Synaptic City: Space Flexibility in the 21st Century
Featuring Commentary by Stefano Andreani
Stanislas Chaillou, Harvard GSD M.Arch ‘19
Commercial buildings are not exempt from the rules of supply and demand. Tenant volatility, daily traffic fluctuations, and business seasonality are a few of the factors that contribute to uneven utilization cycles of commercial spaces. In contrast to these irregular rhythms of use, the real estate industry is stuck with rigidity: the physical rigidity of space and the contractual rigidity of leases. As a result, commercial space under-performs, depleting its own economic value. To address this spatial inefficiency, tuning spaces on a monthly, daily — or even an hourly — basis may be necessary. As city centers continue to densify, identifying under-utilized spaces and revamping them to match demand in real time is a game-changing paradigm. As the digital revolution carries the promise of a more personalized user experience, buildings might just be on the verge of following a similar trend. Through constant remodeling and reprogramming, buildings can be tailored to their users’ needs, comfort, and expectations. Building flexible spaces could create a higher performing and more useful commercial environments.
For many decades, designers have sought to achieve “architectural flexibility’’. The term refers to the ability to adapt continuously the space, layout, and even structure of a building to meet evolving needs. From the early stages of the postwar Japanese Metabolist movement to the formal flexibility of contemporary architecture, architects have progressively enshrined the principle of space plasticity. But, by and large, it has become a style, rather than an operating principle. Today, however, independently of any disciplinary consideration, the emergence of Big Data powered by algorithmic and semi-automation may put the promise of architectural flexibility within our reach. Data and analytics could enable the built environment to better understand and forecast space utilization. Semi-automation could help adapt space layouts in near-to-real time, while optimizing users’ comfort and space efficiency. And lastly, society’s fast-moving evolution, including changes in consumer behavior, could reinforce the disruptive potential of technologies. On this ground, I propose The Synaptic Building: a revived architectural answer that positions space flexibility as the corner-stone of the 21st century architectural practice.
Space Flexibility and the Metabolist Movement
While the idea of space flexibility has pervaded most of our architectural tradition, it is perhaps best expressed by the Japanese Metabolist movement of the 1960s. Understanding its rise, successes, and downturn is crucial to reviving its ideal of architectural flexibility.
The Metabolists’ group manifesto — The Proposals for New Urbanism — opens with the following statement:
“Metabolism is the name of the group, in which each member proposes further designs of our coming world through his concrete designs and illustrations. […] The reason why we use such a biological word, metabolism, is that we believe design and technology should be a denotation of human society. We are not going to accept metabolism as a natural process but try to encourage active metabolic development of our society through our proposals.”¹
As Kikutake and Awazu, founders of the movement, write these lines, their intent is quite explicit: the Metabolist movement is rooted in a faith in technology and social welfare. Mainly, three facets define the Metabolist vision: a deep belief in regeneration, the importance of society as the trigger of the built environment’s metabolism, and faith in technological advancement. The Metabolists placed value in the ideal of rebirth of the built environment, constantly metamorphisizing to meet society’s needs. They utilized modular housing and new production techniques in the service of these ideals. Rather than relying on tradition, and wood-based construction, the Metabolists turned to new construction methods such as reinforced concrete, prefabricated steel structures, and mass-production as the means to achieve their vision.
The ideal scheme of the metabolic building is derived from an analogy with biology and nature: a tree. The core, the vertical circulation, and the serving functions would be hosted in a trunk-like megastructure, on to which prefabricated-habitation capsules would be added and ultimately replaced. From the “trunk” (core) to the “branches” (units), concerns of function and lifespan are radically distinct: the core is long-lasting while the units are interchangeable. The core serves the units for access and structural support.
The Nagakin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, best exemplifies the application of such a scheme. Built in 1972, the “Capsule Hotel” was an attempt by Kurokawa to align the Metabolist vision with the reality of construction. Using prefabricated units that would fit on transportation trucks, Kurokawa erected in 30 days a residential tower in the middle of the Shimbashi neighborhood in Tokyo. The square concrete core was designed to host an elevator and a staircase, giving access to each capsule. Each capsule was self-contained and entirely prefabricated before being brought on-site. Their simple industrial design aimed at facilitating eventual mass-production. Structurally, every unit was individually attached as a cantilever to the core, so that it could be easily removed or replaced in the future. Kurokawa’s hope was that the tower’s use would change over time and that the units would be renewed and replaced to adapt to this evolution.
