REAL SPACES, VIRTUAL SPACES…
Txt: Marco Mancuso / Eng: Caterina Sartori
Aether Architecture is a design and architecture studio based in Budapest, Hungary , that is known at an international level for its innovative and conceptual approach to media architecture.
After having represented Hungary ay the last Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004, and after having taken part in a long list of festivals in the whole world (that includes the participation at the installation exhibition at the Mixed Media festival in Milan in 2006, curated by Paolo Rigamonti and Silvio Mondino, and coordinated by Tiziana Gemin), Adam Somlai-Fisher and his partners are nowadays one of the most refined representatives of that discipline that uses digital (or new integrated technology in general) instruments to physically represent the new virtual spaces, the connections, the correlations, the nets, information flux in contemporary society.
In projects such as “Ping Genius Loci” or “Wifi Camera“, the digital is used as a real architectonic instrument, with the idea of promoting a structural approach that allows the visualization of mediation spaces, between the real and the virtual, between the local and the global in terms of connection between single individuals. For Adam the urban and the virtual space represent a single unity in constant relation, an expanded environment that the architect has to necessarily confront.
Since I have started to cover and analyze the relation between audiovisual multimedia, relation with the space and visualization of the relation between real and new virtual spaces in DigiMag, Aether Architecture probably represents a new chapter. The complexity of the theoretical and methodological approach, the intellectualism, which is never self-serving, the attempt to find a totally new and radical role in architecture, are all elements that make Adam Somlai-Fisher on of the protagonists of the new architecture international scene.
This is a discipline that does not study and research aesthetic form, but rather the architectonic complexity that can emerge from the common participation to a specific project and from the possible social relations that the digital worlds make possible (“Open Source Architecture“). It does not forget the possibilities offered by low cost technologies and by an almost hacking approach to analog objects (circuits, machines, salvaged objects) and to code writing (generative software and open source). It’s “do it yourself” philosophy applied to architecture and design, for a democratic vision of this project discipline. Have a look at projects like Reconfigurable House, or have a chat with people that took part in Low Tech Sensors and Acuators workshops: it comes across as a fresh and almost playful approach to architecture: the discipline is understood as the reconfiguration of open and interactive physical space, which is never rigid and closed in itself.
In parallel, for Adam and his partners in Aether Architecture, ‘the digital’ is used as a real material. Of course this is difficult to grasp if one has a traditional vision of architecture and design. Nonetheless in the project series Induction House (Fishtak, Fishing Kit and Distributed Projection Structure), the iper-conceptual and multidisciplinary approach allows this kind of abstractions where the code and its final output are material that can be changed, that can be worked on, they are malleable and flexible like almost nothing that is found in nature or created in a laboratory.
Adam Somlai-Fischer: I was quite lucky to be able to find something that personally motivated me for my thesis. I know this is a little silly point of departure, but spending too much time in front of computers i developed the instincts of using computer actions outside in reality. Having the notion to try to press undo after spilling water on my desk, trying to save before a difficult move. This happens to many, but as an architect, as a designer of spaces for the contemporary life I felt I should look into these symptoms a little. After some research I found that there are many very interesting new qualities in the networked society which were not properly dealt with within architecture.
I went on to build a set of interactive systems and installations, trying to explore some of these issues. Six years later, I am still doing the same . (And I was very lucky to learn a lot about cross-disciplinary teamwork while doing this. Today, all projects we talk about here have been done in collaboration with others).
Frankly the jury didn’t like it at all, they where asking for the building. I argued that while all the other students where making drawings, not buildings, i was actually building prototypes of new spaces, not merely drawing them. In architecture if something is really new, you can’t draw it. There is simply no reference for the viewer for the experience. To my great relief designboom.it has published my diploma, so I got assured that I was on an interesting track.
In the meantime, with the project series Inductions House (Fishtak, Fishing Kit and Distributed Projection Structure), your aim was the creation of prototypes, which would search a way of working with digital media understood as physical material that one is able to shape. Do you think that this is one of the next challenges for architecture? I mean, not using digital media as an instrument to model new forms and figures, but using architectural structures to manipulate them, to treat them as real objects. In these terms, what are the differences between these projects?
