Exploding Space: Conceptions of Space and Network in Interactive/Dynamic Architectures
Rob Ley and Joshua G Stein, ReactiveVOID

One of the interesting challenges in discussing or writing about interactive architecture is the term itself. As its usage has increased so have the potential meanings of what an architecture that is truly interactive might mean. That the building might truly interact, become temporal, transform a viewer or inhabitant into a user and a physical space into an application, is such a tantalizing proposition, one can empathize with the artists, designers, engineers, and architects alike all springing to define and participate in the shaping of the term. Its aims may end up being similar to earlier conceptions of the role of architecture, shaping urban space, defining urban life, but its means will be, not new, but novel. A constellation of concepts, what Farshid Moussavi calls The Novel, that join architectural thinking with computational practices and interaction design strategies, a marriage of strategies for shaping space and engaging users. The notion of an interactive architecture first emerged in the 1960s as cyberneticists and architects Gordon Pask, Cedric Price, and Archigram in the UK, and Warren Brodey, Nicholas Negroponte in the US, all developed similar ideas of interactive environments and spaces that would sense, converse, and participate with their users. Since then interaction design, artificial intelligence, computer vision, environment sensing, mechanical engineering, interior design, have all been drawn into dialogue in different forms, creating solutions, informing practices, generating new ways of creating conversations between users and spaces. Terms have proliferated as well, ‘liquid’, ‘dynamic’, ‘reactive’, or ‘adaptive’ architectures, ‘interactive installation’, ‘cybernetic spaces’; all with a generalized conception of the notion of a space that communicates, that is computationally enabled and that provides a mode of input and some level of appropriate feedback. With the complexity of discourses involved and the range of intents and strategies employed, it’s difficult to discuss a coherent history or diagram spheres of influence but one can see general tendencies: goals, intentions, critical junctures, and points of convergence across a range of practices.

Why now? Why this rapid explosion of interest in interactive architecture? The crisis of urban space, ecological pressures, technological capacity, the exhaustion with and reaction to the iconic architecture of the last forty years all weigh heavily on present architectural practice. An interactive architecture offers an explicit engagement for the user, a de-emphasizing of the architect; allowing anyone who enters the space to become at minimum a collaborator and in some cases a co-creator. The moment of the aesthetic of the collaborative, the utilitarian, the designed and empowering solution has arrived. In the histories of kinetic sculpture, video, installation, performance, littoral practices, there exist historical antecedents for interactive art practices. To the architectural, participating in the computational data rich experience and the interactive, presents a new escape, a new collaborative attitude, and an antidote to the static, extemporal, and spectacular that has dominated architectural thinking over the last 50 years.

The medium of architecture itself is changing, becoming a combination of spaces, networks, and agents both mechanical and organic. We already experience architecture as a shifting array of mediums. Architecture bloggers Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes winkingly named the iPhone as one of the most important architectural works of the first decade of the new millennium, arguing: “urban systems are defined most fundamentally not by structure and infrastructure, but by practice, action, and thought-process; what act has more significantly altered the practices and thought-processes of urbanites in the past ten years than the mass distribution of smart phones?” The Rhinoscript-ing of Parametric Architecture is most certainly, if nothing else, a demonstration that compelling notions of space can be generated by algorithmic processes. Architecture historian Beatriz Colomina argues in Architecture Between Spectacle and Use that the fame of Mies van der Rohe is largely based on photographs of his work. The medium of architecture is already diffuse and complex. The interactive architectural environment simply extends that diffusion, integrating a dynamic system, an interconnected series of structures, situations, and objects that participate in the myriad ways that we consider and shape urban and living space.

Usman Haque, Natural Fuse, 2009

Usman Haque - Networked Spaces

We can consider, equally as 'environments' a mountainside, the interior of a building, the context of a webpage, the internal status and external context of a mobile device, the interactions within something like Second Life -- all these are environments and can communicate with each other on equivalent terms. -


Think for a moment about what a truly networked architecture might look like. It is boundless, formless, and instead of defined limits has only the indefinite of that which does not exist as a node or an edge between those nodes. It is a liminal architecture or space, between a network and a physical network, and it makes the virtual physical by merit of shaping space and the physical virtual in that it lacks a definite beginning and end. The projects of Usman Haque demonstrate a radical reworking of physical space, a rematerializing of spaces between people, within situations, that reform. In his work, the real and virtual are non-binary, not a mutually exclusive pairing. He wrote: “I'm not someone who believes in a great distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’”, and his practices enjoy a playful and easy existence between different modes, architecture and art, or between multiple networks and sensory systems, between playful interactivity and critique. This interstitial nature is an important characteristic that serves to render unimportant categorizations irrelevant, that is, as Francisco Ricardo writes in Cyberculture and New Media, “a new coordinate space that is neither entirely physical/real nor virtual/technological”.

