Digital Technologies In Architecture: Principles and Applications.
Master in Advanced Architecture
IaaC - Institut d’Arquitecura Avanzada de Catalunya
FPC –Fundació Politécnica de Catalunya
JAVIER OLMEDA email@example.com
MAITE BRAVO firstname.lastname@example.org
LUIS ODIAGA email@example.com
12. 17. 2007
In recent years, we have seen the integration of various media through the digitalization of information. The means by which we perceive and process it has given us the ability understand and deal with it in new ways, as more data is being digitalized, i.e. sounds, images, and texts. In this paper, we will first discuss several of the reasons for which digital information in general, and interaction in particular, has affected the very meaning of architecture, and how, from the early attempts using the computer as a tool for making plans and elevations, the computer has become the principal tool to generate and develop architecture embedded with concepts like chaos, uncertainty, interactivity, and feedback loops.
We use the example of the reacTABLE, a table-top electro-acoustical instrument based on tangible interfaces as a reference for introducing not just visual interaction but one which also includes tactile as well as aural concerns. We then proceed to analyze a specific case in architecture, R&Sie(n)’s Dusty Relief/ B_mu in Bangkok, which explore similar concepts.
informational, Tangible User Interfaces, multi-sensorial, responsive environments
1. The Digit-all environment
1.1 INTERFACE DESIGN: Current Developments
The development of a theoretical framework for innovative computational environments to relate digital and design processes are of extreme importance for contemporary architecture, given the evident shift occurring in the fields of research, education and practice related to the emergence of digital architecture.
In the book ‘Pervasive Computing’, Malcolm McCullough (2004) questions the current practice of interface design, citing the ‘desktop computer’ as an interface now 20 years old that needs and has potential for new possibilities. He challenges professionals to look beyond the current interface operations to stimulate new relations. Architecture should embrace the possibilities of interactive design as a way of embodying user participation and locatedness. Embedded computing technologies are becoming increasingly more prevalent; embedded systems need to be dynamic in their interaction, with their environment, with their users and each other ‘...for architecture’s new digital layer to be effective, it must be able to accumulate in unpredictable ways. Pervasive computing must be extensible and it must help make physical places adaptable.” (1)
Manuel de Landa points out that “…the general consensus is that interfaces must become more intelligent to be able to guide users in the tapping of computer resources, both the informational wealth of the Internet, as well as the resources of ever more elaborate software applications”. (2)
1.2 USER-MEDIA INTERFACES
Some recent technological advancements related to the user-media interface are challenging the boundaries between user and media. This boundary as a mediator between the user and the media seems critical in the shaping and the formulation of responses.
The key in the development of digital processes to enhance the practice of architecture is in the tool with which the various tasks involved have been represented, enabled or enhanced using computer technology. The digital representation of architectural entities and the digital manipulation of those entities have provided alternate means to produce architecture. Drawing, modeling, performance simulation, design collaboration, construction management and building fabrication are now routinely performed using computer-based technology.
Advances in computing based on the study of natural processes such as biology, genetic evolution and emergence, now suggest that the elusive nature of creative architectural thought can be articulated and further applied in a technologically mediated environment. The future of digital processes rests on the ability of computer-mediated environments to facilitate the creation of architectural designs created so that digital thinking becomes indeed architectural thinking.
“CATIA provides a way for me to get closer to the craft," said Frank Gehry referring to the software that was implemented in his practice. "In the past, there were many layers between my rough sketch and the final building, and the feeling of the design could get lost before it reached the craftsman. It feels like I've been speaking a foreign language, and now, all of a sudden, the craftsman understands me. Flat drawings of curved surfaces can be beautiful, but they are deceptive; with CATIA you can see how to build it." (Paris, May 2001)
Figure 1: CATIA Software screenshot (Image: www.transcat.de)
1.2.1 Updating Architecture
Over the last century vast conceptual and spatial transformations have developed in relation to the introduction of computer graphics, but architectural representation has remained somewhat constant from the traditional architectural representation generated based on the conventional Renaissance models. How do contemporary models of communication, mass production, distribution and imaging can and will influence the conception and production of architecture?
