I’m an architect, so I think spatially about everything. I spatialise all human relations and I spatialise time; I think of where things are and how they travel, whether atom or planet. This goes for virtual artefacts as much as real ones; all data originated somewhere and resides somewhere, located in a web of dataspaces. The web is clearly spatial – a complex network of sites we ‘navigate’ (unless, like building sites, they’re “under construction”) from geographic IP addresses, browsing landscapes of geo-located information. Even offline file-management systems use completely spatial metaphors; we locate our data in a kind of 3-dimensional storage matrix, moving them through virtual labyrinths, placing discards in the “trash” and temporary items on our “desktops”.
The converse is also increasingly true; almost all spaces are now saturated with data, their airwaves filled with electromagnetic spectra. Contemporary manufacturing techniques are increasingly digital, meaning objects and spaces were born in the dataverse before they emerged into the analogue world, tagged and databased, bearing ever more traces of this journey. Space is peppered with things born of digital parents, but also people with digital partners, pulsing with virtual trails.
The internet of things – a concept almost twelve years old - now feels to me like a curiously restricted term. It suggests a great soup stuff, but it doesn’t evoke a sense of our heightened social connectivity, and it doesn’t sound like a space or a world people could actually live in. There aren’t many of us humans that think about ourselves as “things”; the term implicitly excludes us. It sounds like world-as-warehouse, an oversize-computer, a giant mall of bits – gizmos twittering and bleeping irrespective of human interaction.
It doesn’t sound spatial enough to describe a contemporary space bridging analogue and digital – let alone a future one. It doesn’t convey the idea of relational geospatial data or more complex aggregations; of how things and bits and atoms all intermesh to build whole new ecologies, from chips to computers to networks, which are already saturated places whose very spatiality implies that we can access them, interact with them, and change them. A great constellation of hardware, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t quite convey the dynamic growing ecology that the world increasingly feels like. Not to be confused with Apple’s Operating System, I think we might be better imagining, exploring and designing an Internet of Spaces – an IoS rather than an IoT.
My interest in the world of intelligent spaces arose as I began to realise that the best techniques for accomplishing architecture’s traditional roles were increasingly digital; that pure analogue was fast becoming ineffective. I realised that information and surveillance was trumping buildings. Buildings might stop bullets, but they can barely stop the peering eyes and ears of sophisticated contemporary imaging systems, and they’re rarely as rapidly responsive as the systems of surveillance that ensnare them; they’re pretty slow-witted as defense systems. As forms of man-made weather and climate control systems, age-old vernacular systems are often brilliant but un-adaptive – their contemporary brethren again entirely reliant on networked sensors and growing building management systems. As forms of mass media and monuments to our beliefs and values, the ubiquitous hybrid architectures of lighting control systems and LED walls offer far richer and dynamic forms of communication and interaction than the walls of stone and glass that preceded them.
A 3d-cctv transmutation of everyone in the Architectural Association into light
I had just set up my own practice at a time when I was teaching a fairly experimental studio at the Architectural Association, dabbling in small-scale residential work whilst expounding on much more theoretical possibilities for an ethereal and often invisible architecture of light and heat and gas. I was asked to do an installation in the ‘Front Members’ Room’ – a spare gleaming Georgian room equipped with an expensive chandelier and a great view over Bedford Square. My response – LightHive (subtitle: luminous architectural surveillance) – recognised the room’s role in presenting the school to the world (literally a Front for its Members), but also its inadequacy – and the building’s complete inability to act as a more instrumental form of media and communicate anything to its occupants. LightHive used the building’s existing sensor network (substantially augmented with wireless Enocean seat and door sensors, and cameras running image analysis) to detect real-time occupancy – and reflect this in a large-scale 1:6 model of the entire school, representing only its lights. The installation was thus what I called a form of 3d-CCTV – a constantly updating map of people as well as devices; a kind of rich, fluctuating, inhabitable spatial image of the entire educational microcosm at any one time. People and their “things” became indissolubly connected in a system that over-rode the obstacles of the older building while surfing on the opportunities of its digital network.
I got a call from Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, who had just seen the project and invited me on a residency where I developed a proposal for the Milan Triennale called Spacebook. The installation proposed a floating glass box wrapped in individually addressed pixels of transparent electro-chromic glass which could become instantaneously opaque. This fluctuating spatial obfuscation was triggered by proximity, calculating the exact geometrical relationship between internal occupants and external visitors, all tagged with active RFID and thus caught in a highly measured web of sensing which calculated the precise degree of digital fig-leaf the facade would require to protect the privacy of those inside. The geometry of people’s movements created a kind of mapped spatial Internet.
The architectural paradox of Spacebook: the glass box that breaks open the shielding shackles of the building, consolidated with the opaque walls that ensure its privacy
This simple proposal laid a seed for a much larger project, and a more enduring collaboration with Carlo back here in London. He had been invited by Boris Johnson to submit a competition proposal for the Olympic landmark at Stratford, and invited me on to team. Together with a wider consulting team of artists, engineers and architects, we developed the CLOUD – an inhabitable weather system for East London merging digital and analogue forms of observation. The CLOUD clusters inflatable ETFE-clad spheres in an aerial network supported on 3 filigree legs pierced with lifts and wound with ramps which elevated visitors to a landscape of sheltered platforms over 80metres above the city. Our innovation was to realise this would as much virtual as physical – enabling simple transparent views out, but augmenting them with an LED veil lacing each sphere; a vast landscape of augmented reality overlaying traditional view-scapes with cascades of real-time data that incorporated user-generated, webcast and centrally broadcast media. The CLOUD thus becomes a space for dwelling in the very climate of the Internet itself – inhabiting the flickering digital weather that we all produce with our sensors and messages and gusts of info-contribution.
The Cloud Project, London Olympics: proposing an entirely new form of observation deck, immersing visitors in euphoric gusts of weather & digital data
Carlo and I have continued to collaborate on the design of a groundbreaking new city for the Middle East (whose details we cannot contractually disclose) where the Internet of Things has very much become a networked, inhabitable and deeply complex Internet of Spaces, where every person and component of the urban ecosystem contributes their part in a live exchange of information across the metropolis. The city’s urban operating system will be live, organic and cybernetic, affording constant recalibration of an intricate, vastly complex environment that manages the flows of water and electricity, sewage and waste, people and transport in an optimised ever-evolving emergent choreography of everyday life.In the new city, people – however digital or analogue their bodies and their avatars – will be entirely enmeshed within a wider ecology incorporating both natural systems and man-made things whose differences are far less important than their productive relationships in a collaborative, evolving an early instance of the Internet of Spaces.
Alex Haw is an artist and architect. He is founder and director of the award-winning practice atmos - a practice working across media, executing buildings and installations and public projects that converge meaning with technological innovation in the pursuit of immersive, sensual, stirring landscapes.
Alex studied architecture at the Bartlett (UCL) and won a Fulbright to Princeton. He has worked for Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw, and Diller + Scofidio, and has taught architecture studios at the Architectural Association, Cambridge University, and TU Vienna. He currently teaches on the ADS1 Masters programme at the Royal College of Art, lectures widely, writes for various magazines and is contributing editor for WIRED UK.
He runs Latitudinal Cuisine – a social structure that brings friends and strangers together to cook and explore and discuss food from around the entire world.