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Interactive architecture : for a multiform and variable environment…


This text is published in the book « The case for subtle ar(t)chitecture » by the Editions HYX.


Towards architecture that interacts with the onlooker

Each individual creates a space with each of his or her movements and changes of position. By adding this space to the body it is possible to describe human beings as spheres (Peter Sloterdijk), in other words a larger envelope containing the physical being plus a certain amount of space around. This notion may be considered an extension of Heidegger’s concept of « Dasein », where man is not a body on the earth but a bubble of froth…. The conceptual limits of his body are extended, since without this extra quantity of space – so hard to define – that gives him room to breathe (both literally and figuratively) and to move his limbs in relation to his centre of gravity, the being as such no longer exists. An individual is thus defined as a sphere with fluid contours. These contours outline a constantly evolving space of variable size.
The being as a sphere may be considered to be a certain amount of variable space with its own intrinsic movements, moving within a larger space. This larger space may be one of the elements of architecture. The two spaces can communicate.
Architecture may, in practice, suggest movements or changes of position, alter the contours of the envelope, perhaps even enter it. It can bring people or things closer together, impose constraints (a space that opens and then closes), narrowing or widening the distance between them. Architecture may encourage the individual to exert an influence on his or her « being there » (Dasein).

This explains how, for example, a cathedral will have an unconscious effect on the spectator, drawing his « bubble » skywards, drawing it away from the urban clamour and offering a space (light, form, humidity, smell, climate) conducive to meditation in our modern world. For some it symbolises God’s weight or lightness of being, a heaven-bound aspiration.
But this impression of sacredness, even if it varies from one era to another, remains basically constant. Within the building it changes or evolves little if at all. In addition, if a cathedral can have an effect on the individual, why should the individual not have an effect on the cathedral?

In today’s world, anyone who wishes should be able to experience living architecture, in other words a series of impressions of space, climate, environment, multi-sensory stimuli. All these impressions define a space in movement. A space that varies when the passer-by (spectator) moves or when he changes the sphere of his being. There is no longer the fixed object (architecture) and the individual moving within this architecture. The two are interwoven, ask questions of each other and reply.
Architecture as an object changes as the individual moves, it exerts an effect on him or her, admittedly to a greater or lesser degree, yet all the time. Lack of action is therefore just a particular example, a voluntary choice, neither an obligation nor a constraint.
A person walking through a building or a space is thus assailed by a series of different impressions. These impressions will change in relation to the shape of the space on all scales of value and in relation to all the senses (sound, smell, touch, light, etc.) by altering the number of dimensions1 and through the effect exerted by these dimensions. All this corresponds to the possibilities for incorporating other spaces into the space (nspaces) and their effects. These spaces within a space are like frames enclosing images of other places and/or times – real or imaginary.

Architecture is therefore no longer a fixed object but may change with its onlooker, yet neither linked to his psyche nor dependent on his will.

Yet architecture should not just act, but rather interact with the passer-by or onlooker. Interacting means that the architecture/environment will act on the « sphere that is being » and the « sphere that is being » will act on the environment/architecture.

Today it is necessary to imagine architecture where the « nspaces » changes in relation to each individual or « sphere », a little like an image in the mirror, which depends on the object or person reflected.
Nowadays « nspaces » (in residential or other property) interacts with the person occupying the particular place, whose very presence alters, breathes life into and completes the architectural work as such. But it rarely, if ever, interacts with people who are simply passing through (for whom any space they do not relate to often simply becomes a non-place). Space should thus be able to reach out to the passer-by by creating an exchange with him or her. But what are the internal or external stimuli that can act on a building/environment or « nspaces »? And how can the latter react, changing the « sphere of being » in its turn?

One reply could be for the building to become fluid – at all levels (containing, creating and generating flows) in other words for it to acquire the ability to alter over time (alteration in space having already been considered), why not in relation to the individual passer-by2.

Think of a flowing facade, constantly reinvented
Think of a fountain

Architecture is a receptacle containing real and virtual space in perpetual movement …


Architecture in movement and route

A complete structure in movement or the vision, not necessarily visionary, that may be created by the movement of the onlooker does not necessarily have to follow a particular route.
A route implies spaces that are numbered and discovered in a given order.
(e.g. :

  1. the access ramp
  2. oblique-shaped room: height = 3 x width = ¼ length…
  3. hollow volume discovered in the previous space
  4. helical staircase
  5. discovery of a new space further on
  6.  connection with other individuals in another building


The notion of route may nevertheless be refreshed, for a route may, in turn, be set in movement, in other words may evolve over time. The route will then change the space over time and, on a parallel, undergo its own metamorphosis (video screens, changing links between spaces (nspaces), links releasing and reforming…)…

But the notion of a route is not a condition sine qua non for architecture in movement. Architecture and nspaces may change, perhaps even in relation to the position of the onlooker, without him necessarily having to follow a pre-set course. He is free to discover the premises as he sees fit.
The stroller-onlooker – in theory we should all be both protagonists and onlookers in any given space – who always has complete freedom of movement (at best, one can suggest a path that he could follow) may not be aware that things should be discovered in a particular order. By wandering randomly, he may follow the most improbable of routes.

