IT’S ALIVE – The Future of Interactive Architecture

Posted on 09. Sep, 2009 by in Lifestyle

words by Jason Dean

In the world of interactive architecture, no idea is too far-fetched to imagine. Lewis Carroll, Rod Serling, and Willy Wonka be damned—the futuristic oddities being brought to fruition in this burgeoning field give reality the upper hand over fantasy. Here you will find sturdy structures with transparent, flexible skin that “breathes” in response to air quality. You can send a text message to a building—yes, a building—and get a text response back. And that patch of colored lights you see hovering over the Hudson River? The colors are actually transmitting information collected from a submerged installation that evaluates water quality.

Revolutionary architects David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang are gaining recognition around the globe with their projects that blend visual appeal with cutting-edge, practical applications. In 2007, the two completed River Glow, the installation referenced above, which makes visible those environmental conditions that are normally invisible and, according to Benjamin, suggests that urban bodies of water can be public space claimed and occupied by the city’s residents.

Benjamin and Yang are currently in Seoul, South Korea, putting the finishing touches on their project, Living Light. The domed structure, measuring 8 m across and 3.7 m tall, is designed in the shape of the city, and individual neighborhoods glow and blink in response both to data about air quality and public interest in the environment in those areas. Construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of June.

In September, Benjamin and Yang will unveil Amphibious Architecture, a project they’ve been working on as part of the “Situated Technologies: Toward the Sentient City” exhibition, organized by the Architectural League of New York. I recently got in touch with Benjamin and he shared his thoughts on the current state of interactive architecture and the menu of ambitious projects in which he and his partner are involved.

h: How did you and Soo-in meet? Do you have similar training and backgrounds?

DB: We met as students at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, where we both received our MAs in architecture in 2005. Before Columbia, I graduated from Harvard with a BA in social studies and played in the rock band Push Kings. Soo-in graduated from Yonsei University with a BE in architectural engineering and managed the construction of apartment complexes in Seoul. While we have different backgrounds, we share a lot of the same interests. We both work on almost all aspects of our projects—even if one of us has more experience or expertise.

h: What’s your general philosophy that governs how you approach your work?

DB: Our work involves an experimental, collaborative, open-source, and open-ended approach. We are interested in thinking big and imagining new possibilities for the future. But at the same time, our work is immediate.

h: How much has a specific interest in green building factored into the types of projects you’ve developed?

DB: We don’t really make a conscious effort to be green in our work. We just take it for granted that interesting, meaningful experiments in architecture and the city will address urgent issues like environmental quality and climate change. Before developing River Glow, we had created Living Glass [the “breathing” building that responds to air quality, mentioned earlier]. For River Glow, we were interested in systems that were energy self-sufficient and off the grid. And we realized that public waterways were important urban spaces, but there were no existing public interfaces to them. Carbon dioxide levels in the air, and pH and dissolved oxygen levels in the water, are invisible, but they are crucial to our health and the health of our ecosystems.

h: Describe how River Glow works.

DB: The project complements—but does not act as a substitute for—comprehensive lab testing of water. Unlike existing water monitoring, River Glow is inexpensive, modular, and easy to install. It’s a real-time public interface to water quality. A network of modular pods float in public waterways, collect solar energy, measure water quality through low-cost pH sensors, and use low-energy lighting to create a signal visible from the water or on shore. The effect of the project is a cloud of light that changes color according to the condition of the water below. [Red indicates poor quality; green indicates good quality.]

h: Does the Living Light structure have similar aspects to it? How did that project come about?

DB: Living Light is an interface to data about air quality. It’s a permanent outdoor pavilion in the heart of Seoul. Citizens can enter the pavilion or view it from nearby streets and buildings, and they can text message the building and it will text them back. We designed Living Light as an entry in a public art competition run by City Gallery, an agency that is part of the municipal government of Seoul. We have received a lot of interest in the project, and we hope to bring something similar to other cities.

h: Tell me a little bit about Amphibious Architecture.

DB: Amphibious Architecture is a collaboration between the Living Architecture Lab at Columbia [Benjamin and Yang are co-directors of the Lab] and xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at NYU, run by the artist Natalie Jeremijenko. Two networks of floating, interactive tubes will house a range of sensors below water that will monitor the presence of fish, water quality, and hydrodynamic forces. This data will then be displayed above water using an array of LED lights, along with wireless sensor communication and a text-messaging interface so that citizens can communicate with it from the shoreline. It will launch officially on September 10, 2009.

h: The idea of inanimate objects actively engaging people is quite provocative. Do you see this as an area of limitless growth in the field?

DB: Our work with interactive architecture is part of the trend of ubiquitous computing. As sensors and computers become smaller, cheaper, and more networked, literally disappearing into the woodwork of our buildings, they will allow for new kinds of interfaces and communication. We are interested in contributing to the discussion. It’s important for us to make use of these technologies to address social and cultural issues, and not just create flashy things.

And so, interactive architecture calls on a building to do more than just stand there and look pretty. Function and form, to put it politely, are more than just two ships that pass in the night; they’re building a meaningful relationship.

You can learn more about Benjamin and Yang’s work at

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