Episode 10: Responsive Architecture
Buildings could soon adapt to their environments — and even us, too.
“City of the Future” is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk discuss the past, present, and future of responsive architecture with Sidewalk Labs’ director of public realm Jesse Shapins, engineer and microclimate expert Goncalo Pedro, Bubbletecture author Sharon Francis, and renowned architect Liz Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
Eric Jaffe: Last March, our Toronto headquarters held a Winter Warmer, outside.
Person 1 on street: Well, look at this little café.
Person 2 on street: [Laughs] Nothing like setting up a Sidewalk café in the middle of a snowstorm, right?
Person 1 on street: That’s right!
French music begins.
Vanessa Quirk: It’s like this big… like, plastic-y thing. It, um, comes out…and uh, it’s like…you know, I’m going to ask some of the people around here to give me a hand in describing this thing … What does this thing look like?
Person 3 on street: A sexy transparent tent.
Person 4: A canopy kind of idea.
Person 5: It’s kind of like if you took an umbrella and you propped it against your apartment building.
Person 6: It looks like an igloo sort of … you know?
Vanessa Quirk: Ooh, that’s a good one.
Person 7: It looks like drapes, it looks like plastic drapes.
Person 8: Clean and pleasant. It doesn’t take away from the environment that’s outside of it, you know? I can still look onto the street. You’d think that something like this would usually obstruct the view but it doesn’t.
Person 9: It looks like if there’s a mutation of spiders, and they decide to build a crazy web and take over, this is what they would build.
Vanessa Quirk: I see.
Jesse Shapins: There’s a couple of larger steel beams that are coming off of the building.That’s framing out what’s holding this translucent material. It’s hard to describe! It’s not something we’ve really made before.
Eric Jaffe: That last voice is Jesse Shapins, the Director of Public Realm at Sidewalk Labs. And as Jesse explained, the building raincoat is a see-through structure that attaches to the side of a building, creating a covered outdoor space.
Jesse Shapins: So instead of just the traditional relationship between the building and the street, where you have a very strict building wall, all your climatized indoor space, and then you’ve got your kind of cold street on the outside, create this sort of in between space that can be comfortable more times of the year. The thought here isn’t “Let’s try to recreate the inside of a building.” The idea is actually manage some of the elements that are most likely to make you cold and uncomfortable, which is in particular wind and precipitation. In this case now today, it’s blocking the snow. So it allows you to be here and be comfortable and not have any of those elements impeding your experience. The shape of it and sort of the overall approach to building this came out of a different way of thinking about the design process.
Vanessa Quirk: To understand what the heck a microclimate is, I went looking for Gonçalo Pedro, the technical director at RWDI, who helped us conduct these microclimate analyses.
Gonçalo Pedro: Microclimate simply refers to the climate or wind conditions and solar conditions in a specific area.
Vanessa Quirk: Can a microclimate be like, a city block? Could it be an entire neighborhood? Like, is it flexible in that way?
Gonçalo Pedro: It is. There’s no specific limits when we discuss microclimate. You can think about microclimate within a whole city or a whole neighborhood. But generally speaking, we’re talking about areas that are 10 to a couple hundred meters. Microclimate changes significantly as you move from one street to another. When we talk about altering the microclimate, we’re talking about how can we use buildings, how can we use systems to manipulate wind and sun to really improve quality of life and outdoor comfort for people. And what the raincoat gives us is this transition space, which is neither an indoor space, neither an outdoor space. And that opens up a lot of possibilities.
Vanessa Quirk: Do you think that an architect would be a bit upset that you’re essentially obscuring the side of their creation with this? [Laughs]
Gonçalo Pedro: Well, I’m hoping they would view this as an extension of their creation and the idea would be to integrate this very closely to the aesthetics of the building, the design and performance of the building. And hopefully you’ll start to see them being rolled out in a lot more designs.
