Working in the Fun Palace

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How might we design more engaging, "Archigrammatic" interfaces for our buildings' increasingly-ubiquitous digital systems?

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Working in the Fun Palace :: "Archigrammatic" Interactions with the Smart Building

Harvard GSD Design Thesis :: Spring 2021

Advisor :: Prof. Allen Sayegh 

     Part of the winning portfolio submission for the GSD Digital Design Prize 2021

Archigram’s playful experiments in kinematic structures were an early precedent to the smart building systems we find commonplace today. Driving techno-utopian visions of moveable spaces in projects like Fun Palace and Generator, Cedric Price, Archigram, and their contemporaries imagined cybernetic building intelligences that would “provoke, delight, and otherwise stimulate” their occupants.

 

Provoke; Delight; Stimulate;” the language Archigram used to describe their proto-smart-buildings in the 60’s  is a far cry from the dry, efficiency-driven goals of today’s “smart” designs. Contemporary building systems are lifeless tools for optimizing space use + energy consumption, interfaced with through the dull 2d-screens of dashboard in lobbies, iPhone apps, and outlook plugins. What might today’s smart building’s learn from Archigram?


Working through the office building type, which has fervently adopted smart space optimization schemes, this thesis challenges the efficiency-driven smart building paradigm. Where smart offices typically focus on economizing space use, our project injects Archigrammatic attitudes towards computerized buildings to create more stimulating workspace experiences. We test new forms of human-building interaction on two tracks: On one hand, Archigram’s ideas of kinematic, programmatically fluid spaces are redeployed as a more responsive way of managing the “space-as-a-service” economy. On the other, their playful, moveable systems are tested as an alternative to screen-based interactions with the smart building, suggesting more humanistic forms of UX design for the built environment. This alternative attitude towards the smart building draws from fantastical visions of the 60’s to imagine more engaging interactions with our increasingly-ubiquitous digital building systems.

The project synthesizes a year of research at the GSD on smart building interfaces, and proposes new design strategies that recontextualize Archigram's work in the context of 21st-century smart building technology.

Problem Space :: Revisiting 1960's Archigram in 21st-Century Smart Buildings

In the 60's, Archigram, Cedric Price, and their contemporaries imagined fantastical interactions between occupants and their concepts for what we would now describe as  "smart buildings." Archigram designed moving, kinematic, fantastical structures  that popped-up in blank sites, reconfigured in response to their occupant’s needs, and had a kind of robotic vitality (see gallery, below). These were driven by concepts for

proto-smart buildings embedded with (in the words of Warren Chalk) "devices such as microswitches and sensors" that would help [the buildings' robotic services] "come into your service just at the moment when you needed them."

Perhaps the most provocative vision for this type of proto-smart-building is Cedric Price’s "Generator" retreat in Florida. Describing the computerized system he designed (with architect/engineers John and Julia Frazier), Price described the way a computerized control system called the "automatic architect" would reconfigure the building in some kind of unusual and provocative way, “provoking,” “delighting,” and “stimulating” the visitors. 

Archigram's Playful, Interactive, Fantastical, Proto-Smart-Buildings

Click for gallery. Left: Archigram's experiments with kinematic structures were the earliest visions of the "smart building."

Right: Price's Generator project is perhaps the most provocative vision of a proto-smart-building, where a computerized assistant is designed to "provoke," "delight," and"stimulate" the building's occupants.

Provoke; Delight; Stimulate

 

The language Archigram and Price used to describe their proto-smart-buildings is a far cry from the dry, efficiency-driven goals of today’s “smart” designs. Today, the smart building is used almost exclusively as an optimization tool: Either for managing a building's energy use to lower costs and improve sustainability, or for managing space use to help building  operators get the most value out of their square footage as possible. 

 

Similarly, our interfaces with smart buildings are much dryer than anything people in the 60’s imagined. Smart building interface design is handled almost exclusively by the UX design profession, and users interact with them through the dull 2d-space of dashboards in lobbies, iPhone apps, and Outlook plugins (see gallery, right).

Today's Smart Building :: A Dry, Technocratic, Efficiency-Driven Automation Tool

Click for gallery. 1. Screen-based interfaces with the smart building. 2. A smart building climate control interface in a Deloitte office building. 3. An IBM Tririga building management system.

This thesis reacts to the lifelessness of our smart building experiences today, calling back to a 60's approach to technology that coneptualized the computer as an architectural material.

Studies from Archigram, Price, and their contemporaries might be more relevant than ever before in today’s technological context: Where technologies for this kind of kinematic vitality in a building are becoming mainstream enough to be deployed in as mundane an environment as a logistics warehouse; Where the objects in our “internet-of-things” laden buildings are increasingly automated and self-controlled; And where our interactions with smart devices are increasingly creature-like, almost as if we are co-habiting our spaces alongside them (see gallery, right).

 

In today's technological context, is it time to revisit Archigrammatic approaches to smart building interactions?

