Screen/Print is an experiment in translation across media, featuring a close-up digital look at printed architectural writing. Divorcing content from the physical page, the series lends a new perspective to nuanced architectural thought.
For this issue, we’re featuring Sean Lally's The Air from Other Planets.
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The Air from Other Planets: A Brief History of Architecture to Come is an attempt to reevaluate the materials of architecture, by designing with the fields of energy that govern our world. Rather than thinking of a space as defined by its inhabiting physical substances that forcibly delineate positive or negative areas, Sean Lally’s book posits that architecture may be designed through the spectrum of energies beyond our natural sensory capacities.
Wearable and environmental technologies now expose us to new layers of surrounding, active energy fields that were once imperceptible. Lally’s architecture practice, Weathers LLC, seeks to combine this growing potential with technologies in environmental measurement -- gauging and experiencing our surroundings with more nuance. Weathers LLC, and The Air from Other Planets, seek to anticipate the future of architecture by more thoroughly examining the world as it already exists.
Our featured segment is from the introduction to The Air from Other Planets, where Lally explains the implications of and his hopes for an architecture of energies.
Architecture of Energies
Architecture is much more than the building of an object on a site: it is a reinvention of the site itself. The microclimates of internal heating and cooling, outdoor shadows and artificial lighting, vegetation, the importation of building materials, and the new activities that will occur there create new places in time on-site. To construct such places, architects often seek to design walls between activities and spaces, as they have done for thousands of years. The image in our mind of such a “building” consists of walls that are used to define a space’s perimeter, standing there to protect what lies on one side of those walls from the climatic and environmental context on the other side. Architectural innovation in energy is currently judged by how the architect integrates technological devices that reduce energy consumption...not by the capacity of energy to produce the design characteristics of a building.It is difficult to overstate just how much both the architect and the people who use a building’s spaces rely on walls and surfaces to define what we refer to as architecture. Sketching with lines, making models with blocks, and then realizing those representations with solid masses of steel, stone, wood, and concrete is our fundamental method of operation. Producing representations of walls and surfaces is now assumed to be the defining act of architectural design. These solid masses of materials separate and divide one space from another, absorbing our aesthetic and cultural values in the resultant forms they take. The use of a surface to mediate between existing weather and the activities, people, or objects on the other side can firmly be identified as the longest-running strategy for defining space in architecture—from the caves used by early humans and a civilization’s first primitive huts to the tallest, most recent skyscrapers. Yet today architects often strive to make those very walls thinner and more transparent, so that in the right light and at the right angle, they momentarily disappear from view. This points to an unquestionably strong desire in the profession to remove or move past its reliance on these surfaces. Architects have just been unsure how best to do so, because when this does happen, the strategies in place for how we organize activities and define physical boundaries in an environmental context will be fundamentally rewritten.
Other types of spaces and boundaries exist that are represented not by a single line but instead through gradients of energy intensities nested within their surroundings. These are the particles, waves, and chemical interactions of energy that continually surround us, yet are dismissively lumped together and referred to as “air.” We recognize this type of gradient space in the oasis—a pocket of moisture, vegetation, and vivid colors set against a backdrop of monotone sand—or in the image of thousands of pinwheel galaxies clustered together and juxtaposed against a black background of deep space. These shapes and spaces don’t exist as bounded, walled-off entities, but as localized, concentrated exceptions to the surroundings they nest within. They stand apart and provide a resource of relief or opportunity not available in their immediate context. The boundaries that make these microclimates and ecosystems distinct from their surrounding context and each other are shifting and potentially even invisible to the human eye; they require alternate sensory perceptions to perceive them as they intensify and ebb, seeking equilibrium.
Instead of thinking of architecture as a mass of inert and ossified energy—even stone and steel were not always solid masses—standing as walls in opposition to their surroundings and carving out interior space, why not look to intensify those very energy systems we know are capable of creating microclimates and distinct ecosystems so as to make them architectural materials themselves? This process is more than just replacing one material with another. These intensified pockets of energy will also become new methods for organizing the activities and events of our domestic and public lives, informing social interactions in a manner not seen in the effects exerted today by surface architecture. Such a fundamental shift will question the standards we’ve come to take for granted when qualifying architectural shape, how the human body interacts and identifies with those boundary shapes, and how those variables trickle down to affect our interactions with each other.
One of architecture’s primary acts is to define the spatial boundaries that organize and hold specified activities within them. The behavioral properties of the materials used to make that boundary not only influence the physical characteristics of that space (maximum height, span, aperture sizes), but also determine how the human body perceives and senses those boundary changes (opacity, transparency, acoustics), which then informs the behaviors and movements of the individuals using the space. This definition of boundaries is one that architects have continually tested and subverted as new materials, construction methods, and social trends have emerged over the centuries. It follows that if energy could be controlled and deployed as physical boundaries that define and organize spaces that the human body can detect and recognize, wouldn’t that be architecture? These new building materials would only need to demonstrate that they could absorb the “responsibilities” of boundaries—able to determine spatial hierarchies, provide security, hold aesthetic value, etc.—for them to be called architecture. Current trends just on the periphery of the discipline that could make this a possibility only need to be integrated through the lens of the architect to see their potential.
