The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
The guest of this episode is Usman Haque, one of the founders of Umbrellium. Usman is an architect who creates responsive environments, interactive installations, digital interface devices as well as many mass-participation initiatives. His skills include the design and engineering of both physical spaces and the software and systems that bring them to life. He is also the Founder of the sensor platform Pachube, now known as Xively.com.
Usman Haque happens to be one of the most thought-provoking people i know in London and today we're going to talk about the smart city vs the messy city.
Inspired by the environmental work of Diller & Scofidio, the performative and multi-sensory work of Bompas and Parr, and the nostalgia of 1960s event architecture, Shichong Li's project utilises sugar as a base element and 'centrifugal random fibre extrusion' fabrication (candyfloss) to build cloud structures.
Unsatisfied with the scale of the miniature clouds he thus produced, the artist and designer decided to build a candy floss cloud on an architectural scale, with sugar as an ideal base material for a floating semi- rigid architecture. Indeed, sugar can form structured space to be inhabited and engaged with in ways water cannot. These cloud formations create a medium between architecture and inhabitants which aims to stimulate communication and interaction.
Shichong Li's quest to build the ultimate and most efficient candy cloud-making machine is still ongoing. He has spent the past year making prototype after prototype. Often failing but always learning and fine-tuning his creations.
I discovered the Candy Cloud Machine at the graduation show of the Interactive Architecture Studio - Research Cluster 3 at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL. The unit, headed by Ruairi Glynn and Ollie Palmer, focuses on kinetic and interactive design looking at the latest robotics, material and responsive systems while at the same time borrowing from a long history of performative machines and performing arts.
I already mentioned one of the works developed over this one-year postgraduate course: William Bondin's research into self autonomous creature-like structures which take their cue on slime mold and very slowly navigate public parks. The other stand-out work for me was Chong's poetical, elusive and absurd Candy Cloud Machine. I contacted him to ask if he had time to tell us more about his candy cloud adventures.
Hi Chong! What are the physical and technological challenges of creating clouds using sugar rather than water?
Whether they're conscious of it or not, I believe Architects dream of building clouds. Not in the narrow sense of a cloud, but rather architecture which is "cloud like", soft, , ephemeral, responsive, light etc. Water doesn't have to be the base component and so I explored sugar for its inherent properties.
Could you describe some of the prototypes you developed in your quest to make a candy cloud machine? Why do you think the experiments failed?
Sure! The first and second prototypes were built following a study of the mechanical principles to make a candy floss maker. The heating and rotating systems have to be tested properly and they will be the base of the next step studies. These experiments were successful in a way. But as the research moves along, the air control and generating system have became the biggest challenges.
The third and fourth prototypes, for example, are wind tunnel systems, they were designed following the study of air driving system. The third one is called Laminar air flow generator (LAFG). Laminar air is a type of flow where the motion of the particles of fluid occurs in orderly straight movement. Compressed air is blown into a perforated wind box. The wind box has the shape of a circular ring surrounding the candy floss maker, which blows the candy floss up smoothly. I was thinking of using laminar air which is stable enough to hold candy floss. However, the results of the LAFG experiment show that the airflow looses a large amount of energy in the box and at the edges of holes. The outward-streaming airflow is too weak to drive the candy floss upwards.
The second air control system tested was a multi-fan system. In order to solve the problem of insufficient air flow in the LAFG, this design comprised eight powerful axial fans to blow air into the chamber directly.
Despite the fact that the attempts of the Candy Cloud Machine air control system failed, these first experiences are worth studying. Firstly, the candyfloss itself is light, but the air power needed to drive it upwards cannot be low. Because the candyfloss structure doesn't have a surface which can hold airflow, the air can permeate the gaps between the candyfloss fibres. Secondly, small-scale installations are inappropriate to test aerodynamics. According to knowledge gained in the multi-fan system test, the circulating air has a strong influence on the vortex, as the air in the chamber is highly limited. The circulating air and the vortex interact with each other and destroy the air system. These experiences and lessons are an important basis for the development of the project.
