Welcome to the Ambient Machines Wiki!

This is a collaborative research effort operating within the structure a senior architecture thesis seminar (fall '06) and studio (spring '07) at the Pratt Institute. It is being taught by Ed Keller, Chris Perry, and George Showman. Our T.A. is Francis Bitonti.

The syllabus for the seminar is immediately below. To see some of the scripting simulation work (in proce55ing and NetLogo) that the students have been doing, please check out the TEAMS section on the navigation bar at left. In the individual pages for each student you will find his or her responses to the readings.

The students will be finishing their individual theses shortly, and will be posting them here before the end of the semester.

Comments? Please leave them in the "discussion" section of this wiki.
Questions? Contact Ed, Chris, or George. George Showman is at "firstinitiallastname" at "off" dot "net".

Ambient Machines

Arch 484P / Degree Project Research
Pratt Institute School of Architecture
Undergraduate Architecture Program
Critics: Ed Keller and Chris Perry with George Showman

“Optical fiber networks turn formerly distinct data flows into a standardized series of digitized numbers, any medium translated into any other. With numbers everything goes.…a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium…absolute knowledge will run in an endless loop.”

"I did an experiment myself last year in which I recorded a short piece of traffic noise on the street. It’s about three and a half minutes long, and I just kept listening to it to see if I could come to hear it as a piece of music. So, after listening to this recording many times, I’d say, Oh yes, there’s that car to the right, and there’s that door slamming to the left, and I would hear that person listening, and there’s that baby coming by on the tram. After several weeks, I found I loved it like a piece of music."

Introduction: Ambient Machines (Theoretical Position)

The Ambient Machines research project asserts that architecture takes place within the realm of circuitry, that it must be seen as a collector, servomechanism, or transistor absorbing, processing, and redistributing a series of forces and sets of information. Furthermore, given the rapid proliferation of electronic and more recently digital technologies, products, and forms of interface, we assert that one can no longer simply understand our environment as a static or placid field (and by extension, architecture as a static or placid field of form and geometry) but rather one comprised of active parts, temporal components, and pulsating with real-time information in the form of complex flows and transformations (flows and transformations no longer limited to the distribution of bodies - pedestrian, vehicular, etc - but of information itself...and in two directions, which is to say that the information being distributed through a machine is not passive but active, capable of feeding back into the machine and transforming its original characteristics). As a result, this research project will be driven by the productive tension between our notion of the “machine” and a more traditional definition of the “architectural;” that is, between a conception of space as generated by discrete objects, assemblies and active networks, and a conception of space as delimited by physical and static enclosure.

Traditionally the machine has been thought of as the product of larger processes of automation, rationality, and reduction: a stripping away of the ephemeral, the contextual, the local, and the singular. Our notion of an ambient machine proposes something else, an alternative reading of rationalization in modernity. Drawing from modernist and contemporary treatments of urbanism, media, sound, organizational theory, software and computation, and open-source technological development, the ambient machine becomes an expanded view of rationality, one whose operations need not only be reductionist, rigid, confining, and strictly hierarchical, but may also be connectionist, expansive, creative, and dispersed.

Finally, this research project asserts that in order to address the aforementioned issues, architecture must question its very own disciplinarity, embracing those areas of expertise it often overlooks (to the extent that architecture has been understood primarily as a discipline of statics, i.e. form and geometry). This includes such fields as product design, information and interface design, programming and interaction design, and the general design culture of open-source software and gaming communities, all of which will be considered to be potentially productive fields of exploration. Thus our interest is in a broader conception of design as a trans-disciplinary endeavor, incorporating not only Architecture (as mentioned previously, in its most formal definition) but a host of other forms of design expertise and by extension reconfigured definitions of what we might consider to be architecture (software architecture, information architecture, etc). Our interest then is in a conception of design less concerned with the fashioning of objects as it is with constructing the manifolds of their possibility; the first design problem then is the construction of an ambiguous but precise and synthetic realm of knowledge exchange which reaches across previously separate and distinct areas of disciplinary expertise. Such trandisciplinarity requires and precipitates the construction of a collective intelligence through the design process. The result is not so much a product of this process but a platform for it, inseparable from its continual unfolding.

Designing Machines (Material Practice)

In terms of design methodology (material practice), we will focus primarily on the utilization of open-source software applications as a means of developing increasingly sophisticated machines for the processing and exchange of information in a variety of “material” states. This includes the use of applications such as PD (Pure Data) and Processing, both of which are free, on-line software applications which allow for the exchange and production of information as sound, image, text, as well as three-dimensional form. To this extent, these machines will be seen as analogical in nature, studies in the essential properties and dynamics of what we consider to be an ambient machine from a conceptual and performative standpoint. Additionally, these machines will operate as projective devices (actual machines), generating a wide range of material output (again, “material” conceived of as occupying a range of possible states from the physical to the virtual) which in turn will be used in the formation and development of a design proposal.

Architectural and Environmental Machines (Building Assembly Systems)

As stated previously, the general framing of “architecture” (perhaps replaced by the more inter-disciplinary implications of the term “design”) for this studio occupies the realm of circuitry and in general is conceived of as a collector, servomechanism, or transistor capable of absorbing, processing, and redistributing a series of forces and sets of information (at multiple scales). Furthermore, given the rapid proliferation of electronic and digital technologies, products, and forms of interface, our understanding of the built environment will no longer be one limited to a static or placid field (and by extension, architecture as a static or placid field of form and geometry) but rather, one comprised of active parts, temporal components, and pulsating with real-time information in the form of complex flows and transformations. These flows and transformations themselves are no longer limited to the distribution of bodies (pedestrian, vehicular, etc) but of other systems and their component assemblies.

So in a sense, questions of site, program, and scale will be driven by the productive tension that lives between these ideas of “machine” and “architecture;” that is, between a conception of space as that which is generated by discrete objects or systems (or assemblies of systems), and the more familiar conception of space as delimited by enclosure or envelope. To this extent, our emphasis will be more on building systems than buildings themselves – those smaller, lighter, and more temporally dynamic machines and infrastructures which inhabit and augment the interior and exterior frame of the building’s more stable structures and enclosures, and which incorporate a range of new technologies ranging from organic LED lighting skins to various responsive information and sensory detection systems. Examples might include interior ceiling grids containing a variety of active infrastructures, reconfigurable partitioning systems and workstation assemblies, exhibition and display infrastructures, curtain walls which incorporate a number of media-related technologies such as programmable LED lighting systems and sensory devices, as well as deployable event infrastructures for temporal programs such as concerts, festivals, and political gatherings.

Teamwork and Forms of Collaborative Practice

At a number of scales this studio will incorporate aspects of collaborative practice. In addition to the fact that the studio itself is a collaboration between three critics, the students will be asked to work independently as well as collectively. In part an effort to foster exchange and interaction between individual voices towards a collective intention (a theme at work at the scale of the studio’s architecture itself, in terms of responsive machines), this emphasis on collaboration also aspires to incorporate as well as employ areas or forms of expertise and specialization inherent to any group effort.

In general, the fall term will be structured as a kind of design laboratory, more collaborative in nature, with students working in teams of 2-3, and with a general focus on abstract principles of design invention and exploration particular to the larger thematic ambitions of the studio as well as the various software technologies being employed. This collaborative design research will be augmented by a number of supplementary historical and theoretical investigations as a means of providing a general context in which to situate the design research.

The spring term will then operate more like a traditional design studio, directly utilizing the collaborative design research from the fall semester in the development of a series of individual design proposals exploring a range of potential sites and scales.

Resources and References (short list)


Stan Allen, “From Object to Field,” in Architecture After Geometry, ed. Peter Davidson and Donald Bates (Wiley-Academy Press, 1997)

Brian Eno, Music for Airports, 1978

Branden Hookway, “Ambient Organization,” in Log 5, ed. R.E. Somol and Sarah Whiting (2005)

Sanford Kwinter, “Hydraulic Vision,” in the Mood River catalog (Wexner Center for the Arts, 2002)

Mark Prendergast, The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance – The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age, with a preface by Brian Eno (Bloomsbury Press, 2001)

Eric Tamm, Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, Da Capo, 1988 (erictamm.com)

Open-Source and Hacker Tactics

Pekka Himanen, “The Hacker Work Ethic” and “The Academy and the Monastery,” from The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, Vintage, 2001

Jennifer Lee, “How the Protesters Mobilized,” from The New York Times, 02/23/03

Gary Rivlin, “Leader of the Free World: How Linus Torvalds Became Benevolent Dictator of Planet Linux, the Biggest Collaborative Project in History,” from Wired Magazine, November 2003

Seth Schiesel, “Some Xbox Enthusiasts Microsoft Didn’t Aim For,” from The New York Times, 7/10/03

Brett Steele, “Network Architecture: P2P Intelligence, or Learning from Kazaa,” in Architectural Review: Digital Architecture, n.090, Ed. Andrew Benjamin (Australia, 2004)

Machines, Information Theory, Feedback

Douglas Hofstadter, “Introduction: A Musico-Logical Offering,” from Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1979)

Mitchell Resnick, “Pianos Not Stereos: Creating Computational Construction Kits, from Interactions, v.3 no.6, 1996 (http://llk.media.mit.edu/papers/archive/pianos.html)

Mark Taylor, “Noise in Formation,” from The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (University of Chicago, 2001)

Networks and New Forms of Control

Manuel Castells, “Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society,” in the British Journal of Sociology, Vol. No. 51 Issue No. 1, 2000

Jodi Dean, “The Networked Empire: Communicative Capitalism and the Hope for Politics,” in Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri, Ed. Paul A Passavant and Jodi Dean, Routledge, 2004

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscripts on the Society of Control,” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader of Cultural Theory, Neil Leach, Ed. (Routledge, 1997)

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” excerpts from “Panopticism,” and “Space Knowledge, and Power,” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader of Cultural Theory, Neil Leach, Ed. (Routledge, 1997)

Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, “Protocol, Control, and Networks,” from Grey Room 17 (MIT Press, 2004)

Mark C. Taylor, “From Grid To Network,” in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture, Chicago 2001

Emerging Technologies, Artificial Intelligence

Ray Kurzweil, “Timeline,” in The Age of Spiritual Machines (Penguin, 2000)

Steve G. Steinberg "I Can See for Miles! (Rating the futurists)", from Wired Magazine’s Scenarios special edition, Jan 2001