Instrumental Operations in the Urban Assemblage[1]

Colin Ripley

Responding to the air


In order to grasp this, let us take the example of a local cafe, a very quiet cafe whose atmosphere would suddenly become animated when some new arrival puts money in the jukebox. In New Babylon, each person can at any moment, in any place, alter the ambiance by adjusting the sound volume, the brightness of the light, the olfactive ambiance or the temperature. Should a small group enter a space, then the ordering of that space can become something else.[2] Constant Nieuwenhuys (1974)


Our personal experience is the only way we can understand acoustic space. That is why acoustic experimentation is so important. Empirical investigations will eventually make us hear forms, materials and perspectives. Bernhard Leitner (1998)


In recent years, a number of developments, both technological and cultural, with the potential to change the way we think about sound both on the architectural scale and on that of the city have permeated the core of advanced architectural thinking. These ideas – most notably responsive buildings and robotics, on the one hand, and an interest in the unseen, in the often invisible environmental conditions of architecture on the other – are not in principle new ideas; their roots can be easily traced back to futurist ideas of the 1950s and 1960s (for example, in the Smithson’s House of the Future, in Banham and Dallegret’s Environmental Bubble or in the early writings of Nicholas Negroponte). However, in the past decade the technical possibility of their realization has entered the domain of architecture and, indeed, of architectural practice (Smithson, Smithson, Van den Heuvel, Risselada and Colomina 2004; Banham 1965; Negroponte 1975). We have seen a large number of projects that relate to responsive or interactive architectures in recent years: buildings, components of buildings, or possible building components or environments that respond to climactic or weather conditions, user needs and desires, or other variables. Most examples of such responsive architecture, such as North House from 2009, designed and built by a consortium of universities in Canada led by Geoff Thün of the architectural design-research firm RVTR, have been pragmatic in their intent, often with the explicit goal of energy conservation; work of this sort has begun to enter mainstream culture with the arrival of consumer devices such as the Nest Learning Thermostat. Other examples have been speculative in terms of our relationship with a non-passive built environment, as in the case of Mark Goulthorpe’s Hyposurface, first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2000. The Hyposurface is in essence a moving wall which reacts to contact with individuals, altering, in real-time, the topology of the installation. While the Hyposurface is limited in its application, it points to the possibility of a changeable architecture capable of modification in real-time according to our whims. The work of Philip Beesley takes these ideas further, making use of new and emerging technologies to produce “living architectures” – environmental installations, often reminiscent of a fantastic forest, constructed of laser-cut plastic fronds, tubes, containers. Beesley’s many installations, such as 2010’s Hylozoic Ground, produced for the Canadian Pavilion in Venice, are not static: they recognize the presence of humans within the installation and respond as though alive. The effect is uncanny – we are not used to having our buildings recoil, as though in horror, from our presence, or to having them hiss at us. But Beesley too, like Goulthorpe, is pointing us toward a possible future architecture, one in which buildings react, seamlessly, to our presence. Indeed, Beesley’s work leads us to consider again the relationship between architecture and its occupants, to see these not so much as separate entities, but rather as symbiotic components of an environmental system, mutually affecting each other through their interactions.