Vanessa Quirk: And you keep saying roll out. Is it literally like, just like, [drumroll noise]…tada! Rolling it out? [Laughs]
Gonçalo Pedro: Why not, why not? Maybe we can create a system that is so easy to apply and remove that potentially it’s fully adaptable. Maybe we can fully remove it when we don’t want it and store it somewhere, and then bring it back. We actually hope it will be less reactive and more proactive, and that’s quite exciting.
Curious music begins.
Vanessa Quirk: After the Winter Warmer ended, I asked Jesse to help me understand how the Building Raincoat could be more proactive in the future.
Jesse Shapins: So the idea would be that you can have a real-time understanding of the weather patterns in any given microclimate. We all have apps on our phones that tell us the weather that is happening around us. Imagine if that same weather data can be connected to architecture itself.
Vanessa Quirk: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jesse Shapins: So you could have kinetic systems that can anticipate and understand when something might be changing. For example, when a rainstorm might be coming. And then actually expand and for example inflate a structure such that it can provide protection.
Vanessa Quirk: So the architecture itself can kind of anticipate our needs and react to them?
Jesse Shapins: Yeah. Love that idea of sort an anticipatory architecture. You know, technology can play a role in that and it can help the connection to what changes in the environment might be taking place. Whether that’s weather or otherwise.
Vanessa Quirk: Or us.
Curious music ends. Theme music begins.
Eric Jaffe: Welcome to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs.
Vanessa Quirk: Each episode we explore ideas and innovations that could transform cities. We’re your hosts. I’m Vanessa Quirk.
Eric Jaffe: And I’m Eric Jaffe.
Vanessa Quirk: In this episode, we’re exploring an idea that could make our cities adapt not only to nature, but to us, too.
Eric Jaffe: Responsive architecture.
Eric Jaffe: For as long as humans have existed, we’ve explored ways to shelter ourselves from the elements.
Vanessa Quirk: This need for shelter is what defined architecture for centuries. But in the 1900s, architecture took a turn. Here’s Jesse again.
Jesse Shapins: So, as modern technology became more and more embedded in architecture, what started to happen is, especially in technologies like air conditioning, is we started to design our buildings and our cities in a way that was divorced from the environment. We started to make sort of sealed, hermetic structures that were entirely conditioned. That were separate from the environment outside.
Eric Jaffe: Modernist architects aspired to create big beautiful monuments with clean sharp lines. They started using materials like concrete, glass, and steel.
Jesse Shapins: Our traditional forms of building structures, by and large is sort of … you build the building wall and you build the various systems. And these things don’t move and they don’t change. They don’t have an inherent capability to respond.
Vanessa Quirk: But as this style became mainstream, certain architects began to buck the trend. They started to imagine a different kind of architecture — one that could be lighter on the land, that could move or change or evolve over time.
Eric Jaffe: In the U.S., Buckminster Fuller designed geodesic domes that used fewer materials and worked with nature rather than against it. In the U.K., the British collective Archigram imagined entire cities that could pick themselves up and move.
Vanessa Quirk: Another visionary of adaptable architecture from this time was Cedric Price.
Clip from Price lecture: ”The incompleteness of initial concept — the difficulty is keeping that incompleteness throughout the system.”
Vanessa Quirk: His most famous commission was the Fun Palace, a kind of theatre but instead of plays, it would showcase people. Price called it an anti-building. It would constantly be active and changing — a “laboratory of fun.”
[Sounds from the Fun Palace]
Eric Jaffe: OK. Uh, well, can you tell me what this place looked like?
Vanessa Quirk: So Price’s diagrams of Fun Palace don’t really look show a building, per se. There’s no walls, no roof. Instead, it’s like a series of columns made of scaffolding, basically. And nearby there’s this large gantry crane that moves around and picks up walls or stages and stairs, and just moves them around.
Clip from Price Lecture: “If you stack boxes together […] what you are wasting is the opportunity of the client and the user at some date when you won’t be around to say, ‘Christ! We never wanted that middle box!’”
Vanessa Quirk: Price believed that the Fun Palace would actually break open architecture, and make it more accessible for any one and every one to participate in.
Eric Jaffe: Alright, well you made me participate in immersive retail theater. Can we go to this Fun Palace?