The final project on view at the show right now is a cabin. Could you explain what the cabin is about? Why did you decide to show a wooden cabin rather than a modified candy floss machine?
The final fabrication machine- the Candy Cloud Cyclone Chamber, is too big to be exhibited so, inspired by the nostalgia of British Garden Shed Inventors, I've presented the project as an inhabitable portfolio. Visitors could search through the drawings, tastes and sugars, and examine the prototypes.
Now that your thesis is done and you graduated, are you planning to push the cloud machine further? To try and develop it until you reach the kind of candy cloud machine you were dreaming of?
Yes, the research of the cloud dream is still ongoing, and I am still trying to further develop the candy cloud machines. The fascination held by clouds offers designers a multitude of ways of thinking about space and designing in architectural practice. This story of clouds is a framework for future studies and design works. The role of designers and architects with an understanding of 'cloud theory' must be to use their knowledge to embark upon a 'higher' architectural approach.
Also from RC3: Morphs, the architectural creatures that behave like slime mould.
A few weeks ago, i went to the graduation show of the Interactive Architecture Studio - Research Cluster 3 at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL. The unit, headed by Ruairi Glynn and Ollie Palmer, focuses on kinetic and interactive design looking at the latest robotics, material and responsive systems while at the same time borrowing from a long history of performative machines and performing arts. As you can guess, i was quite enthusiastic about many of the works developed over this one-year postgraduate course.
One of the most interesting for me was William Bondin's research project which explores the gap between digital simulation and physical prototyping in the performance of dynamic architectural systems.
Bondin's proposal involves a colony of self autonomous creature-like structures, called Morphs, which very slowly navigate public parks. Their moves are not just dictated by a set of pre-programmed rules, they also rely on their physical and social environment.
Morphs exist and wander freely as individual nuclei but they can also join together and adopt certain geometries according to their needs and circumstances.
This is still very much a work in progress but a very promising one.
Simulations for tetrahedron and octahedron nuclei were carried out. In addition, one tetrahedron nucleus was fabricated as a proof of concept in order to understand the limitations of the technology employed.
Video documenting the whole research:
The morph performing one step:
I contacted the young architect for a quick interview:
Hi William! If i understood correctly, your self autonomous creature-like structures are inspired by a species of brainless slime mould. Can you tell us what you found interesting about that type of slime and how this translated into the Morphs?
The interesting thing about slime mould, in particular Physarum polycephalum, is that its cognitive processes occurs within its environment rather than a centralised brain. It is an example of an organism which has developed a clever way of exploiting its surroundings in order to perform navigational tasks and memory-related processes. For instance, when foraging for food it deposits slime in areas which have already been explored, and then avoids the same slime so that it will not re-explore the same area twice. This simple feedback technique inspired me to develop a form of mobile architecture which, analogously to slime mould, deposits digital data into its environment in order to off load its computational processes such as path finding and spatial memory. In fact, Morphs are very low-level creatures in terms of computational abilities and their complex trajectories are a result of the complex environments in which they are placed.
Could you describe the behaviour of the Morphs?
Morphs, which stands for MObile Reconfigurable PolyHedra, have a behaviour which is dictated by the sites in which they are located and their physical morphology. They are attracted to areas with high pedestrian traffic which ensures a higher probability of engagement with the public, and they stay clear of vehicular roads due to their very slow movements. Therefore, characteristics which are embodied within a site become highly influential to their "desired" locations. Similarly, their physical composition dictates the way they perceive their environment and consequently the way they behave. For example, due to their solar powered circuitry, they avoid shaded areas and do not travel during night time or overcast weather. They are also terrified of water and do not operate in wet conditions, in order to protect their electronics. These are their basic low-level behaviours which, similarly to our primary instincts, ensure their own protection and survival in complex environments. Therefore as an end result, you have these creatures which are very playful and gather in areas where people are likely to meet, but they get scared easily and become very introvert when threatened.
Because Morphs move so fluidly and elegantly, i couldn't help but think of Strandbeests. But they have nothing to do with Theo Jansen's creatures, right?
