It is not an inordinate claim to say; we architects use many jargons and terms and apply them to several various architecture theories and practices before having a clear and fixed definition. This collection of terms include words like flexible, manipulative, adaptive, responsive, interactive etc. Some architects think that not only this attitude is not inappropriate, it is more productive than making one’s own definitions and then to declare who has and who has not followed them it (Negroponte). Responsiveness (that can be applied to any fields design) is one of the important and highlighted terms in this regard, that has been used and applied in recent decades with the cohabitation of other terms such as interactivity and adaptation. These notions and circumstances to which they are applied are to some extend unclear. As the German media artist and architecture designer, Marion Tränkle, wrote, ““Using the term ‘responsive’ in speaking of architecture triggers all manner of questions (Tränkle).”
Aforementioned notions can easily confuse one for several reasons such as different appliance of these terms to different situations by several design theologians and designers from various disciplines. With about 40 years passing since the first proposals about the notion of responsiveness, this essay collects related ideas and different interpretations of this concept and summarizes relevant thoughts to illustrate a general image of this concept. Then it inspects some of these thoughts for future criticisms and defragments. The main accent of this essay will be on Nicholas Negroponte’s thoughts and ideas from his book, Soft Architecture Machines. In this regard, this paper will present a set of conceptual models and examples, about different mechanisms of responsive systems to determine borders for different mechanisms which sometimes are considered responsive in general. Moreover, the essay tries to clear a way of distinguishing different kinds of responsive systems which can be indeed a basin for readers and critics to compare, accept, reject, purify, and develop theories on this vast field of design.
Philip Beesley, Sachiko Hirosue, and Jim Ruxton, co-authors of Toward a Responsive Environment, have used ‘responsive’ and ‘interactive’ in the first chapter of the book ‘Responsive Architecture: subtle technologies’ several times interchangeably without differentiating them from each other (Beesley, Hirosue and Ruxton). Hence, this paper will used these two terms interchangeably too.
Why responsive [interactive]?
Interactivity is within the contemporary community systems; it places at its center the subject (variability, reconfigurability, personalization) instead of absolute nature of the object (serialization, standardization)(Saggio). This is relevant to the contemporary discourse of computer systems which is about the future possibilities of creating interconnected and changeable models of information that can constantly reconfigure. It is also in a great chain with time in terms of the idea of spatial reconfiguration changes borders of both time and space that until now have been consolidated(Saggio).
With Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity back in mind, If an interactive system modifying architecture is linked to Internet-based navigational systems, the effect of the jump can pervade the whole architecture: a jump from one spatial configuration to another, a jump between different information systems and, finally, a jump between different temporal states(Saggio). One can say that if the formula for the Modern Movement was rightly new objectivity, the formula for today cannot be other than new Subjectivity and it is interactivity that is the key to this new subjectivity(Saggio).
Responsive systems, but how?
Undoubtedly, Nicholas Negroponte is one of the landmark scholars who have developed various ideas and thoughts around the ideas of responsiveness, interactivity, adaptation, etc. His strategy and approach toward responsiveness is quite unique. In his book called Soft Architecture Machines (which this essay will focuses on) he tried to elaborate the concept of responsive systems by means of comparison and sometimes stating what should not be considered as responsive (Negroponte).
Negroponte illustrated a border between a manipulative system and a responsive one:
“Each state of manipulative is in a very real sense nonflexible. To achieve a multiplicity of uses, the environment must undergo physical transformation, large or small, at the behest of the users. What is important to my following argument is that this change, that is, manipulation, is an overt action directed by the user(s). The manipulative environment is a passive one, one that is moved as opposed to one that move…In contrast, responsive ,sometimes called adaptable, or reactive means the environment is talking an active role, initiating to a greater or lesser degree changes as a result and function of complex or simple computation.(Negroponte)”
Negroponte thought about scheduled behavior and appropriate behavior of systems (Negroponte). From a morphophonemic perspective, which I refer to in the last paragraph of this essay, one can find the word ‘Respond’ defined as: “React quickly or positively to a stimulus or treatment (Oxford)” and then can connect this positivity to his idea of appropriateness. In continue, considering the definition of the word ‘React’ as “respond or behave in a particular way in response to something (Oxford)”, the particularity chains to his idea of scheduled as well. It is warranted to conclude that Negroponte pinpointed appropriateness as a certain characteristic for a responsive system which reacts appropriately or at least conveys a sense of self-positivity rather than scheduled, commanded, expected, etc. It will make sense that particularity and positivity are along each other. In other words, one can say response is a reaction while a reaction may not necessarily be a response (let us assume reaction as a subset of response).
