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Progress beyond the state of the art.
Interview with Patrik Schumacher

Alessandra Belia
All'apertura dell'anno accademico 2003-2004 l'Architectural Association di Londra traccia il fronte di ricerca per l'anno corrente. L'agenda programmatica dei vari corsi, dalla Foundation School ai master di specializzazione, raccoglie i frutti di un anno di studio. Paolo Cascone introduce i diversi itinerari di sperimentazione della scuola. Tra i temi ricorrenti: Iperarticolazione ed Emergenza di Filippo Innocenti; Form finding di Marco Vanucci. Per approfondire la metodologia didattica, Manuela Gatto, corresponsabile del corso di Intermediate Unit 3, descrive il programma del nuovo anno accademico: Inter-active Fluid Space. Chiude il servizio un'intervista di Alessandra Belia a Patrik Schumacher, condirettore del Master in Design Research DRL, sul ruolo della scuola nell'avanguardia dell'architettura contemporanea e sugli orizzonti aperti dall'applicazione della robotica alla progettazione dell'architettura "responsive". [Filippo Innocenti, SPIN+]

[in italiano] The exhibition AAproject review, organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture, is a kind of starting point to begin a tour through an emerging architectural debate, exploring a new research field, where a different architecture might soon take form. We are looking at a territory where art, architecture, technology, and science merge to find a new avenue of research.

Patrik Schumacher, partner of Zaha Hadid, teaching at the AADRL post graduate course, speaks about these new domains of architecture which represent a tough challenge for the architectural world of tomorrow, explaining his point of view and the variety of approaches taken by his students.

ALESSANDRA BELIA: "AAProject review" is the name of the exhibition being organized by the Architectural Association. It represents one of the London's must-see cultural events, attracting visitors from around the world. It's a time when the AAschool opens its doors to the wider community, challenging perception and encouraging debate on the role of the architect and the discipline of architecture, now and in the future, locally, and globally. What is your opinion about the exhibition as a manifestation of current thinking and production?

Patrik Schumacher: I think that the Project review at the AA is not aimed at the general public or any kind of cultural tourism. It is an event internal to the discipline or profession, and, curiously, an event with particular importance to the internal communication of the school itself, i.e. a mirror which the school puts up for itself so that the different units - which during the year develop autonomously without much contact – can appreciate each other's work.

Project Review exhibition. DRL exhibition room.

But of course the architectural profession, and the different architecture schools in London make up the larger part of the audience and if there is a sort of cultural tourist to be considered it is a group of keen architectural students and young architects coming from abroad to London to witness the exhibition. In particular it is the ex-students that want to see the new generation work and who would like to keep in touch and update themselves with respect to the latest obsessions circulating in the school. In fact the school is moving very fast so that it is necessary to come every year to keep up with its pace of development.

In general it is important to understand that there is an internal discourse of the architectural discipline and profession which does not make a lot of sense to the general public. Why should the general public be confronted with design processes, abstract concepts or unfinished experiments? These issues only concern the community of designers themselves.

The Architectural Association is a school where new ideas germinate and are expressed. The exhibition of projects shows this vitality. Can we consider this production as a "new architectural avant-garde"? How could you describe the concept of progress in architecture, today?

Since the discipline of architecture has no dedicated research institutions and no research funding, it is the educational institutions on the one hand and the avant-garde segment of the profession on the other hand that take on the function of research and innovation, which in other disciplines is pursuit by dedicated research institutions. The private manufacturing sector has developed large corporations that can afford to establish dedicated R&D departments. Medicine is supported by publicly funded research institutes operating within the University system. In the architectural world there is neither private nor public funding for research. Schools like the AA, and in particular the post-graduate courses and the diploma courses , play a crucial role in a process of research and innovation. And the work as well as the human resources feed directly into the avant-garde segment of the profession. This phenomenon involves a small number of high profile schools in the architectural world, and the AAschool is certainly operating in the forefront of the international avant-garde discourse. This research is conducted by both teachers and students.

The teachers, who are located at the school, collaborate with the students, leading the student's work to participate in this sort of research. The design work is not primarily understood as a kind of training, that attempts to teach a kind of standard or state of the art competency. The work is all about progress beyond the state of the art via experimentation whereby the results are opening up new agendas rather than offering finished products. At the same time, the work can not be measured by a consistent standard.

Project: Pneu_WAVE: mass mobilization and inflatable environments by MassiveATTRACT. Cell structure of LHR_X airport.

In the context of AA, how does the variety of methods and approaches operate with respect to imagining and creating better alternatives to what already exists.

First of all I want to reiterate that it is all about finding alternatives to what exists, and yet it is naiv to expect that these alternatives are immediatly better than what exists as well-tested solutions. Alternatives in this context are first groping steps into new directions, offering potentials and opportunities for further research, not polished superior solutions. At its best this work points ahead towards better solutions.

The question also talks about the variety of the methods and approaches that operate within the school. Sometimes the school prides itself of having a large diversity of approaches on offer. This looks like an advantage, but I think that this can also be a disadvantage if the different units within the school are not focussed on one shared direction. With a shared focus comes productive competition instead of ideological strife. It means that the different units have a lot to say to each other and a lot to learn from each other. I think that the school is self-organised in the sense that it forms coherent movements within itself, which reduces diversity temporarily and creates clusters of different units working on the same thing. This originates as a group dynamic within the student body, perhaps despite the divers body of teachers.

I think this is very important. You might compare the AAschool with its main competititor Columbia university in this respect, and I would say that Columbia has been more coherent. It is true that the AA has more diversity on offer, but there are also current movements which are running between those two schools, and this creates avenues of research in which many teachers and students feel that they are participating in a unified research agenda.

What should the visitor perceive moving through this aesthetic experience of the exhibition? Is it more art or architecture? Is it implying an utopian or radical vision of the society? ...or a new way to describe different concepts of architectural space… or a futuristic way to live?

I understand your question to be asking whether we are more concerned with spatial form or with the social content.

In the end, we have to be concerned with both. Innovation is innovation of architectural form, of spatial form, or spatial organization, of the logic of connection etc., but this makes only sense if in the end the life process takes on this new form and also requires such a new form; so it is always the double research, in terms of the spatial vocabularies which need to be developed on the one hand and in terms of the social tendencies, or institutional patterns on the other hand. It is very hard to do both very well in one and the same project. Therefore you usually have the schism between units which are focussing more on the social research and those other groups who are working on complex spatial forms and perhaps those who are moving on to questions of structure and manufacturing. It seems unfortunate that thus there are two quite separate cultures of research, but in the end this (temporary) separation and division of labour is necessary. However, the final fusion and collaboration of these two areas of research is equally necessary. Another point to underline about the strong experience that the exhibition offers, is that it implies that the students are not confining their ambition to the display of drawings, or abstract representations of ideas, but they want to offer a kind of experiential simulation, a kind of immersive space which stands in for the building they would like to design. The exhibition space is not only showing architectural representations but it becomes itself a designed space that explores various spatial concepts.

Your students have investigated the concept of "responsive environment" trying to make an original contribution to this new and complex field. But what really does it mean within the architectural debate? What is your approach to the concept?

"Responsive Environments" is the title of our current research agenda. It is a fantastic challenge, it is a totally new field of design, and perhaps it is not even necessary to assume that architecture will be able to successfully claim this new field as its own territory. Instead "responsive environments" might become an independent field and it might become a field of collaboration between industrial design and interaction design which currently is just a sub-discipline of web-site design which in turn still operates out of graphic design. Out of interaction design might emerge a group of people who work both in real and virtual environments.

Anyhow I think architecture, perhaps, is the most crucial design discipline to take over this new domain. We foresee the possibility that most (if not all) architectural space will become responsive and be animated through intelligent kinetic capacities. Each space will have a series of sensors which allow the occupational patterns within the space to be registered and fed back into the intelligent responsive structures. This can operate on many scales and levels. I think what emerges is a new era within architecture, or between architecture and some other disciplines, which will have a big market in the future, we are convinced of that. It will be the next big thing in technological development.