I really enjoy Jansen's work and appreciate it in its context; as beautiful objects which occupy and travel across landscapes. However, as an architect, I'm not only interested in the spaces which man-made creatures inhabit but also in the spaces which they create. Morphs have the ability of joining together into complex formations to create spaces which can be occupied by people, and respond to these temporal inhabitants. Additionally, Theo Jansen's creatures are automatons which are unaware of their surroundings and the people within their "personal space". Morphs, on the other hand, are responsive spatial structures which communicate between them and their users in order to perform collective tasks. If you threaten one Morph you might send a whole community into hiding, while if one of them enjoys learning a new dance routine it might teach it to others and perform it in groups.
The Morphs move super super slowly. Can't you make them move faster? Why?
All buildings move. They do so over a very prolonged timescale, and it can take centuries for a building to move a couple of millimetres. So if we had to speculate on how buildings view time, because after-all Morphs are architectural creatures, we have to acknowledge the fact that architecture operates on a very different timescale than its users. Morphs operate on a mediated timescale, because although we perceive them as very slow movers they are lightning fast compared to their 'static' counterparts. In terms of time, they exist somewhere in between. This also gives us practical benefits, such as very low power consumption and risk mitigation.
The "Morphs rely on environmental cues and human participation in order to attain purposeful behaviour." Which kind of environmental cues and human participation are you talking about?
Morphs continuously assess light intensity and water presence in order to take informed decisions about their next steps. This ensures that they will not get trapped in ponds or under trees, and helps them to locate themselves in sunny and dry areas. However, Morphs are not completely self autonomous.
There are four classes, or sub-species, of Morphs and each of them has different purposes and degrees of control. The music-enabled units, which are finished in bright orange, are very slow and rarely change their location. They allow musicians to play music within their enclosure, and transmit the sounds they pick up via wi-fi, as a sort of a free-for-all radio station. The purple ones, which relate to dance, are very fast movers and they respond to push-pull action by their choreographers. They are able to store unique geometries in sequence and play them back when instructed to. The architectural ones, identified by their blue colour, are very slow movers but they can carry a significant amount of load. They are ideal for assembling large configurations and can be attached to different coloured units to create complex spaces. An additional class of these polyhedrons is also envisioned to cater for open-source development, whereby users can design and build bespoke components which can be plugged into existing units.
Do the machines learn in the course of their 'life'?
It is envisioned that over time these machines start to learn about their environment, participants and even themselves. This will give them the ability to take better informed decisions about their future actions. For example, if a tetrahedron breaks one of its edges it will then have to learn a new way how to roll over without using that side. In addition, it might ask for collective help from its peers to help it travel or become permanently bonded to another Morph for successful locomotion. Another suggested form of learning is the ability to predict participants' preference and behaviour. This will ensure that the right amount of units are present at the right location when needed.
However, in practice machine learning is a very complex area of research. So far we have been exploring this field in simulation, with limited degrees of success. The intention is to collaborate with robotics engineers and computer scientists in order to actualise these processes into the next generation prototypes.
Do you see applications for the Morphs? In architecture, robotics or other areas?
Morphs started out as a research project into adaptive behavioural architecture. Over the course of a year, it has developed into a semi-speculative project which brings together robotics, computer science, public art, landscape architecture and urban design.
What is next for the Morphs?
Morphs are planned to be unleashed by the end of 2015 as an autonomous but sociable reconfigurable architecture. Prototyping of a tetrahedron nucleus started in March 2013 and has resulted in one functional unit. Current research involves the programming of these nuclei, development of their digital communication and the simulation of their social behaviour. The next fully mobile, untethered, Morph is aimed to be completed by the end of 2013 before larger assembles are explored through 2014.
EP Vol. 1 - The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968-1976 by Alex Coles, Professor of Transdisciplinary Studies, School of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Huddersfield and Catharine Rossi, Senior Lecturer in Design History at Kingston University.