The Japanese economic downturn of the early 1990s, along with a lack of proper technical conception, prevented the Metabolists’ iconic landmarks from performing their intended objectives. No capsule was ever added to the Nagakin Tower or to the Shizuoka Broadcasting Tower. Kurokawa’s design, especially its structure, turned out to prevent individual capsule replacement.² Overall, if the Metabolist aimed at space flexibility, the lack of technical conception, along with a broader economic downturn, undermined their projects’ viability and sustainability. Yet the echo of their radical ideal still resonates in contemporary architecture.
SANAA and the Aesthetic of Flexibility
In 1995, two Tokyo-based architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, founded SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), and since then the firm has exemplified innovative contemporary Japanese architecture and in 2010 was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Far from the verticality of the Nagakin Tower, the horizontality of SANAA’s projects seem at first to offer an entirely new perspective on architecture. However, a closer look at the plans of SANAA’s buildings reveals a parallel with the Metabolist manifesto: a revival of the unit as a free element in space. The matrix has vanished, leaving room for a continuous space into which the units are laid out. The focus is now on the “in-between” conditions that the neighboring of units creates. The system does not envision growth or reconfiguration, but the serendipity of the plan suggests a very organic organization of spaces.
The flexibility that SANAA offers at the Rolex Learning Center borrows significantly from Metabolist principles. The library, information desk, shops, and working “bubbles” are purposely misaligned with the column grid, to suggest the organic quality of the scheme. The units’ geometry is also distinct. The space left for “in-between” conditions is vast, and leaves room for its appropriation by the users (the couch area, the café, etc.). As Eve Blau explained in her speech during the 2010 Pritzker award ceremony for SANAA, the firm’s designs “result [in] typological indeterminacy of the spaces that allows for enormous flexibility of use.”³ But at the same time, the system is bounded, and not meant to grow. The Rolex Learning Center is closed by a permanent glass facade, while the units are fixed to the ground. The organic idea is expressed in the style of the building, but not in its functionality.
The architectural grammar of SANAA reflects the current blend in contemporary architecture of the Metabolist intuition and the public’s taste for open and flexible spaces. Although it is a clear step forward in terms of design, it is functionally a step back from the Metabolist’s ideal. The very idea of growth is ignored; no systems are embedded for facilitating future additions. While functional flexibility has taken a backseat to the aesthetics of space plasticity, the echo of the Metabolists still resonates today. The survival of Kikutake’s ideal, even if partial, is a springboard to revive metabolism in the 21st century.
Reconciling Supply and Demand
At a time of deep societal changes and technological disruptions, space flexibility in buildings might help reconcile society’s need for increased space plasticity. The demand for adaptable spaces is on the rise, yet the built environment’s supply of space remains too rigid. A deeper understanding of new working and consumption habits and a closer look at new paradigms brought by technological innovation reveals the need for a truly flexible built environment.
Digitalization and automation are transforming the nature and location of work. The hierarchical structures of companies are being flattened into more horizontal and agile corporate structures. In addition to increased partnering and outsourcing, many jobs are evolving away from permanent occupations into project-based activities with short time frames. While flexible teams are working on short-term missions, remotely located workers, enabled by communication technology, are dissolving the traditional work place. Work now exists in a physical and virtual reality, with online communities playing an increasing role connecting remote and on-site employees.⁴
These vectors of change significantly impact the design and provision of work spaces. The dematerialization of wires into wireless computer networks removes the need for a desk or personal office, inducing more nomadic work habits. Activities are less compartmentalized and traditional functions are being aggregated into open, communal spaces with hybrid functionality. To fit the users’ need, workspace rooms are more often remodeled for every tenant. This constant re-adaptation of space — from the furniture layout to space partitioning — is an attempt at spatial plasticity. WeWork, founded in NYC in 2010, is a particularly successful example. By designing, sub-leasing and operating office spaces in major cities worldwide, WeWork offers office spaces “as a service”. Tenants can sublease a singular office or multiple floors, for as short as a week to up to a year. This extreme flexibility, of both leasing and space, has been the key to WeWork’s success. Their ability to forecast tenant turnover and optimize space layout accordingly is challenging the real estate industry’s standards.
