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Living Bits and Bricks

From brick to rare earth metal, the elements of our architecture − though remaining geological in origin − have evolved to the point of bursting into life, rather than merely mimicking biological form. This presages a brave new feedback-fuelled world where we don’t just inhabit our architecture but integrate with it

“Him I call an Architect, who, by sure and wonderful Art and Method, is able, both with Thought and Invention, to devise, and, with Execution, to compleat all those Works, which, by means of the Movement of great Weights, and the Conjunction and Amassment of Bodies, can, with the greatest Beauty, be adapted to the Uses of Mankind“1

Leon Battista Alberti, The Ten Books of Architecture, The 1755 Leoni Edition, Preface


THE NEW OLD


Visitors to these British Isles often remark on their quaintness, particularly their buildings. They marvel at how charming and unlikely and – essentially, unspokenly – how unfitting our swathes of brick are – so antique yet persistent, our cities built by all these teeny, painful little blocks, laid like penance. Beneath their anachronistic appearance, however, these little overcoats are laden with lasers, plush with plasmas, stuffed with sensors and surveillance systems. As contemporary as they are old-fashioned, as fuddy-duddy as futuristic, they offer a strange form of twin-faced self-portraiture, a memento of this moment of inner contrariness, reaching both for past and future.

The cloud by Carlo Ratti, Alex Haw

The Cloud by Carlo Ratti, Alex Haw

They were the pattern and texture of a rapidly industrialising and expanding age, a time when cities spread like viral videos, buildings erupting from the very clay they stood on. If these little lumps were humbly hewn from their host earth, they presaged an age of rapid industrialisation and mass reproduction, patterning buildings that revolutionised our methods of building, embracing fast-paced catalogue consumerism and the new steel and glass technologies that would grow far beyond them.

The digital revolution has brought forth yet another heady age of extraordinary speed and flux, expansion and transformation, and yet some of the ideals embodied by that antiquated age-old brick – simplicity, modularity, manoeuvreability, familiarity – and smallness – still linger on.

Small is the new big. Nano is mega in our age of devices, where power expands as size recoils. Eulogised and fetishised, the handheld is everywhere, and so utterly indispensable that we’re all back madly digging – now for foreign rare-earth minerals rather than our own local loam. Now we all carry bricks (and, increasingly, stone-less tablets), and we couldn’t live without them.

Mobiles are our future, the lifeblood of our lifestyles, the neurones of our networks and soon – the central structure of our cities. They may not offer shelter (few roofs are made of bricks) but they’ll activate the awnings before its started raining. Soon enough city-dwellers will be utterly dependent on these miniaturised and embedded computers, and via them on each other – reliant on the crucial crowd-sourced data that feeds the mighty machine mouths and minds of our metropolises.

Inanimate bricks and mortar (simplistic primal hubs nestled in a sea of networks) have become inextricably, inalienably associated with a digital age that marries code and matter, the physical with the virtual. Though mute and hitherto unprogrammable, they’ve become the physical companions to less-physical bits and pixels, comingled in a binary opposition that seems ever more momentary – perhaps, soon enough, even passé. If architecture is evolving into a networked computer – rather than a machine – for living in, the brick was our best precursor for the chips we’ll build with – a fat stepping stone on the journey towards smart dust and atomisation.


CEASELESS REVOLUTION


The history of architecture is a mighty sea of revolutions – erosive and energising, destructive and transformative, ceaselessly changing, yet seamlessly ever-similar. We are in awe of our own age as our antecedents were and always have been.

The cloud by Carlo Ratti, Alex HawThe cloud by Carlo Ratti, Alex Haw

Technological transformations bring tumult; bursts of death and birth. Renaissance revolutions of architectural representation enabled radically new spatialities and unprecedented complexity. Brunel, Eiffel and Freyssinet slew gravity with their ethereal steel and prestressed structures, while – just then, just above – Nadar’s aerial photography presaged our age of information and itinerarism, and our reliance on remote sensing. Augmentations like electric lighting, air conditioning and wireless networking all revolutionised our atmospheres as much as our structures, prefacing our current architectural trajectory of etherealisation.

Progress in our current digital age is now so rapid that even Moore’s Law2 is less than enough; Kryder’s Law predicts doubling of digital storage at double the speed, and Butters’ Law of Photonics suggests a doubling of fibre-optic bandwidth even faster. We are once more at one of those defining moments, in thrall to microscopic fluctuations rather than macroscopic statics. In an age of powerful new systems and radically emancipated social relations, architecture – the persistent and unavoidable nexus and mediator between people and technology – lies at the heart of future change: its epitome, not just host, with the capacity to embody the opportunities of this accelerated manmade evolution.

