How Can We Link Humans, Machines and Spaces Within the Built Environment?

Visualizing the critical relationship between physical space and health.

The emergence of big data is bringing with it a number of interesting insights into how to better understand the world around us and the way we live within its fluctuations. By investigating physical space as an informational environment, architects, planners and designers can develop strategies in response to social, experiential and environmental considerations. Can interactive urban landscapes elucidate natural processes such as oxygen levels, river water pollution, animal life and noise pollution in city centers? What are the relationships between information, visualization and inhabitable space? What are alternative ways for addressing everyday issues that are less dependent on the global information industry, data power structures and monopolies?

These are some of the questions being addressed by researchers Loukia Tsafoulia, assistant professor in the College of Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), and Severino Alfonso, visiting assistant professor at the college. Find out more about their research and more of the questions they’re trying to answer.

Q: What is your research focus?

A: Both of our research fall under the wider umbrella of histories and theories of design computation. We each investigate, through different lenses and archives, the intersections of responsive environments, digital technologies and the computational theory of design during the 1950s-1970s in Europe and North America.

In our research, we look at early cybernetic experiments from the 1940s and ‘50s, when scientists were trying to demystify the wonders of the human brain by building electromechanical “perception” devices and generating novel theories of a “general science” based on understanding the world through performance, versus the cognitive lenses of the traditional modern sciences. We are building on those concepts and trace the evolution of computer science and artificial intelligence — how they pollinated the fields of architecture and design — to ultimately bring them into the design of built environments that are able to respond to their inhabitants. We are now working on a book under the tentative title “Performance as Action: The Embodied Mind.” This is a layered work that on one hand, includes a series of drawing representations of cybernetic, electromechanical and sensory machines from the 1940s to the 1970s while simultaneously including scholarly pieces that unfold the dynamics observed between scientific methods and design processes.

Our combined interests — theoretical and applied investigations — meet in the mission of the Synesthetic Research and Design Lab (SRDL), at CABE. Our passion for hands-on experimentation on synthetic material experiments and spaces of interaction to improve the wellbeing of humans, and make visible the critical relationships between space and health, triggered the creation of the SRDL.

Q: That’s interesting! Can you expand more on how the SRDL works?

A: The SRDL serves as a collaborative research and newly minted platform prototyping platform where interactive design, art, and emergent health sciences meet, highlighting the connection between individuals and their environment. SRDL is currently collaborating with Jefferson Health’s Center for Autism and Neurodiversity (CAN) and the department of Occupational Therapy at Thomas Jefferson University to address all-inclusive ways for inhabiting and perceiving our environments. This collaboration stimulates dialogues among our designers, medical field experts, and people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on how to design more inclusive environments that meet the needs of neurodiverse individuals and those with ASD.

With that in mind, we are planning two new projects for Fall 2021. The first is the publication of a book, Neurodiversity: Building Community and Rethinking the Built Environment, which follows a symposium we organized with Dr. Wendy Ross and CAN. The second project is titled Soft: A prefabricated and deployable stress-relief, interactive prototype for the neurodiverse and entails the construction of a real-scale prototype for a room that serves as a sensory, “cool-down” spatial experience. This is a phased, long-term project designed to understand the impact of sensory, interactive environments on our health.

A fall course and symposium will focus on neurodiversity considerations in designing architecture.

Q: What’s one question you’re investigating?

A: What is the process linking humans, machines and spaces, and how to navigate it to better understand the human-nonhuman interactions that occur within our built environment?

Our multisensory, interactive installation Synesthesia embodies this investigation. Synesthesia provides a rational and emotional sense of what it means to live among machines that converse and raises awareness on the design potential behind responsive environments. Understanding their nuances opens possibilities for critiquing space interactivity and offers opportunities for both historical reflection and prospective thinking as a response to the expanding use of computers, machines and automated objects in our daily lives.