With the share of e-Commerce purchasing increasing by about 18% on average per year, the disruption of consumption patterns is also transforming American cities.⁵ In particular, the growing share of smartphone-enabled consumers (about 60% today) increases the momentum for mobile phone purchasing.⁶ Demographic shifts, such as the Hispanic population growth and the emergence of millennials as the largest population cohort, underlie such trends. As a consequence, the profile of the average consumer is dramatically evolving. As information becomes easier to obtain for both customers and store managers, both can shop and sell more intelligently. Suppliers can create highly personalized marketing material and targeted ad campaigns using customers’ data, while customers can rationally compare purchasing terms across competing offers and platforms. They can even bypass the stores and purchase directly from manufacturers.
Such trends are making retail spaces more specialized and flexible. Under the pressure of e-Commerce platforms, retail surfaces have dramatically decreased. During the last decade, the size of newly opened stores shrunk on average by 25%, according to McKinsey & Company, which forecasts a 50% reduction of retail surfaces in US cities over the next 10 years.⁷ The result is a fragmentation of the retail space, geared towards customer engagement. Increasingly, stores function as platforms for pick up and returns of online orders.⁸ In order to counter e-commerce platforms, retail companies have opened customized stores, adapted to changing customer traffic patterns and behavior, which they can track by collecting and analyzing data.⁹
Technology Informing Flexibility
In this quite buoyant and fast-moving context, there is no doubt that the current technological innovations can enable flexible building. Machine-learning-based predictive models fueled by the growing availability of urban data constitute the digital bedrock of the revival of the Metabolist ideal. At the same time, semi-automation in building systems will be the enabler that will turn tomorrow’s buildings into truly flexible infrastructures.
The quantity of available information about the built environment has grown exponentially over the past 15 years. In the public sector, for example, New York City’s open data platforms allow citizens to obtain a vast amount of data, aggregated at different geographical scales (building, block, neighborhood, city-scale), and time-frames (real-time, day, month, year). In the private sector, technology companies have taken up the challenge of mapping our built environment down to the finest detail. From its Indoor Maps program, which describes the floor plan of given buildings,¹⁰ to its Popular Times, which quantifies daily traffic in most public and retail spaces, Google offers a granular map of the pulses of our cities.
As urban data collection and the built environment’s digital footprint grows, machine learning and predictive modeling can inform the remodeling and reprogramming of flexible buildings. The WeWork firm has demonstrated that machine learning can be used to predict future space usage from stored user data. By using machine learning, WeWork is able to shape their offerings ahead of time by anticipating clients’ needs and supplying the right mix of private offices and meeting room types (options).¹¹ The predictive component of their methodology is crucial: through data collection and analysis, their research-and-development team is able to predict future space utilization with a higher accuracy than a design team. More importantly, the methodology developed at WeWork could be scaled up to many other programs: retail, public spaces, cafes, etc. By understanding the mechanics of occupancy patterns through predictive models, cities’ stakeholders are suddenly able to alter spaces to increase their efficiency and relevance for the larger public.
In theory, forecasting future traffic and occupancy to better adapt a building’s space layout is within today’s reach. However, guaranteeing continuous flexible management of buildings is another challenge. Remodeling and reprogramming our built environment comes at a cost: from furniture to utilities and structure, every component of the system must be adapted to handle and sustain constant change. A new set of building systems must be put in place to support frequent remodeling, and semi-automation might be a viable and affordable answer. Far from the dystopia of full-robotic automation, semi-automation offers to embed motors and robotic devices in building elements and appliances, to simplify and speed up space layouts and modifications.