Adam Somlai-Fischer: They are actually the same concept built in different forms; We (with Anita Pozna, Peter Hudini and Bengt Sjölén) were trying to construct new materiality, malleable matter. For us, the beauty of digital media wasn’t the use of drawing complex but static forms, rather that it can change and adopt, and can be scripted and can respond to its environment.
To try to create a very basic element for an architecture which embraces this phenomenon, we decided to built a physical and structural object/space (from steel, paper, plastic, textiles), give it a procedural form (something that can be described with an algorithm), and animate it in its depth with projections; what we really ended up building where structures for 3D projections.
These experiments partly felt like media, mostly the smoothness and speed of how they changed over time, but they where also very present, tangible, not abstract like computer screens. I think this was the most successful version: http://www.aether.hu/induction-house-distributed-projection-structure
What is your methodological approach to architecture and design? What I mean is, in your pieces do you start from classical design and architecture studies and then in the process you integrate technological media, or do you attempt to directly extract the potential and the possible social and urbanistic impact of the digital media through architecture and design?
Adam Somlai-Fischer: I have to admit a great source has been discussions with collaborators. Luckily I ended up living a life where I work a lot with people from other disciplines: social scientists, computer scientist, media researchers, artists and so on. Even when working with my peers, we talk about various influences from outside architecture.
The other source is empirical, we all live networked lives today, it is not so hard to experience for real things like peer production.
Than we do lots if experiments, brainstorming, sketches, drafts of technologies. This is not a follow up from discussions, rather a method of research on its own right.
Marco Mancuso: For the last editions of the mag I interviewd Limiteazero, Lab [Au], Lozano-Hemmer and dNA, and I always ask the same question. Do you think that architecture and action design will in the future be the disciplines that that will provide new ways of interacting with digital technologies, of living the urban space in a different, more immersive way, of visualizing the information flux that will increasingly be spread at different levels in our cities?
Adam Somlai-Fischer: I would rather say its the openness of new media that i find most interesting. Let me try to explain this with the help of looking at the evolution of ‘publishing’. From the stone obelisk to hand written bibles, movable type, press for the daily news and today the blogs, the effort, the energy needed to make yourself heard and so shape our culture has vastly decreased. You can draw a graph for the inertia of media technologies, how they decline. I t takes very little effort for me the write these lines.
Writing is a very direct means of expression for us today, but architecture and the built environment has been always a very strong embodiment of our identities. Historically trough single authors with cultural feedback (and control) from the society. Architect’s can only build things which are convincing enough for others to spend all those resources needed. And this is good, this results the extensive cultural richness to architecture, the many iterations between authors and their readers. (which makes the readers become authors really) However, with the evolution described above, this process can become more direct, more visible.
And it is this very possibility of collaboration and openness in new media that makes it valuable for an architecture that wishes to respond to the identities of today’s individuals and communities. We are less and less interested in trusting old constitutions such as privilege of crafts deciding over our head (master planners) and are rather more into learning more and deciding collaboratively.
Marco Mancuso: Let’s talk about the concept of Open Source Architecture. You state that the quality of virtual spaces is constructing social conditions that architecture should respond to. At the same time our perception of space and of architecture is undergoing radical transformations because we inhabit virtual spaces. Do you believe that designing immaterial spaces with architectural tools can redefine our perception of the relation between physical and virtual spaces, which can become utopian spaces where designers can construct social relations through avatars and virtual citiziens?
Adam Somlai-Fischer: Relating to the above, its not so much about the virtual, rather the actual space, and not so much about the relations of the designer, rather the role of the designer, or even the existence of a person fully dedicated to be the designer. Maybe it’s about diffusing these skills and allowing many to be part time designers. Before you ask about quality, of course a lifetime of dedication to a skill does have its values, but I am not talking about weekend designers here. The main difference is that if many chose to collaborate on something and they get instant feedback on their decisions, the system they build will be of very high quality.