Professors Tsafoulia and Alfonso's Synesthesia Interactive Installation, known as "The Blob". Synesthesía´s fluctuating light and sound patterned effects attract the participant to approach and engage in a sensorial "conversation". Synesthesia, glows from within, emitting synthesized electronic pulses and tones. If no one is near it, it calls out with an inviting chirp to let you know it is waiting for a visitor. Once you get close, it emits a series of grinding sounds. Photo taken by Orlando Saverino-Loeb while Synesthesia was exhibited at the HotBed Gallery in Philadelphia.
Synesthesia´s skin actuated by the human presence and interaction with it. Formally, conceived as a deformed sphere -a central node of multiple projections shaped as a blob- it acts as a kind of 3dimensional cinema where the movie watches you. Upon interaction, the participants´ eyes are captured and projected in real time on the skin of this artificial body.
View from one of the skin portals looking inside the blob. A peek through all the systems comprising this artificial body with its cable neurons, tectonic structure and reflective material.

Q: What are some other aspects of your research that young design students should know about?

Prof. Tsafoulia: My research examines transiency in its various social, performative and tectonic expressions. It focuses on the notion of flux as a productive force at multiple scales. This includes the human body and its interactions with the objects and environments it negotiates, as well as the social body and its movements – both forced and voluntary – within buildings, through cities and across larger territorial boundaries.  As an example, my recent scholarly work includes the book, Transient Spaces, a curated collection of essays and projects about the impact that mass migration has on cities around the world. My in-progress book, titled KatOikia: Housing in the Age of Rapid Globalization, Ubiquitous Technologies, and Information, is also building on these investigations.

Prof. Alfonso: I am exploring the digital realm of design and theory. What will be the outcome of a society that thinks and creates mainly through digital means? My research investigates the relationships between the instrumentality of building systems, the aesthetics and politics of software and the digital technologies’ impact on the built environment — interior and exterior. The work explores the designer’s intention and the changing modes in architectural production, leading to a better way for architects to use an expanding array of digital tools in ever-increasing spatial complexity.

Rather than apply science to design, science can be understood as a form of design activity, reversing the conventional hierarchy between the two.

Q: What are some specific examples of the digital tools you refer to, and exactly how are architects using them?

 A: 3D modelling software, digital fabrication tools, or any other digital driven technology applied to the design fields are commonly used tools that are integral parts of every designer’s toolkit. These tools are reshaping the design discipline in multiple ways. From direct general impact on economical, socio-political and working organization, to more specific issues regarding authorship, design style, or the scientification of the field.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

A: Architecture and design fields have historically been confronted with dipoles such as theory versus practice, objectivity and subjectivity, human and machine and mind and body. Our interest lies in the possibilities of cutting across and smoothening these distinctions. Mapping the flows of knowledge, as well as “importing and exporting” concepts, operations, tactics and methods traditionally in the periphery of the design field is a fascinating and productive exercise.

Q: What’s an interesting fact about your study subject?

A: We focus on research that brings together traditionally disparate fields. We have learned tons by studying the work of scientists that might be considered quite unexpected in the fields of architecture, interior and urban design. In our research journey, British and American thinkers and their work in a diverse array of fields — psychiatry, engineering, management, politics, music, architecture, education — all come together to shape novel design thinking methods and open-ended experimentation. These personalities include Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, R.D. Laing, Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask. Through their work we are able to see science as a specific form of design inquiry. Rather than apply science to design, science can be understood as a form of design activity, reversing the conventional hierarchy between the two.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: It is fascinating to collaborate with a variety of people coming from across disciplines, to learn various perspectives while being challenged to incorporate them within our field.

At the same time, working with young people, shaping their minds and in retrospect shaping ours based on their input is very rewarding. The teaching experience is fluid, dynamic and very often unexpected and therefore revitalizing.

Q: What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: On a professional level, during the past 10 years we have been based in the East Coast of the U.S., working at the intersection of theory, technology and design. We also have a strong presence in Spain and Greece — where we come from — and have worked in various European cities. We also participate in summer intensive workshops in China. All these diverse experiences are continuously informing our work and interests.

On a more personal level, we both love hiking, getting lost in landscapes of all kinds and free camping on isolated beaches with challenging access. This is our yearly, much-needed opportunity to disappear from the grid and enjoy reading, drawing, observing and connecting with nature and with friends who share the same need to unplug.

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Design and Style, Science and Technology