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. 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.