There is a very convincing example, an experiment by Loren Carpenter, about how a 5000-strong audience can decide together real time. I think we don’t need to quote it all, it’s available online here: http://www.kk.org/outofcontrol/ch2-b.html
You work as interaction designer, and you develop objects and instruments that allow a stronger relation between the human and the technological. What surprised me is your ‘hacking attitude’, which I was not familiar with. You follow ‘do it yourself’ and low-fi principles, and this is quite unusual for an internationally renowned designer. It almost seems that you are not too interested in the aesthetic look of the finished object but rather in its functionality. You have worked in this direction in projects like Reconfigurable House, or during workshops like Low Tech Sensors e Acuators.
Adam Somlai-Fischer: It is interesting that you say this. Aesthetics for me is not solely about form. Maybe this is partly a side effect of working too much with 3D software as an architecture student, you learn how to do forms, any forms, experiment with generating form, etc, but somehow I lost interest in the idea that form is so meaningful. I even gave a lecture recently entitled form no more . And I don’t mean at all that visual culture is not important, our culture IS visual, just that the attention given to form has been keeping us away from other interesting characteristics such as behavior, openness/readability, language of interaction, etc.
At the same time, when using technology in our projects we try to keep to the idea of openness described above, so our technological systems stay open, ‘readable’ as well. This way others won’t think of it as closed magic but more a draft to continue from. Which we really prefer.
Your idea of architecture and design is so subtle and intelligent that it seems that you want to promote a new media architecture concept, where it is a tool used to visualize the spaces we inhabit in everyday life. You work in this direction with projects like Ping Genius Loci (the space is visualized through the construction of a network inside the poetic of the soace) of Wifi Camera (the space is visualized through a series of photographs if the electromagnetic space that surrounds wireless objects). Hoe important is in for your work to give shape to the immaterial space?
Adam Somlai-Fischer: Yes I find this really interesting, but mainly because all these phenomena are not at all immaterial; they are not visible or directly perceivable, but they are very present. Invisible networks are shaping our daily lives, just we don’t see them so its hard to understand them.
While working on Wifi Camera (with Usman Haque and Bengt Sjölén) we had a truly exciting experience of finding out how Wifi space looks like. Wifi has always been very present, while sitting at cafés trying to catch that tiny signal with your laptop, turning a little to get better reception, its all very frustrating since you have no idea what you are trying to catch. Seeing is the first step to understanding, so we built a device to take pictures, scan the view of Wifi space (in a good 2 hours per view). What we found has really surprised us: how Wifi comes in trough the windows, how it creates large fluffy interference patterns, which stay there over months, how it ‘illuminates’ the spaces we live in. We are working on a real time version now, where we will be able to see Wifi space in its dynamics as well.
I saw that some of your projects (like Ping Genius Loci or Reconfigurable House) are linked and connected to the Processing web site and exhibition. Can you explain how you include generative tools and software in your work structure? Or better, how is your work flux structured in terms of design, software, code, concept?
Adam Somlai-Fischer: I love processing, and have been using it more mostly for simulation of behavior and interaction. Its great to simulate projects where there are many parts, and they all interact, communicate, etc. So for me it was like what CAD is for form-design, many iterations could be programmed of various forms AND behaviors. We also use it to conduct the interaction, control our systems, and even sometimes write interfaces for visitors to interact with out systems.
And as code performs best when we design by numbers, generative approaches have been present all along, just not as a main goal rather than a trusted tool alongside 3D modeling and hardware hacking.
To conclude, would you like to tell me anout a project that you have loved but that have not had a chance to develop? I am referring to the right column on your web site, that refers exactly to those projects which your were unable to develop in the past.
Adam Somlai-Fischer: Avenue of Cars. This is rather Utopian but i would love to work on this for real in the future, creating a giant conveyor belt around the Danube in Budapest (powered by the river) which would move around the cars, so drivers can get out while waiting to get to their exit, creating a social space instead of the semi-social space of traffic jams. Did you ever notice how much time people spend in close proximity to each other in traffic jams? If they could only relax and interact instead of sitting on the horn. An old classmate (Timo Keller) pointed out to me that there is something very social about ferries versus bridges. You stop the engines, get out, talk, etc.
What we propose is not faster then the traffic jam, but its much more human. Any city with a river could use this.