While the works cited above have been forerunners in the development of responsive and interactive architectures, this area of research and development has expanded rapidly within architectural circles in the past few years. A number of significant publications, such as Fox and Kemp’s Interactive Architecture, have attempted to map this work, while interactive and responsive installations using motion sensors, Arduinos and lights, sounds or movement are now commonplace in architecture schools worldwide (Fox and Kemp 2009). Over the same period we have seen a strong and rapidly growing interest in the invisible components of architecture, most notably temperature and air quality, but also – as I will discuss shortly – sound. As in the case of responsive and interactive architecture, an interest in atmospheres can be pragmatic at its roots, with the intent of revisiting modernist thinking about environmental quality (which for the most part can be reduced, for modern architects, to air quality) in order to improve human comfort; key to this work is the writing of Michelle Addington (or the built projects of leading edge engineers such as Transsolar. Other projects making use of the invisible or atmospheric in architecture take a more speculative approach, asking what the conditions of the air might mean as groundwork for architectural thinking. Transsolar’s Cloudscapes, for example, another installation for the 2010 Venice Biennale, installed, through meticulous engineering, a cloud within one of the large rooms in the Arsenale, inviting visitors to walk up a spiral ramp into the cloud, posing specific if implicit questions about the nature of our inhabitation in the air. French architect Philippe Rahm, on the other hand, has produced a number of speculative designs for houses that make use of thermal gradients as the primary organizing principle, organizing programmatic functions in relation to a pre-existing thermal field, inverting the relationships between function and environment (Rahm 2009). In short, architectural thinking is shifting away from an understanding and concern with architecture as massive, static and monumental to a consideration of the manifold and multiple systems that make up our environment in the 20th century; buildings are no longer piles of rock, but rather – as Henri Lefebvre pointed out as early as 1968 – systems of flows. As Peter Sloterdijk has framed the issue, “with the transition from the 20th century to the 21st, the subject of the cultural sciences thus becomes: making the air conditions explicit” (Sloterdijk 2009). Architecture thus moves away from the tangible and discrete, away from a singular focus on buildings, on skins and shells, and towards the consideration and design of distributed attributes. Like the work on responsive and interactive architectures, the work on atmospheric design has developed its own body of literature – most notably, perhaps, Sean Lally’s The Air from Other Planets, which refocuses architectural thinking on the multiple forms of energy that define our environments (Lally 2014).


During these same years, a whole constellation of new technological developments, some now well-established and some still emerging, have aided in this cultural shift. Within the design and construction industry, these new potentials might include digital design, already a move away from the material, but more importantly, digital fabrication techniques, which start to re-forge a link between the two – digital and the material – and simulation techniques, which allow a digital evaluation of the performance (including acoustic performance) of a building, its components, or of an urban environment without needing to bother with construction. In buildings we have new regimes of sensing (including sensing of sound) and robotic-powered actuation (including electroacoustic actuation). In the broader world we now have ubiquitous computing, the internet of things, the internet of bodies. All of these technologies, and many others that are currently in development, need to be considered not as simple tools, but as powerful non-human actors within the networks that make up our contemporary environments, actors that can be made use of but not ignored.


[1] The author would like to thank Ryerson University, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for support for this work. In addition, I would like to that the following individuals and organizations for their efforts and collaborations: RVTR: Colin Ripley, Geoffrey Thün, Kathy Velikov, Mary O’Malley, Zain Abusier, Lisa Sauve, Adam Smith, Lauren Abrahams, Dan McTavish, Dr. Ted Kesick (Building Systems), Bart Lomanowski, Eric Malbeuf, Leila Mazhari, Farid Noufailly, Nebojse Ojdrovic (Structural), Matt Peddie, Maya Przybylski, Sonja Storey-Fleming, Matt Storus, Sara Dean, Christina Kull, Nick Safely, Eric Meyer, Anthony Pins, John Hilmes; University of Michigan: Dr. Jerome Lynch, Dr. Lars Junghans, Dr Aline Cotel, Julie Janiski, Lauren Shirley, Din Botsford, Geoffrey Salvatore, Anthony Pins, Sara Dean, Jessica Mattson, Jason Prasad, Chris Niswander, James Christian; Ryerson University: Dr. Alex Ferworn, Michael Blois, Michael Kim, Aaron Henderschott, Kyrylo Lobach, Alex Lelay, James Munroe, Mark Friesner, Clayton Payer; Industry Partners: David Bowick and Cory Burrell, Blackwell Bowick Partnership (Structural); Raj Patel, Terrance Culkins and David Rife, ARUP Acoustics (Acoustic Engineering); David Lieberman Architect; SMC Corporation (Pneumatic Controls).

[2] Many thanks to Sven Anderson for bringing this passage of Nieuwenhuys’ text to my attention at the Recomposing the City symposium in Belfast, May 2014.



