Fox and Kemp, Interactive Architecture (2009)
History affords a glimpse into the future. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it really isn't. For example, history can be used to legitimize an architectural agenda in order to project it into an alternative realm. We like to call this mode of writing "operative history"—a kind of history writing that looks to contemporary architecture to make a claim as to what building will and should be. This kind of writing has been a staple in architecture schools for decades and continues to provide designers, educators and scholars with a fulcrum with which to leverage their own thoughts about the built environment.
This is not to say that Michael Fox's and Miles Kemp's Interactive Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press 2009) aspires to such a mode of historical writing. In fact, lumping this rather excellent book in such a category would be fraught with many difficulties. The reason for this is that the authors are so secure and confident in the potential of interactive architecture (IA) that any historical framing of the issue is (necessarily?) relegated to a rather brief discussion in the book's introduction. But more on that later. They key word here is "emergent," and the authors therefore tell us how their book "outlines a vision for the future through contextualizing and understanding the current landscape of projects and trends in IA, and its integration of new emerging technologies." As the various sumptuously-photographed projects demonstrate, not only is IA out there, but there is a lot of it. And therein lies one of the book's many marvels—Fox and Kemp provide the reader with a panoramic snapshot, or "Project Landscape" of practices that exemplify IA's current state and future potential.
The project landscape in the pages of Interactive Architecture privileges IA's inherent physicality. One reason for this is that the authors are very careful in framing their definition for IA. As they put it, "The current landscape of interactive space is built upon the convergence of embedded computation [intelligence] and a physical counterpart [kinetics] that satisfies adaptation within the contextual framework of human and environmental interaction." Yet IA's physicality does not necessarily appear at the building scale. There are hardly any buildings in Interactive Architecture. Many of the projects here consist of installations, curtain walls, interactive façades, and even sensor arrays. In fact, one could very well argue that the projects here call issues of scale into question. Many of the projects are only parts of buildings or rooms. Is the operative scale, then, the systemic? It's a question worth revisiting as these kinds of projects become more well known. For one thing, projects like Jimenez Lai's Phalanstery Module, Michael Fox's photographs of sensors and actuators, and Stamen's visualizations require us to rethink differences between architectural and urban scales. These three projects also provide us with a nice index of the kinds of projects shown in Interactive Architecture. Lai's Phalanstery Module is a kinetic piece built out of wood and nails. Fox's tiny machines are stationary, yet potentially ubiquitous. Stamen's work is pure information representation. All change according to changing inputs, whether physical or digital. They are, in other words, responsive.
Other than introducing a new spectrum of interesting projects, Fox and Kemp excel in providing readers with a useful method for framing IA. Projects are organized according to combinations of kinetics and embedded-ness. "Adaptable spaces" can be either mostly kinetic (like Lai's) or mostly intelligent—all are, however, interactive. When looked at this way, then, Interactive Architecture is more redolent of texts like Ernst Neufert's Bauentwurfslehre (1936), the well-known collection of architecture standards (or, as it is commonly known in English, Architect's Data). This is not because Fox and Kemp's book aspires to Neufert's encyclopedia-ness. It has everything to do, however, with the fact that like Architect's Data, Interactive Architecture is aimed at practicing architects. When viewed in this light, the book involves much more than just checking the pulse of IA's current project landscape. It is, in every sense of the word, a handbook for future practices.
Crtics are apt to dissect the book in many ways. For example, although the authors do privilege the physical, they do devote a section to interface design—a category which, at least in the mind of this reviewer, would seem to undermine Interactive Architecture's ostensible focus on tangibilities. Additionally, others may point to how the author's agenda puts a stranglehold on the organization of its content. This too rings familiar, and in fact, Fox and Kemp's declaration in the introduction that "it is not difficult to see that [interactive architectural systems] are an inevitable and completely integral part of how we will make buildings in the future" seems problematic. Such a statement would not only conjure architectural modernism's own techno-bureaucratic bent, but would also set off alarms for historians of technology willing to counter techno-determinist claims such as Fox's and Kemp's.
But back to history, if only for a moment. Fox's and Kemp's own history of IA begins with Gordon Pask, John Frazer, and Cedric Price. This history, which includes a familiar trajectory of names of projects, seems myopic. The authors namecheck Norbert Wiener, but do not attempt any detailed discussion as to his work (or, in the same manner, Claude Shannon's) really informs the history and theory of IA. There is some cause for concern in how Fox and Kemp project this history into the present day with little effort. In fact, such a readied connection between then and now would lead one to conjure Sigfried Giedion's idea of an eternal present. These are not faults. Perhaps, then, it is best to look at Interactive Architecture as a double-opportunity: a chance to bask in a text that really, truly provides us with a view of the future of architecture, as well as a chance for a more meaningful historical understanding of such developments.