Experimental systems and new materials break ground in an untapped field of architectureEarlier 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 4x4-inch squares in all, which are coated for durability, die-cut into two patterns, and woven into four 4x8-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." Cosmic Quilt - REALIZED from The Principals on Vimeo. 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.
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Machine collaborates on your design as you make itEarlier this summer Design Hub Limburg mounted "The Machine," an exhibition that anticipates what the Netherlands-based design collective is calling the designers' industrial revolution, a movement that sees more and more designers developing and building machines specially suited to their particular needs, like the Computer Augmented Craft project (CAC) by German designer Christian Fiebig. He was commissioned by Design Hub Limburg to create an interactive machine with a digital interface that makes suggestions to the designer during the fabrication process. Using custom-made sensors, the computer tracks the making process and instantly generates formal possibilities based on the designer's chosen parameters, bridging hi-tech with traditional craftsmanship. Fiebig enlisted the help of product and interaction designer David Menting and his company, Nut & Bolt, to devise a system of sensors specifically for spot welding strips of metal. First, Menting used an off-the-shelf CNY70 reflective infrared sensor to detect the position of the metal strips and created an adapted pair of digital calipers to measure the length. A custom-made circular infrared sensor was then created to measure the angle at which two different strips meet. The values read by the sensors are registered by an Arduino, a microcontroller chip that enables a computer to communicate input and output components, in this case the sensors. The Arduino checks whether the infrared sensor can detect the light from a ring of LEDs on the workstation at a rate of approximately a thousand times per second. If not, it knows the light is being blocked by a strip of metal, which it measures the length and angle of, and then sends that information to the computer. From there Martin Schneider used Processing, an open source programming language, to create the software that allows the computer to interpret the information it receives from the sensors, compare it to the project's pre-established parameters and make suggestions to the designer while he or she is making the product. Fiebig was using metal strips to create a bowl with a geometrical, open basketweave pattern as a study for a larger furniture product. His specified parameters were metal strips that could only be cut in lengths from five to 15 centimeters and could only be joined in low-profile connections. During each step in the process Fiebig was able to glance up at the display screen, which showed the current stage of the project, and read the computer's feedback on how much he could stray from the parameters by changing an angle or length of metal without affecting the integrity of the product, something Schneider calls this the "degree of freedom." "If the user aligns the cutter or the strip in a way that is not consistent with the model, it is immediately evident from the display if either length or angle of the current segment are out of range," Schneider said. But the machine doesn't physically enforce these limits--it can't, in fact--and it's up to the designer to take its advice or not, creating a true collaboration between man and machine. "The computer calculates an immediate recommendation based on the parameters of the software, how the result would look if this or that decision was made instead," said Fiebig. He went onto describe the process of making a product with a computerized studio partner as "a feedback spiral that continues an evolving dialogue between craftsman and computer." Ultimately, Fiebig hopes to expand the scale of the project from one tabletop workstation to multiple machines over an entire studio, and from the parametric process to open ended feedback so that several designers could work on various projects in the same space, moving from machine to machine and collaborating with one another as well as with the computers. For those who want to take a crack at this set-up themselves, Schneider released the various components of his program as open source software you can download for free, a generous offer given the amount of work involved, but consistent with the greater collaborative process. "The Machine" runs through October 7, 2012 at C-mine in Genk, Belgium.