Experimenting with use of space

The built environment prescribes what our bodies should do. Outside of the expectations set down by our built environment, sport is the only other projection of what our bodies can or should be expected to do. (Edit: Okay – I discuss others in the comments.) Doors are sized according to regulation, steps are never deeper, shallower, or steeper than what is physically comfortable. Examples of anything outside of these standard modes of engagement with the environment are considered nearly supernatural; such as when martial artists run up walls or leap great distances in films. These assumed limits of the body are deeply ingrained. Attempts to counter them (in parallel with tactics for alternative engagement with spaces) occur through specific schools of thought and motion, such as Parkour/free-running, or skating. Outside of these narrow discourses – or projections – into possible actions, it is extremely rare that people experiment individually with what is physically possible.

Attempting to explore the full possibility of our bodies within “architecture”, I propose simulating the bare physical limitations of the human body (possibly with variations in strength-to-weight, etc.) and running it through a virtual model of an architectural layout. Using evolutionary algorithms, this simulated body could engage with the same space thousands upon thousands of times. This time walking down the stairs, this time jumping the gap, and this time tripping and falling – the success of the route and tactics of engagement with the space being measured by what journey has been made through it. This method of discovery has the advantage that it operates outside of cultural assumptions – It does not require someone with an imagination and the ability to step out-side of the everyday.

Automatron is a plug-in for the 3D modelling program Maya, that allows very easy creation of character animation and crowd simulation. This plug-in could be incorporated into an evolutionary algorithm to iteratively simulate different routes through a space. The following is an example of crowd motion produced using Automatron:

Alternatively, many reasonably accurate1 models of human body exist in the form of computer game engines. These simulate both the physics of a virtual environment, and the limits and abilities of a human protagonist within them. Mirror’s Edge is a game based on freerunning, offering the ability to engage with the urban environment (roof-tops, city streets) in novel ways. The following is a 3rd person view from the game:

As another method of exploring possible routes and actions, a real urban landscape could be recreated using the Mirror’s Edge engine, and participants could be asked to record and submit their attempts (via the simulated protagonist) to navigate through the space in a novel way. Although there is a theoretical danger that participants will be influenced by norms and habitualised modes of navigation, online computer game playing communities hold imagination and lateral thinking in high esteem.2

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Control of Bodies in Urban Architecture

Through Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault explored the way in which architecture can control and discipline people3. I’d like to give a quick survey of some very concrete forms of control and discipline visible in urban architecture.

  • Surveillance:
    As with the Panopticon, the knowledge that we are being watched causes us to internalise the gaze of the authority, and self-censor our behaviour
  • Anti-sitting and Anti-Skate devices:
    These are devices specifically added to buildings, walls, steps, etc. to directly and physically disrupt unwanted actions, such as skating, sitting, or sleeping.
  • “Anti-death” architecture:
    The extent to which behaviour and use of architecture is controlled is quite incredible. Spaces must be controlled to sabotage the plans of people intent on deliberately harming themselves. Here in Sydney, the Harbour Bridge has a combination of a constant physical patron, tall wire fences, and camera monitoring, so try to stop people jumping off of it.

This list will be expanded and illustrated, as I begin to build up a photographic survey of these mechanisms within the city.

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1 These models tend to be quite generous as far as human strength and stamina go, but in this case it is erring on the side of caution.

2 For evidence of this, take a look at any youtube videos related to a specific game, and the level of novel “hacks” and tricks used in engaging with the games world. A specific example is “speed running” in Half Life 2.

3 He also used the architectural arrangement as a metaphor for a perfect operation of power. I will explore Foucault in more detail later.