Project: Pneu_WAVE: mass mobilization and inflatable environments by MassiveATTRACT. Cell structure of LHR_X airport.

We, as AADRL, are an isolated research and design unit – struggling in solitude, for a number of years already, to take on this challenge. The only kind of people which have been working with such environments so far are artists or robotics engineers with ties to the art world. So within the domain of art there exists a series of pieces, installations ,environments, which work with interactivity. This is just one more example that shows how the domain of art is the most open, the most underdetermined area of social and technological research. It is here that the new phenomena are picked up first and experimented with. Here it is possible to invest without pragmatic purpose and performance criteria. And when architecture takes on this developing field this implies that we are already one step beyond the stage of pure play or the pure magic of technological possibilities and effects. When architecture gets involved it means that we are trying to take these mere open ended possibilities to the next level by assuming operating conditions in institutional settings and meaningful social scenarios.

For instance, we have been looking at the deployment of responsive systems within residential complexes, as well as corporate environments with an eye towards linking up with innovative tendencies within recent business organisation. At the moment we are working on airports as fields that sustain multiple programmes that might benefit from new behavioural capacities of their environment.

The AADRL research tries to investigate how to genuinely evolve rather than design, a new kind of ambient, and immersive architecture. Using advanced software tools it is able to create, control and shape a new concept of space, where the dynamic of the people-flows and its self-organising reconfigurations are reflected in the scripted responses of a kinetically adaptive space. There is this new capacity to design spaces that actively engage with their users to create complex behavioural systems. What do you think about it?

I think at the Design Research Lab we are trying to develop these new behavioural capacities, as we said earlier, which have previously been explored in art. We are also trying to bring in ideas from robotics and bio-mimetics. We are opening up this new technological paradigm for the new opportunity to design a social space as a living interactive space, on an urban scale, or on the scale of a building, or on the scale of a room or interface. The task is very ambitious. The difficulty is that it requires a whole series of advanced disciplines and technical capacities. As a school we can not buy the necessary expertise in the form of specialist consultants. Instead we have to develop our own skill base from within our pool of students.

Project: Pneu_WAVE: mass mobilization and inflatable environments by MassiveATTRACT. Interior view showing inflatable environment of LHR_X airport.

We create teams which within themselves should diversify to various kind of expertises. We need form makers and we need to develop structures, we need to develop kinetic mechanisms and we also we need students who have analytical capacities and finally those who are able to acquire some basic understanding of computer programming. And we also need some groups of students which have a developed social imagination and can move into the observation, analysis and simulation of collective human behaviour. This involves a kind of definition of behavioural patterns that lead to the programming of agents are able to self-organize into life-like patterns. Such simulated behaviours can then be compared with observed patterns found in public spaces, perhaps video recorded by the students. The patterns of movement in public spaces are to be observed, and their social logic has to be understood and reconstructed via programmed agents.

We take this as a design domain sui generis. This is part of the expanded paradigm of architectural design we are promoting. We are no longer just designing the empty shell but we are also conceiving the kind of choreography of use-patterns that unfolds within and in interaction with our structures. This is a rather new exciting departure for architecture. The desire to do this was always there. Architectures ultimate ambition was always about designing the social life by means of designing its container. Now we have the capacity to simulate such behaviours within their designed environments.

This is an enormous leap in our design capacity afforded by the software tools like 3ds max or Maya - enhanced by various plug-ins. Those tools were initially developed for the film industry. Now these animation tools allow us to design interactive and self-organising scenarios.

At the AA exhibition ,the DRL presents its designs using various sensor as well as actuator technologies linked by computer that simultaneously respond to the spatial organization of the visitors. At the same time, robotic prototypes show ever more advanced forms of artificial intelligence and kinetic capacities. And also the current research is focused to develop tools to design and simulate responsive systems of dynamic interaction involving techniques like scripting, force-fields, inverse kinematics etc. Which new domains, in your opinion, is this research opening?

