Lightswarm, an exhibition by Future Cities Lab, is an interactive installation supplemented with sound sensors to trigger swarms of light that dance along the glass façade of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The sensors liven a once static wall into a color-shifting digital mural programmed to playfully react to its sonic surroundings. But late one evening, when co-founding principles Nataly Gattegno and Jason Kelly Johnson still felt unsettled with their work, they tracked back to the YBCA to make a few undercover renovations to Lightswarm. Together with a team of lab members, they hi-jacked their own installation to upgrade its capacity with extra capabilities such as motion-based interaction, machine-tracking interaction, and even direct-user interaction, a format that enables the wall to be manipulated via the demands of an audience member’s smart-phone.
“Hacking our own art piece was the fun part. We went back at night and got to know the guards; they opened the door for us, turned off all of the lights, and just let us go for it.”
– Jason Kelly Johnson
Future Cities Lab is an interdisciplinary studio that investigates the edges of architectural and technological possibilities through projects that combine tactics from the fields of interactive design, robotics, biology, material sciences, and advanced fabrication. The practice utilizes a loose collaborative framework; with each new creation Future Cities Lab assembles a unique mash-up of designers, architects, technologists, digital craftspeople, and urban ecologists. By grafting parameters from diverse fields, hybridizing knowledge, and splicing in new technologies and techniques, the lab expands its dimensions for creativity. This process of creative inquiry and unrestricted experimentation demonstrates itself through the work that Future Cities Lab produces, projects called live models that Johnson and Gattegno describe as scrappy, messy, hybridized and alive. As they will admit, a Future Cities Lab model is never actually completed.
“What we’re trying to tap into is the ability to actually create completely varied, immersive experiences through the work that we do. Every person who moves through it experiences it in a different way.”
- Nataly Gattegno
“Modernist buildings are often singular static visions of what the architect or the client wanted at that particular moment in time. But maybe there’s a different way of creating a building’s relationship to, and its interplay with, the public realm. We’ve begun to think about whether buildings could be hackable. Could you actually open up creative opportunities for communities and offer people ways to plug-in, reprogram, and recalibrate their buildings?”
- Jason Kelly Johnson
Live models such as Lightswarm are open-sourced designs built collaboratively and then augmented in real time by their surroundings and audience. Rather than remain stagnant representational portraits of latent possibilities, live models are continuously dynamic, kinetic, aware, and adaptive—architectural pieces evolve in reaction to the inputs of their own experience. The installations thrive in instability and flourish between the predictable and unpredictable, mapping existing fluctuations and simultaneously projecting their consequences and potentials. Live models are about increasing possibility and democratizing the architectural process by taking new ideas, technologies, and inventions to an audience to see what would happen.
Johnson cites his childhood interest in skateboarding as emblematic of this open-source approach. Although he may not have been the most talented skater in his neighborhood, what Johnson did excel at was the construction of ramps for his friends to share. Johnson and his brother were both interested in the way structure and form could generate new moves. The brothers’ skate ramps continued to develop and attract a creative community of young skaters, eventually turning the front sidewalks of their parents’ suburban home into a local skateboarding Mecca. The experience was critical, teaching Johnson an experimental D.I.Y. architectural process: collecting scrap building materials, coming up with an idea based on what was to hand, building a prototype, testing its performance, and iterating the designs to push them further. If their friends moved on down the block, the brothers would have to rethink and rebuild, evolving the ramps until they performed to the approval of the more proficient and daring skaters
Gattegno and Johnson describe Future Cities Lab as “deliberately nimble, experimental, and independent.” This is partially achieved through their workspace, a large co-working environment they have intentionally filled with people from different fields, from app designers to engineers and graphic designers; partially through adjacency with the rich array of tenants in the large warehouse and creative district their office is located in; and partially through a willingness to keep the process open, bringing in new collaborators at all points of the project, as needed. This creative amalgamation, integrating diverse disciplines, perspectives and strategies to each new project, is itself like a live model.Much of the research the design lab undertakes is concerned with how we use and live within the built environment. Johnson and Gattegno are interested in reading our contemporary surroundings to embrace its untapped potentialities. Large-scale, utopian thinking motivates the work but they engage this through technologies at a tactical, hands-on, real-life level. The studio works from a fundamental mission to drive ideas and intrigue towards a better understanding of how technology influences the geographic, climatic, and cultural patterns of our world.
“Culture is now all about strange hybrids, it’s all about these things that just don’t have clarity as to their origins, their sex, their race, their type. All of this is up for grabs in the world.”
“The world is radically changing, but how does the field of architecture come to grips with this? How does a field begin not just to respond to it, but to be a part of it?”
-Jason Kelly Johnson
At the inception of each new live model project, Future Cities Lab begins from a standpoint of minimal expectations or prearranged limits. Allowing themselves a wide-open terrain for ideas to surface, they assess each new venture without presupposition. Instead, the team works to construct each concept thoughtfully from the ground up. Taking on a D.I.Y. approach towards the design process, they begin with expansive and far-out ideas and then, in the exercise of engineering such ideas into actualities, they are unafraid to ask questions and challenge certain givens of a conversation. Instead of relying on the guidance of outside consultants for counsel in areas of technical expertise that they themselves may not possess, as architects typically are required to do, Future Cities Lab is able to hold an equal footing, crossing lines traditionally held firm to work as collaborators.
In the integration of architecture and technology central to their design research, Gattegno and Johnson are interested in the potential for models—and perhaps by extension, architecture—to simultaneously index, synthesize, and engage climatic, cultural, social, and politically charged fields. Their work tests the boundaries of the built environment, looking to explain how much of our lives are invested in cloud-based connectivity and data-collecting, and how much is reliant on software and interlinked, reactive hardware. Future Cities Lab intentionally breaks established protocols—crossing boundaries, putting things together that are usually kept separate, misreading rule sets, ignoring efficiencies—to open up creative opportunities.Johnson and Gattegno seek to blur distinctions between models as mere depictions and models as vital sensorial spaces. The design model, which is typically used to execute a project and then archived, begins to have a life of its own and allows the building, landscape or environment to evolve. They work in two parallel ways, simulation using computational environments and gaming scripts to model and test site behaviors; and prototyping, building and iterating physical test models using sensors and other embedded hardware. The live model grows in scale and impact, to become the project itself, not merely its representation, generating responsive intelligence, digital and physical, in real time.
“Because live models have the ability to evolve, change, develop, and learn, the environments that they create co-evolve with them.”
“We like to think that the final pieces that go out are clean and precise and perfect, but it’s just the last version of the prototype that goes out into the world. There is no 'perfect' one. If you gave us more time and more money we would probably just continue developing.”
Future Cities Lab is equally interested in the ways in which a user relates to systems of control in the environment. How do we give users agency? How do live models enable a personal relationship with the cybernetic, with a space in which the physical and digital worlds become one? DIY is about increasing possibility, taking things to people to see what would happen, creating hackable environments enabling buildings and their users to interact. The work seeks out the participation of an audience, one that animates all the senses, and that provides a continuously varying set of experiences, unique to each individual. Future Cities Lab projects rethink what public art means. Each project is an immersive world of its own. Through experimental speculation, Future Cities Lab remains open to unforeseen emergences and unexpected outcomes that may challenge their initial expectations. They adapt and modify to these fluctuations with the creation of pieces that are versatile and responsive. The work itself chronicles a process of interwoven and immersive experience. Hacking an installation like Lightswarm each night to update it, and to create unexpected and new responses, builds the project’s intelligence. This active engagement with the work even after it has left the studio keeps the ideas alive.