In 2010, my partners Geoffrey Thün and Kathy Velikov of the Taubman College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Michigan and I, operating through our design-research firm RVTR, began work on a series of projects that sought to investigate, through design speculation and full-scale prototype construction, the architectural and formal potentials of these new developments. The first of the three prototypes that we developed, which we called the Stratus project, explicitly brought together the concern for responsive architectures – to be precise, responsive interior envelope systems – and the concern for the quality of the air. Making use of the new technologies of production – digital design, digital fabrication and environmental simulation – we designed and produced a working prototype for a thick responsive interior ceiling system that would detect movement, temperature, humidity and the presence of some pollutants in the air and react through changing lighting, cooling through air delivered by micro-fans, and extraction of stale air. The ambitions for the system went well beyond what was accomplished in this first prototype; in a more sophisticated version, we imagine the hard apparatus of environmental control and the human breather to be mutually responsive aspects of a single system. We can imagine a building environment that understands, learns from, and responds to the needs and desires of each individual human breather, and does so in real time.

For the second prototype installation in this series, we decided to extend this work by concentrating on one environmental or atmospheric quality in particular: sound. Not surprisingly, a number of researchers and designers have been working to develop the potential of these new and emerging technologies for the user-responsive control of acoustic environments. Key projects in this research trajectory, after the decades-long researches into sound architectures by Austrian sound architect Bernhard Leitner, include Serero Architectes project Variable Geometry Acoustical Domes and Mani Mani’s Acoustical Sound Cloud, both of which are reconfigurable suspended acoustic ceiling systems designed to reconfigure their geometries, and therefore the acoustic properties of the space beneath, in real time. Of particular interest in this context is the ongoing work by Brady Peters on parametric acoustic surfaces, especially as presented at the Smart Geometries workshops of 2009 and 2010 (Peters and Peters 2013).


Resonant Chamber, an RVTR project from 2012 and 2013, aims to advance this work by exploring the application of multi-functional material systems for a volumetrically variable acoustic space, paired with kinetic operation and digital control via environmental sensing.

The project proposes to develop an acoustic envelope that is neither material, but static, like a traditional concert hall, nor flexible, but immaterial, like the sound walls of Bernhard Leitner (1998): a soundsphere that is able to adjust its spatial, material and electroacoustic properties in response to changing sonic conditions, to dynamically alter the sound of a performance space during performance or to become an instrument itself, inviting new forms of performance and play. The first prototype for Resonant Chamber was developed at the University of Michigan through a nonlinear design process – that is, a process that involves iteration and feedback among design modalities, including traditional design conceptualization and spatial configuration, computer rendering, simulation and testing, and material fabrication and manufacturing, all conceived of as experimental methods involving several cycles of simulation and prototyping, and all evaluated against performance simulations. Resonant Chamber has been well published in detail elsewhere, so only a brief description of the system will be made here (Thün, Velikov, Ripley, McGee and Sauvé 2012; Thün, Velikov, McGee and Sauvé 2012). To date, the prototype has been installed for a three-week period as a gallery installation at the University of Michigan, but we have not yet conducted rigorous testing of the system.[3]


Resonant Chamber begins with an understanding that the acoustic properties of a space are the result, in the end, of two parameters: its geometric configuration and the material properties of its bounding surfaces. The project responds to this situation by utilizing a rigid origami structure containing both reflective and absorptive panels, as well as panels containing distributed mode loudspeakers. Rigid origami seemed at the outset to be an interesting potential strategy, as it allows for a system that can be readily deployable into different shapes while remaining congruent with current sheet-based manufacturing logics. A tessellated pattern based on the work of Ron Resch, using equilateral triangles, 18” (600cm) on each side, was chosen to allow ready deformability as well as a good balance between granularity and acoustic effectiveness; the origami patterns were developed using customized Grasshopper and Kangaroo scripts within Rhino and tested using CATT acoustics by our partners at ARUP acoustics in New York. After a number of material tests, bamboo plywood was selected for the rigid panels, partly because it offered strong performance in the mid-range frequencies used for electroacoustic amplification as well as being millable to varying depths and patterns; absorptive panels were developed using a Porous Expanded Polyethylene insert. In addition to the reflective and absorptive panels, a third type was developed containing distributed mode loudspeaker exciters.


