Jeffrey Inaba on architecture and technology


20 November 2013

Feverish notions of the "smart city" have become something of a trope within architecture, yet a workshop series hosted this week at London's Architecture Foundation proposes an alternative way of looking at the relationship between technology and the built environment.

Titled Adaption Lab, the series is led by Jeffrey Inaba, the former principal of Rem Koolhaas' AMO and now founder of architectural practice INABA and director of research unit C-Lab. Over a series of talks and dialogues with architects such as Jürgen Mayer H. and Philippe Rahm, Inaba will present his research about the relationship between architecture and technology.

Below, Inaba speaks to Disegno about the contents of the workshop series and how a meaningful dialogue between architecture and technology can be struck.

What do you see as the relationship between technology and architecture?

When you look at some buildings from the 1960s they’re amazing in terms of how their construction, interiors, technology for heating and cooling, typewriters, telephones and computers are all designed with the same sensibility. There was a coherence to the building such that everything has the same aesthetic. What was important then was that quality in architecture and technology meant durability. The longer it lasted, the better it was.

But that’s changed?

Today there is a disconnect between architecture and technology in that the pace of innovation in technology is so fast that things will improve many times over the lifecycle of the building. Take the computers in any given commercial building – they’ll be replaced every 18 months, so over the lifecycle of the building they’re constantly upgraded. Buildings now can’t be designed the same way that, for instance, iPhones can. In an iPhone the outer shell and technology can be integrated into one, but a building is such that while its shell remains, its technology is constantly replaced.

But what is the difficulty, bar expense, with updating technology in architecture?

The relationship between the technology and architecture becomes ad hoc. As screens get thinner and smaller you get a situation where once you used to have a screen built into a wall, you now have a screen placed onto that wall instead. Every successive intervention into a building means that it performs better, but also becomes much less integrated in its relationship to technology. Even the technology for building systems, circulation and climate control are all going to be replaced in the same way. If you think about that in terms of the lifespan of the building, the structure by the end will bear very little resemblance to what it originally was.

What do you advocate as a solution?

Our interest is in looking at generating building technologies that can have an integral role in the design of architecture. If technologies can be used to enhance the atmosphere of architecture and enhance the spatial qualities of a building, then that’s great. Our idea is to adapt technology to architecture by thinking of ways in which technology could be used as a vehicle to enrich architecture. Not just taking technology off the shelf and placing it into a building.

Can you give an example?

Look at Mies van der Rohe’s S. R. Crown Hall. We talked with one of the mechanical engineering consultants who was involved with its renovation in 2004 and he was really struck by the fact that the building was designed with what we now call passive cooling elements. So even though when you think of Mies and his huge sheets of glass, you think that nobody could be less sustainable than him, his building was actually very carefully thought out. The glass was acid-etched so it worked as a shield for solar radiation at certain times of the year. Then there was a series of trees planted alongside the building that cooled it in the summer time, and there was a fresh air circulation system so it didn’t require air conditioning apart from in July and August.

You would class that as technology?

They’re mechanical systems that serve the greater end of being integrated into the architecture, rather than technology that is just hung onto a building, which isn’t really productive. Contrast it with commercial air conditioning systems. There you have a standard forced-air mechanism and in addition to that you might have ideas of more sustainable systems that include sensors so the cooling and heating goes off when a space is not being used, or which lower the shades on one side of the building when the sun comes round.

But why are those not productive?

Those technologies are great and are being implemented today, but with the pace with which technology is advancing there will be better systems in two years, which will be more efficient and cost less. The question then is whether you replace your system with the new one? Over the lifespan of the building, in terms of net savings, it’s probably better to change. But of course we don’t know what future systems will look like or what their technological requirements will be. So you might have to re-cable everything in the building, or add vents. Those sort of interventions into the building continually degrade the quality of the building as well as its relationship to its mechanical systems.

If quality used to mean durability, what does it mean now for architecture and technology?

We’re proposing to think about mechanical systems as aids for an architect in whatever interest he might have. An architect might be interested in creating a certain quality of space like Mies, and clearly there are certain mechanical systems that might allow him to achieve that. Those technologies might not necessarily be state of the art – they’re leaner with fewer bells and whistles – but because they’ve been thought of as integral to the architecture, they have more permanence. If back in the 1960s quality in architecture and technology meant durability, then today technological quality means increasing the rate of processing speed. But in architecture, quality will be measured by our ability to adapt technology to new architectural paradigms; to invent ways of applying technology that are not just for reducing energy or what have you, but which do that alongside inventing new forms and experiences within architecture.