Vanessa Quirk: You want to participate in the fun of the Fun Palace? [Laughs]
Eric Jaffe: Exactly.
Vanessa Quirk: Well, maybe not surprisingly, the Fun Palace was never built. And that’s true of a lot of these kind of visionary works of this time. But nevertheless, they were massively influential, especially for these younger, radical architects of the 1960s. But these young radical architects — they had something that previous generations didn’t. They had access to a material that was cheap, light, and malleable. And it was exactly what they needed to start bringing some of these big ideas to life.
Sharon Francis: Because of the availability of plastic and the cheapness, the affordability of it, it meant that architecture was much more accessible.
Upbeat music begins.
Eric Jaffe: This is Sharon Francis, the author of Bubbletecture, an art book from Phaidon that showcases all the unconventional, futuristic furniture, clothes, buildings that emerged from this new material. Bubbletecture also chronicles the rise of inflatable architecture.
Vanessa Quirk: In the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright started experimenting with inflatable houses, but bubbletecture didn’t really take off until the 1960s.
Sharon Francis: The lightweight flexible instantaneous nature of inflatables provided a dichotomy against the prevailing, brutalist, modernist architectural paradigm that was of that time.
Upbeat music ends.
Eric Jaffe: By the early 70s, unconventional inflatables started “bubbling” up around the world. One of the first was the Clean Air Pod, by a collective called Ant Farm.
Vanessa Quirk: It was basically a giant bubble that invited people in where they could breathe clean air.
[Clip 1 from “Inflatables Illustrated”: “…removes all the xyz axes of a space and uh, it begins to give somebody a feeling that there are other spaces they can be in.”]
Vanessa Quirk: And folks behind Ant Farm didn’t just create inflatables, they preached the bubble gospel.
[Clip 1 from “Inflatables Illustrated”: “Rectangular rooms have to do with rectangular limits.”]
Sharon Francis: They actually created a book that they call the Inflato Cookbook, which was an illustrated guide to making your own inflatables. So they sort of expounded that for the masses.
Eric Jaffe: In 1971, the Austrian group Coop Himmelb(lau) put people in bubbles and set them loose upon the streets of Basel, Switzerland.
Vanessa Quirk: Around the same time, a Dutch collective called Spatial Effects tried something very similar — except they put their bubbles on water.
Eric Jaffe: So while some radicals were interested in bubbles because they could seal people off from the world, others wanted to use bubbles to interact with the environment in new ways.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah, and in Sharon’s book, you can see that most of today’s radicals are much more interested in that latter category.
Sharon Francis: Now, bubbles are created in which many, many people can be interacting within them. Technology has evolved where things have the capacity to be more responsive.
Eric Jaffe: Today, idealistic architects don’t just have plastic to bring these creations to life. They have ETFE.
Sharon Francis: Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene.
Vanessa Quirk: That’s what the building raincoat is made of, right? So, what’s different about ETFE from regular plastic?
Sharon Francis: It’s a fluorine-based plastic, so it’s highly durable. It’s also transparent. It’s about one-hundredth of the weight of glass, so the lightweightness gives so much more versatility, possibilities, flexibility. It’s also highly wind-resistant in that because it has flex. It can buckle under wind pressure and not break.
Vanessa Quirk: When ETFE was introduced in the early 2000s, most people used it as a way to create large, light-weight enclosures — like stadiums.
Eric Jaffe: But soon after, architects started experimenting with the material. And one of the most interesting projects was built in 2011.
Vanessa Quirk: So I’m looking at a picture of the Media ICT Building in Barcelona and it’s got a bunch of geometric shapes, and some of the geometric shapes must be ETFE because they look kind of pillowy and shiny like a plastic.
Sharon Francis: It’s equipped with temperature sensors. So, they collect information from the external environment to adjust the internal environment through the ETFE panels. And also, in summer and winter, the internal of the panel is allowed to be filled with like a nitrogen-based fog that creates like a shading to the façade. They became sort of intelligent pillows, in a way. And that then they were used in an automated way to control how the building worked and functioned.
