Jules Moloney reviews the exhibition of work by Lars Spruybroek and John Bell – two different yet sophisticated responses to the potential offered by the computer.The work of Dutch architect Lars Spuybroek and Londoner John Bell, keynote speakers at the Architecture Symposium for the 2006 Adelaide festival, was exhibited at the Louis Laybourne School of Architecture.
Entitled Possible Worlds: The Architecture of Imagination, the exhibition would appear to link these two quite distinct designers by their innovative use of digital technology.
For both, the computer is more than “just a tool”, a phrase often used by those educated in the drawing board era to ring-fence the computer. The computer may well be a tool, but it is one that facilitates unprecedented experimentation with geometry, surface and the temporal aspects of architecture. In addition, as evidenced by some of the work on display, the anticipated hybrid of architecture and information space is now a realizable tangent for practice.
Lars Spuybroek’s practice NOX has an international profile and will be well known to some through the Australian launch of his book Machining Architecture. For Possible Worlds Spuybroek has chosen projects that range from interactive exhibition works to architectural proposals at an urban scale.
The Freshwater Pavilion, commissioned as a temporary exhibition space by the Dutch Water Board, is both interactive and large-scale. Close to 100 metres long, this inflatable pavilion was embedded with movement sensors that translate the movement of visitors into light and image projection, sound, water sprays and physical deformation of surface. We are presented here with an evocative view showing the whale-esque inflatable draped across the coastal landscape and a series of small internal images. Given that the strength of the work lies in the internal experience, it is disappointing that there was no audiovisual documentation of what still stands as the largest experiment in interactive architecture.
The D-tower, a permanent installation commissioned by the city of Doetinchem in the Netherlands, translates the idea of the interactive to a permanent urban location.
The D-tower consists of three parts: a website (accessible to everybody), a questionnaire (accessible to a hundred different people each year) and a twelve-metre tower. All three parts are interactively related to each other. The tower is lit internally with a mix of red, green and blue light. Updated each night, the different colours map responses to the questionnaires, which are intended to gauge the mood of the town in relation to a variety of issues. The D-tower establishes a direct link between information and urban space, an elegant and tangible interface that operates both as physical monument and social barometer.
The H2O pavilion and the D-tower are flanked by NOX’s aspirations for “blobitecture” at an urban scale and this is where things get a tad scary. On display are 2x1.5-metre images of unrealized projects, all conceived as a singular object stretched and pulled to produce large-scale versions of the geometry realized in the D-tower.
Unfortunately the shift in scale is, in most cases, not accompanied by design at a finer grain. One exception is the Jalisco Library proposal (Mexico 2005), where the large mass is broken down into fifteen-metre bays, in which columns bifurcate and merge in an engaging play of sinuous structure. On closer inspection we read that the project is part of research into the “gothic rules of vitalized geometry”. Perhaps NOX are on to something here, as the gothic has a mode of composition in which the subtle interplay between the detail and the whole address the inherent problems of scaling up singular forms.
Contrasting the large-scale approach of NOX, in terms of both presentation and content, the work of John Bell is presented as A3 prints, supplemented by animations projected onto an adjacent wall. Bell will be an unknown entity to most here, but he is building a reputation in London as an inspirational unit master at the Architectural Association and as a director of the trans-disciplinary design consultancy FXV Ltd. FXV are a niche practice who have used their consummate digital expertise to operate between media displays, exhibition design and architecture. The work on show is both visually seductive and dense with text, revealing an informed referencing of post-structuralist theory, a nod to influential cyberpunk such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and a gritty political agenda. Bell’s writing on such topics as the problems of originality, in which he evokes the cybersurfer, “cutting a laconic swath through the mare clausum of the expected”, add intellectual resonance to the memorable images.
The projects include the sophisticated designs of showrooms for brands such as Sony and Mercedes Benz, but it’s the series of projects on children’s play spaces that capture Bell’s wider agenda. Concerned with the plummeting levels of play activity among children, FXV have developed a unique play-scape tuned to today’s nine-year-old. They propose a landscape embedded with pressure and motion sensors, enabling the artificial terrain to operate as an interface to sound and light.
This enables the invention of games such as Irrigation, in which the objective is to manipulate artificial water, sand and earth to provide channels within the undulating topography. In other areas the surface is elastic and operates as a seamless trampoline, the rhythm of multiple players being mapped to sound to produce an emergent back beat. The play spaces project is a convincing imagined world, where the physical and the electronic fuse with a social purpose.
In the Possible Worlds exhibition one can sense that both architects are working towards a mature phase in their careers.
The use of computer-enabled geometry and surface is central to their practice, as is a shared interest in architecture beyond static form. The computer is a sophisticated and highly calibrated tool, and as such requires sustained effort to master.
There are awkward moments in the work on show, but the glimpses of Spuybroek’s reinterpreted gothic and Bell’s socially engaged hybrids offer imagined worlds of high quality. JULES MOLONEY IS A SENIOR LECTURER IN DIGITAL ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE.