Post-Materialism: Beyond the Ocularcentric

When considering the “posthuman” condition and the use of computation toward the generation of “architecture”, projects by-in-large continue to focus on the object; the process, fabrication, and constructability. Computation is utilized in all of these steps, however, the question remains to what degree, and to what extent, do we allow computation to influence, or take control of, the processes of design? And furthermore, within the posthuman context, are we in fact going far enough in our computational utilization? The posthuman context under which the 2016 ACADIA conference was framed alludes to architectural projects exploring the posthuman condition, a condition in which we become something other than what is typically defined of as “human”; either through a biological evolution or through a co-evolution with our environment in which we become more connected, more symbiotic, and aware of our context. This condition often refers to a [greater] connection between the human body/mind and technology, computation, ecology, atmospheres, and yes, architectures.

However, even “interactive” and “responsive” systems/designs have not evolved much in the last two decades, remaining primarily ocularcentric in their relationship to the human being. While it is of utmost importance that the spaces we create have an affinity for the ocular, the visually beautiful, we must begin to move beyond the trope that a visual response in systems is the only connection we share with our spaces. When taking into account the range of human senses, especially those which we feel are ambient, we must begin to understand and design for conditions that extend our range of engagement. Projects have begun to include sensor technologies utilizing commercially available chips which can react to such things as changes in carbon dioxide levels in the air or the presence of human bodies. However, the responses in the interactive architectural objects [to date] are largely kinetic, where only our visual perception of these objects is designed to react. And furthermore these explorations and projects seem to only be focused on a one-way relationship of cause and effect, without taking into the account the range of responses possible by the human body or mind.

Even in our representation(s), many projects to date still focus on the Renaissance portrayal in the architectural construction of objects, where solid objects such as walls, ceilings, and floors are shown as a poche (solid and opaque); while the air between the walls remains void of design engagement or representation. Recently with advancements in such simulation tools as daylight and lighting analysis, even these conditions are collapsed to be represented as surface; a superficial representation of the actual volumetric capacity of light to affect spatial perception. Light or heat is relegated and projected on two-dimensional planes of representation which do not take into account their volumetric conditions, and thus their spatial capacities. They only seek to reduce or standardize the homogenization of such spatial qualities.

In order to envision what a “posthuman” environment might look like, now or in the future, we must anticipate that this “deeper relationship with our environment” will mean that we move beyond purely the ocular relationship we currently have which places emphasis solely on seeking a response in the visual cortex of our brains. A deeper connection may mean that the full range of our human physiology is taken into account, where a dynamic feedback loop is created between our bodies, minds, technologies, and environments.

Furthermore, when taking into account our foregrounding of the material object(s) within architecture, we must also start to envision how our material systems may change in the future. For as much effort is being placed on materiality, material systems, and the newfound fabrication possibilities to manipulate such materials, we know that we live in a closed ecological system where matter is a finite resource. Matter cannot be created nor destroyed, yet the way in which we use materials in our current civilization often renders them useless post-consumption. In the creation and retrieval of such material matter also currently requires abundant amounts of energy which are not currently available, or sustainable, especially in any processes which are conducive to our environment and the longevity of the human species. In our civilizations quest to find ever cheaper energy sources, we know that we live in a solar system with more than abundant energy to meet our demands. Our current design vocabulary, especially within the twenty-first century, has mainly focused on the reduction in use of energy, whether for production or consumption. Researchers and scientists have pushed for further exploration into solar energy technologies, leading to the possibility that one day these technologies will become adequate and ubiquitous on some level. One must envision then that a time will come in our [near] future where our current consumption model is flipped; where material resources are scarce and energy is abundant. Sean Lally also refers to this, noting that we currently have no design language capable of addressing this new design space as we have so far been focused solely on how to reduce, not design with, energy.

I would argue that this future scenario may be more likely for a posthuman frontier, rather than the current trajectory where materiality is the focus, and where computation is being utilized first and foremost for the generation of objects. Objects (for the most part) focus on the ocular, designing for atmospheres (such as designing for thermodynamic qualities first and foremost) have the ability to enter into a deeper relationship with our bodies; affecting our nervous systems on a more profound level. These atmospheres and climates then become the design space, where designers are manipulating and designing climates for a range of heterogeneous experiences, where gradients are the new condition over the homogenization of spatial experiences. Philip Beesley describes this scenario as living somewhere between our present condition, where our attention is currently fixated on the encapsulation of the body, and the inevitable decay of a physical system. We, as designers, currently at all costs focus on longevity and stability, without having many ideas on how to deal with decay or dynamic systems. But, he argues for us to think about the space that lies somewhere between solidity and total decay; of a reverberation of space that is more akin to a wash, or a gradient. I would argue that this is the manipulation and design of atmospheres. The air between the walls. Softspace.

Computation, then, in this scenario is not used solely for the generation and analysis of objects, but rather to design atmospheres, where fluids of air, water, and sound are manipulated and designed. These are presently the most complex systems to simulate and model, and due to their high computational loads are either too cumbersome to properly integrate into the design process, or the models themselves are not accurate enough yet to properly simulate the reality of interactions occurring in nature. Thermodynamic exchange of heat, or the capacity of light to effect a space, is currently modeled and designed in a sort of homogenous environment, but due to the inability of simulated models to integrate into the forefront of the design process, remains a practice in which we cannot design a heterogeneous gradient of experiences with purpose. In order to move beyond our present condition, if we are in fact referring to a “posthuman condition” and a “digital frontier,” I would argue that we must begin to move beyond the object-oriented obsession we currently have, and instead focus our efforts and attention on integrating the computational means necessary to design for such atmospheric possibilities (not as an analysis that is ran later, and has very little to do with design intent or outcome).
In the scenario above, this is what Reyner Banham would describe as the difference between the tent and the campfire. Where civilization chose the former, we shall choose the later; where energy itself becomes the materiality of which we design and is foregrounded. Objects which are designed are not only informed by computational means (for whatever reason), but also utilize computation on another level to engage with our neural and physiological processes of the mind and body. These relationships will not only be those which seek primarily a visual response, but may in a sense become empathetic to the subtleties of human physiology.

Perhaps if architectures of the 1990s was defined by the spline and the abridging of mathematical outcomes (such as is the case with logarithms), and the early 2000s began to describe a certain material logic utilizing “messy computation” without the need for this reduction, what Mario Carpo refers to as the “Second digital turn”, then perhaps this future hallucination would be the coming of the “third turn”, where we begin to work within a “post material” design space.