“Soon enough the term ‘building codes’ will suggest genetic architectural opportunities rather than institutional strictures”

Tomorrow’s buildings will not so much overcome gravity as air resistance, sinking their tentacles and antennae deep into the fertile atmosphere as much as they have always sunk their foundations into that brick-bearing ground. Their fabric will be laced with circuits and software, their spaces managed by an artificial intelligence of their own. Our specifications will concentrate on the integration of computation rather than application of cladding, designing systems rather than shelters – a mesh of operations that aggregate into singular, cybernetic, sentient life-like mechanisms.


BUILDING LIFE


Like an automaton with an inkling, architecture has always wanted more – to be one of us, self-aware, pulsing with life; it has always sought to mimic the living. Throughout history, inflection of form and motifs of growth and nature have pressed persistently through the surfaces of our edifices – ecstatically declaring the animation of built space, facilitating the fantasy (felt to be a fiction) of  architecture as partner organism, an active participant in an interactive relationship with humanity. Architectural explorations from the Gothic to the Baroque, Expressionism to Deconstructivism, Modernism to Parametricism, have all unceasingly animated still static matter with the illusion of life - typically through appeal to growing or flowing geometries, invariably with the life-free result of fixed and frozen form.

But as these words we co-write shuttle weightlessly across the Atlantic, exactly 100 years after the travails of our last Ice Age (with Scott’s Southern expedition and the Titanic up North both also fixing and freezing), it seems the ice is rapidly thawing; that our digital age is enabling our built environment to at last spring to real, not just metaphorical, life – performatively entwining with humanity, climate and nature as our very first form of actual Living Architecture.

Digital Water Pavilion by Carlo Ratti

Digital Water Pavilion by Carlo Ratti

INFORMATION & ORGAN-ISATION

If the Victorian age refined the architectural systems of digestion and excretion and Modernism revolutionised our architectural respiration, the Digital Age has accelerated development of all proto-biological systems – but most of all the all-controlling central nervous system. Building Management Systems are the neural networks of built space, managing their host architectural bodies, nurturing the homeostasis of our places.

The old ‘orders’ of architecture are on the move, migrating from the clip-on columnar ornament to a broader structural role – as the core operating mechanisms that categorise, control, and truly completely ‘order’ the modern building. If computers were once the size of buildings, buildings are now becoming computers – Corb’s ‘machines’ now ‘ordinateurs à habiter’: active, intelligent systems laced with programming and processors, sensors and actuators, constantly assessing and recalibrating our environments, engaged in dialogue with a range of forces far wider than our age-old nemeses of mere gravity and raindrops.


THE CODE OF CONSTRUCTION


The theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman observed that the source of life was code3– and so it is with the life of buildings. Code is to architecture like the atom to matter – its base unit;4 almost everything in contemporary architecture is ultimately code. Code (usually invisibly and inaccessibly) drove the software that ushered in the first digital revolution of architectural production and the proliferation of CAD in the ’90s; now it drives almost everything from the manufacture of materials to the design of their composition, the  production of spaces to the management of their occupancy.

Sunland by Carlo Ratti, Alex HawSunlands, Atmos

Code unifies all the stages of architecture. It is the core constituent of architectural design, construction and occupation, and the source of all built life. It powers the simulations that presage and pre-visage most construction, and provides critical post-construction feedback. Virtual life-forms (like genetic and evolutionary algorithms, cellular automata and autonomous agents), all enable unparalleled levels of computation and design optimisation, accelerating the design of everything from machines to whole cities, generating active, self-aware digital systems inseparable from the flesh of life itself. New architecture requires writing rather than drawing, scripts over scribbles, and a return to the quasi-Masonic distinction of learning crucial new languages. Soon enough the term ‘building codes’ will suggest genetic architectural opportunities rather than institutional strictures.


DIGITAL DESIGN


Early digital architectural avant-gardism arose from experiments with life-simulation through animation software. Typically it stunted the rapture of motion with the rigours of unflinching frozen forms, embalming a mirage of movement, but never its actual flux. Yet already the act of design increasingly merges both biological and digital life forms, inscribed by its own specific forms of movement, activated by a host of input devices – from mouse to mic, camera to keyboard, tablet to touchscreen – all conversing with central networked computer systems that daily become ever more life-like. Time becomes an integral spatial dimension to both intention and performance, measured and integrated from project workflow to built workplace, instantly antiquating planar drawings.

