Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
The Living are a New York-based architectural studio, producing work which is both conceptually strong and physically impressive. As a result, David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang were able to give us a talk which was half-theoretical presentation and half-live science class demonstration.
Much of their work has been documented in two volumes: 'Life Size 1' and 'Life Size 2'. Their methodological approach is governed by a practice they call 'flash research'. These research projects are "open-source, incremental and small scale". Each has a budget of under $100k, lasts for less than 3 months, and produces a prototype as a proof of concept. The emergent ideas can be expanded, and taken into further research projects, so in a sense ideas can be daisy-chained together to extend beyond 3 months. The prototypes are generally full scale, and the result of "looping back and forth between hypotheses". They also ensure they publish "building instructions, so people can pick up where we left off."
The first project they showed Postopolis! was entitled 'Living Glass'. It's a fairly extraordinary piece of work that shows built fabric responding to interaction in real-time. By exploring different patterns of movement, and thickening, stretching and contracting of material, they are able to build a transparent wall with louvred "gills" across its surface. These gills open and close when a wire contracts, in response to some sensory input (they used infra-red but it could've been any of a number of stimuli). The end result is that the 'glass' membrane actually opens up when people approach, in order to let fresh air in.
They demo this in front of the Postopolis! crowd, and it's truly impressive. It literally draws a gasp from the audience. The transparent glass louvres bend and twist open as Benjamin breathes on the surface. It's a lovely movement, far more organic than mechanical (although this is work that blurs concepts like organic and mechanical together.)
Secondly, they show research which responded to the question "What if architecture produced its own energy?". They run through some example systems which collect and expend small amounts of energy, in balance. In other words, systems that can "harness energy and spend it at an equivalent ratio". They then show photographs of tests of a full scale prototype of a water-borne system, in Yang's bathtub (!). The system they've designed is to be deployed in a river or lake, indicating water purity in real-time. A series of these floating sensors could be cast out into the water, forming a "hovering cloud of light". The light changes, depending on the quality of the water. It's a lovely idea. They demonstrate the light in front of us again, pouring an impurity into water in which the sensors are immersed. The 'beacon' changes from green to red in a very satisfying fashion, but the important thing with this experiment is to note that this is approaching an energy-neutral system.
With all of their research, they publish a manual on their website, which extends the work into "a form of open-source construction", they say. Picking up on this topic, also raised by Lebbeus Woods, I ask how far they go in explaining their work. I think we cross wires slightly at this point as Benjamin answers from an intellectual property angle, indicating that their projects are at a stage with few issues inhibiting a full explanation of the work. I was actually asking as to the specific nature of the instructions, and how much 'architectural knowledge' they embed in the instructions – this to Woods' points about having to convey the 'rules of the game', in order to avoid the problems encountered by the design advocacy movement of the 1960s. Either way, its an interesting answer from Benjamin. He says thus far "the stakes aren't high enough" so they're on "an indie scale rather than being on a major label." But they're keen to ensure the research doesn't just "exist within a closed bubble" and further, they employ "or steal source code from the internet" in the work too. You can visit The Living's website to see how they explain their work.
Next, a project by students they taught at Columbia GSAPP, entitled the 'Huggy Wall'. This elicits the odd 'aah' of delight from the crowd (it's certainly one of the more participative presentations at Postopolis!). It's another 'reactable' material, featuring a cosy membrane-like substance enclosing itself around a person upon contact, literally giving the person a hug. It's only slightly disconcerting.
A further research theme is 'better, cheaper, faster; and asks "What if good architecture and bottom line development was the same thing?" Here, they attempt to take a weak material, which when bound together becomes strong (similar to Aranda/Lasch's experiments with 'packing'). The Living's constructions with these materials are based around an inherent structural integrity which enables objects to be "stackable and easily transportable", in this case in the form of a collapsible lightweight framing system. It's easily assembled with simple tools by non-experts in an hour (they show a video to prove this, starring themselves as the "non-experts"). It affords a structure that can be built for $9 per square foot.
Another project within this theme comprises a 'House of Doors', constructed from 384 salvaged metal and wood hotel doors i.e. 95% salvage material. We also see a tantalising glimpse of another project based around a user-created micro-network of 'motes', or communicable sensors, which create a street-level map of air quality (akin to their water-borne project earlier.)
In response to a question from the crowd, we began to get at a fairly subtle but powerful difference between reaction and responsiveness, in terms of how The Living saw their systems behaving. This again deserved more time than we could give it, but they responded by seeing that their simple processes of input –> processing –> output are predicated on a more responsive relationship than simply reacting i.e. their systems are not simply about the behaviour of a garage door, opening and closing in response to infra-red contact.
The way they responded to this question left me with the sense that The Living are truly exploring behavioural products, not simply reactive architecture. In this, they're producing fascinating cutting-edge work, which is also aesthetically complex and has rich sensory qualities, as the Living Glass projects show. If 'design dissolves in behaviour', as I've suggested here several times, borrowing Naoto Fukasawa's line, The Living are drawing us constructive sketches of what this might mean for the fabric of the built environment.