Making Architecture Responsive: Cybernetic Buildings (PHOTOS)

05/26/2011 04:31 am ET | Updated Jul 25, 2011
  • Tom Mallory Co-founder at &

As I set about writing on "interactive architecture" this week, I was struck by the semantic challenges and numerous connotations of "interactivity." Nowadays we have grown accustomed to commonly using 'Interactive Architecture' to denote "the convergence of embedded computation and kinetics in architectural form with the intention to involve human and environmental responses."

Much has been written on this intriguing contemporary trend and much more is to be expected in the future. Within a short period of time the technocratic version of interactive architecture has emerged as a detached design discipline with its own circle of active researchers like and to name a few. It is clear that modern technology is a key element to how we might define interactive architecture.

Therefore, why not address interactive architectural design in the broader sense of buildings' ability to communicate? Architectural objects and spaces with the ability to respond hold greater appeal than their pragmatically constructed kin, much like a communicative person is easier to relate to. The examples I have picked to illustrate this are largely an attempt at covering the variety of interactive architecture; I have tried to attach some distinction between two types of behavior - "structural" and "media" interactivity.

Story continues below

Interactive Architecture

Singular examples of responsive architecture could be traced back to as early as the 1930s. Cedric Price was perhaps the first and most influential of the pre-digital age architects to adopt the early theoretical work in cybernetics and extend it to an architectural concept of "anticipatory architecture." But it took a couple of decades more to get those ideas to sink into practical architecture design.

In the past, this type of architecture has like art, philosophy and literature, experienced periods of unpopularity. All those who went to architecture school are bound to have suffered a certain form of architectural "academicitis" (as J. D. Salinger nicely put it on another occasion) focused much more on aesthetics and avant-garde philosophy than on responsive ability in architecture.

In trying to establish where interactivity stands recently, we might want to consider the Venice Biennale (a sort of an architectural trend-setter or perhaps trend-analyzer institution) and examine some of its latest themes - what started off as 'Less Aesthetics, More Ethic' under director Massimiliano Fuksas in 2000, by 2008 had already reached the stage of 'Architecture Beyond Building' under director Aaron Betsky and even went as far as the 2010 'People Meet in Architecture' directed by Kazuyo Sejima. From this progression it seems that architecture is returning to the notion that the capacity to interact could be the ultimate criteria in architectural design.

The Bartlett's lecturer and founder of Ruairi Glynn explains it's importance and gives some insight in to it's future:

I think it's beginning to get wider recognition as a valuable asset to the buildings where it has been used well and as the technology for these kinds of projects become cheaper, more powerful and importantly smaller to the point of becoming invisible, I see it being embedded into wider mainstream architecture. The problem is making architects realize that you can do more with intelligent architecture than just control heating, airflow, and security systems.

He goes on to give a few warnings on possible outcomes:

...Interactive Architecture does one of two things. It either accepts its place in time and serves a function for that period and then either is replaced or it is kept as a historical artifact or it is an open system capable of change so as to adapt to the changing role of the fixed architecture it inhabits. It's important to recognize however that while technological obsolescence can almost be charted on a graph, the cultural obsolescence of existing and future examples of Interactive Architecture are much harder to predict...

Where do you think interactive architecture will go next?