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Working in the Fun Palace


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


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