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The Architecture of Soft Machines

Wihart, M; (2015) The Architecture of Soft Machines. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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This thesis speculates about the possibility of softening architecture through machines. In deviating from traditional mechanical conceptions of machines based on autonomous, functional and purely operational notions, the thesis proposes to conceive of machines as corporeal media in co-constituting relationships with human bodies. As machines become corporeal (robots) and human bodies take on qualities of machines (cyborgs) the thesis investigates their relations to architecture through readings of William S. Burroughs’ proto-cyborgian novel The Soft Machine (1961) and Georges Teyssot’s essay ‘Hybrid Architecture: An Environment for the Prosthetic Body’ (2005) arguing for a revision of architecture’s anthropocentric mandate in favour of technologically co-constituting body ideas. The conceptual shift in man-machine relations is also demonstrated by discussion of two installations shown at the Venice Biennale, Daniel Libeskind’s mechanical Three Lessons in Architecture (1985) and Philip Beesely’s responsive Hylozoic Ground (2010). As the purely mechanical model has been superseded by a model that incorporates digital sensing and embedded actuation, as well as soft and compliant materiality, the promise of softer, more sensitive and corporeal conceptions of technology shines onto architecture. Following Nicholas Negroponte’s ambition for a ‘humanism through machines,’ stated in his groundbreaking work, Soft Architecture Machines (1975), and inspired by recent developments in the emerging field of soft robotics, I have developed a series of practical design experiments, ranging from soft mechanical hybrids to soft machines made entirely from silicone and actuated by embedded pneumatics, to speculate about architectural environments capable of interacting with humans. In a radical departure from traditional mechanical conceptions based on modalities of assembly, the design of these types of soft machines is derived from soft organisms such as molluscs (octopi, snails, jellyfish) in order to infuse them with notions of flexibility, compliance, sensitivity, passive dynamics and spatial variability. Challenging architecture’s alliance with notions of permanence and monumentality, the thesis finally formulates a critique of static typologisation of space with walls, floors, columns or windows. In proposing an embodied architecture the thesis concludes by speculating about architecture as a capacitated, sensitive and sensual body informed by reciprocal conditioning of constituent systems, materials, morphologies and behaviours.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: The Architecture of Soft Machines
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of the Built Environment
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1469447
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