Architecture through the looking glass

Indigestion, Diller + Scofdio, 1995

“Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation.
And every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia Tales of Music and the Brain, 2007​

Our bodies and minds are constantly engulfed in a tangled multitude of sensory information from our environment, hitting our cognitive apparatus. We are not just consuming this information, our brains are helping us build unique storylines from the fragments that enter our consciousness.
Our brains create and curate the worlds we live in.

In his novel “Through the Looking Glass” Lewis Carroll leads his main character Alice into a world of experience in which the basic assumptions about her environment are altered, even reversed at times. The strange occurrences in this new world challenge the way Alice thinks, they expose the predefined nature of how she understands her environment. Alice becomes more aware of her surroundings, her senses, and ultimately the affective and cognitive states that define her experience. She takes agency over shaping her own world not only with her hands but also with her mind. Just like Alice who is moving through and evaluating the “Looking-Glass-World”, we move through the world in constant exchange with our environment. We are embedded in a field of sensory experience in constant flux, full of smell, sound, touch, taste, and color that is emitted from the environment and pressed onto our bodies and minds. But in the world of today, there is another layer that is added to our experience…

A lab where human scientists feed machines with data to follow the command of algorithms that are not written by humans, but by the machine itself, as it learns.

Musical Chess Match between Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, 1968

This sounds like a scene from an early Sci-Fi movie, far from it, these deep-learning algorithms that are mimicking the way our brain connects memory, attention, and action, these deep-learning algorithms are already effortlessly deployed in our everyday environment through smart technology and the omnipresent media. We are unaware of their ubiquitous but invisible existence. They correct our emails, suggest a time for our next meeting, select our music and sort our photos. Whenever a small glitch or signal reveals its hidden presence a small shiver of discomfort runs down our spine, but we also become aware of the immense power with which learning algorithms can change the perception of our surroundings. They change the way we see, speak, listen, and act by expanding and directing the fields of sensation and action — powerfully augmenting human reality.

If not deployed to replace human and non-human intelligence but paired with human creativity to augment the world through an added layer of information these learning networks can serve as tools to expand the understanding and appreciation of experiencing the environment. They can form hybrid environments of experimentation- “Looking-Glass-Worlds” — to enhance the relation between natural and man-made ecology — to explore new realms of perception, materiality, and interiority — to form new approaches to biodiversity and neurodiversity in our polyphonic world full of life.

​Our cities are defined as grids for living and mapped trajectories for the individual to travel through, filled like vessels with the organic motion of life. Urban spaces are constructed through static boundaries and remain mostly unresponsive to our presence. The individual escapes into the digital realm that opens a seemingly boundless space of expression and interaction. Yet the digital realm often stays decoupled from the physical reality and disconnects the self from its multi-sensory being in the world. Nature, on the other hand, forms spaces as combined interactive systems of multiple organisms in their ecosystem. Like a multilayered vector field of information pushing outwards from the individual in motion and inwards from the immediate surroundings, the system is in a state of constant flux, reforming the shape and the boundaries of space and individual. Each organism leaves a unique imprint. The human is an organism like any other, an open, breathing membrane in a continual exchange with its surroundings. So how can we redefine our built environment to allow it to respond to motion and action and to negotiate spatial definition in times of ubiquitous connectivity and mediality?

Augmented reality is often understood as the digital enhancement of environments. But the expanding of experience is not limited to the digital realm nor is it ever only visual. Environments are always multi-sensory and connected to materiality; Augmented reality in its broader term can and must address the human need for transformation. A capacity to transform that we are akin to in nature and addicted to in our updatable digital realm while we still find ourselves in rather ‘static’ architectures of the city. Through the engagement of all senses and mindful use of materiality as a medium supported by digital technology, computational design, and fabrication technologies designers can leverage new sensory experiences of spaces as active systems of potentialities, activating the creative synergy of the brain and body. We should be interested in incorporating the impact of our senses into the way we think, talk, and create spaces.​

Nassia Inglessis/ Studio INI, Urban Imprint Installation at A/D/O Brooklyn 2019

Our senses move us through space, they mix and mingle to help us navigate our reality. As the brain combines different modes of sensory information they mutually affect one another. Our senses are plastic, they blend and enhance or inhibit each other, they are deeply connected to our memory of the experience, and they influence our emotions. That’s why the lights go down before a concert begins. Darkness helps us hear more clearly. Restaurants serve their compositions in dimmed spaces to enhance the flavor of the food. Movies employ music and sound to enhance the response of the audience to a scene. Sensory design is connecting space and time.

Every experience is always a duration of time. Our Brain orients us and reacts to the memory of the past. Henri Bergson writes:

“Doubtless we think with only a small part of our past; but it is with our entire past . . . that we desire, will, and act.

​When we move through space our gaze oscillates between the small details and the larger volumes to create an understanding of the whole, even though these impressions might be disjointed the brain composes a cohesive sequence of sensory input that we can recall. We always see the built environment in relation to our bodies. As we pass through a narrow corridor and arrive at a door frame space narrows down, traps us before releasing us into a larger space. Our hands touch the cold metal doorknob, subconsciously we adjust our stance to increase pressure while opening the door, the door panel swings open and air mutters from the space beyond and ripples over our skin. Our legs slow down while our feet sense the change from the hard wooden floor to a soft dampening carpet, our ears notice the change in resonance of our step.

​Traditional Japanese architecture embraces the use of materiality and tactile forms as well as natural elements. The traditional Japanese house is a composition of motion trajectories through and with the building. Rooms and spaces compress and expand, they reverberate with shifting shadows and textured surfaces wrought from wood, paper, or stone. Every space is composed of a multitude of sensory effects. The traditional Japanese Engawa (porch) is perforated with light and air that changes with the sun and wind, leaves are casting shadows onto the wood-paved elevated passageway that is exposed to a small garden with stones and a water fountain transmitting sound and smell of the elements into space. Sensory design slows space down, it thickens it with experience. Neither Photographs nor videos can tell the full story of these thick experiences. We all have had and are fond of such rich experiences but quickly return to the digital realm.

Fukiya Katayama House

​Computational Landscapes are ever-expanding. Computers have grown from the status of an enigmatic machine of wonder to that of a companion that is co-creating and communicating the environments of our imagination. Our current reality is designed from the macro to the micro/molecular level to fuse the algorithmic with the ontological. 3 Being digitally connected and wired to our devices is the usual and ubiquitous state of being.

​The infusion of our current reality with the algorithmic and technological has undeniably impacted how we define ourselves and the environments we inhabit. The Algorithm can be compared to the strong human desire for controlling the environment and the self by ordering it. Like the Renaissance garden that intends to bring order into the chaos by controlling the “natural” condition. The garden, creating interiority through control to shield from the lurking dangers from the exteriority; a controlled canvas for the self that is draped over our reality like a net. But there are areas within the well-kept and controlled garden, within the framework, that transition back into the wilderness, the order corrupts, it cracks open and reveals its hidden mechanism. The junk left behind reveals an unexpected fusion of the digital and the natural and with it new aspects of oneself. New perspectives on unexpected assemblages open up and invite us to engage in new ways of experiencing and augmenting the environment. Ideas that then can be projected into a possible future of co-habitation and co-experiencing of natural and digital assemblages on this planet.



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Viktoria Luisa Barbo

Viktoria Luisa Barbo

Designer/ Creative /Thinker. Interested in the cultural and spatial effects of perception and ecology.