Going from one space to another may, for example, involve passing through a vestibule, which provides a neutral barrier between two spaces rather than allowing them to be in direct contact with each other. If there is no set order, then having a vestibule at the entrance may be a good way of ensuring a neutral transition between one space and the next.

Dynamic architecture is not necessarily architecture in movement.
Silent (peaceful) architecture may be in movement – another scale of time, another atmosphere.
Buildings must therefore be situated within an environment and have their own environment within.


Towards architecture with it own intrinsic movement

Architecture in movement should also be capable of change irrespective of the movement of the onlooker or stroller. This may occur by means of surfaces that change: screens, smoke, watercourses, modulated light, the variation of materials, etc.

Movement of this type offers originality and variation at all levels, in particular for people wandering through the town, just like some parts of the city (vernacular architecture) where by juxtaposing periods and styles, giving a relatively cyclic dimension to the changes in space and generally adapting the district to the lifestyle of its inhabitants, it is possible to offer passers-by/onlookers a vision that is changing all the time to a greater or lesser degree, irrespective of whether they are in an historical district under development or in a shanty town.
The heart or conceptual centre of the town no longer serves the sole purpose of providing stability for a feedback system (Nicolas Schöffer) but is capable of giving it another movement, a movement that is original, new, ever contemporary, reinvented and able to break the monotony by associating with the passing of time and weather variations.

Nevertheless, movement does not have to be perpetual, just a sense of incipient movement. Lack of movement and architecture in movement are therefore not antinomic. By introducing movement into architecture it is possible, through contrast, to highlight the total lack of movement, in other words a moment when time stands still and/or when space freezes bringing with it a sense of calm.

Architecture may then be likened to an opera in which the passer-by/onlooker is a player.

Example : shade and light : natural movement of architecture

Shade casts shadows. Images in perpetual motion, never or rarely the same.
Shade and light offer both visual and sensory variations (coldness, heat, etc.)
Shade varies (among other things) with the movement of the sun.
Add to this the movement of the object that casts a shadow in a particular space and whose colours and warmth are constantly reinvented.
Add further combinations of objects and give each its own movements.
Combined with the movements of the sun and any clouds, the space created becomes a symphony of projected lines and shapes. Now add the visitors and let the opera commence!

Space changes at each and every moment. It moves of its own accord…


Interactivity and movement: architectural experiments

A large number of studies and experiments have been conducted into the twin notions of movement and interactivity. Examples are Constant’s atmospheric machines, the research done by the Hans Rucker Co., Coop Himmelblau, Archigram, Cédric Price, some of Nox’s works, Fujiko Nakaya’s fog building, Diller and Scofidio, and the list is far from exhaustive…

But is interaction obliged to involve physic awareness of the subject? Must human beings always be at the centre of the world, at the centre of all architecture? What is the type of space where priority should be given to the psyche? How can the process be developed beyond the creation of iconic buildings/works of art (even if these act as precursors)?

Architecture in the early 20th century, which was inspired by art, sought to create brand new spaces (buildings, towns). Research was essentially plastic, in a bid to achieve often static aesthetic geometric and/or functional shapes. Today (and for the last few decades) the aim seems to be to create living machines, at times even in formal terms, for example the biomorphist movement. But can and should architecture become a living machine? And, if so, what type of machine?

Think of a building that is more or less opaque depending on the light, which draws from the earth, and whose every element is randomly deconstructed, yet remains consistent overall.
Think of a deciduous tree.

The architect is always in competition with living architecture, the architecture of nature or « God the Architect », the creator of shapes and forms, some of which He has chosen to bring to life.
Architecture has learned how to reproduce inanimate nature; it has sought to discover the origins of different forms and shapes. It has simplified them to the greatest possible degree, from pyramids to Greek temples. Today, computer technology and the many and different links with biological, physical or mathematical research are bringing us increasingly complex, increasingly chaotic forms. But should architecture really be trying to imitate nature or reproduce it? We think not. Should it try to cast nature aside replacing it with spaces designed by man and man alone? Again, we think not. Research should focus more on dialogue or even interaction with nature as it exists rather than on imitating or refuting it. Nature may be one of many sources of inspiration but we should be trying to bring architecture to life without trying, at the same time, to make it into a living being .
« Two dangers that never cease threatening the world: order and disorder », wrote Paul Valéry. Two others are imitation and negation…
It seems therefore worth trying to create new atmospheres, to use interactivity not in order to breathe life into inanimate objects but to create a new relationship between the construct, on the one hand, and the « outside » environment, nature and the human beings inhabiting the space, on the other.