A regime of sensors and actuators allows the system to fold and unfold in real time, allowing for both passive (acoustic) and active (electroacoustic) variation of the acoustic properties of the space beneath. The introduction of electroacoustics provides for an augmented level of reverberation control as well as directional sound reinforcement. Electroacoustics also make possible an interactive interface entirely different from the spatial-material sound control approach of the physical system, opening up a variety of possible applications for interactive sound installations, immersive live performance spaces or acoustically enhanced learning facilities, or even, although this has not been explored in the first prototype: room-scale noise cancellation.


However, the potential long-term impact of the addition of electroacoustics into the system is even more profound and brings us to the core of architectural and spatial thinking. Imagine, for example, Resonant Chamber installed in a restaurant, modifying its configuration automatically, in real-time, in response to a loud table of laughing co-workers out for a drink, or in response to an intimate conversation between lovers at another table; we can all imagine such situations. But it could go further: imagine the system modifying the acoustic conditions in your office based on the time of day or on your mood; how would the acoustic environment change when you need to concentrate on a piece of writing or when you need to calm an agitated employee? Or imagine, as one of my students recently did, a system so powerful in its ability to affect the acoustic environment as to allow a tea ceremony in the midst of the craziness of Manhattan’s Times Square.

Even these responses remain trivial in that they are instrumental responses to imagined situations, to needs that we are capable of comprehending from our current experience. However, by imbuing the hard technologies of a space, its boundary or envelope, with the ability to not only produce, but also sense sound – and therefore with the ability to react in real-time to the sonic conditions inside the boundary – those hard infrastructures have the ability to become active participants in the sonic (and not just acoustic) life of the world. This is a fundamentally different spatial environment, a fundamentally different world, from the inert and static environments – the artificial caves – that we have been occupying up to this point in our history, so fundamentally different that we are incapable of grasping its potential.


Resonant Chamber is not, of course, the first project to propose a variable acoustic environment. What is different in this project is the intent to uncover the possibility for new relationships, driven by technological developments, between the systems of environmental control – what we have in the past called buildings – and the people who make use of these systems. The project suggests a world in which the barrier between the two sides in this equation – environment and occupant – has become less absolute, in which the distinction between people and things begins to dissolve. In this world of ubiquitous, intimate, and invisible technological mediation, Resonant Chamber – along with the other prototypes in the Stratus Project – looks to speculate on the continuing role of the tangible, the material and the common. How can we begin to imagine the hard infrastructures, their form and materiality, in a world dominated by soft and omnipresent technologies?


[3] As a result of the exhibition context there are currently no existing audio records of Resonant Chamber in operation. A video of the installation in action (without sound) can be found at

From the body to the city: Digital ubiquity in post-particulate urbanisms


In this concluding portion of this paper, in keeping with the overall topic of this volume of the Journal of Sonic Studies, I would like to bring the question of sound back to the scale of the city. Although all of the projects listed above currently operate on the scale of buildings, or more accurately rooms, the extension to the scale of the city and to urban spaces is not only plausible, but also necessary.

In the end, the fundamental questions being explored, in a preliminary and tentative manner, by these projects are those of ubiquitous digitality as theorized by such writers as Nicholas Negroponte, William J. Mitchell and Malcolm McCullough (Negroponte 1995; Mitchell 2003; McCullough 2004), even though they may appear at first glance to be technological prototypes or examples of product design. In a world of ubiquitous digitality, what is the role of the material environment? What might be the formal implications of this emerging situation? How does built form assist, expand, limit or restrict the negotiation of political questions of control, ownership, agency and community? In a responsive system, who programs the responses and who is being responded to?