With the aid of automatic furniture trolleys, moving units, and automatically foldable furniture, facility managers can remove the hurdle of physical work required to transform the layout of building spaces. In fact, open-space layouts could benefit from best practices of other industries, such as warehouse storage management. At Amazon warehouses, 45,000 robots move shelving units as workers check the inventory of each shelf and track packages on them. As spaces are called to be more flexible and remodeled more often, the challenge for stakeholders will be to deal with faster space layout cycles. Semi-automation could support such a challenge and enable buildings to be remodeled more often to deliver more value at accessible prices.
The Synaptic Building: Metabolism in the 21st Century
Rooted in past Metabolist’s experiences, equipped with a robust understanding of current societal evolutions, and enabled by new technological paradigms, the proposal presented here offers a new prototype for a truly flexible building scheme: one that embraces societies’ expectations and leverages technology’s disruptive potential. More than a mere design exercise, it is a manifesto: “The Synaptic Building: Metabolism in the 21st Century”.
The Synaptic Building offers a new definition of our built environment, as a synaptic network, mirroring the principles of the human neural network. The same way our cortex performs through the action of individual neurons, a building can be thought as a set of connected “units” (elementary cells of activity, i.e. a retail space, an office, a kitchen), that migrate and evolve across the building floors. A new usage implies a new space layout, a new space layout results in new building performances and new performances inform the space layout.
The Synaptic Building typically would be at first five to six- stories high. Additional floors could be added later, allowing for vertical growth of the building. The structure, made of large steel vaults, is reduced to a minimal footprint, and merged with the vertical circulation to free up space as much as possible. A series of LED lights is spread across the ceiling, offering entirely controllable lighting conditions across each floor.
From retail and restaurant on the ground floor to co-working spaces on the upper floors, each plate is a radical free plan with few structural constraints, minimal impact on the vertical circulation, and adaptable lighting. Within these conditions, the “units”, or “cells” hosting the program are spread out in the space. These cells can then move “semi-automatically” thanks to motors in their lower plate. During the day the units can be easily moved around or folded to be stored to accommodate different usage. Once units are in place, automatic trolleys help the facility manager layout furniture.
During a normal day, the building goes through a series of stages. Each one corresponds to a certain layout of the units and the furniture throughout the space, coupled with specific lighting conditions. This “choreography”, or metabolism is the daily activity of the building.¹²
As workers arrive and visitors come to the shops, the units are laid out in a grid-like structure, to offer a simplicity of circulation, and optimize space usage. On the office floor above, individual working spaces are located at the periphery while common working areas are pushed toward the center. The kitchen and the recreational spaces are secluded to the center of the plan, and under their most compact form.
At Noon, the units of the ground floor spill out to the street, inviting the public inside. At the same time, by freeing the space inside, the facility manager can install more furniture (chair, tables) to welcome restaurants patrons’. The ground floor is tuned turned into a food court for the next 2 hours while retails are pushed to the edge of the plan, to free as much space for the central recreational space that has grown in size.
Finally, at 7pm as the activity in the building decreases and the retail shops close, the retail units are packed together, offering space for large restaurants. The dimmed light of the LED ceiling offers a perfect atmosphere to welcome people throughout the evening.
As opposed to the Metabolists, who did not truly foresee what would trigger their buildings’ evolution, the flexibility here is informed by analysis of occupancy data collected during the year. In a short-term perspective, the facility manager and the occupants control this choreography of units and spatial layouts. Every day, data on users is gathered by sensors and fed back to the system. Users can also feed back information online and partially control the building settings — such as local lightning condition, heating, and furniture layout — to better fit their immediate needs. In the meantime, the facility manager operates the building according to a schedule informed by users’ data, feedbacks, and short-term efficiency metrics. Over the long term, hybrid teams of data scientists and designers will work to optimize the building’s “choreography”. Using monthly aggregated contextual and indoor data, they will soon be able to isolate and systematize usage trends, predict the future building’s needs, and users’ behavior. Using these outputs, future space layouts will be defined and turned into space management schedules.