Interactive space today

Surely one of the most effective examples of interactive space today is the immense virtual space offered by the Internet? A whole new world where Amazon’s books or Google’s (useful?) advertising are geared towards individual personalities, tastes, desires and requirements. With each click, a new proposal automatically pops up… setting off a cycle that only stops when the surfer decides to call a halt. The web also offers a meeting place, for individual encounters or mass forums, a magic space with sites where people can forge contacts with other like-minded ‘compatible’ individuals. Internet smoothly adapts to each of its users. The surfer is stationary and the virtual space adapts to his requirements as he « waits for the right wave »… The Internet bubble acts as a concentrator to give virtually instant access to a huge number of real services. It makes nothing of the distance between different territories (sites) and adapts, proposes, interacts with its surfers. A New Babylon, even if its inhabitants are a long way removed from Constant’s ‘homo ludens’ … Internet is a virtual web, a vast space that interacts to a greater or lesser degree with the psyche of the passer-by, stroller or surfer.

Does this mean that we need to inject the same type of interaction into real full-size systems? Perhaps not, although examples do already exist.
Some physical spaces may be considered interactive, a good example being a nightclub. The individual or dancer enters an enclosed space containing …. a starry night. This enclosed space is constantly moving and, as long as he or she remains there, the individual is nothing more than a homo ludens… It is the environment that changes: sounds, smells, lights, materials (smoke, froth, etc.) and with each change there is interaction between those watching or dancing via the DJ, a sort of high priest, a master of ceremonies of the night. A nightclub represents a constantly changing space, which varies from one moment to another as the mass of dancers on the floor form a series of different shapes. These clubbers or dancers are tuned into to the environment (controlled by the DJ) and the environment (the DJ) is tuned into to the dancers. Within this enclosed space, the individual (the « sphere » of being) is fully plunged into a writhing, interactive environment that creates sensations and impressions among the onlookers, at times drug-enhanced. Nightclubs are places that are unique, ephemeral, where people go to play, to embark on a physical and psychic trip away from the real world. Nightclubs are rather like a collective atmospheric machine, a specific environment enclosed in its own particular space.
But is this the sort of interactivity we want in other physical spaces?


Other possible forms of interactivity

Perhaps we should go back to the beginning and, keeping strictly to the point, give some thought to how we could create another type of interaction. Let us start by seeing which are the elements that could interact. There are basically 4 such elements:
the outside environment that existed before a building was developed
the building, which by its very presence on the site partly changes the outside environment and creates an inside environment (environment created by human beings for themselves). This inside environment is variable and no longer dependent on outside phenomena (weather, etc.). It protects what it contains from the outside environment (primary function of architecture).
a human being, onlooker or dweller as an individual considered as a « sphere » (the physical being plus a certain amount of space around).
the group, which is simply all the individuals who happen to be in a given space at a given moment in time.
[But also all the "nspaces" present in the surroundings]

Interaction may therefore take place between
one person and another.
This may occur in a variety of environments, even at a distance (mobile phone, Internet…)
one group and another.
This may also occur in a variety of environments, even at a distance (video screens, Internet…)
a person and a group.
a person and a manmade environment.
This is what happens, for example, in cyberspace.
a group and a manmade environment
This is always the case in cyberspace or a nightclub or concert (sometimes via a master of ceremonies…)
a person (or group) and an outside environment.
These have a mutual effect on each other, for example via pollution (changes in the outside environment brought about by human beings) and major or minor weather phenomena that are often unforeseeable and almost impossible to control … (cause/effect?)
Inside and outside environments.
Seen over a very short period of time3 (a day), the inside environment has an infinitesimal effect on the outside environment, essentially by creating waste. In return, the outside environment has virtually no effect on the inside environment, especially with the widespread use of air-conditioning (except for the light-/shade phenomenon).

The fact that the outside environment has so little effect on the inside environment tends to make most inside environments very similar in space and time. The result is that some places, such as covered shopping malls, airports, etc. all end up looking very much the same – non-places (Marc Augé), where everything seems to be pre-programmed. The only random factor is when such places provide a meeting point for different individuals, when this is still possible. …They are supposed to be adapted to the individual but are a long way from the Eden presented by Yves Klein in his air architecture concept. But unlike Klein and others, we are not in favour of seeking an ideal and then reproducing it in identical fashion over and over again. Instead we think it better to reintroduce the notion of time to offer something unexpected, by creating different versions of the « ideal », environments that would all be unique, variable and original, antidotes to uniformity, depression and boredom. The peace and calm, the Eden described by Yves Klein could be one of these environments but only one of many. It should not be endlessly reproduced.
This means that if there is to be interaction, then it should be between the outside and inside environments and not just between the inside environment and the individual (already the case, as we have seen, with the global phenomenon that is Internet and a number of other places, such as nightclubs). For us, interaction between an inside environment partly controlled by the individual and an outside environment out of his or her control would be one way of bringing the variable and unexpected back into an inside environment that is all too predictable today.