Usman Haque, Natural Fuse, 2009

Each Natural Fuse unit consists of a houseplant and a power socket. The amount of power available to the socket is limited by the capacity of the plant to offset the carbon footprint of the energy expended: if the appliance you plug in draws so much power that it requires more carbon-offsetting than available then the unit will not power.


At the juncture of engineering and design, what might be an aestheticized engineering perhaps, Haques' Natural Fuse is a framework of plants and networked devices. The project functions as a reminder, an infrastructure that simply asks you to consider the environmental consequence of the simplest action: flicking on a light switch. Users are also allowed to select whether they wish their node in the system to be in ‘selfish’ or ‘selfless’ mode, overriding the systems equilibrium or feeding into it. Plants are nourished or killed with a dose of vinegar as the connected community succeeds or fails at collaborating, joining at once social responsibility, community, ecological engineering, and the strange interconnectedness that we are all more or less aware of every day. A project like this makes an event out of the commonplace, reorienting the perception of the user, functioning as an interference pattern. At the edge of what might be called parametric practice is an architecture that creates an organic form, creating a body, a responsive embodiment. In Haques practices, as in the art practices of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Philip Beesley, Ruairi Glynn, the space between a building and a biosystem vanishes, leaving in its place what is simultaneously a node in a network and a system unto itself. The architectural object is spread across a community of interconnected instances: actuators, sensors, nodes but rooted in it the situation of a particular body or system in which we implicitly participate in any number of modes of living.

Rob Ley and Joshua G Stein, ReactiveVOID

Rob Ley and Joshua G Stein - Social Spaces

From Gordon Pask, Scott Snibbe, through to Paul Verschure's Ada, the work of Tina Gonsalves, there is a legible history of architectural manifestations of social space. Their works attempt to actively bridge the space between the social, the emotive and an architectural space by a representational action. ReactiveVOID doesn’t attempt to create an entity with which users interact but instead attempts to create an environment in which users are subtly encouraged to interact with one another, a less direct and participatory model of interactivity. Rob Ley and Joshua G Stein have created two projects together, ReactiveVOID and Reef, that demonstrate an explicit and concrete space that is defined by its dynamic relationship to the social network it encloses. Using the presence of a user or groups of users to create a space, they envision biokinetic social spaces that adapt to the needs of the social dynamics within their boundaries.

“ReactiveVOID operates more as a social condenser rather than a facilitator of any functional need…The space seeks to create specific relationships between its inhabitants. When a group of two or three people find themselves in close proximity to each other, the fins close around them to create a micro-sized room to clarify this moment of intimacy.”


We can think of ReactiveVOID as a new model of technology where the role of a system is to create pleasant unpredicatabilities, surprises, new patterns of behavior or social interaction, akin to a physical suggestion algorithm. Technology is no longer an efficient functionality, quietly humming in the background; instead, it performs what Stein and Ley refer to as “the orchestration of unpredictability rather than the optimization of predictable ends”. A technology with an awareness of relationships as they might be perceived by those who actually define those relationships; a sense of personal space that I might recognize as being the same as my own; a notion of friendship and closeness that would be legible to me. There is no interface; there is only a series of actuators, motors, and sensors that act as a mediating device between humans. The interactivity is only a suggestion created out of the core elements of the architectural structure: the boundary, the delimited space, the participant in the building. In a more traditional concept the icon always attempts to remove itself from the urban space, from context, and represent itself and itself only visually, striking, at a distance, distinct. An interactive design cannot be at a remove, it must be integrated into the space, persons, contexts in which it is encountered. It must allow itself to have ghosts, doppelgangers, metaphorical presences, a representation of a state in the environment around it, a description of a previous action or a future action, or in the case of ReactiveVOID, as a function of the social situations that it shapes.

Future Cities Lab, Xeromax, 2009

Future Cities Lab - Integrated Environments

One of the dominant modes of creating an interactive space is to engineer into or overlay onto a façade an interactive element, creating a mutability in what was to many architectural practices the most defining characteristic aspect of a structure or environment: the outward skin that shaped the urban space, guided the user, passerby, neighboring spaces. In an interactive environment the surrounding environment, the situational conditions of a structure, can be employed as a functional connector, a bridge between the conditions of a structure and its situation. A reactive façade has the capacity to create from the boundary-shape of a structure a functional skin, a biosystemic actor that registers not only the user, but the environment as well.

