Strange Materials: Collaborating with Technology

So recently, I’ve been asking the question, how can architecture engage and interact with us?  With our ever-increasing dependence on computers and technology, can our physical surroundings actually seduce us into “looking up” from our computer and cell phone screens?  Or, could that very same physical space begin to interact with us digitally by becoming a part of the virtual environments contained behind those screens?  To take it one step further, what if we could virtually interact with our physical environment?  Would we even want to?  Has it already been done?

Technology is a “strange material.”  We embrace it, but we haven’t fully come to grips with it.  Still, we are fully intrigued by its inherent potential, and many architects and designers have begun exploring potential applications for digitally interactive materials, like Sensacell.  Described as little more than a “fun” design solution, or opportunity, Sensacell seems to add nothing more than aesthetic value to design.  Still, it’s on the right path.

In Zigelbaum + Coelho’s Six-Forty by Four-Eighty, 220 magnetic LED tiles illuminate a pitch-black room.  The “pixel” wall acts as an interactive installation that senses and adapts to those engaging with it.  As visitors rearrange the wall to whatever composition they imagine, two different colored tiles held in each hand are changed to the same color by electrical impulses travelling from one hand to the other.  Again, its little more than a beautiful installation, though I’m not sure it was intended to be more.  But like Sensacell, it does encourage our imagination by saying “hey, we can do this.”  And that’s a exciting start.

Seem strange?  If you’re an architect, what’s the point right?  But, with so many of us have leaving the physical world for the virtual, what does this mean for architecture? Are we comfortable with this notion?  Are we scared?  Maybe we simply don’t know, nor care.  In his book Strange Details,” Michael Cadwell describes similar uncertainty with the “strange” in his struggle to find logic and understanding in the architectural details of Carlo Scarpa.  Cadwell explains his struggle in an analogy to a poem by Seamus Heaney called “Making Strange,” in which a character “will not make a world intelligible by returning it to the familiar or by linking it to an existing order, [but] will render a new imaginative territory compelling by conserving its strangeness.”  It’s a vague analogy at first glance, but what Cadwell is saying is that it’s ok to be insecure with the “strange,” it’s just wrong to resist it.

What’s strange is that we don’t simply use technology anymore; we collaborate with it.  We live in a world where our interaction with computers has extended beyond simply directing them; as we continue the great migration from physical to virtual, the more we rely upon computers for most, if not all of, our daily routines.

And then there’s architecture.  Similar to computers, architecture has always been something that we use; places programmed for any and every conceivable need.   This architectural programming is physical.  Now we live in a world where our attention is increasingly drawn away from the physical into the virtual, and we spend more and more of our lives in this place.  For architecture to remain relevant, design will need to adapt so that users may collaborate with it.

But is this really architecture’s destiny?  Are there really that many people who have migrated away from our physical world?  I have yet to land on a definitive personal opinion as to the advantages or disadvantages of the Great Virtual Migration, though my opinions tend to be more attracted to its disadvantages.  But then I find myself more engaged with technology than ever before.  My wife (who is in advertising) has a label for the type of consumer I am – the pessimistic late-adopter.”  If she’s right (and she usually is), I can only conclude that if I have surrendered to the social pressures of technology, then I’m one of the last.

So where are you?

R. H. Holley


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