To elaborate and clarify the characteristics of the systems Negroponte proposed, it will be helpful to use examples and try to explain their mechanism of responsiveness [interaction]. Starting with the example of ‘handicapped door opener’, there is a button for handicapped which if pushed, the door will open. This system has a yes/no condition (figure 1) meaning that it has two corresponding outputs which are scheduled to be represented according to the relation of input and the pre-defined condition. This mechanism can be considered as a reactive system. According to Negroponte, this is a manipulative system which needs to be played rather than play itself (Negroponte).
In continue if this mechanism is equipped with sensors or motors to realize the specific situation, it should import the input and take it into its programed process (figure 2). In this case, the system still will have the same mechanism and is still scheduled (played). The only difference will be the automation of the system in importing the input. The example for the second mechanism can be an ‘automatic sliding door’ that by using sensors imports the input to its condition (if exist open if not remain close) and behaves correspondingly within a scheduled manner.
A bit more complicated be a matching mechanism (figure 3). This mechanism is used in a regular elevator, where there will be certain inputs and one corresponding outputs for each. For instance, bottom 3 will take you to the third floor. Though this system is a more complex one, yet it is not even close to the idea of a responsive building.
A viable responsive architecture [system] seems to be more complex. It should be multi-facet, cognitive and probably various in relation with every single proprioception (Beesley, Hirosue and Ruxton).
“Assume on the fifth floor there let’s say. At the same time. On the fifth floor there are two passengers who have rung to go down. In this situation. A very sophisticated mechanism is necessary if we wish the elevator to be able to notice the problem and to request that the two decide who the single newcomer should be or that both waits for another cab.(Negroponte)”
So what is the difference between ‘pushing an elevator’ button or ‘telling it’ where to stop and the one that knows you and predicts your destination? Thinking about a flexible space (in terms of volume), although it is a great move from pushing the ‘be bigger’ button to ‘tell it to be bigger’ (automation), still to realize when and how much it needs to be bigger is the ultimate responsive characteristic which is far away from the two aforementioned mechanisms. These desires and ideas indeed forge a relation with the spirit of natural environment and artificial inelegance.
The chain with artificial environment and intelligence
Visionary designers and fiction writers speculate about the future environment of nanotechnology and ‘smart dust’ that is able to create forms in response to external factors, or with an apparent will of its own (Hanna). A responsive environment can be described as a ‘networked structure’ that senses action within its designated field of attention and responds dynamically according to its programmed or designed logic (Tränkle). New generations of buildings will not rely on completely stable foundations. Rather than relying on centralized support, they will be designed to constantly accommodate shifting forces and will be able to sense, change, and transform themselves (Beesley, Hirosue and Ruxton).
There are serious questions about materials and components of which all this responsive environment shall be made. The answer is probably the confluence of various disciplines considering multiple scales and dimensions (biological and molecular) of natural environment and trying to simulate its characteristics. These characteristics include molecular details as a dynamic ecology of interconnectedness in cohabitation with other focuses on materials (‘soft’ as Negroponte thought) which can be controlled by means of motors, sensors, programs and even their own inherent qualities (Beesley, Hirosue and Ruxton; Negroponte).
The mentioned discourses predispose us to dive into to the artificial intelligence [environment] field. The responsive environment will be a new one that situates robots in an ‘artificial environment’ and equips them to deal with changes in various ways (Field). The robots are each autonomous and therefore the experience of the individual (person or robot) within the collective is always changing (Field).
More developed responsive systems
Going back to the concept models exploring mechanism of responsive systems, the two prior presented mechanism were not even close to the aforementioned ultimate perspectives on responsiveness. Hence the next step through increasing the complexity of responsive systems will be modeling the mechanism that is based on control algorithm. In this case, the responsive system has a control algorithm to maintain an equilibrium through the intended atmosphere or output. A very suit example in this regard will be a simple thermostat. Working with this mechanism (figure 4), the system will be monitoring a certain input (using a real-time approach) and keeps (controls) the outcome in the programed range. Unlike previous examples, this mechanism is closer to ultimate concept of responsiveness based on Negroponte’s thoughts. However this is still a superficial model for responsiveness because the main problem rise as the control algorithm is fixed and unable to continue reconfiguration. For example, if someone is ill or not in a regular situation in the intended atmosphere, the system should be reconfigured (the desired rage of a thermostat needs to be changes) and reprogramed. In some situations a much cooler temperature may be appropriate and in other instances the tolerance of “fit” of temperature is so large that it becomes unimportant. Can this machine handle this? That is why Negroponte considered the responsive system more than a regular control system and called this mechanism as banal illustration of responsiveness (Negroponte).