Towards interaction between inside and outside environment

Interaction between the inside and outside environments was quite common in the past, often at the expense of the individual, who tried – and succeeded thanks to technology – to protect himself. These efforts culminated all too often in environments where everything is completely under control (humidity, temperature, draughts…). With the spread of air conditioning, it has been possible to create environments offering what are considered to be ideal standards of comfort but these have contaminated far too many places in the world, wherever they are and whatever purpose they serve. We have ended up with neutral environments that have no taste or flavour of their own, a bit like food containing all the ingredients we need to stay alive and flourish but completely bland. It seems to us today that the time has come to try, whenever possible, to offer inside environments that are not all the same and able to change over time. We need to give our environments back their flavour. Yet it is interaction between the inside and outside environments that creates movement, originality, something unique and unexpected for the stroller and/or onlooker and for the dweller. With the new technologies available today, and computers in particular, it would be possible to create a system that would not be totally random (computer-produced random variables, random music trends [Ircam] or Greg Lynn in architecture…) but with parameters that could be dependent on variations in the outside environment. Similarly, the outside environment could change in relation to such stimuli, thus creating an interactive system.
The individual is more or less outside the system and may well be surprised … depending on where he is, and because he is part of his environment, the individual may in turn exert an effect on this environment (inside or outside). He may therefore also play a minor part in this interaction without being central to the system. Space may affect him and so he may react and, in some cases, his reaction may, in turn, alter the environment (each bubble may more or less alter the froth)… Be that as it may, space is a source of surprises, it is not static, it is different from one place to another, from one moment to another in time. The environment has its own identity, shaped by the architecture that made it what it is, by the different forms it can take and by the outside environment that prompts and orchestrates these changes in form.

Experience, examples of programming:

In 1955 in Saint-Cloud (near Paris) Nicolas Schöffer created the so-called « cybernetic tower », a sound-equipped structure reacting to information captured in its environment, where variations in temperature, ambient noise or light triggered sound recordings built into the structure of the tower. In actual fact the tower is a hollow, open structure that does not contain an inside environment. The interaction takes place exclusively in a common outside environment. The idea today would be to make general use of this same process of creating an inside environment that can be affected by stimuli from outside.

wind x … => slight change in colour or in brightness of the light inside the building

clear sky => light breeze…
rain => movement in a partition…

and conversely

general change smokescreen
in colour or brightness of light => concealing part of the building
inside the building (e.g. Venice footbridge plans)
The environment is no longer solely affected by the onlooker but by a much wider range of phenomena… Architecture is then unique in both space and time. The onlooker as an individual is no longer sole master or recipient at the centre of the system. He is one among many. This enables us to move away from the « homocentrism » still typical of much of recent and present research into movement and interactivity.

Of course it is possible to include other spaces within this space. These may be virtual interactive space within the inside environment. At times the limits between virtual and real may even vanish as a result.

Environment, energy and intrinsic flows…

The outside environment thus acts as a stimulus for the inside environment, and creates variations in it that are neither random nor mathematical. This creates a temporal link between the inside and outside changes, with the outside environment dictating the pace.
It acts on the inside environment and, by extension, on ‘dwellers or strollers’. [who, may in turn exert an influence on the outside environment by their position inside or on the Internet.]

The system created between the two major blocks of inside and outside environment is complex. It is not simply a system of binary interaction (e.g. dweller/dwelling). It is a system in which a number of factors may intervene and exert an influence on each other. The different actions and reactions may even have an aesthetic function (to break the monotony…) but may also be used to produce or save energy (e.g. visible or concealed wind turbines).
When creating a building the architects will have to develop not only a programme, in the architectural sense of the term, but also an IT program4 to ensure that the inside environment is no longer made totally antiseptic by the presence of air-conditioning systems… In this way, buildings will be able to recover their ability to vary and surprise their users.
We are only referring here to those computer programs that create action in response to given outside stimuli but all these processes are very similar to the way in which our ancestors used materials, forms and voids to harness the wind, recover and even store water or capture heat from the sun. The only difference is the method, which is designed to multiply, amplify or convert the effects.
If in the past (or even today) we were able to invent mechanisms that could take the flow of rainwater and transform it into music (musical fountain), then surely with computer technology we should be able to invent and develop new paradigms of cause/effect.
An avenue to be explored…


Eric Cassar  2006  -  Translated from french by Christine Cross


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