Publisher Sternberg Press describes the book: EP is the first critically underpinned series of publications that fluidly move between art, design, and architecture. The series creates a discursive platform between popular magazines ("single play") and academic journals ("long play") by introducing the notion of the "extended play" into publishing: with thematically edited pocket books as median.
The first volume is devoted to the activities of the Italian avant-garde between 1968 and 1976. While emphasizing the multiple correspondences between collectives and groups like Arte Povera, Archizoom, Superstudio, and figures such as Ettore Sottsass and Alessandro Mendini, The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968-1976 also highlights previously overlooked spaces, works, and performances generated by Zoo, Gruppo 9999, and Cavart. Newly commissioned interviews and essays by historians and curators shed light on the era, while contemporary practitioners discuss its complex legacy.
With contributions by Paola Antonelli, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Andrea Branzi, Carlo Caldini, Alison J. Clarke, Experimental Jetset, Verina Gfader, Martino Gamper, Joseph Grima, Alessandro Mendini, Antonio Negri, Paola Nicolin, Michaelangelo Pistoletto, Catharine Rossi, Vera Sacchetti, Libby Sellers, Studio Formafantasma, and Ettore Vitale
I've reviewed or simply read my fair share of books about the work of Archigram, Ant Farm and Haus-Rucker-Co.. It was high time i'd read more about the Italian avant-garde in architecture and design because the 1960s and 1970s in Italy is a creative period that needs to get more attention outside of the country.
The key events and concepts covered in the book are never dull. The designers and architects of the Italian avant-garde had bite and sometimes they also had humour. Intellectuals and artists were protesting about the conservative model of the Venice biennial and calling for its restructuration (which gave way to the Architecture Biennial!) Ettore Sottsass was putting tiny tv sets in nature 'for night butterflies'. Ettore Vitale was designing posters reminding of the dangers of fascism. Radical architects were holding seminars on a disused railway bridge. Gruppo 9999 were creating the Space Electronic discotheque in Florence as a 'progressive multimedia environment.'
The book compiles commissioned essays and interviews. By people who were questioning and shaking up design, architecture and art then and by people who, today, are analyzing and discussing the impact of those avant-garde ideas and realizations.
EP Vol. 1 - The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968-1976 lays the solid basis for a deeper and more critical reflection on a key moment in the history of architecture, design and art in Italy. I would recommend the book not only for its historical perspective but also for the way it echoes some of today's interests and preoccupations. The architects and designers of the time too were raising environmentalist concerns for alternative sources of energy. They were already questioning the rule of the objects and the role of an art biennial. They too were exploring more powerful uses of 'new media' while looking for a more meaningful relationship between man and technology. And believe it or not, they were already inventing designs driven by concepts and encouraging 'non-professionals' to build 'spontaneous structures' and participate in ongoing debates. Surely there are lessons there that we could all make use of.
I think that the book would have benefited from a clearer presentation of the socio-economic and political climate in that time and place. But other than that, i'd say this is one of the most exciting and eye-opening books designers and architects could lay their hands on these days.
Previously: A Guide to Archigram 1961-74 , Inner World / Innen Welt: The Projects of Haus-Rucker-Co., 1967-1992, The Sky's the Limit: Applying Radical Architecture, Clip/Stamp/Fold - The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X, Book Review: Ant Farm - Living Archive 7, Casa Per Tutti, Other Space Odysseys, Ant Farm retrospective in Sevilla, Pioneers of conceptual architecture, etc.
A Practical Guide to Squatting is a very adequate title for a book that will teach you the skills of lock picking, show you how to craft a solar oven using a pizza box, grow a community garden, build a swimming pool in an open foundation or avoid arrest after breaking into a building. An adequate and provocative title thus. The handbook, however, will also give readers an opportunity to reflect on a practice that is too often attributed to gangs of drug addicts and anarchists 'stealing people's homes.'
Larraine Henning, the author of the handbook, reminds us that, in many cases, a squat is an emergency shelter, an habitat in a derelict building that has to be fixed, lacks electricity, insulation and proper drainage system. Just for the sake of my own enlightenment i had a look at the housing crisis in the country where i'm currently living and it appears that homelessness rates are rising. Meanwhile the Empty Homes Agency estimates that the number of empty properties in Wales and England amounts to over 930,000.