The degree to which a society can manipulate energy, and the influence this has on that society’s development, is of critical importance. This is because energy plays a pivotal role in the advancement of civilizations, both in securing the sustainability of a culture’s existence and in making large strides in that culture’s broader knowledge base once energy is seen as a launching pad for new explorations and not just a fuel to run current ones. From the first campfire to steam power, electricity, and nuclear power, energy has played a pivotal If energy could be controlled and deployed as physical boundaries that define and organize spaces that the human body can detect and recognize, wouldn’t that be architecture?role in everything from the first agricultural food production, to high speed communication and travel, to the capturing of views of deep space that reinforce speculations about the origins of the universe. Not only streamlining the lives we currently live, energy is at the epicenter of our imagination as we seek the innovation that influences artistic, technological, and social growth.
Ushering energy into this larger role requires speculation by the architect, drawing from developments beyond professional borders and transcending mere expressed expertise. These speculations on the part of architects then feed back into adjacent disciplines, supplying new inspiration and focus. This is a relationship that is familiar in the interactions of science fiction and the sciences. Science fiction provides a type of “inspiration theory” in its ability to supply “plausible, fully thought out scenarios of alternate realities in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.”[i] Science fiction’s contribution to the sciences and engineering is rooted in its ability to inspire a new generation to take on these questions and seek out professions that can contribute to the discussion. It engages the general public to become familiar with alternative opportunities before them, essentially building the audience needed to request, demand, and maybe even expect these innovations within their lifetime.
Architectural innovation in energy is currently judged by how the architect integrates technological devices that reduce energy consumption after a building or site has already been designed—not by the capacity of energy to produce the design characteristics of a building. Advancements in energy research currently focus on increasing the efficiency of the machinery that consumes energy as a fuel (air-conditioning and heating units)—not on deepening our understanding of energy as possessing a wide range of material properties (electromagnetic forces, thermodynamics, sound waves, and chemical interactions). Harnessing energy will always be a part of the equation, but in the near future it will become a much smaller portion of what determines a project’s viability. The act of energy’s release, how we shape it to create intensified pockets and constellations of space ready for habitation, and the architectural roles we entrust to it as a physical material will move to the foreground. This shift in action will turn energy from a resource into a material, and therefore into architecture—a building block for constructing space and defining organizational systems.
An often overlooked variable needed to advance technological developments associated with energy is a growing public demand that exceeds the expertise of engineers and scientists alone. People must be enticed, and their imaginations stimulated, by seeing what our lifestyles could be like if we would only embrace this potential. Today’s prevailing dialogue related to the environment is rooted in the premise that if we’re lucky, we’ll just get to keep what we already know. But that cannot happen. Even if species stopped going extinct and the atmosphere stopped changing its chemical composition, we still would not be experiencing today the same surroundings we woke up to yesterday because nothing on Science fiction’s contribution to the sciences and engineering is rooted in its ability to inspire a new generation to take on these questions and seek out professions that can contribute to the discussion.Earth or anywhere else stands still. The images of our future and the environment we live in should consist of more than holding on with white knuckles to what we have because, truly, this isn’t obtainable. What architects can do instead is plant in the imaginations of others the seeds of alternative and responsible lifestyles of the future.
On the one hand, this book argues that the materiality of energy can influence and inform the spaces and shapes of architecture. On the other hand, it realizes that if great strides and investments are going to be made in how energy is harnessed and controlled, they will have to come from enticing the general public through demonstrations of new lifestyles, offering visions of a future that the public would be willing, quite frankly, to covet and to make some sacrifices to obtain. The architectural profession is in the best position to deliver the visions and mock futures needed. In offering up the opportunity to achieve these new environments and lifestyles, architecture can create public demand that will generate the necessary pressure to encourage industry to make the required leaps in technology and innovation. In return, not only will architecture gain a new set of material energies with which to build, but these pressures will impact and re-inform some of our basic assumptions about physical boundaries, spatial organizations, lifestyle, and aesthetics, both for those working within architecture and for the users that engage it. In doing so, we have to be prepared for the realization that this future might not necessarily look like the environment surrounding us today, but could very well be one we can nurture and sustain.
The Air from Other Planets is published through Lars Müller Publishers. More information is available here.
Managing Editor and Podcast Co-Producer for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.Got a pitch, or want to write for us? Contact me!