Interview (architecture “des humeurs”)

(French version on http://www.new-territories.com)

Protocols & Process  / Dialogue between R&Sie(n) and Caroline Naphegyi  (check the blog on the research “architecture des Humeurs“)


In the case of  “Architecture des Humeurs”, released two month ago at the Laboratoire, Paris, and opened until the 16th of May, could you describe how your studio is managing research and exhibition simultaneously ?

There are two parts. Research unfolds in what we call the Process room, a pretty basic space. You have to take your time so that the interactions between physiology, robotics and computation fully emerge in their logic and interdependence. The other part, the exhibition, is a suite of visual indices. Since these clues are neither didactic nor chronological nor pedagogical, visitors construct their own logic and subjectivities.  Furthermore, this part has an immersion area, a physiological testing station, where visitors, called prospective purchasers by analogy to a sales office, are themselves experimental subject and object. This cognitive and immersive mechanism thus articulates a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to lose oneself in that quest.

What’s this about?

It’s an unprecedented experiment in which architecture harnesses several different fields of exploration – neurobiology, mechanization and math protocols – working together as an ensemble of structural, transactional and relational operating modes.

This is not a sequel to the I’ve heard about show held by the MAM (Paris municipal modern art museum) in 2005, although that show did explore the relationship between physiology, computation and indeterminism in the sense of its preconditions, its genesis. That earlier piece sought to understand and write (in the sense of writing code) biological geometries that mimic natural ones. The predominant figure was that of coral and its growth. This second piece, at Le Laboratoire, goes beyond that representation, since we’ve already worked on what conditions the emergence of such a geometry, namely principles of exchange, dynamic principles based on a system’s immanent forces.

But that’s not all. We wanted to get a better handle on something already sketched out at the MAM show: the capture of body chemistry as an element able to disturb and alter linear logics, the logics of authorities, replacing a top-down approach with a bottom-up one.

In fact, for you, the axiom on which your “architecture of humors” research is based is the contingency of the humors of the inhabitant on the habitat itself ?

Humors in the sense that Hippocrates used the word, a concept brought up to date by today’s possibilities for detecting body chemistry.

Until now the acquisition of information used in residence protocols has been based exclusively on visible, reductive data. In our research we want to add the corporalities and their own substances. They can provide information about the relationship between bodies and space, and especially about the social relationships of bodies, the relationships between them, of the self to the other, both inside a single housing unit and in terms of the osmosis of vicinity.

In the physiology station located at the entrance to the exhibition, a machine captures visitors’ chemical data. So visitors are put into a very particular psychological state. As she asks you to slide your hand onto a screen, Melisa whispers into you ear, “Your body becomes the vector of your emotions. These vapors help you capture the changing course of these emotions…”


The signal collection station makes it possible to perceive individual variations and how these changes in emotional state affect the resulting geometries and influence the morphological protocol at the “living together” level.

This physiological test works like an emotion detector. It unleashes your corporal chemical reactions, principally molecules like dopamine, adrenalin, serotonin and hydrocortisone that feed us information about your animal reactions/degree of pleasure or repulsion, curiosity or disinterest. This physiological test helps us map the visitor’s future dwelling area. It only takes seven minutes. The protocol is simple. During the test, a sort of vapor (of nanoparticles) is emitted, so that we can detect the evolution of these emotions without noxious intrusion.

A voice whispers into the visitor’s ear, “Let it enter into you, breath it in. You are in absolutely no danger from this vapor… Your family has become a conflict zone and you can no longer calm things down. It’s an illusion to believe that architecture can help you with that. But you can negotiate the distances by negotiating the details… The area where you live can react to your desires. It has the power… to allow you to experience this conflict without denying its existence or making up fantasies about it. Your living area can be transformed into a morphology of the moment. You’re free to go along with others or retreat into yourself.”

For us this is an occasion to interrogate the confused region that lies between the notion of enjoyment and that of need, by detecting physiological signals based on neurobiological secretions and thus realize a “chemistry of humors”, treating future buyers as inputs generating the diversity of inhabitable morphologies and the relationships between them. Consequently the formulation of desires in language is inflected by another realty, another complexity, that of the acephalous body, the animal body, so that it can tell us about its adaptation, its sympathy and empathy, in the face of specific situations and environments.

Why do you introduce contradictory signals – what you call “misunderstandings” – into the heart of your architectural protocol (the inhabitable morphologies)? How does this physiology of desires, this living and unpredictable material, radically shift the architect’s whole approach?

We decided to take the preliminary step of revisiting the contradictions within the very expression of these desires, both those that traverse public space because of their ability to express a choice, a desire conveyed by language, on the surface of things, and those preexisting and perhaps more disturbing but equally valid desires that reflect the body as a desiring machine (as Deleuze put it), with its own chemistry, imperceptibly anterior to the consciousness those substances generate.

The “architecture of humors” is a way of breaking and entering into language’s mechanism of dissimulation in order to physically construct its contradictions. It means staging a break-in to the logic of things when language has to negotiate with the depths of the body, down to the bottom folds, like with Antonin Artaud and his compulsive catatonia.

The concept of free will may be simultaneously the most beautiful and the most corruptible of all. The cultural media pierce us to the core; their influence penetrates us everywhere, generating a conformism that can be considered obscene. We are both its vector and instrument. What we like to do is just the opposite, to seek out the dark side, our animal side, in order to subvert the other side using reactive and emotional data. We’re glad that our choices are not guided exclusively by architectural conventions, both the conventions of the client and those of the architects themselves.

There’s more to architecture than serving the prince and his totems, as people around here like to do. To speak to some of today’s issues, the debate about high-rises is pathetic. Of course density has to be rethought, but I don’t think it’s relevant for southern Paris to be filled with reproductions of models of verticality conceived for 1950s business districts. The proposals submitted by the architects selected by the city are puerile in that regard, and the plans for Greater Paris no less so. Architecture has become like a schoolyard full of kids who constantly flatter politicians about what is really that world’s weakest point, its modes and fantasies of representation… and then they end up crying about it when the politicians don’t commission them to design their Xanadu, like Jean Nouvel in his Le Monde article. The politicians have largely sucked the lifeblood out of the past. Let’s hope that the future can be different. But that’s not what we’re supposed to be talking about…

You introduce the possibility of contradictory relational modes into the residential units themselves. How has set theory made you able to handle these “misunderstandings” and the contradictory ways in which individuals relate to their family and those around them?

The interviews at the physiological station make it possible to collect some seldom-seen materials. They make visible how the body reacts to a situation of exchange, and indicate the degree of pathology that would afflict the visitor – I mean the “future buyer” – if she or he were placed in a productive reality. I would have loved to be able to set up a sales office where people could make a purchase and concretize their bio-architecture in a collective aggregation.

The data obtained from the physiological interview tell us about:

Familial socialization (distance and relationship between residential areas within a single unit), neighborhood socialization (distance and relationship between residential units), modes of relations to externalities (biotope, light, air, environment, and also seeing, being seen and hiding, modes of relating to access (receiving and/or escaping, even self-exclusion) and the nature of the interstices (from closely spaced to panoptic).

We use formulations taken from set theory to define these relationships. This branch of math was founded by the German mathematician Georg Cantor in the late 19th century. Its aim is to define the concepts of sets and belonging. This theory can be used to describe the structure of each situation as a kind of set defining the relationships between the parts and the whole, while taking into consideration that the latter can’t be reduced to the sum of its parts or even to the ensemble of relationships between the parts. It allows you to define all the properties of a situation as relational modes, both the relationships between the elements (residential areas) and those between these elements and the ensemble or ensembles they fit into.

The operators of belonging, union, inclusion, intersection and disjunction describe morphologies characterized by their dimensions and position and above all by the negotiations of distance they carry out with the other parts. This produces relational protocols, protocols of attraction, repulsion, contiguity, dependence, sharing, indifference, exclusion, etc. Before the morphology of a habitat is reduced to a functional typology, first it’s structured as an area of exchange.

Mathematical formulas aid the development of these combinations and thus become the matrix for the relational structure on which an inhabitable space is based.

In contrast to the standardized-model formatting of habitats, this tool offers the potential of negotiation with the ambiguities of one’s own humors and desires. It makes it possible to mix contradictory compulsions (appearances) and even some “malentendus”, which could be translated by both misunderstandings and mishearing:

“I’d like that but at the same time / maybe / not / and the opposite.”

These “malentendus”are directly influenced by the pathologies generated by collective living: Claustro_(phobia-philia) / Agora_(phobia-philia)/ Xeno_(phobia-philia) / Acro_(phobia-philia) / Nocto_(phobia-philia) / Socio_ (phobia-philia) / Neo_(phobia-philia), etc.

In other words, you approach architecture as a dynamic principle, incorporating incompletion, incertitude and indetermination. These parameters are the basis of your parametric construction system, aren’t they?