Yet, it is now an offence to squat in a residential building in England and Wales and no other sustainable alternative(s) has been offered in exchange. The situation isn't much rosier in the rest of Europe as the fate of an icon such as Tacheles, Berlin's art squat demonstrated.
My intention is not to become an apostle of squatting but just to put the practice into a broader perspective. In addition, squatting can go beyond the simple need to put a roof over one's head when it extends to experiments in socialism, architecture, and community. Think of the Open City in Chile, Paolo Scoleri's Arcosanti in the Arizona desert, Christiania in Copenhagen or the Grow Heathow community outside of London.
With A Practical Guide to Squatting, the author -who trained as an architect- also reminds readers that architecture is not only practiced by an arguably elitist sect of educated professionals, but also by the disenfranchised, the layman, the individual and the collective.
I've asked Larraine Henning, a 'former architect turned fruit picker / illustrator / squatter / cattle musterer', if she could talk to us about the book and her own squatting experiences:
Hi Larraine! How long did it take you to gather this very detailed information?
I worked on my Master thesis for nearly a year. The first half of my thesis was a research component where I investigated informal architecture, alternative communities, temporary building and squatting.
The the final product of my thesis was the handbook "A Practical Guide to Squatting"
And how much of it stems from personal experience?
Prior to attending UBC in Vancouver I lived and worked as an architect in Rotterdam. For a short time I lived with my boyfriend in an anti-squat, which is a legal and registered version of squatting in the Netherlands.
We shared half a floor of a large office building in the center of the city built in the 70's. The toilets were the former public washrooms for the building, we had the men's washroom and the other lady we shared the floor with had the ladies'. We had no hot water on our floor and had to do all our dishes in cold water. There was one shower for the whole building (6 floors), which was rigged up to the only hot water source, that we all shared. No one paid typical rent, but paid the building owner only for basic utilities. Eventually everyone was evicted as the building was slated for demolition.
Since living in Australia this last year, I have occasionally lived in tent communities with fellow agricultural workers. This was not full on squatting, but it was on land that started out as a tenting squat until the woman who owned it organised a more set up campground.
As a young person I would often break-into abandoned buildings simply for the thrill of exploration. I loved to stumble around the wreckage of forgotten urban relics. I would do this in the city and in the countryside, and once slept the night in an abandoned cabin below a caved in roof in the middle of winter in the Prairies of Canada.
I was also wondering how you deal with the legislation? I don't know about the (anti-)squatting laws in Australia where you now live or in Canada, the country you're from but i know that anti-squatting legislation is getting increasingly strict in some parts of Europe. For example, the UK law now criminalizes squatting in residential premises, even if hundreds of thousands of properties are now sitting empty across the country.
Squatting is not really legal anywhere, however some countries choose to accept it more than others.The constitution of Sweden upholds something called allemansrätten, translated as "freedom to roam" or "everyman's right". Its decree claims that every person shall have access to private or public land for the purpose of recreation. The UK and Holland have a loaded history of squatting and typically condoned such living. Over the year their progressive attitude has dampened and it is becoming less and less acceptable. The laws in most countries however have loop-holes. Squatting really isn't a matter for the police, but rather it is usually the job of the actual property owner to press charges against trespassers. Not until that happens do the police actually have the authority to take legal measures on squatters. Not only that but every country seems to have a different rule regarding abandoned property. In Canada a property needs to stand vacant for 50 years before it can be acquired by someone else and legally taken over. In Australia it is only 7 years, and provided you have not trashed the place but begun steps to set up camp after those 7 years you can apply to the crown to have the title put in your name, for free.
Can you conduct a family and professional life while being a squatter? Is it compatible with, say, getting electricity and running water installed?
Absolutely. Many squatters are working professionals and participate in everyday life just like anyone else. The place I lived at in Rotterdam was full of students, professional architects and the like.