Flexibility and Permanence
Flexibility in the Synaptic Building occurs at different scales and speeds, from hourly furniture layout to monthly partition remodeling. Stewart Brand’s framework, the “Shearing Layers of Change”¹³ offers a useful way to classify the variety of cycles at play. His framework identifies five groups of elements in buildings: Structure, Space Plan, Services, Skin, and Stuffs. Each group has its own life cycle, constraints, and properties, and should be treated accordingly. Breaking down the Synaptic Building into these five groups reveals the different dimensions of its flexibility.
Starting with the Structure, the Synaptic Building learns from the Nagakin Tower’s downturn: where no relationship of interdependence exists between the units and the structure. Laying out the units and moving them around is strictly independent from any structural concern. Although maintenance is required for this layer, it is not concerned by the type of space flexibility we want to address here.
The Services, as defined by Brand, include all the networks and wiring of the building (HVAC, outlets, lighting, etc). They support the Space Plan and insure (or secure) its viability. For both reasons of costs and practicality, services will not be adapted constantly, but rather will be fixed and disseminated evenly to be able to support any kind of space layout.
The Skin will provide enclosure and flexibility to the program. Constituted of modular foldable panels, the facade will be able to achieve both enclosure and porosity, to adapt to the units’ movement: opened when units spill out to the street at street level, closed at night to secure access. As the units move, so should the furniture or Stuffs. Chairs, desks, couches and arm chairs follow the cycle of the moving units and are laid out to “fill” units and gaps between them, therefore defining space’s functions. The increased cycle speed can be handled by the facility manager due to foldable furniture, and semi-automated furniture trolleys that minimize the physical work. Given that units carry robotic motors in their lower plate, they can be moved around faster and easier than traditional partitions. Within the Synaptic Building, we, therefore, manage to curate different levels of flexibility, to balance space plasticity and permanence across the building.
The Promise of the Synaptic Building
A synaptic built environment is not the mere reflection of current trends, but a radical proposal for the future of cities, grounded in long-term societal and technological changes. First of all, the Synaptic Building addresses the demographic shift of our century. The accelerating densification of urban centers is increasing real estate prices, putting pressure on rental markets. This reality, correlated to the space utilization inefficiency of current buildings, makes the synaptic definition more relevant than ever.
Technological innovation enables true flexibility in a building. On the construction and operation side, modularity and semi-automation enable the production of low-cost mass-produced buildings, and their operation at more competitive costs. Within the building, the availability and aggregation of spatial data allows stakeholders to understand and predict users’ activity in buildings at a particularized level, providing the opportunity to inform the design and remodeling of functioning spaces.
Finally, and perhaps more fundamentally, the Synaptic Building introduces a new field: time-based building design. Aside from the pure constructive reality of a building, the architect is invited to understand, predict, and eventually design the activities the program is expected to host. By working within a hybrid team of sociologists, anthropologists and data scientists, architects will soon have to surpass their current set of skills to understand the future users’ behavioral patterns and cycles and adapt their building conception accordingly. In other words, rather than delivering a building as a finished product, the architect will have to define the ongoing “choreography” of each floor plate over time and assist the owner to define the future of his building metabolism. From the form to the function, it is a quantum leap for the profession of architecture that turns upside down the definition of space design and redefines the very essence of the profession.
Commentary by Stefano Andreani
Andreani is a Lecturer in Architecture and a Research Associate at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and the Project Manager of the Harvard Responsive Environments and Artifacts Lab (REAL). Pursuing his research at the intersection of technologically-augmented design, multi-faceted urban systems and processes, and enhanced human experiences, he explores alternative methodologies and develops novel strategies for the study and design of interactive, engaging and responsive spaces, systems, artifacts, and ultimately experiences for a positive impact on society. Drawing on his research at Harvard, he also practices as Head of INVIVIA Europe at INVIVIA Inc., a global architectural design, user experience, and design research studio.
Under the umbrella of the “smart city,” the increasingly important role of emerging urban technologies on the efficiency and optimization of urban systems, on the one hand, and on the improvement and enhancement of citizens’ experience, on the other, is a widely discussed topic both in architecture and urban design. However, the impact of new media, sensing, and big-data instruments on the morphological aspects of the built environment is barely addressed in contemporary’s debates on the future of our surrounding space.