The ability to generate construction information directly from design information is arguably one the most profound defining aspects of contemporary architecture. The close relationship that once existed between architecture and construction re-emerges as an unintended but fortunate outcome of the new digital processes of production (CAD, CAM, and CAE). As constructability becomes a direct function of digitizing information, what new instruments of practice are needed to take advantage of the opportunities unveiled by the digital modes of production?
The question remains: will architects be able to use innovative ways of dealing with digital interfaces in order to explore space with such an intuitive approach? Furthermore, will digital technology change the way architects practice architecture and most importantly, will digital technology shape the future of architecture in the twenty-first century?
1.3 EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
A variety of emerging technologies are appearing in different fields that can be used as referential to the development of digital interfaces in architecture. The multi-touch computer screen may herald the end of the point-and-click mouse with no keyboard interface. Conceived as a transparent drafting table with multiple-touch sensors, it allows the user to input data using fingers, two hands or even multiple users to manipulate data simultaneously, redefining completely the interaction user-media. The importance of this systems lies in data visualization and graphics tools, it will make better use of the data, mapping, mesh applications and manipulation of 3D models. This technology represents a very active field of research that may change completely the relationship user-media in the near future.
Figure 2: Multi-touch computer screen. (Image: http://www.tecnovideoblog.it)
2. Case Studies
2.1 THE REACTABLE
A few years ago, a small group of people was conceiving new ways of upgrading the means of playing music. The purpose was to create a collaborative electronic music instrument with a tabletop, tangible multi-touch interface, capable of expressing aural terms visually and interactively. Since 2002, the reacTABLE is being developed by a team led by Sergi Jordà at the Music Technology Group in the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. The principal aim of it was “to create a tangible electronic musical instrument that allows expressive collaborative live performances for professional musicians without the limits of many screen-based interfaces for electronic music”. (Figure 1)
Figure 3: Four hands interacting with the reacTABLE (Image: www.infovis.net)
2.1.2 How it works
This instrument is based on another software synthesizer named FMOL, developed between 1997 and 2002. An interesting interface emerged by rendering aural information visually, enabling the simultaneous control of another set of parameters in order to understand different effects in real time. Thus “the screen behaves simultaneously as an output and as an input, as both representation and control.”
The reacTable is conceived as a round table, as there is no leading voice or privileged point-of-view. Instead, it is an arena or field in which a set of operations may happen. The musical act is converted in an interactive event between instrument and instrumentalist, which rather than playing notes, use objects that represent components with specific functions (generators, filters, modulators, and controllers). These objects affect each other either by proximity or type, enabling the manipulation of infinite combinations. As a result, music turns into a highly dynamical inter-responsive environment.
This intuitive approach demonstrates that creativity, when related with expressiveness and freedom, becomes important in any complex or free enough interaction process, such as the ones in which the paths to a goal are open or when the goal itself is open.
Figure 4: The reacTABLE diagram. (Image: Jordá, S. http://mtg.upf.es/reactable)
If this kind of technology can be employed to generate music in visual and tactile terms, then it raises questions about how architects may be able to find innovative ways of dealing with similar interfaces in order to explore space not with a visual approach, but with such intuitive ones. As a result, some architects are becoming aware of these phenomena, and are already experimenting with inter-relationships and events and leaving behind static built forms.
2.2 INTERACTION REVISED
The anthropocentric worldview is the believe in the human being as the center of knowledge, and by extension the center of the whole reality. Due to this approach and because of the digital context there is a misunderstanding of the term “interaction”. Now on, is well known that the interaction between technology and the users is an everyday fact. Nevertheless, the term interaction cannot be restrained just to the relation between humans and other things.