Contemporary Parametricism enables powerful adaptive control of core architectural geometries, combining enhanced rationality and unprecedented invention, merging generative geometries with compositional complexity, procedural efficiency with emergent effects, enabling the design of relationships, behaviours and modes of operation that endure beyond construction – enabling true biomimesis over mere biomorphism. Advanced computation eclipses previous design tendencies towards repetition, genericism and mass production will cede in favour of total individuation, personalisation and customisation; ultimate embedment of computation within final products and spaces offers yet further opportunity for rich behavioural adaptation.

Outreach by Alex Haw, Mauritius Seeger

Outreach by Alex Haw, Mauritius Seeger


DIGITAL COLLABORATION


New digital tools enable instant networks and social opportunities, often (last year in particular) to devastating effects – enlisting crowds to oppose (or depose) despots and mighty military regimes, or stake out places for openness and Occupation. These same tools are shattering the creative industries’ pre-digital notions of copyright, ownership and authorship – promoting congruence over isolation, horizontal collaboration over trickle-down pyramids, spurring radical accessibility, and expanded cross-disciplinary pro-am participation. New online working models and spaces like Building (BIM) and City (CIM) Information Modelling afford unprecedented levels of knowledge and power to the clients, visitors, designers and consultants navigating, experiencing and co-authoring their models and spaces.

Like more emergent media, digitally-enabled architecture invites and incorporates a peer-produced (rather than ‘price-incentivised’) pantheon of open-source, user-generated content, where the evolution of code is astonishingly accelerated through open sharing. ‘Citizen architecture’ offers vital assets to the cloistered professional, with its vast range of knowledge platforms, production tools and cross-disciplinary resources deployed across the stages of a building’s life, aggregating crowd-sourced content with accessible institutional data. Public digital tools enable ‘neography’, and radically democratised planning, offering unfettered access to hitherto-hidden documentation and information, facilitating the three-dimensional navigation and site-contextualisation of both existing and proposed spaces, and hosting extended public discussions and interactions.

The cloud by Carlo Ratti, Alex Haw

The Cloud by Carlo Ratti, Alex Haw


DIGITAL FABRICATION


Almost all of our building materials are made and mixed, cut and constructed, shipped and sold by an intricate orchestration of machines and computers. In more sophisticated examples, these separate links are finally forming connected chains, operating in unison while computers edge closer to the very centre of fabrication and construction, direct from drawing board to drawing room. Design files for ever larger components and systems can be cut, carved, printed, fused and fabricated in an ever-widening range of materials, with on-site digital fabrication and robotic automation increasingly supplementing smaller-scale prototypes. Almost anything can be cut, milled and sintered, and now predominantly printed (if not yet grown), from gold to titanium, soldered circuits to solar cells; soon enough, too, foods and flesh.

Construction sites will soon use live real-time, auto-updating computer systems (rather than inanimate instantly-superseded drawings) that display crucial third and fourth dimensions, integrate automatic laser-accurate guidance of component placement, and radically optimise construction coordination. Like the way their drawings always have, buildings will eventually exhibit that least likely sign of life – reproduction itself. As ever more physical materials require their own virtual journey, digitally designed and databased, tagged and managed, shaped and fabricated, and as manufacturing slowly shifts from the far-flung factory to the ultra-local site (or even home itself) nascent self-replicating technologies like Rep-Rap suggest a future where buildings self-replicate and spawn their own evolutionarily-enhanced future generations.

Sunland by Alex Haw, Carlo RattiSunlands, Atmos


INHABITABLE UBICOMP


If information is the new architecture’s lifeblood, computers are its cells. Chips and microprocessors, sensors and networks are now all more vital and integral to the physicality of our built environment than any single pre-digital building material; carbon-fibre might replace steel or ETFE might replace glass, but nothing yet replaces silicone.  

Everything in our evolving architecture – from a speculative detail to a construction component, a laser-guided beam to a server card – is addressed and located within the deep spatio-temporal universe of digital dimensions that exist alongside and within, not opposite or beyond, the physical spaces we all know. Mark Weiser’s ‘Internet of Things’ is rapidly expanding to become an inhabitable Internet of Spaces (inhabicomp), lending agency to an active, mediatic architecture of occupiable information portals, great aggregations of both space and data, formed of – and housing – both.