Eric Jaffe: So this is very similar to what the building raincoat aspires to do.
Vanessa Quirk: Right, the ICT building uses sensors to respond to its environment — and then the intelligent ETFE pillows, they can create shading on a hot day.
Eric Jaffe: And this kind of responsiveness is just the beginning. Architects and scientists today are discovering new materials like ETFE and combining them with new construction systems. Which means we’re beginning to develop buildings that can expand or contract, and can even be digitally controlled.
Vanessa Quirk: Sharon thinks that these innovations will transform our physical environment.
Sharon Francis: it’s about having flexibility and adaptability. And I think we can extend that to the bigger physical environment and the possibilities for responsiveness and change and flexibility and adaptability and all those sort of aspirations.
Eric Jaffe: There is an existing building that is already moving the needle towards this future.
Vanessa Quirk: It’s a building that represents an important step in the evolution of responsive architecture. A new cultural institution in New York City. And we can see it from our office window.
Vanessa Quirk: So, OK, so we are looking at The Shed from the 27th floor of our office. And it’s like a very funky, bubbly-looking building. It’s kind of got like a glass bottom, but it’s surrounded by this pillowy ETFE shell.
Eric Jaffe: It does have a little greenhouse feel, yes.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah! Kinda like a plastic greenhouse, a little bit, but in a fancy kind of way.
Eric Jaffe: Right, but when you’re walking in from the ground floor, Vanessa, you don’t get this vantage point. I mean, we can really see the mechanics how this thing works.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah.
Eric Jaffe: There’s tracks that connect the Shed itself to the rest of the building and that helps it retract.
Vanessa Quirk: Right. This is what is so unique about this building — like, yes it looks distinct because of the ETFE pillows, but what’s really unusual about it is the way that it can move and adapt according to the needs of the space.
Liz Diller: So when the project began, the question was — what does a cultural facility look like in the 21st century and beyond?
Eric Jaffe: That’s Liz Diller, one of the architects who designed the Shed. We met up with her at the offices of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro to learn how this unusual building came to be.
Liz Diller: Just plunking a building on the ground, freestanding…it’s kind of a suburban idea, right? As responsible urbanists, we’re at least thinking about what’s to the left of us or right of us, above us, below us, and making something that’s part of an urban fabric and is part of city making. The Shed sits on sovereign New York City land.
The city marked it out as a cultural facility but only 21,000 square feet of it initially. And when we stepped into this project, thinking about it from scratch, we thought, well 21,000 feet, even if we build vertically in that side, is not quite enough space. And there is an open space next to us that we felt could be used for a flexible building.
Vanessa Quirk: So Liz and her team came up with a pretty ingenious solution inspired by how a match box opens and closes. The Shed is surrounded by a lightweight ETFE shell and that can actually extend out on those tracks we saw out the window — the whole shell just comes out, like the sleeve of a match box.
Liz Diller: It telescopes out from over the fixed building and expands the footprint. The way that the technology works, it takes five minutes and the horsepower of one Prius engine to deploy the shell of the shed. That slip sleeve sort of produces a very, very large space that it encloses as a space for large installations, large performances, and theatrical events, and all sorts of events. So it effectively doubles the floor plate. And you could have an open, outdoor space that’s devoted to cultural use as well.
Eric Jaffe: ETFE has never been used in this way before. And Liz thinks that with this new material, architecture can achieve a whole new level of flexibility.
Vanessa Quirk: Flexibility that will allow our buildings to keep up with our fast-moving world.
Liz Diller: Our culture is moving so fast, right? Economically, technologically, politically, socially. We’re advancing so fast that buildings actually can’t keep up with the rate of change of our culture. And buildings are inherently slow. They’re expensive, they’re static, they’re usually inert. You try to get it right for the future, and there you have it. And then if you’re really lucky, the building is retained 30 or 40 years later, and it still has a relevance and it could be transformed a bit. I think that the buildings that don’t survive are the ones that are so fixed that a new program can’t possibly be imagined in it. So I think the charge for architects today is to imagine an architecture that is flexible and supple. But usually that word “flexibility” is equated with the generic, right?
So we think of loft space as flexible, we think about open-plate office space as flexible. The fewer columns, the better. But the idea here I think for the Shed is to actually make an argument for an architecture of distinction that still has flexibility. So the Bilbao effect of making an iconic, fixed building that is just like going to be there forever and it’s a symbol — it’s a little bit of a dinosaur today. But I think The Shed is putting a line in the sand.
Vanessa Quirk: In many of the interviews that Liz has done, she’s mentioned that a key influence for the Shed’s adaptable, flexible design was Cedric Price — the architect of the Fun Palace that I mentioned earlier. So I had to ask…
Vanessa Quirk: What do you think Cedric Price would think of it?
Liz Diller: [Laughs] I hope he’d be jealous. I spoke with his widow and you know, she said that he would be delighted at this. And probably this would have been like the Fun Palace 2.0. And he probably would have gotten there way before we got there. Because he was really so pioneering and a great visionary and a lot of his ideas have come to be.
Eric Jaffe: But there’s an aspect of the Shed that is uniquely of our time. Liz calls it “publicness.”
Vanessa Quirk: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro has designed dozens of beautiful buildings around the world, but the project that they’re best known for is the High Line. And what makes the High Line so special, is that — like the Shed — it gives back to the public realm.
Liz Diller: Well, first of all, we often think about what accounts for the success of the High Line? Why do people love it so much? And I think that they love it because there’s a need for publicness. There’s a true need. We live in our office space. We’re like constantly being productive. Our lives as urban dwellers — we’re constantly working. When we’re not at our offices working or our studios working, we’re working on our mobile devices, or we’re shopping and spending money.
Eric Jaffe: She’s tapping her laptop right now.
[Eric, Liz, and Vanessa all laugh].
Liz Diller: That I cannot be separate from.
Vanessa Quirk: She can’t not be tethered!
Liz Diller: But meanwhile, there’s still a fundamental need for public space.
Dreamy music begins.
Liz Diller: Real physical publicness, sharing space and time together, collectively. We do a lot of urban buildings, and for us, that interface between the municipal street and the programming side, which is typically either private program or its private-public program like a museum, which has guards and closing hours. To make that interface soft and thick is something that we’re very interested in. In a rapidly privatized world that we’re living in, right — our cities are just getting sucked up by developers — we need to protect public space. It’s fundamental.
Dreamy music ends.
Vanessa Quirk: What Liz is saying here is really important. Cities need to protect public space. But what’s so interesting to me about what she’s talking about is that responsive architecture could actually help cities not just protect public space, but actually expand it.
Eric Jaffe: Yeah, I mean, really — like The Shed does. We can design the capacity for public-ness into buildings themselves now. And then the boundaries between buildings and public spaces, between inside and outside, they essentially dissolve.
Vanessa Quirk: And when you can dissolve those boundaries, then the buildings themselves become more accessible, and even democratic.
Eric Jaffe: Right, and that really is the goal. And it’s something that Jesse, our Director of public Realm, is thinking about a lot.
Jesse Shapins: I’m interested in how in particular these temporary structures can be almost tools that are given to the community and how do you make it possible for many more people in a way almost to practice architecture. Today, it can be quite a high barrier for somebody to create a structure. Can it be possible for the city to provide more architecture that is at the hands of the individuals and of the community itself?
Vanessa Quirk: So, can you give us an example of how that could work? Like you gave us the great example of the building raincoat earlier where, you know, on a snowy day, it can kind of anticipate the snow and deploy. What’s an example of a structure, a temporary structure that could respond to something that you or I need or a community needs?
Jesse Shapins: Yeah, you and I might have this idea that next weekend we’d like to have a little, art installation, but we think that doing something out in the square that actually is able to bring people together, maybe it’s actually around sound and listening in a public space, and we need that enclosure. Instead of ourselves having to go like, figure out how to solve that problem of how do you inflate a structure, how do you make it work in the space, and how do we get a permit for something like that — there’s just built into the park a library of structures we can check out and we can have it set up and we can go and we can do our thing and we can have that in the park and in the plaza. And everybody can come and listen and participate in that listening event and installation that we’ve envisioned.
Eric Jaffe: It feels to me a lot like the next evolution of the Shed in the sense that if the Shed has been created and designed to provide more publicness that people can use, you know, the next stage of that, as you’re, as you’re kind of describing it, is almost one step further in the democratization process, where the public itself can create the structures, right?
Jesse Shapins: Exactly. And I think that digital technology has a real role to play in helping to create more democratic access to tools and spaces. So right now, what spaces might be available for use is sort of opaque. One of the things we’ve seen increasing within libraries that’s been very powerful is simply using technology to make it available for people to book spaces so that you can get your friends together and have like a board game night in the library.
Vanessa Quirk: So then I think that there’s an important distinction here from the way we think about the digital layer for things like climate versus things like community. Because you know, when it comes to climate, sure, you know, the architecture can be anticipatory. That makes sense. But when it comes to encouraging a sense of community and interaction, then you don’t really need the tech to anticipate that. You just want it to facilitate community — make it easier and part of our everyday life.
Jesse Shapins: Yeah, I’m personally not excited about a future where everything is entirely anticipated and that there’s algorithms that are imagining what my needs are. I want to have the agency myself to also shape and decide, and determine what I want to do in a space, and how that space might be able to support me and my community.
Jesse Shapins: The role that technology around these sides of the equation can play is how does it provide that agency over the environment? And then you imbue the environment with the capabilities to be responsive, and allow for that agency to have effect. Such that I can actually have more control over my environment because I know more about the opportunities that exist, the spectrum of spaces that are accessible to me is greater, and the spectrum of tools and technologies that I have to shape my environment is greater. It’s not being decided for me.
Eric Jaffe: Right, and I imagine in that scenario, if I’m thinking as a city resident, you just feel like you have so much more of a sense of ownership over the public spaces around you.
Jesse Shapins: Yeah, we did a research study around what creates senses of belonging for people in public space. The insights are probably applicable to people anywhere. And I think, probably the most significant and consistent insight for people of all different incomes, and backgrounds, and different parts of the city, was simply that sense of ownership and belonging comes from an actual real experience of agency. When you see a place where people, individuals have shaped the environment, where they have changed the facades where they’ve actually made choices that you see are sort of reflective of them as people — those are the places that, you know, people also feel the most invited and welcomed to be a part of because they see there’s other people that have left a mark. I can leave a mark too. That’s actually what creates a sense of belonging.
Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs.
Theme music begins.
Eric Jaffe: Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe. We are produced by Benjamen Walker and Andrew Callaway.
Vanessa Quirk: Mix is by Zach McNees. Special thanks for this episode go to Gonçalo Pedro, Jesse Shapins, Sharon Francis, Liz Diller, Christene Noblejas, and all the Winter Warmer volunteers and attendees who stood outside in a snowstorm to talk to us about the building raincoat. Thank you.
Eric Jaffe: Our art is by the great Tim Kau. And one important note is that all the illustrations for Season 2, that Tim used to create the episode art, were done by the very talented Emily Taylor. Our music is composed by Adaam James Levin-Areddy. If you want to hear more of Adaam’s work, you can check out his band, Lost Amsterdam.
Vanessa Quirk: Like I mentioned, this is the last episode of Season 2. So if you liked it, then please give us a review or share it with your friends. It would really help other people discover this podcast.
Vanessa Quirk: Eric and I religiously create that newsletter every week.
Eric Jaffe: Mostly Vanessa.
Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs] And the other thing that I’ll be trying to do is post on Instagram. So you can follow us at City of the Future and maybe I’ll put some behind-the-scenes content there.
Eric Jaffe: And you can always drop us a line — or tell us what’s exciting you about the future — by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vanessa Quirk: So until next time…
Eric Jaffe: See you in the future.
Vanessa Quirk: Bye!