The relation between the different components of an eco-system, let’s say the symbiotic relation between a flower and a bee, —while the first gives food supplies to the second, the flying source serves as a flexible bond in the pollination, this is the transfer of pollen grains— is in fact an “interaction” —there is an effect on the two components of the system—. While the flower gets its reproductive need of transporting the pollen in order to pollinate another flower, the bee gets the food resources that the colony needs. In this very simple example we find the basis of what is called “interaction”. Interaction cannot be referred only as the actual situation of getting a response from a “responsive environment” when moving hands, or walking nears the system. Interaction is not only restrained to the human-computer system, in fact we can find interaction almost in all the living systems that surround us.
2.2.1 The B_mu Project
Despite the digital technologies are developed in order to satisfy the needs of the “demand”, is possible to achieve newer ways of reinforcing or illustrate some interaction which is actually happening in our surroundings. Let’s take as an example the “Dusty Relief / B_mu” project of R&Sie(n) in Bangkok. In this type of city the interaction of the ghostly emergence of “breeding dust” is a very close fact to many other cities where the contamination is over the healthy limits for the population; for instance Mexico City, Manhattan or Lima, are cities where there is a very close relation between the amount of contamination and the everyday life. There is of course a “deep-interaction” between the lounges of people and the carburetors of the engines. Due the impossibility of watching people’s lounges and the “amount-of-interaction” it can be said that is a kind-of hidden interaction, but which is of course happening.
The B_mu project reveals this interaction. The project is a museum which embraces a re-think of the “white-cube” and the influence of the context in the work of art. The white cube is the gallery space, this is the most neutral and empty place where all the works of art can find a place to be exhibited, the need of re-think this kind of space deals with the concern of the artists and curators to expose the work of art in it’s own context, like the graffiti on the streets deserves to be exposed in the streets as a manifestation of the urban culture; nevertheless, when a piece-of-art is needed to be exposed, the experience have led the work-art to be exposed in the gallery [white cube] subtracting it from its own context and putting it into a neutral, empty one.
Figure 5: A model showing a cloud of electrostatically charged pollution. (Image: Verb Natures, Barcelona: Actar)
While the City of Bangkok got this illuminated-dusty identity flowing around the B_mu museum deals with two matters in one proposal which tries to solve the problem of the white cube as reference in a specific context and the white cube as an aseptic space to exhibit the de-contextualized work of art. “Interaction” is the keyword here. The project was developed in the basis that the dust can be attracted to an electro statically-charged surface in order to get a imprint of the levels of contamination and dust that are flowing around the sky of Bangkok, this means a reveal of the context in which the project is placed. This imprint is a look-like fur made of dust, which is able to become a reference in the context where it is developed. Here, “interaction” is not about a human interacting with a responsive environment, but the building interacting with the environment and getting an imprint of it.
Figure 6: B_mu section and elevation. (Image: Verb Natures. Barcelona: Actar)
We have explored the development and involvement of digital media regarding interactivity
Digital technologies are expanding and re-defining the concept of materiality, as in-formation is increasingly being used as a primary source for new material formations. In addition, our relationship with virtual environments is offering endless possibilities in the conception and design processes, to the point where the simulacrum seems all the more real.
We have also seen how tabletop interface instruments function as an example of how digital media enables multi-parametric and shared control, allowing complex interactions to emerge. Architects are becoming increasingly aware of this and are looking for innovative ways to incorporate this kind of technology into their designs.
As an outcome, the role of architects is changing, as it is leaving behind traditional notions based on a highly specialized, isolated discipline. Nowadays the role of the architect is similar to that of an orchestrator of unfixed data-driven processes. They are, along scientists, engineers, and artists, being an integral component of the expanded inter-digital field, where information is not fixed but is in a constant state of flux. The share of information and multidisciplinary approach to architecture needs to become even more drastic, this is to include different approaches to the way interaction is understood and to incorporate in the design process richer elements; this may be the reveal or an imprint of the different systems which surround us avoiding the anthropocentric world view.
In the bright future the relation between the process of design and the interaction between the building and its interlocutors will be achieved in just one step, this is a whole interaction which is able to lead to a design and a designed-interactive object. This may become in a reformulation of what is understood as architecture and maybe even the name will change to express the new-powerful condition of being an architect.
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