able to do so not merely because of the mechanical properties of its textile exoskeleton, but due to the way that exoskeleton is managed digitally. As Testa envisions it, the Carbon Tower exhibits "active lateral bracing": sensors and actuators embedded in its structural fiber cinch the building's outer skin in response to wind load and other dynamic forces.

And if building morphology can be tuned in response to environmental inputs, who's to say that those inputs should be limited to the weather? Arch-OS-style polling of foot traffic and social interactions, coupled to output in the form of structural changes can take us in some genuinely novel directions. Something resembling fondly remembered and much-beloved Archigram projects of the 1960s such as Instant City, Tuned Suburb, and the Control and Choice Dwelling may finally be realizedor so fans of the visionary collective can hope. When compared to the inert structures we now inhabit, everyware-age architecturefor better or worsewill be almost certainly be weirder.