Ever heard of ‘Adaptive architecture and computation’? Ivana is taking you to a new dimension of architecture and interactive technical interventions in the public space. While searching for the connection between programming and architecture she never forgets about the core: ‘In the end, it should be about the people, because whatever you make is for people.’
What might the future of city making look like? One answer may come from an unexpected place: the advertising agency 72andSunny Amsterdam. During this series of interviews we will explore the ‘hybrid city maker’ talking to the makers, artist, and thinkers that are involved in the creative residency 72U that lives within 72andSunny Amsterdam.
How would you like to introduce yourself?
I was attracted by the freedom of 72U – the hybrid sort of thing. For now, it is maybe the best fitting category where I can put myself. I never actually came up with it by myself, so it felt like coming home.
What is your personal hybridity about?
The role of architecture is changing. And I am glad about it, as it brings in the hybridity. It is no longer about sitting down and following your intuition, creating houses. When I studied architecture Belgrade, Serbia, I learned a lot about parametric and generative design. Within this design method, you gather various data from the building site. Then you create software where you navigate that data and let the design emerge out of it. That might sound a bit like instant architecture — you push a button and something comes out. But first, it stimulates you to understand the behaviour of people in space and design according to that. Also, it creates a base for adaptive, responsive and interactive architecture as a complex system.
What did you do with that research and understanding?
After my studies in Belgrade, I went to London for the master ‘Adaptive Architecture and Computation’ at Bartlett, UCL. My main focus was the interaction in public space. It was about putting something into public space and observing the reactions of passers-by. Often we don’t really understand what is going on. There is still a lack of research in the field of digital media and the interaction with it. This is especially true for the research in the wild. I implemented my research into small-scale architecture, rather than huge buildings. The combination between small-scale houses, installation and a bit of performance – that’s me. Maybe I am a control freak. I feel more comfortable when I can pursue the whole process. Because when you are part of a huge building and huge teams, you are usually only a little piece with little understanding of the whole.
Do you have an example of what you were working on?
In a team, I have been working on an interactive installation in public space in London. We were a team consisting of sociologists, psychologists, designers, and architects. The overall topic was connecting people with their environment. So we researched different types of reaction in public space. In general, when you put something in the public space, it is challenging to make people interact. You don’t want to put a sign like ‘play with me’, you failed in a way. The object itself needs to have this affordance that calls for interaction and the use that you intended.
In these projects in London, the common thing was a ‘brushing feeling’, all hairy sort of things. It is comparable to when you are in nature around long grass and you just reach with your hand for it. You sometimes do it almost unconsciously even. The equivalent in public space could be wrought iron fence. We created a grass-like structure, and when you consciously or unconsciously touch it something would happen: light is changing, or sound is activated. Then you realise interaction and stop to explore. Urban reconnection was very central. So in the end, we created ten different pieces on different public spots that communicated with each other. When you are interacting with a piece, it would be transmitted to another piece and there would be an audio-visual communication.
How did people react to it?
It was a passageway, where people walk around like zombies, chasing to work, hard to stop them. On the other side, there were a lot of homeless people sleeping there. Here we put our ‘grass’ and just observed the spot before and during the installation. The interesting part is to find patterns of behaviour. For example on Mondays there was hardly interaction, during the week the interaction became more cheerful. And even more active it became during lunch breaks, especially when returning from lunch break. That was beautiful to see. There were also individual patterns: some people would not even realize the installation, some would turn around but keep walking, some touch it gently and some really stopped and played with it. The most interesting part are unexpected behaviours. One boy for example, kicked the installation and smashed the piece.
Where do you see the biggest challenge when working with people and their interaction in public space?
When you do research in the wild you go out of the safe laboratory — it becomes quite chaotic. There are so many factors that can be a possible input for your results, like the weather, the place, different weekdays or very personal aspects. Yet it is also fun. You put something out there and observe the people and their interaction. However, you cannot interfere, you need to be invisible. At the same time, it is necessary and useful to talk to the people. So we would wait until people finish interacting and chase after them to talk to them. In public space, the problem is that people often have a direction where to go and often don’t have a free hand to physically interact. But you know the installation is a success when you see people interacting with their full hands, with a sandwich, phone, jacket, or whatever else…
What is your motivation to understand the public behaviour?
I like to observe what people are already doing, learning from that and then improve it somehow. It is to improve the design itself, to make it more people and environment-friendly. Often in design, you assume what would happen, but you actually can only find out when putting it out there, observe, improve, put it back and compare the data. The combination of people and technology is important. It is about a balance between them. But in the end, it should be about the people, because whatever you make is for people.
And what is your vision for the city and its public areas?
I experience the city as something very complex. Often it doesn’t work and grows without logic. On the other hand, we have a system in front of our eyes that works almost perfectly: that’s nature. Since we have it right in front of our eyes we should learn from it and try to embed it into our thinking. It is not necessarily about needing more grass and then creating a structure that behaves like grass. It is about the principles and algorithms in nature, trying to learn from that and applying that. Everything in nature and the universe is algorithms.
We have a system in front of our eyes that works almost perfectly: that’s nature. Since we have it right in front of our eyes we should learn from it and try to embed it into our thinking. Everything in nature and the universe is algorithms.
At the 72U creative residency, what brings in your background to the group?
We are all from different backgrounds, but there are also a lot of overlaps. The beauty of our outcomes lies within the variety of things. If you let stand out a single person, skill or expertise you cannot come up with something special. I think my addition to the group is my very technical background of 3D modelling and programming on the one hand. On the other hand, I stimulate to observe and make conclusions of how people behave.
Are you stimulated into a new direction by the creative residency?
I like how we keep the team almost self-organized. Keeping everybody equal and trying to find a way to include all. If you work in a normal office, you would get a little scope and detach from your team. You have this idea of having designed some little piece rather on a communal goal. Here I learn a lot about respect towards each other.
Also, the briefs are more concrete than what I am used to. I am used to researching a place or a site, spot the problems and design a response to them. Now we are collaborating for example with ‘De Ceuvel’. Their briefing was providing a quite concrete angle of a problem already. ‘De Ceuvel’ is building this sustainable complex but their neighbours are not really involved. So their question is: how to make sustainability approachable for the people from Amsterdam Noord. I am looking forward to it already!