The kind of animation software we are using, is opening not only new technical options but also a whole new way of thinking. We are modelling artificial worlds with their own peculiar laws of quasi-nature. It is really like creating a little universe whereby every object or element can be interactively related to any the other object or element. Properties and relations of elements within an artificial world can be scripted into functions, chain reactions and complex networks of interaction. It is like writing the laws of an artificial universe.

So you can make a whole system of lawful correlations and let them run through everchanging scenarios. That is a fascinating new departure. The advancement of software tools means that the learning curve to create such a world is made user friendly to the point that the specialist computer programmer is no longer necessary. The creative designer can create these fascinating interactive worlds. These are worlds that first of all exist in the computer, but they can be implemented in the real world as sensors, actuators and chips become ever more available. And this implementation of responsive models is another big step we are currently working towards – first in the form of scaled models.

We are creating models which are activated by pneumatic muscles and which are wired up with a series of sensors to really create the first kind of prototype of an responsive environment. We presented three such models for the exhibition Latent Utopias which I curated for a performing arts festival in Graz last year. The AADRL students where exhibiting among an illustrous series of international avant-garde architects. We were showing the same kinetic prototypes at the AA exhibition this year. These models are not just fascinating gadgets but they are embetted within a larger project which is discussed with respect to its social significance and aesthetic implications.

You said: "Any parameter of any object might be dynamically correlated with any parameter of any other object within the model". This means that the designer has the freedom and the power to craft artificial worlds, each with their peculiar "laws of nature". Is that the key to reading these new responsive spaces? Have we arrived at what could be called a mutation stage?

First of all, I think this is very important. The objects and the elements we design are always nodes in a kind of dynamic network of elements and relations, they don't stand autonomously. You can not design one after the other in isolation. As you design the next object you consider its impact on the first object. The first object in turn shifts its identity in the chain of interlinked elements.

So there is a new complexity that has to be comprehended and mastered in this kind of design work. We can no longer entertain simple minded ontological notions about how the world is constituted. The world is relational rather than a world of objects with stable properties. We have to comprehend the world as an integrated system, not a collection of objects sorted into a classification or composed into a static spatial arrangement. Within a network the identity of any object or node is depending on the total patterns of relations that it might enter into directly or even indirectly. And this implies an ongoing process of transformation that can no longer be type-cast into stable essences. We are moving from typology to topology and parametric models. The very important point is that the object can only be identified by its position in the network of relations. And this position is not a primarily a spatial position. Rather objects become agents in networks of collaboration. So their identity depends on their social role within the society of system components.

The human users might be conceptualised as a certain subset of system components with a high degree of autonomy. Agents also evolve historically. Memory functions can be introduced. If this is becoming a generalised feature of our artificial world, we can no longer describe the object without referring to the object history, to its current position within its life cycle or developmental trajectory. The object's life process might involve a fixed stretch of time or one dependent upon the history of interaction with other objects etc. The possibilities seem infinite. Even an artificial evolution might be instigated.

When you talk about mutation, perhaps, maybe we are moving into a much more complex game. When developing such an interactive system we could ,perhaps, distinguish a cyclical system which has a series of interlinked events or chain reactions which always find back to the initial condition. The object oscillates. It has a simple life cycle. What we are starting to look into as well, and of course we follow computer research into genetic algorithms and genetic programming , is the possibility that the responsive interaction leaves traces. We would like to develop the object, mutate the object, allowing the object to evolve and gather experience. So it is not a prefigured life cycle, but a kind of life development of each element. This is a fascinating new aspect to think through we are trying to model small words where objects as well as the system as a whole evolve.

It is not a Newtonian universe of cyclical stable systems, but a Darwinian universe of mutation, selection, reproduction, development and evolution. It is a fascinating challenge to take on, but it is also, perhaps a necessary and pertinent way to think about architecture today given the fact that the social life process is in continuous development. And these developments are irreversible developments rather than cycles. So architecture might be able to participate in this mechanism. The capacity for evolution and development thus becomes a conscious design agenda from the very outset.

Alessandra Belia


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