Sunland by Carlo Ratti, Alex Haw

Sunlands, Atmos


NERVOUS PLACES AND SENSITIVE SPACES


Distributed sensors are emerging in every corner and component of our lives, from suit pockets to city parks, gathering and relaying streams of data from myriad digital addresses to distributed processing units, cross-connecting and mediating databases of our daily spaces. Buildings are beginning to perform as (not just look like) organisms – as aggregated sensors within the larger ecology of their host city – as are cities within countries, and countries within planets. As sensors reduce in size, every item of architecture becomes a potential location for integrating invisible ‘smart dust’ – distributed, atomised, computerised micro-particles enabling spaces to sense, intercommunicate and activate.

“Small is the new big. Nano is mega in our age of devices, where power expands as size recoils”

The ambient mobile occupant5 now forms a crucial constituent of informational architecture systems, carrying or wearing lightweight networked devices (currently typically phones or tablets) laced with minute sensors and microcontrollers that contribute ever-larger parcels of real-time spatial data. At a larger scale, cars carry hundreds of sensors that can link between local pavements and interplanetary satellites; multiple-camera set-ups alone are currently already used to detect traffic speed, lane deviation, omnidirectional proximity, near or distant hazards, driver drunkenness and fatigue. As building production automates like in the production of the automobile, its spaces will become as highly sensitive and cybernetic, its relationship with us ever more intricate as we assimilate ever greater numbers of worn or within-us biosensors.


INHABITABLE INFORMATION


Ubiquitous input devices are matched by an ever wider proliferation of screens and information display systems that offer rich communication to our fellow humans, facilitating knowledge and enhanced context-awareness, and enabling fuller spatio-temporal understanding, and thus informed control of our environments. All conceivable surfaces can act as active media and offer ambient display, enriching space with renewable content.  Architecture is evolving from backdrop to foreground, object to subject, purveyor of an enhanced, immersive and interactive augmented reality. If true 3D and VRD displays are still nascent technologies, simpler 2D imagery can portray twice its own dimensions and afford a window onto virtual, inhabited 4D worlds where occupants can construct, navigate and interact with spatio-temporal digital environments in unprecedented ways. Data personalisation enables us to customise and tailor our feeds of information – and thus the intimate feel of our spaces, online and off.

Sunland by Carlo Ratti, Alex Haw

Sunlands, Atmos


PERFORMANCE


Statics cede to kinetics in a post-mechanical world where everything is on the move, sensing and activating, each part building and improving interactive relationships with its neighbouring bits and bricks and beings in a sea of active systems rather than passive sculptures. We increasingly see buildings as our active partners, and rely on them for results far beyond the subsistence 20th-century-levels of basic functionality, as they rely on us not just for maintenance, but for all their everyday operations, nourished by our feedback in a symbiotic loop of artificial architectural ecology.

Interactive architecture, like the term ‘new media’, is rapidly outdating as a rare and useful distinction, as all buildings commence dialogues with their users. Architecture at last promises to offer the cybernetic environments imagined and explored by Gordon Pask, where architecture acts as an interface and an enabling tool – a medium and a pathway rather than wall and obstacle. Contemporary architecture is awakening from the mute motionless matter it has always been into an active state of being, connecting rather than dividing, evolving and ongoing as a participatory performance, an inhabited form – or space – of life itself.

Credits

The Cloud: carlorattiassociatti, atmos, ARUP, Google ++

CITATIONS


 

[1] Our citation of Alberti recognises the historical foundations to our technophilic gushings and enjoys, in an age of precision, the blurriness of translation, interpreting his original wording of ‘corporum’ in the original Latin – or ‘corpi’ a century later (eventually translated by Rykwert, Tavernor and Leach as ‘bodies’, Choay and Paoli as ‘corps’, and Portoghesi as ‘corpi’) – to suggest the centrality of human ‘bodily’ agency as much as inanimate matter – and thus that already Alberti had paved the way towards an interactive and participatory digital architecture.

[2] Moore’s Law anticipates a feasible doubling of transistor numbers per chip (and thus computational power) every two years. (NB ignore this footnote unless it really needs explanation!!)

[3] The microcode of DNA.

[4] If you might counter that the base unit of matter is actually energy, we might counter that architecture’s is too – architecture being the reorganisation of our energy environments (in every sense of the word).

[5] (a.k.a us)

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