Click for gallery. 1. Robotic shelves in an Amazon Warehouse 2. Urs Fischer's "Play" Installation, Gagosian 2018

3. Piaggio Fast Foward / Greg Lynn "Gita" Robot.

In today’s smart building + IOT context, what might a more “Archigrammatic” approach to smart building design look like?

What kind of forms might “UX design for the built environment” take?

How might we create spaces that re-program in step with the rhythms of their occupant’s day-to-day lives?

How might more narrative, world-building techniques help us creatively rethink more engaging interfaces with the smart building?

An Archigrammatic Approach to the Smart Building

Inspired by Archigram's bold attitude towards technology, we tested three design techniques for rethinking smart building interactions:

1. Provoke :: The Animated Plan

Archigram is well known for their 60’s space-age technological optimism, where they conceptualized buildings literally in motion relative to the society around them with spaces that changed program over time. Inspired by their orthographic drawings of moving structure, we used Bongo (an inverse kinematics plugin for Rhino to conceptualize a set of playful, moveable systems that would allow spaces to re-partition. As opposed to a static floorplan, our moveable systems allowed the same space to be partitioned out in different ways, allowing them to take on many different functions over the course of a day or week and dramatically increasing the amount of lettable area in a very efficiency-driven, technocratic way.

Click for gallery. 1. We used Bongo to create animated plans inspired by Archigram's kinematic drawings 2. These plans allow program to be optimized in an extremely technocratic way as partitions change over time. 3+4. Examples of orthographic drawings from Archigram of moving building elements.

Archigram took a looser, more narrative approach to representation than previous architects, which helped them conceptualize future technologies in a radical way. We’ve worked through a similar narrative approach in renderings, animating them as 1-2 minute short stories. At first glance,  these might seem like regular visualizations of a regular office space — they are rendered in a polite, normative style, but unfold into strange, delightful, fantastical, and sometimes even unnerving interactions between occupants, robotic inhabitants, and their robotic building. This narrative approach helps us think through the aesthetic experience of living in robotic spaces in a fun and playful way. Are you walking into an office here, or some kind of strange robotic jungle? 

2. Delight :: Narrative World-Building for Robotic Environments

Click for gallery. 1. We animated our renderings as 1-2 minute short stories 2+3. Examples of Archigram's more narrative approach to world-building in collaged and college

3. Stimulate :: Neural Networks and a Creature-Like Building

We were fascinated by Price’s aforementioned “automatic architect” as a real-time hand-on prototype of interacting with an autonomous, decision-making building. We conceptualized a similar system, using contemporary machine learning tools to design our own program-organizing system. The system takes data such as coworking space rental as a stimulant for the buildings' computational brains to drive where and how the building lays out other functions. We designed a tool to quickly generate our own dataset of suggested pairs of program layouts, showing the amount and location of rented workspace as yellow space, and responding allocation of commercial or cultural space on as blue/pink space, to quickly create a very large dataset for the building to learn from. This system for the building to re-program itself in a very automatic-architect-like way might create a strange and unusual experience of living in this building — one that gives the building a sense of agency, creature-ness, and character. 

Click for gallery. 1. We conceptualized a system where a Neural Network takes typical forms of smart building data and organizes program layout on our floorplans. 2.We created a tool for quickly creating a large dataset of architect-authored plan layouts for our network to learn from. 3. These datasets take the amount of letted workspace, the time of day, and day of the week as a driver for allocating other program space in plan. 4. This system is inspired by Price's "Perpetual Architect" sytem.

Site :: Renovation of Maison du Peuple

We test our ideas for a more "Archigrammatic" approach to smart building design in a renovation for Jean Prouve’s Maison du Peuple.

 

Maison du peuple is a seminal project from the 1920’s in the problem space of kinematic spaces and program flexibility. Prouve designed the building around a series of large, kinematic elements that would allow the shed-like structure to shift function between market, assembly hall, and theater.

Click for gallery. 1. We tested our project in a renovation for Prouve's Maison du Peuple in Paris. 2. Maison du Peuple is designed contain many different program types within the same shed-like space. 3+4. A set of kinematic elements make this program transformation possible (image credit Marco Landert, ETH Building Documenation).

Prouve's concept for a space that would shift program over time resonates in an interesting way with many ways we've seen the smart building and the space-as-a-service economy think about functionality and space ownership more flexibly. We studied a number of space-as-a-service space ownership schemes to drive the program brief for our renovation.

Click for gallery. 1. We tested our project in a renovation for Prouve's Maison du Peuple in Paris. 2. Maison du Peuple is designed contain many different program types within the same shed-like space. 3+4. A set of kinematic elements make this program transformation possible (image credit Marco Landert, ETH Building Documenation).

