Responsive Environments


Ideas about sustainability and Sargasso Fields… by terripeters
August 30, 2009, 10:04 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

 

Photo credit: Diana

Photo Credit: Diana

In the colloquium, I presented a series of ideas about how what we are doing at this workshop fits into an alternative approach to sustainability.  I think the term ‘sustainability’ has been used to explain such vastly different things (from zero-carbon cities to recycling bottles to retrofitting houses with photovoltaics to using less of things) that the word doesn’t have a meaning a lot of us can relate to.  The challenges of building sustainably seem almost overwhelming when you unpick the word –  What makes architecture “sustainable”?  Can a new building ever be “sustainable”?What kind of lifestyle or building culture are we trying to “sustain”?

In my presentation at the colloquium, I showed the work of architects working in a similar alternative vein to Philip Beesley to give context to what we are doing in the workshop.  Among others, I showed some images of work by French practice R+Sie and their architecture that ‘dies’ and decomposes, (see my upcoming article in Mark Magazine) and work by architect Philippe Rahm (I interviewed Rahm for Onsite Magazine this year) whose ideas that climate, atmosphere and temperature can be a way of shaping space. I think architects like these are challenging mainstream ideas of sustainability. For example R+Sie questions our views of the lifecycles of buildings, Rahm questions what constitutes ‘architecture’ and Beesley’s work looks at ideas about energy ‘exchange’ rather than consumption.

Sargasso Fields is going to be exhibited COP 15, an important climate change event in Copenhagen in December.  It will be the key ‘artistic’ work that international participants will see and I think it will make people stop and think ‘how is this about sustainability?’  

Well, I think we’d all agree Sargasso Fields investigates some mainstream “sustainable” issues: natural energy generation (with the natural vinegar batteries), and the use of lightweight, small components to create a larger structure. We’re also using new technologies with a sustainable agenda through our use of robotics and interactivity to allow the building to give us feedback and to adapt itself to its environment using sensors. Another key idea which is arguably ‘sustainable’ is that the installation is not designed or fabricated as a monolithic ‘whole’ that needs to be replaced entirely if it has faults.  In contrast to many mainstream architectural systems, Sargasso Fields is a flexible system, new components can replace old ones, and new layers added.

More experimental aspects that I think relate to a more alternative approach to sustainability are the relationships or ethics of exchange between the top layers of the installation (which use grid power) and the lower ground layer of the project (which generates its own natural power).  Rarely in architecture do we talk about ethics or exchange between building components.  We tend to assume that buildings consume energy and materials in a one way energy flow.  We don’t usually think of them as able to give back nutrients or energy. This installation begins to challenge these assumptions and relationships which is why I would say it is part of a new way of discussing sustainability – no carbon counting or calculations of embodied energy – this is more about the concept of “sustainability” and about generating debate and discussion about totally new ways of approaching the problem. Rather than designing an installation about incrementally improving the performance of say, the organic batteries, (remember our discussion about fuel cells?) this installation aims to come up with a more radical way of approaching the challenges of thinking about our environment and architecture.  

As a participant in Sargasso Fields, I found myself realizing things about the installation that only someone in the workshop would understand.  An observer of the final product only sees the magical hand built intensity of the final immersive environment, the intricate, multi-layered and ‘living’ system, and the way it filters light and wind.   In addition to all of these things, personally, I appreciated the quirky mix of high and low technologies- the way the laser cut components could be mass-produced by machine but had to be assembled with the silicon connections or other details, by hand.  We tend to think rapid prototyping can do everything and I liked how we as designers had to be strategic to get the machine to do as much as possible for us.  For example, part of the magic and drama of the wispy, jellyfish feathers is their hand made quality, it would not have the same effect if the feathers were attached on one extruded machine-made piece rather than fixed with seven bespoke connections.  I also appreciated all of the possibilities of mass customization, where every machine-fabricated component could be unique, and this allowed us to have thousands of unique components.  But perhaps future iterations of the installation could make more use of this, and perhaps deviate from the ‘grid’ a little more.  For example the grid could fluctuate from big to small or change across the space?  While I agree the mesh grid is an organizing element that gives structure and balance to other more chaotic parts of the work (like the ground layer), in this iteration, up close to the work, the grid is quite powerful and the chaos could be even more wild.  

I found I was frequently confused and frustrated with the wiring diagram.   Maybe I’m not organized enough to appreciate such a thing.  I found myself asking, this is meant to be a living, distributed system—why can’t everything be wired slightly differently?  (Obvious answer is that this was a 2 week workshop and that would be chaotic)  But just imagine if each layer or material or section could have its own power source / own computer?   Each arduino is in a sense a little computer, so distributed computation, rather than what we had with one main computer and power source, could be an opportunity for future installations.  For example with the SMAs, one small break in the electronic net was difficult to mend- what if it could fix itself without causing the whole thing to die?

Personally, I found working on the installation and learning about the technologies, and ideas relating to Sargasso Fields, a very rewarding experience.  I have explained the project to many of my friends and new colleagues and everyone is amazed we learned how to build it and then actually built it and it works, in only 2 weeks.  I’m a bit amazed too.  I didn’t know anything about Arduino or programming or even how to work a laser cutter a few weeks ago.  I’m not an expert now, but I have a much better idea about these technologies.  The intense two-week course inspired me to think differently about sustainability, and made me think about how experimental projects like this can change the way architects think about the environment.  I also had a lot of fun during the workshop (sitting under our installation that wednesday night with blistered fingers from the bamboo and a plastic cup of cava was one of my most memorable nights of the summer).   I am really proud that we managed to make a working model of a new architectural experience, by hand, in diverse groups, in only a very short period of time.  Our workshop group ranged from students in various design fields and at various levels, design professionals and of course Hayley and John from Philip’s office and the various invited guests such as Ruari.  I think the range of people and backgrounds helped create an inspiring and international dynamic.


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