In order to understand the potential role of responsive systems in the urban environment, especially in relation to sound, we will need to consider briefly the form, material and acoustic, of the contemporary urban environment. As a number of critics have pointed out, in the contemporary city the uniform totalizing sound of centralized media has given way, albeit fictively, to the particularized soundspheres of the millions of wearers of headphones (Hosokawa 1984; Bull 2102). This should be no surprise, as the acoustic environment of the contemporary urban milieu follows the patterns of the city itself, the patterns of atomization, lamination, aggregation and flow, of peri-, sub- and extra-urbanisms, of economically connected megaregions, of urban/suburban warfare (political or deadly), all of which causes both contemporary politicians and contemporary urban theorists to ask the question: does the city still exist? Do its civic institutions, its structures and governance have any meaning left, aside from the disposal of garbage and clearing of snow from the streets? Certainly, cities today are difficult to identify or define; unlike Medieval cities, bounded by walls, or Renaissance and Enlightenment cities defined by composition, or even modern cities defined by their industrial or mercantile cohesion, cities today exist as intensifications within broad extensive networks of flows, predominantly flows of energy, people, money, goods, and data. As my partners in RVTR and I have argued, the traditional city center has now taken on a largely symbolic role, while the productive aspects of cities have largely moved to areas that are difficult to discern as urban (Thün, Velikov, Ripley and McTavish 2015).

In the headphone city we are all individual particles, bare life, existing without place, without community. We have traded the collective discipline of the radio program for free individual choice: each of us free, we live our own soundscape, in our own soundsphere. We glide silently through the crowd with our noise-cancelling earbuds. Headphones – whether noise-cancelling or not – are not, as one reader of this paper has suggested, simply about music; they effect new forms of spatiality, community, and individuation.

Seen in this light, the extension of responsive acoustic projects to urban spaces could be imagined to produce new forms of community resulting from the free and playful ability to produce acoustic environments without the need of headphones. The quantum city begins to give way to a city of communities as individual particles are once again able to aggregate in real space. We could imagine a city not so unlike Constant’s New Babylon, a city in which there is a continuous ludic drift enabled by the ability to variably control the sonic space. As utopians, we imagine the rebirth of material space as an agent of the political, a radical re-making of the city, day to day, by and for its inhabitants. And if our drawings look clumsy right now and raise all sorts of questions that we conveniently ignore: who will pay for these gigantic constructions?, for example, we are comforted by the thought that as technologies develop, they will inevitably become smaller, more mobile, and more readily available, leaving only, in McCullough’s words, a digital ground.

Of course, the line between utopics and dystopics is remarkably faint. As designers and researchers working with new and emerging technologies, we can never be sure if we are building part of New Babylon or helping to realize one of Superstudio’s famous twelve ideal cities: twelve projects that represent physical manifestations of the invisible structures and codes of the contemporary city (of the 1970s). Is our work tending to aid in the development of a post-humanist state of community through enabling free play with the aid of a responsive built environment or to assist in the solidification and tightening of invisible regimes of disempowerment, disenfranchisement and dissonance?

Sadly, and maybe this is the source of the gnawing in the pit of stomach when I think about such things, the idea that in the contemporary world we can ever be doing one or the other is a delusion. Our current situation is much more difficult to navigate and questions of personal and professional ethics and responsibility less clear. Caught as we are in our networks of life support, in which those very things that nourish us are the things that kill us, in which we depend for our very existence – as Sloterdijk puts it, for the very breath we take – on the technological organization of the world, the distinction between technologies of liberation and technologies of control is fictive: every technology of liberation is also a technology of control.

This morning, as I write this in my office in Toronto, it is a fine fall day; the window is open, and the children are laughing and screaming as they play in the schoolyard across the street. If we are lucky, we will be able to hold on to something of this as we recompose our cities, again and again, with ever-expanding technologies of liberation and control in the coming decades: the sounds of our voices, the sounds of joy.



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