 A recent proposal by Rudy Ricciotti architects imagined renovating the building with a large, 22-storey tower (see the pink massing in the image, right), but the project was rejected because of the impact of the large tower on the Haussmanian urbanism around it. Our design brief reimagines this proposal for a renovation of Maison du Peuple where, by taking a more flexible attitude towards programming that resonates better with Prouve’s original designs in the project, we might be able to reduce the size of the tower and create a more flexible, dynamic smart building experience (see the green massing, right).

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Working in the Fun Palace

Our massing approach was similar to the original competition entry, with minimal interventions to Prouve's structure and a (reduced) tower perched behind. We sliced this massing into four programmatic types — each with its own kinematic "character" that would playfully and efficiently actuate spaces in different ways.

Episode 1 :: The Pop-Out Market

Our first study looked at strategies for the ground floor of the existing building to completely open up for more public-oriented functions, and then re-partition into a more arcade-like experience. Inspired by examples of space-as-a-service platforms such as Spacious, where tenants can rent out unused space in more time-sensitive program types, we explored ways the ground-floor space of Maison du Peuple would have commercial tenants  (expand their space as needed, and rent out their unused space at off-peak hours. This kind of programmatic transformation is enabled by a thick wall poche (see diagram, right) that expressively folds and unfolds, allowing retail operators along the arcades here to reclaim more space when they need more seating, and retract during off-peak hours when there might be more demand for workspace, instead.

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This short film looks at a time lapse of this space, which frantically shifts between program and space types over the course of the day while this cleaning robot in the back moves in slow, purposeful loops around the plan, almost oblivious to the way the space transitions between this closed-off, hallway-like space, an open atrium space, and something completely opened up to the floor above.

Episode 2 :: The Pop-Out Market

Our second study, “the dancing volumes” sees a set of room-like volumes reconfigure together in a choreographed sequence. Here, the volumes can be split apart to form a set of standalone enclosures in the space, or connected together to partition off different zones on the floorplan -- taking advantage of the large, almost column-free space on the first floor of Maison du Peuple with a series of room-like volumes that would move in this kind of choreographed synchronicity across the floor. 

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This short film tells the story of a man who works in the mezzanine level above this hall. He comes into work every day early before the building is in use, and works late into the night. Every time the boxes go through one of their choreographed dances, he gets up from his desk, and watches them go through their movement in this kind of “changing of the guard” spectacle, before sitting back down and returning to his work.

Episode 3 :: The Sliding Offices

Our third study looks at offices that can re-partition in response to day-by-day changing work patterns and work teams, trying to amplify smart building experiences like “hot-desking."

 

This plan sees a series of snake-like partitions wind their way in and out of the building core, to separate out different spaces in an otherwise open office plan as different tenants need them.

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This clip shows the experience of a lady working in this office, whose workspace experience is totally different every day as different numbers of her colleagues are working remotely vs coming in to the office that day. Mondays and Tuesdays are her best days, as her office space is closed and quiet, and as the week goes on the office gets louder, busier, and more exciting day-by-day as her week goes on.

Episode 4 :: The Work-Home Pivot

Our last example, the “work-home pivot,” looks at different strategies for an entirely residential floorplan to take on other functions at different times of the day: for example, in the afternoon on a weekday when most people are out of the house. Inspired by the inventive contraptions home-workers use to facilitate their small businesses, the plan sees the ancillary rooms of the apartment open up as coworking space for parts of the day, and close off as residential spaces at night.

 

The spaces expressively hinge open to create large, publicly-accessible shared spaces between the different tenants apartments, and rotate shut to reclaim this space for the apartment owner. In a typical unit’s apartment plan, for example, about 60% of the floor area could be rented out by the tenant as coworking space when they are away from home at their own job.

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This short clip shows the experience of a couple renting out one of these circular spaces as coworking space during the day ⁠— the building tries to gently alert them and get their attention that its time to give up this part of their domestic space, before swinging open to be transformed into office space for the rest of the day.

A Provocative, Delightful, and Strange Smart Building Experience

These four episodic studies help us think through an interesting ambiguity in Archigram's work, and how that might play through in rethinking the way we approach smart building design more architecturally.

On one hand, these studies create an extremely technocratic, efficiency-driven system in which building space use is optimized to the extreme. For example, we found we were able to reduce the building's height by 45% relative to Ricciotti's original proposal by allowing our robotically re-programmable spaces to create a kind of extreme real-estate efficiency space.

On the other, playing through the aesthetic experience of living in such a space creates this strange, wonderful, and sometimes even unsettling experience of interacting with the building more haptically, as a kind of spatialized alternative to the current 2-dimensional screen based interfaces we use to interact with the smart building, that help us conceptualize new ways of interacting with buildings that feel less like machines for living in, which is maybe  the ideological framing of the original modernist Maison du Peuple, and more like robotic beings for living alongside, which might be a new type of relationality between occupant and building in the smart building.

The project vibrates between these two modes of thinking — one that is extremely technocratic and efficiency-driven, and the other that is provocative, delightful, and strange.