Stanislas Chaillou’s essay investigates this more “physical” facet of responsive environments by proposing the concept of “flexibility” as the mediator between the potentials of data analytics and the evolution of users’ needs. Through a new take on the Metabolism ideal, Chaillou offers a grounded manifesto that leverages technology for a functional approach toward a compelling form of responsive architecture. Space flexibility is exploited for an architectural principle of the building function. Under this lens, the very concept of “flexibility” can be unfolded through aspects of: (a) temporality — e.g., real-time response vs. short- or medium-term adaptation; (b) agency — e.g., user-centric model vs. top-down approach; and © stimuli — e.g., types of environmental conditions, individual vs. collective behaviors.
The exemplification of the “synaptic building” interestingly evokes the human brain’s functioning principles, with the idea of a building’s ability to reason and have an embedded intelligence. Michael Arbib would call it “neuromorphic architecture,” building on cognitive social neuroscience to develop brain operating principles integrated in buildings for the “social interaction” of rooms with people. Following this logic, the concept of “plasticity” addressed in the essay finds deeper connection with the interaction systems of the human brain with the exterior world — that is, the concept of our human perception as a fully continuous, dynamic, and constantly evolving entity that is an integral part of the environment and is in turn shaped by the environment itself. As Sanford Kwinter suggests, the task of design then becomes to modify and modulate our surfaces of engagement with the world, to “hack” the world around us by modifying the loops that pass through and shape us.
Praising Chaillou’s focus on the “customized store” to exemplify the potentials of such space flexibility approach, I would like to end this commentary with three questions that might spark further debates on the developing notion of responsive environments:
1. How much is too much flexibility? Although our brain is highly receptive to new stimuli and quickly adapts to changes, routine is also a fundamental aspect of our daily life. Both dynamic and static conditions would always need to be balanced out.
2. Can space flexibly go beyond physical change? Programmatic or functional flexibility can be achieved by leveraging emerging technologies not only for kinematic changes, but also through forms of digital enhancement and augmentation.
3. Might space flexibility be the trigger and not the response? Different programmatic needs and user behaviors can certainly inform changes in the spatial layout; but the opposite holds true also — serendipitous space flexibility might trigger alternative (and perhaps even unexpected) usage conditions and spark new “functional” opportunities.
1 Kisho Kurokawa. Metabolism in Architecture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977), 10.
2 Jin Hidaka. “Reconsideration of the Metabolist Model,” UIA 2011 Tokyo, http://slowmedia.net/archive_j/back.pdf
3 Fumihiko Maki. Investigation in Collective Form (St. Louis, MO: Washington University School of Architecture, 1964), 11–12
4 Jacques Bughin, Susan Lund, and Jaana Remes. “Rethinking work in the digital age,” McKinsey Quarterly (October 2016), https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/rethinking-work-in-the-digital-age
5 Ian Mackenzie, Chris Meyer, and Steve Noble. “How Retailers can keep up with consumers,” McKinsey Quarterly (October 2013), https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/how-retailers-can-keep-up-with-consumers
7 World Economic Forum in collaboration with Accenture. “Shaping the Future of Retail for Consumer Industries,” (January 2017), http://www3.weforum.org/docs/IP/2016/CO/WEF_AM17_FutureofRetailInsightReport.pdf
8 For example, in 2013 50% of Wal-Mart’s sales were picked up in store.
9 Richard Benson-Armer, Steve Noble, and Alexander Thiel. “The consumer sector in 2030: Trends and questions to consider,” McKinsey Quarterly (December 2015), https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/consumer-packaged-goods/our-insights/the-consumer-sector-in-2030-trends-and-questions-to-consider
10 Google Indoor maps in Lower Manhattan, url: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1Mjo9gdH0tPwF6FoKMbKDgZ1svk4&usp=sharing
11 Nicole Phelan. “Designing with Machine Learning,” WeWork (blog), November 9, 2016. https://www.wework.com/blog/posts/designing-with-machine-learning
12 Stanislas, Chaillou. “A Typical Day, lifecycle in the Synaptic Building,” (December 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iF3sos6KOXA&feature=youtu.be
13 Stewart Brand. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1994).