Experimental systems and new materials break ground in an untapped field of architecture
Earlier this month, Brooklyn-based design practice The Principals installed Wave Dilfert, an interactive “light-sensitive barrel vault” created for The Feast, a social innovation conference that took place this year in Essex Street Market. With their unique trifecta of talents, the founders of The Principals—Christopher Williams, a metal fabricator, Charles Constantine, an industrial designer, and Drew Seskuras, an architect—seem poised to lead the pack of interactive environmental architects. Interactive design is a quickly growing field thanks to events like do-it-yourself festival Maker Faire and the proliferation of open-source electronics prototyping platforms like Arduino. But before The Principals dominate the design-build world, we wanted to revisit the installation that caught everyone’s eye at NY Design Week: Cosmic Quilt.
Cosmic Quilt began as an architectural research project, which The Principals opened up to students at the Art Institute of New York. “The response was a bit overwhelming,” said Seskunas. “Interactive design isn’t even a subject at the Art Institute, but the desire of the students to learn about it was really staggering.” The Principals first led their group of eager students in researching different kinds of paper, a material they chose not only for its cost effectiveness, but because small, lightweight, interlocking pieces of paper facilitate the kind of free movement they were aiming for. There are 3,000 4×4-inch squares in all, which are coated for durability, die-cut into two patterns, and woven into four 4×8-foot quilts with small plastic fasteners that attach at the corners. Seskunas can’t divulge the materials in the coating because it’s patent pending, but as far as the pattern is concerned, “we were inspired by coats of armor, scale patterns on reptiles, and catenary curves,” he said. “The main problem to solve was how to achieve a gradient curve that could simultaneously increase light flow, but using no more than two different pieces. Our aim was to achieve maximum complexity with a minimum amount of dissimilar parts.”
Since they have the facilities to fabricate and construct everything in their Greenpoint, studio, Seskunas, Williams, and Constantine had the luxury of going back and forth between building and digital design throughout the entire process. After they built a working scale model, The Principals fabricated the full-size quilts and attached them to a welded aluminum frame through which they wove the wiring and sensors. They then mounted the assembly to the ceiling. The quilt is attached to hi-torque stepper motors controlled by a series of Arduinos equipped with light sensors that read the shadows of people walking underneath. The Principals wrote an Arduino code that transmits that information to motors, resulting in the undulating movements of the quilt. “This, in turn, also affects the changes in light patterns, creating a feedback loop in which the quilt can communicate with the people under it as well as with itself,” Seskunas said.
The Principals also hid sensors along the floor and hung them from the ceiling along with instructions for visitors explaining how their physical movement would impact the shape of the quilt. “We experiment with each project on where to put the sensors,” Seskunas said. “Sometimes people want to know where they are and sometimes they’re content to not be aware how exactly they are affecting the installation. In this case we decided to do both.”
“This is a new territory for architects and designers, so each time we have the opportunity to do something like this we observe how people react, what the effect on them is, what they get and don’t get, and how the feeling in the space changes,” Seskunas continued. For their latest installation, Wave Dilfert, The Principals created a more immersive architectural space with technology similar to that used in Cosmic Quilt, but with a new skin that can work on X, Y, and Z axes. “The difference of feeling in the space was really powerful. As you walked through it the space either contracted or expanded, and the reaction of the people who experienced it was amazing,” he said.
As The Principals’ work continues to grow in scale, user experience, and technological fabrication, Seskunas said they’re continually inspired by the “unbounded consequences” referenced by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “The orientation of reality toward the masses and of the masses toward reality is a process of unbounded consequence not only for thought but also for the ways we see things.” The Principals aren’t sure where their research will take them, but whether it’s for a weekend-long installation or a building skin, you can be certain the user will play an exciting part in its ultimate configuration.