Future Cities Lab, Xeromax Envelop{e}s, 2010

XEROMAX is a prototype for desert living; calibrated, tuned and responsive to its desert habitat. It is an adaptable, mutable and variable desert ecology. Contrary to current trends in desert suburban development, XEROMAX is a porous, permeable and evolving habitat in synchronicity with its surroundings - hyper situated, indigenous and local.


Future Cities Lab's XeroMax project actually has two somewhat unrelated manifestations, the Xeromax (Phoenix), designed for the desert, and the Xeromax Envelop{e}s, designed for a gallery exhibition in New York City at the Pratt Architectural Gallery this past Spring, that are linked in that at their essence the architecture proposed simply dispenses of one of the key elements of any architecture or structure: the boundary between the structure and its surrounding environment. Using sensors, cameras, motion detection, and an array of data sources and flexible actuators, ultra thin modules tune the behavior and situation of the building to the environment itself, to the point where the boundary between interior and exterior might vanish. An architecture beyond the minimalist, where the building becomes situational, existing entirely within its local conditions, that becomes, as FCL writes: “a habitual space without traditional walls and roofs”. Reading their description of their projects: “part robotic structure, part experimental interface, and part analytical drawing instrument”, “a nomadic enclave in an endless state of spatial and material flux”, one hears a desire to create an invisible architecture, one that serves the needs of its user while integrating itself as perfectly as possible with its environment, taking its shape and form from its situation, and losing any unnecessary characteristics with the full faith that when they are needed again they can be recreated by an intelligent structure. The situation of the architecture is rooted in its local conditions, both environmental and social, in a humanizing way that opens the possibility for meaningful participation.


What can be seen in each of the three previous projects is an architecture that re-shapes the sensibility of space, a living or working space that is not bounded by traditional structures even when it interacts with them. They position the architect not as the shaper of the city but rather a critical questioning voice that seeks to ask: what is it that this structure/space is supposed to do within its place? The interactivity of architecture has a necessary immediacy, a temporality; its space is, by definition, torqued, under pressure, in dialogue, in flux. The projects here may not be architectural spaces ready for living, but they are eloquent experiments towards what we might do with our spaces, to what our spaces might be able to be like, how they might be integrated into our lives. What architecture is, what the notion of designing living spaces and communal spaces, is becoming increasingly integrated with other practices, becoming arguably indistinct and integrated. The critical discourses of the past sixty years have seen the social position, responsibility, and the nature of the craft of architecture changed radically. By looking at interactive and reactive architectures, we can see a future in which some substantial part of architectural practice itself may be subsumed into a larger set of practices that simply engage the content and the medium of interaction and interactivity. Thinking of Koolhaas' ‘anti-iconic architecture’, one can hardly imagine anything less iconic than an architecture that is no longer an architectural icon or even an architectural object at all but instead is a situation that reacts to specific conditions in a space.

Interactive architectural practice squares its theory with its practice: the system has a practice, an action, it has a demonstrable activity and an evident interest in the world and how it participates in that world. By selecting sensors, value ranges, the designer of an interactive space is making aesthetic decisions about the content of their architectural system: what the system will listen for, how it regards the world and in a metaphorical sense how it regards itself in the world, an awareness of the world coupled with a means of creating a feedback. As Tristan d’Estrée Sterk wrote in Continuous Measurement in Architecture, “the future of measurement is continuous measurement” and his proposals for buildings present a compelling vision of buildings that respond, computationally and mechanically, to forces both internal and external. In the years since Greg Lynn and Marcos Novak suggested ways for architecture to involve a Bergsonian time, architecture is now oriented towards dynamic awareness, towards fluid, parameterized notions of form and towards iterative systems and automation. Architecture has become digital, temporal, and has gained an ability to incorporate scripting, choreography, and emergence. How this will play out, how it will make our living spaces and how those living spaces will shape our lives and spaces, remains to be seen. The three practices discussed in this essay share a view of a place-based, specific, conditional, and above all intelligently humane architecture, presenting possibilities of how to formulate conversations with spaces.

Joshua Noble is a writer, designer, and programmer based in Portland, Oregon and New York City. He's the author of, most recently, Programming Interactivity and the forthcoming book Research for Living.