The two following mechanism for responsive systems and especially their examples, which this essay proposes, are allegiance to Nickolas Negroponte’s thoughts. He did not go through elaborations and discussions of his ideal (viable as he called it) responsive systems. It is obvious that in 1970s, it was quite impossible to amplify the mechanism and example of those stunning ideas. Despite the technological restrictions, Negroponte pursued his thoughts by just speaking and explaining about the utopia of responsive systems. He said:
“I have avoided discussing aspects of machine learning in this context… Similar models are necessary for a viable responsiveness… My house needs a model of me, a model of my model of it, and a model of model of its model of…Responsive system must know me…Responsive system must distinct you from me (Negroponte)”
Viable Responsive systems
For a better understanding, this essay will discuss the first mechanism in a reverse manner by first contemplating in its example. What is a responsive web design mechanism? After cataclysms in the field of new multimedia devices such as smartphones, tablets, various-sized laptops and desktop computers, it became a problem for a website to be well-presented in different devices with different screen sizes. The first solution to this problem was to design several websites (similar in terms of content while different in terms of layout and size) for several devises. The challenge of this solution was that web designers had to think about screen dimensions for a new model of tablet, smart phone, or web capable TV or about a new form factor entirely, such as a car interface. They would be caught in an endless game of catching up if they tried to constantly adjust the code base for each new device (Bryant and Jones). So the key to this lock was responsive web design in which the code (website) can adapt to any new device with any screen dimensions (Bryant and Jones). In this mechanism the system (the website, in here) will take the input (the screen dimension of the host device) into its code and define a unique output (the website layout and visual arrangement) directly relevant and based on the input (figure 5).
Though this responsiveness seem to work efficiently and closer to a viable responsive system, it still does not support and contain the feedback mechanism that is the capability of machine to learn from its previous decisions and experiences in cohabitation with its user and environment.
The last proposed mechanism for responsive systems will be a learning mechanism in which the system is capable of adapting to the environment and its user, based on its previous experiences (figure 6). The example for this mechanism is the Intel® computer for one of the most genius minds in the world, Steven Hawking. The most noticeable improvement in his latest computer device is its capability to learn from Hawking to predict his next typing characters and words so he only has to type less than 20 percent of all characters of his words (Intel). SwiftKey® built this software including documents that are not published in the public domain which can learns from Hawking to ensure it predicts contextually relevant words. It is also able to analyze the content of a specific book or lecture that he might be working on, further tailoring its predictions and auto-corrections (Swiftkey).
One may argue that there are a huge amount of other practices and examples in the field of performing art and installation that can be used as the example of this mechanism. One of the advantages of Hawking’s system example is that it conveys a sense of positivity and appropriateness which Negroponte believed is necessary for a viable responsive system. Those other examples seem as efforts to develop the practices and methods of responsive systems, components, materials, etc. rather than a focused approach on designing a responsive system that can respond to an existing desire or need.
In the end, the set of conceptual models presenting the mechanism of reactive and responsive systems in this essay were just an effort to create a basin for future defragments (as discussed in computer science) and criticisms. Although there are some references on responsiveness and responsive systems in regards to architecture and design, due to the vastness and expanse of this field, most of the references barely spend much on clarifying and categorizing notions such as responsiveness and interactivity themselves, their definitions, and borders with each other (except Nicholas Negroponte which was also the main inspiration of this essay). Therefore, this paper, considering its scale, tried to focus on this aspect in order to be a stepping stone in adding to this interesting field.
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Bryant, Jay, and Mike Jones. “Responsive Web Design.” Pro Html5 Performance. Springer, 2012. 37-49. Print.
Field, Jessica. “Robotic Lmmersive Environments and Artificial Life.” Responsive Architectures: Subtle Technologies 2006. Riverside Architectural Press, 2006. Print.
Hanna, Sean “Responsive Material / Responsive Structure.” Responsive Architectures: Subtle Technologies Riverside Architectural Press, 2006. Print.
Intel, Newsroom of. “New Intel-Created System Offers Professor Stephen Hawking Ability to Better Communicate with the World.” Intel news room (2014). Web.
Negroponte, Nicholas. Soft Architecture Machines. MIT press Cambridge, MA., 1975. Print.
Oxford, English Dictionary Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Saggio, Antonio. “Interactivity at the Centre of Avant-Garde Architectural Research.” Architectural design.1 (2005): 23-29. Print.
Swiftkey, News of. “Swiftkey Reveals Role in Professor Stephen Hawking’s Communication System.” (2014). Web.
Tränkle, Marion. “Responsive Environment: An Exhibit of Works from Architecture, Science, and Art Practices.” Responsive Architectures: Subtle Technologies. Eds. Beesley, Philip, et al.: Riverside Architectural Press, 2006. Print.