Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Neri Oxman and the Process of Form

Neri Oxman, a designer and PhD candidate in Design and Computation at M.I.T.'s Media Lab, is proving that the design of the natural world is based, not around form in total, but rather a series of processes and relationships that result in form. Challenging the notion of "form follows function", Oxman would see the traditional process of design, where a form is created and then analyzed against it's task, inverted. In this way, design begins with analysis and form is generated through the findings.
The bulk of her examples are extracted from nature and highlight the incredible ways that the natural world responds to it's own environment and complications. Citing the 1905 discovery by Julius Wolfe that bones grow stronger and increase calcification when put under weight, Oxman argues that bone is doing design and execution at the same time. As it responds to the new requirements of it's existence, the bone adapts and changes in space and over time. This is a critical point in her research and defines the future of design. How is it possible to create forms that follow the examples set by nature and react in time and space to the localised needs of not just the environment and the user, but also by the form itself?
In her project Beast, a chaise, Oxman has developed a process that is a fully customizable chair capable of structurally supporting itself and the user while cradling specific pressure points. The chaise is also a direct vision into its function, as the darker spots indicate a thicker, more structural point whereas the lighter shades are areas that need less support. The project is a result of her studies at the M.I.T. Media Lab into a procedure called the variable printing process. With this process, a form is printed in three-dimensional space after analysis and the solidity or structural capability of each point in space is "printed" at optimal density or capacity. The result could be a future where entire buildings are printed in space and structural faculties are optimized at an atomic level.

Neri Oxman's blog MaterialEcology.
Ethan Zuckerman's blog post on Oxman's presentation at 09 Pop!Tech Conference via World Changing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Energy Positive

The world's first energy positive office building, Elithis Tower, has opened in Dijon, France. Designed by Arte Charpentier Architects, the design and construction of the 10 story building was a conceptual challenge by Thierry Bievre, the General Director of Elithis Engineering. Surpassing net-zero, the building utilizes solar panels, recovered emissions, and solar shading to minimize solar heat gain. The building also employs over 1,600 emission-analyzing sensors to continuously monitor and display energy usage to the occupants. Surplus energy is fed back into the grid. Surprisingly, at 54,000 square feet and costing only 10 million, the office building is reasonably priced compared to typical office buildings of similar size.
According to the design firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), energy positive buildings are the result of performative design, where four specific goals are engaged; reduction, absorbtion, reclamation, and generation. Whereas reduction and reclamation deal with the efficient use and re-use of energy available, absorbtion is the act of harvesting other available energy streams into the building. "Following the example of nature, don't shed water, absorb it." Of course, with the efficient use and re-use of energy, and the maximizing of available energy streams and technologies, the ability to generate positive energy and other potential effects becomes possible.
Pearl River Tower, the design for a skyscraper in China is another example of positive energy producing buildings but at a larger scale. Not only will the Pearl River Tower return energy to the grid, but due to it's size and efficiency,
several floors of rentable office space were actually added to the design at no additional cost. The building height and form channel the prevailing winds through large openings in the mechanical floors that contain energy harnessing wind turbines. The louvres on the southern facade, which act as both solar shade and light shelf, have integrated photovoltaics that power internally mechanized shades on the same facade. The opposite facade is constructed as a double skinned curtain wall that forms a thermal barrier between the exterior and the interior, and ventilates vertically. The heat and moisture that is trapped and allowed to rise naturally is removed at every other floor level and is used in the building's dehumidification system.

Imagine several Pearl River Towers grouped together in an urban area. Each building, connected by these infrastructural systems, workng their own day job, providing physical space for day jobs, but producing energy at the same time. If connected, this network of super-efficient buildings could themselves be integrated into the local power grid and act as both infrastructure and power plant. By producing and distributing the surplus energy locally to their immediate surroundings, the buildings can replace the traditional infrastructure which is externally produced and delivered. Power generated off-site, which typically involves the consumption of fossil fuels or nuclear reaction, is inefficient and expensive due to production methods and the need to send power great distances through service lines. The need for large power plants and lengths of inefficient infrastructure is drastically reduced. The buildings themselves serve as producer and supplier, not to mention the effect of increased community interaction, education, and awareness of power needs and methods.

Elithis Tower seen on Inhabitat. Images via Arte Charpentier Architects. Pearl River Tower images via SOM.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Of Fish and Communicative Movement

When large schools of fish travel through the water, the body operates with three simple rules of movement; collision avoidance, side-by-side locomotion, and distance metering. The school of fish, sometimes numbering into the thousands, is able to act as one unit because each individual fish is able to maneuver through the water in any direction in close proximity to it's neighbor without colliding. Nissan is using this natural ability of individuals safely navigating within a group as a model for a next-generation vehicle communication and movement system. According to Nissan:
"fish demonstrate extraordinary "anti-collision" abilities, navigating instinctively and intelligently through challenging terrain by detecting and avoiding obstacles"

Enter the EPORO. Well, actually, enter a lot of EPORO. As they move around, the small group of robots are able to communicate with each other based on the three simple rules of the school; collision avoidance, side-by-side locomotion, and distance metering. Nissan hopes that in the future, this communication based behavior could lead to more efficient and safe vehicular travel in heavy traffic situations. The application may also have potential in other industries such as urban design and development, weather information monitoring, and disaster relief response. Previously disparate objects, areas, and populations could become communicative networks that respond in real time with their environs and with each other.

In their 1971 project entitled Truckstop Network, the ever-experimental information nomads, Ant Farm, proposed a system of user-feedback devices connected across the interstate system of the US. The network of video screens and communication devices envisioned the users across the system interacting and responding to concurrent events taking place at the other truckstop locations. Large screens would project live video feeds, and continuously updated information boards would list ride information, events, and news. Here, the infrastructure itself, though 'virtual', serves as the empowering element in the system rather than occupying a typical subserviant role based on pure function.

EPORO seen on Inhabitat. Images via Nissan. Ant Farm Media Van image via CCA MEDIA Lab.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Urban Camouflage

As China rapidly enters a new era of pseudo-capitalism, the idea of "fitting in" is no longer the result of communist dictatorship, but rather takes from the western philosophy of consumer culture. A quickly growing middle class and access to an ever-expanding array of goods has allowed much of the urban population to take part in mass consumerism backed by media and advertising. In the series "Camouflage", Chinese artist Liu Bolin has cued in on this new role of the people and poses them within the landscape painted to match their background. The figures, stationed in the foreground, disappear into their environment. In a sense, the human subjects within the work, and thus their individuality, are reevaluated at the level of society as a whole, and interpreted as a product of their environment.
Interestingly enough, the artists own commentary is relating the human being to animals and their need for camouflage in nature to remain safe. Bolin comments that human beings are not animals because they have no way of protecting themselves, and yet they are still incapable of removing themselves from this environment by choice. Bolin:
"Now, in the real material world, the world views of different people’s are also different. Each person chooses his/her own way in the process of contacting outside world. I choose to merge myself into the environment. Saying that I am disappeared in the environment, it would be better to say that the environment has licked me up and I can not choose active and passive relationship. In the environment of emphasizing cultural heritage, concealment is actually no place to hide."
The emergence of this new consumer culture is a dramatic shift in idealogies for one of the worlds strongest communist heritages where, ironically, the image of Chairman Mao is one of the most popular images seen on T-shirts for sale.

Liu Bolin at the Galerie Bertin-Toublanc. Seen on v1kram's posterous.