Prototyping The Future With Future Cities Lab

Models haven’t changed much for centuries. They’re still great for communicating the material and spatial ideas of a building. But let’s face it: our networked world is just as digital as it is physical. So doesn’t it make sense for models to be at least as intelligent as the smartphone in your pocket? It’s a question you can’t help but ask yourself after seeing the works produced by Future Cities Lab now on display at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Part of the exhibition Dissident Futures, which runs through through February 8, 2014, these models challenge our conventions of how we envision our future. Future Cities Lab is also pushing the limits of how architects can broadcast their ideas to the public and professionals alike. These aren’t your grandad’s foam and chipboard models: they’re networked, they’re robotic, and they’ll even speak to you.

Zachary Edelson Zachary Edelson

Models haven’t changed much for centuries. They’re still great for communicating the material and spatial ideas of a building. But let’s face it: our networked world is just as digital as it is physical. So doesn’t it make sense for models to be at least as intelligent as the smartphone in your pocket?

It’s a question you can’t help but ask yourself after seeing the works produced by Future Cities Lab now on display at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Part of the exhibitionDissident Futures, which runs through through February 8, 2014, these models challenge our conventions of how we envision our future. Future Cities Lab is also pushing the limits of how architects can broadcast their ideas to the public and professionals alike. These aren’t your granddad’s foam and chipboard models: they’re networked, they’re robotic, and they’ll even speak to you.

Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno founded Future Cities Lab in 2004, though their partnership began at Princeton’s M.Arch program. Their thesis work shared an interest in extreme environments, and they have expanded this focus to include interactive and intelligent architecture. The tabletops of their office, nestled in a sprawling old cannery building near the San Francisco Bay, are covered with CNC machines, circuit boards, and prototypes in progress. The space is academic, informal, and nerdy, yet above all else inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of the microbreweries, artist studios, and biotech labs also in the building.

But how does the techno-optimism of the Future City Lab’s five employees (plus summer interns) translate this spirit into practice? We talked with Future Cities Lab about Dissident Futures how they’re shaping what the architectural model means in the 21st century.

The Hydramax

The robotic underside of the Hydramax, which aims to convert the abandoned industrial SF waterfront into a series of public spaces, wildlife habitats, and aquaponic farms.

Photo: Courtesy of Future Cities Lab.

“We built the Hydramax model as an experiment in cross-breeding architecture, ecology, and robotics. We call this technique ‘live modeling’—a term we invented to describe a new way of prototyping architectural models that are informed by sensors and various dynamic inputs. They slip back and forth between the physical and digital, and in doing so, open up new ways to explore a range of new creative and technical terrain for architecture. As Olafur Eliasson has suggested, ‘Models have become co-producers of reality.’

“For us, this started several years ago when we shifted our design practice away from just producing images of things that look like they might work, to producing prototypes that actually function or simulate their interactive abilities.We’ve learned from a diverse range of fields, such as interactive and industrial design.

The Hydramax. Photo: Courtesy of Future Cities Lab.

“We grew to believe that through research, hacking, prototyping, and experimentation, that we could engage both the “how” and the “what.” So … we believe that architects should expand and explore domains outside the discipline. The meta-goal is to develop and intuition and gain knowledge of allied fields so that [architects] can speculate, collaborate, and design in an informed and experimental fashion.

“In the case of Hydramax, visitors to the gallery simulate the effect that a fog bank would have on the project site. Sensors trigger a series of shape-memory alloy motors actuate fog-catching scissor trusses. In reality the fog would condense on the feathers and feed hydroponic pods, massive aquaponic tanks and hanging gardens on the public terrace.”

The Hydraspan

The Hydraspan, a 40 ft long model that re-imagines the Bay Bridge, illuminates the YCBA. Image: Courtesy of Future Cities Lab

“Hydraspan is the most ambitious architectural model installation we have completed to date. It fills the entire ‘glass passageway’ at the YBCA in San Francisco. It is a speculative project exploring how water and robotic agriculture will radicalize the way we might colonize urban space and infrastructure in the coming years. Superstudio speculated that we would live as techno-nomads on ‘continuous monuments.’ Hydraspan is a counter-proposal. We speculate that extreme climate change will make water our most valuable commodity.

“This, in turn, will spawn the creation of resource and energy-driven enclaves for a fortunate few living in Hydraspan-style bridges, towers, sky nets and lattices coupled with infrastructure like super highways, cranes, and dams. Suspended within Hydraspan’s catenary ribbons are hundreds of ‘domestic dwelling units’ that are constructed above water storage bladders. The less fortunate will live closer to the ground in sprawling informal encampments, or perhaps floating on sea-water on kelp-like flotillas.

The Hydraspan, up close and personal. Photo: Courtesy of Future Cities Lab

“The model is visible to pedestrians walking along Mission Street as an undulating catenary form but there’s also its unique scale within the exhibition. We invested an immense amount of time curating the experience of walking through the model and making it extraordinary, visceral, and sublime.

“As with most of our previous models, everything is laser-cut and CNC-milled, but also hand-sewn and carefully notched together. The suspended bladders are thermo-formed slumped plastics of differing colors and opacities. They are illuminated from within using fading LEDs. … Friends have told us they felt like they were in a dream – suspended in an electro-luminescent sublime. These are amazing compliments, especially since it is a mere architectural model.”

The Theater of Lost species

The Theater of Lost Species, the group’s most complex program, is a mobile structure that explores how future generations will experience the loss of species they never saw alive. Photo: Courtesy of Future Cities Lab.

“The idea is to create a real-time archive of every instance of every species that has ever lived. This includes trillions upon trillions of extinct creatures, and also ones that are soon to be lost. We are still in the process of researching the input / output protocols of the archive and developing its user interface. Certain collections are continuously expanding, while others are slowing down as they near extinction.

“Visitors can view the archive at multiple scales in an almost fractal fashion. You can zoom out to observe the whole, and zoom in to see details as they evolve in real-time. You can see statistics, geographic data, interactive digital models, DNA models, family trees, and more. In the near future you might even be able to download the genetic code of a particular species and recreate it in a lab. There is no limit to the archive. Each of us will eventually be archives there!

The Theater of Lost Species under construction. Photo: Courtesy of Future Cities Lab.

“The physical object is comprised of two distinct sections that could be described as part mechatronic and part biologic. We read recently that an amputee’s robotic prosthetic limb was electrically connected to his nerve endings and that bi-directional feedback and direct control were possible between a human and a machine.

“Similarly, the fields of synthetic biology and bioprinting are influencing how we think about future forms. We are not at all interested in reproducing so-called natural forms to illicit nostalgic responses. Rather we are interested producing objects and forms that can be read in a multitude of ways. So they are neither entirely natural, nor are they in any way artificial. They exist somewhere in between, in that fuzzy zone between real and unreal, between fact and fiction. Nevertheless we are actively looking fort partners and financing to actualize the project in the coming year.”

The (fully-realized) Datagrove

The Datagrove. Photo: Peter Prato

“Datagrove operates as a contemporary ‘whispering wall’ that harvests real-time Twitter feeds from a one-mile radius and presents them back in a physical form. What is usually invisible and insular becomes visceral and tangible at the urban scale. Datagrove reveals the real-time digital pulse of what Silicon Valley is excited about, what it hates, what it is currently debating, thinking and blogging about. It provides a place to visualize, contemplate, and interact with the data of a region that is culturally, politically, and technically rich, but opaque and difficult to access.”

Photo: Peter Prato

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