You trained as an architect. Do you believe that architects should dedicate a greater amount of their knowledge and skills to squatting and other so-called 'alternative homes"?
I think that people who worked in restaurants tend to be better tippers, just like people who lived without luxury tent to appreciate those small luxuries more.
All images courtesy Larraine Henning.
Related story: Goodbye to London - Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies.
Going Public - Public Architecture, Urbanism and Interventions, edited by Robert Klanten, Sven Ehmann, Sofia Borges and Lukas Feireiss.
Publisher Gestalten writes: Going Public showcases the creative revival of public space in our urban and rural landscapes. The book's compelling selection of formal and informal interventions, reclamations, and architecture illustrates the current scope and interest in refashioning and repurposing our built environment for public use. The objectives of the featured examples are as diverse as the projects themselves and range from inspiring communication and community experience to devising new means of gathering in and connecting to nature.
Ranging from bold to subtle and from temporary to permanent, the architecture and urban design featured in Going Public offers inspiring and surprising interpretations of our public surroundings and natural landscapes.
I might think (probably foolishly) that i get the contemporary art world pretty well covered but each time i open one of Gestalent's book dedicated to graphic design, architecture, street art or illustration, it feels like i've spent too many years lying torpid in my shack at the back of the tundra. So many jaw-dropping ideas, images, projects and initiatives i had no idea existed multiply in quick succession as i flip through the pages of the books.
Going Public - Public Architecture, Urbanism and Interventions didn't disappoint in that respect. In pure Gestalten style, word is as scarce as it is efficient, the layout and typeface are faultless and the selection of works is constantly engaging. At least for people like me who have been hibernating for so long.
Most of the projects presented in Going Public are small interventions aimed at opening up urban or rural space to the broad public and acting as catalysts for social, cultural and political exchanges. Because many of them are lightweight and temporary, they give young talents a space for expression and investigation. And i'm always happy when a publisher, curator or institution looks beyond the usual suspects.
The book is divided into 6 areas of investigation. Chapter one, Gimme Shelter, is about providing an umbrella for public programs and activities. Chapter 2, Constant Gardener, has a self-explanatory title. Then comes Walk With Me, a series of projects which takes you on a stroll around a city or scenery. Benchmarks introduced me to urban furniture with a sense of humour. Chapter 5 Between a Rock and a Hard Place shows how non-places are rehabilitated. The book closes on Why Don't We Do it on the Road? tat explores how overlooked places can be revamped and used for activities that range from organizing carpentry workshops to hosting a temporary open-air museum.
Many of the projects, however, would fit well in several categories. Here are some of my favourite:
Florentijn Hofman (he of the giant yellow duck)'s 13 meter high rabbit invites the inhabitants and visitors of Orebro (Sweden) to examine the space both with the bunny, and then again after its removal.
A bunker sliced in two, opening a walking path for sightseers to admire the mass of the building and the lake. Bunker 599 is a pilot project that attempts to make The Netherlands' military landscape publicly accessible .
Noun 1. Unavailability - The Quality of not Being Available When Needed is a mobile fisherman's shelter made with a foldable wooden frame and walls that, when filled with water, solidify into ice that protects the fisherman from the weather.
The ever-brilliant EXYZT collaborated with Ewa Rudnicka to install an UFO (Unexpected Fountain Occupation) on a disused fountain in Warsaw city centre. The space performed as a bar, hostel, film venue, flea market, concert hall for 2 months.
Using only blackboards, chalk and an abandoned building, Candy Chang gave passersby in New Orleans --and soon other cities across the world-- the opportunity to share their personal dreams and aspirations in public space.
Three swings for up to twenty passengers are suspended from Mmabatho Stadium's outer frame. Facing each other, and dangling from a height of twelve meters, the swings require the passengers to negotiate with one another about how to achieve optimum path and speed.
Gravalosdimonte Arquitectos's estonoesunsolar" ('this-is-not-a-plot) cleaned up abandoned plots around the historical area of Zaragoza, Spain and turned the spaces into temporary open squares for the public to meet and play.
Views inside the book: