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N. Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948)

Architecture and…augemented reality?

A couple of years ago I was chatting over a coffee with a good friend about whether or not it was pertinent for us as architects to learn the new programming languages that computers use to take control of virtually everything surrounding us.  My friend said that undoubtedly the synergies generated by software development coupled with the ubiquity of the information would allow it to be combined with other branches of knowledge and generate a whole new universe.

My position at the time was less enthusiastic about technology, and it still is. I leaned rather more towards intelligently appropriating technology in the sphere of architecture and using it to focus on knowledge of the processes that impact building architectural space.  What is important is not the technology but having good ideas about where to apply it. I used then the same example I will use now to refer to augmented reality: the Glimpses of the USA exhibit for the 1959 Moscow Universal Exhibition by Charles and Ray Eames.

N. Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948)

Charles and Ray Eames combined the possibilities that technology afforded them at the end of the 1950s– cinema, television, communications or cybernetic theory– coupled with their knowledge of physiological processes– systems theory, set design, psychology of shape, etc. – in order to impact the viewers’ spatial and cognitive perception of the exhibition.  The final result was an impressive set of seven screens whose size and layout enveloped the viewer who was seemingly unable to escape from the message conveyed.

The Eames’ knew that we human beings perceive things visually thanks to a sensorial stimulus in our retinas whose information is decodified in our brains through a complex cognitive process. Thanks to the psychology of shapes, which examines how the mind configures elements that reach us through our senses, we know that our mind perceives much more information than what reaches us through our senses as they are concentrated only on what we recognise. Therefore, what would happen if we added to our analogical vision a layer of virtual information that supported and reconstructed our appreciation of reality? Our vision would be “augmented” and gain new powers in the form of successive layers of digital information. This, basically, is what augmented reality seems to achieve. It is a technology allowing us to superimpose digital information on real scenarios to generate a new hybrid perception of architectural space.

The fusion of both worlds rests on developing different technologies and devices such as GPS, digital cameras, smartphones and Google glasses that enable us to first fix digital information and then unveil it in layers around the user. One example that delves into cybernetics is that of Norbert Wiener1 nearly in the 1950s. Charles and Ray Eames availed themselves of this model as well in 1959.  Based on the control of functions and communications between complex systems, Wiener’s cybernetic breakthrough was for machines and humans to collaborate and mutually boost their potential.

In my understanding, architecture cannot only look towards the allegedly technological future. It must confront new technological possibilities while also considering its past. Only by understanding what has been and, above all, by trying to understand how it could be possible will we perhaps be able to regain some of our serenity to freely look towards the future. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben said, “archaeology and not futurology – is the only path to the present”.

Text translated by Beth Gelb
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N. Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948)

Daniel Ayala Serrano, architect and urban planner connecting Tech, Cities & Gov. Consultan in Urban Projects.

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