Nature is basically made up of indetermination protocols. Algorithms can simulate the growth of a tree in terms of reproducing its geometry, but the fit between geometry-photosynthesis-equilibrium-growth is and always will be a hidden protocol that can’t be reduced to its simple mathematical and geometrical dimensions.

Using the “architecture of humors” we have staged a constructive and narrative machine that is receptive to two contradictory inputs, the order of desire codified by language and the order of its anterior and even hidden chemical secretion. We wanted this schizoid rereading of an architect’s brief “in constant becoming” to be able to generate protocols of incertitude and incompletion.

An urban structure based on these computational and robotic procedures, these vectors of variability and indetermination, makes visible the potential of these heterogeneous aggregations.

One of the subjects of this research was to consider the bearing structure of these residential units, and thus the final the final shape of the building, as a product and not the starting point. The fact that the bearing structure is not designed beforehand makes it necessary to constantly recalculate the segments and force trajectories that carry these inhabitable cells. How did math solve one of architecture’s problematics: how to respond to indeterminate situations, a construction based on affective variability, with a constantly changing form (you use the metaphor of trees, which grow incrementally)? How did your partnership with the mathematician François Jouve start?

One of the objectives of our research was to imagine structure as a postproduction element, emerging a posteriori to the inhabitable morphologies, which are themselves thought as unique entities, “singularities,” emancipated from the conceptual logic where the structure is the starting point, the matrix for human organization, so that the spatial contract takes the place of the social contract. Since it’s conceived a posteriori, the structure is reactive, adaptive to multiplicity, “the multitude” to use Antonio Negri’s term.

François Jouve developed a mathematical process for “empirically” seeking optimization by creating forms out of constraints and not vice-versa. That’s different than “direct calculus” methods which, for instance, calculate a building’s beams after establishing its design. Instead, it calculates form based on trajectories, the vectorization and intensity of forces, without that form being predetermined. Produced by a simultaneously recursive and incremental optimization protocol, this form, which appears only through the calculations themselves, has to satisfy precise inputs (material constraints, the client’s brief, initial and environmental conditions, etc.). In this particular case, the unknown is the form, the hidden part revealed only by the experiment itself.

Through the use of these computational, mathematical and mechanization procedures, the urban structure engenders successive, improbable and uncertain aggregations that constantly rearticulate the relationship between the individual and the collective.

You emphasize the passage from an industrial era ? (seeking uniformity and standardization) to the reintroduction of the concept of singularity in architecture by means of robotics and computations. More recently, what has science –especially math – and technological development – robotics and a biochemical understanding of raw materials – brought to the table in architecture? What new speculative issues has it raised, particularly in France?

Nothing is happening in France. The field of architecture is totally sclerotic and held on a leash by a dozen people. It’s shameful. Along with our “professional” practice as R&Sie(n), we have a research organization called “new-territories, and for the last five years I’ve been teaching labs at Columbia University. Not only are these core questions in today’s debates; they’re also a core source of speculations and learning.

The point is to get back to the idea that architecture should be a site for knowledge and debates, a site for experimentation, and not just for grandiose celebrations of necrosis organized by the Palais de Chaillot and its “Cité du patrimoine”.

Regarding your question, it only takes a few years for technology to drain and absorb speculations that once seemed unreal. For instance, in Switzerland and Japan we’ve designed two buildings entirely conceived by numerical control using optimization algorithms, one made of solid wood and the other of polyurethane foam. In five years what once was plausible has become possible. In this case, it’s important to conceive protocols and designs not to stand out in some glamour interior decoration magazine but to magnetize a point in the near future, so that it draws our present towards itself.

Regarding the “architecture of humors,” Bherokh Khoshnevis and Stephen Henrich have done research in robotics and mechanization that make it possible to foresee the first prototypes in two or three years.

Since its opening in 2007 Le Laboratoire has sought to give visibility to research projects jointly undertaken by scientists and artists. In the “Processes” space that is at the heart of this show you unfold the various phases of your research, going so far as to make the computational script available as open source software. First of all, the software is available for anyone who wants to further mutate it. Second, the building’s final form is the result of a structural calculation and not vice-versa; it’s out of the architect’s control. What do you expect from this stance, this renunciation of authorship and even copyleft?

A script is above all a form of writing, a language. There’s no point to it unless it’s shared so that other people can take it up and improve it. But it’s a tricky position. We all remember the madness of the computer programmer in Tron whose all-powerfulness makes him think he’s the master of the universe and that he knows everything about everything. Luckily, the mathematicians we’ve worked with are protected against this kind of positivist mysticism.


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